Considering that I am a fan of Mark Twain and that I have a deep and abiding love of all things Arthurian, it’s a bit surprising that it took me so long to read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The story is bookended by Mark Twain himself describing his encounter with Hank Morgan, the titular Yankee, who gives Twain a manuscript of his experience in 6th-century England–King Arthur’s England. Hank is a 19th-century man just like Twain but one day finds himself in the 6th Century and promptly captured by Sir Kay. He is thrown in prison and sentenced to death, but by learning the date, he knows that a solar eclipse will occur the following day and uses this knowledge to position himself as a great wizard. Merlin is naturally miffed, and the two are rivals from that time forward.
Through his wisdom and influence upon King Arthur and the nation, he earns the title of The Boss. He cares nothing for the Temporal Prime Directive and sets about creating his own pocket of the 19th century within the 6th. He establishes a newspaper, a telephone service, gun factories, a standing army, a navy, sandwich board advertising, and many more innovations. All throughout The Boss displays a mixture of disdain and amusement toward the people and customs around him. I had hoped that he might be brought down a peg or two for his hubris, but apparently this wasn’t that sort of story. His commentary is often funny though, making this a bit like RiffTrax: King Arthur edition. As some of the jokes are about the way that the people of Arthur’s England talk (based on the way that medieval writers wrote), it’s probably funnier if you’re already familiar with the medieval style of narration in these sort of tales of chivalry. Twain even lifts whole sections of description directly from Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur.
The Boss is a hard character to like, in that he enjoys humiliating people and is rarely forgiving of how the people of the 6th century think and believe, given their education, or lack thereof. That said, I still enjoyed the book. Near the end, when it came to describing the events that led to King Arthur’s death (despite the fact that it took a mere two pages to do so and it generally takes several chapters in most Arthurian tales), I couldn’t help but be caught up in the emotion of it all. That part of Arthur’s story always gets to me though, perhaps because my first introduction to Arthurian literature was part of a packet handed out by my Brit Lit teacher in high school: the final chapter of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, in which the old King thinks back on his life, his achievements and failures, and all that has led up to this final battle, which he knows he will not survive. It breaks my heart every time. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court can be a little dense at times, but I definitely recommend it to anyone wishing to read a book that pokes fun at the oft-times serious genre of medieval romance.
Review by Jessica A.