A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
|A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court|
1889 frontispiece by Daniel Carter Beard, restored
|Genre(s)||Humor, Satire, alternate history, science fiction, fantasy|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover, Paperback)|
|Preceded by||Adventures of Huckleberry Finn|
|Followed by||Pudd'nhead Wilson|
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is an 1889 novel by American humorist and writer Mark Twain. The book was originally titled A Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Some early editions are titled A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur.
Introduction to the "stranger"
The novel explains the tale of Hank Morgan, a 19th-century resident of Hartford, Connecticut who, after a blow to the head, awakens to find himself inexplicably transported back in time to early medieval England at the time of the legendary King Arthur.
The story begins as a first person narrative in Warwick Castle, where a man details his recollection of a tale told to by an "interested stranger" who is personified as a knight through his simple language and familiarity with ancient armor.
After a brief tale of Sir Launcelot of Camelot and his role in slaying two giants from the third-person narrative, the man named Hank Morgan enters and, after being given whiskey by the narrator, he is persuaded to reveal more of his story. Described through first-person narrative as a man familiar with the firearms and machinery trade, Hank is a man who had reached the level of superintendent due to his proficiency in firearms manufacturing, with two thousand subordinates. He describes the beginning of his tale by illustrating details of a disagreement with his subordinates, during which he sustained a head injury from a "crusher" to the head caused by a man named "Hercules" using a crowbar. After passing out from the blow, Hank describes waking up underneath an oak tree in a rural area of Camelot where a knight questions him for trepassing upon his land, and after establishing rapport, leads him towards Camelot castle. Upon recognizing that he has time-traveled to the sixth century, Hank realizes that he is the de facto smartest person on Earth, and with his knowledge he should soon be running things.
Hank is ridiculed at King Arthur's court for his strange appearance and dress and is sentenced by King Arthur's court (particularly the magician Merlin) to burn at the stake on 22 June. By a stroke of luck, the date of the burning coincides with a historical solar eclipse in the year 528, of which Hank had learned in his earlier life. While in prison, he sends the boy Clarence to inform the King that he will blot out the sun if he is executed. Hank believes the current date to be 20 June; however, it is actually the 21st when he makes his threat, the day that the eclipse will occur at 12:03 p.m. When the King decides to burn him, the eclipse catches Hank by surprise. But he quickly uses it to his advantage and convinces the people that he caused the eclipse. He makes a bargain with the King, is released, and becomes the second most powerful person in the kingdom.
Hank is given the position of principal minister to the King and is treated by all with the utmost fear and awe. His celebrity brings him to be known by a new title, elected by the people — "The Boss". However, he proclaims that his only income will be taken as a percentage of any increase in the kingdom's gross national product that he succeeds in creating for the state as Arthur's chief minister, which King Arthur sees as fair. Notwithstanding, the people fear him and he has his new title, Hank is still seen as somewhat of an equal. The people might grovel to him if he were a knight or some form of nobility, but without that, Hank faces problems from time to time, as he refuses to seek to join such ranks.
After being made "the Boss", Hank learns about medieval practices and superstitions. Having superior knowledge, he is able to outdo the alleged sorcerers and miracle-working church officials. At one point, soon after the eclipse, people began gathering, hoping to see Hank perform another miracle. Merlin, jealous of Hank having replaced him both as the king's principal adviser and as the most powerful sorcerer of the realm, begins spreading rumors that Hank is a fake and cannot supply another miracle. Hank secretly manufactures gunpowder and a lightning rod, plants explosive charges in Merlin's tower, then places the lightning rod at the top and runs a wire to the explosive charges. He then announces (during a period when storms are frequent) that he will soon call down fire from heaven and destroy Merlin's tower, then challenges Merlin to use his sorcery to prevent it. Of course, Merlin's "incantations" fail utterly to prevent lightning striking the rod, triggering the explosive charges and leveling the tower, further diminishing Merlin's reputation.
Hank Morgan, in his position as King's Minister, uses his authority and his modern knowledge to industrialize the country behind the back of the rest of the ruling class. His assistant is Clarence, a young boy he meets at court, whom he educates and gradually lets in on most of his secrets, and eventually comes to rely on heavily. Hank sets up secret schools, which teach modern ideas and modern English, thereby removing the new generation from medieval concepts, and secretly constructs hidden factories, which produce modern tools and weapons. He carefully selects the individuals he allows to enter his factories and schools, seeking to select only the most promising and least indoctrinated in medieval ideas, favoring selection of the young and malleable whenever possible.
As Hank gradually adjusts to his new situation, he begins to attend medieval tournaments. A misunderstanding causes Sir Sagramore to challenge Hank to a duel to the death; the combat will take place when Sagramore returns from his quest for the Holy Grail. Hank accepts, and spends the next few years building up 19th-century infrastructure behind the nobility's back. At this point, he undertakes an adventure with a wandering girl named Sandy to save her royal mistresses being held captive by ogres. On the way, Hank struggles with the inconveniences of medieval plate armor, and also encounters Morgan le Fay. The "princesses", "ogres" and "castles" are all revealed to be actually pigs owned by peasant swineherds, although to Sandy they still appear as royalty. Hank buys the pigs from the peasants and the two leave.
On the way back to Camelot, they find a travelling group of pilgrims headed for the Valley of Holiness. Another group of pilgrims, however, comes from that direction bearing the news that the valley's famous fountain has run dry. According to legend, long ago the fountain had gone dry before as soon as the monks of the valley's monastery built a bath with it; the bath was destroyed and the water instantly returned, but this time it has stopped with no clear cause. Hank is begged to restore the fountain, although Merlin is already trying. When Merlin fails, he claims that the fountain has been corrupted by a demon, and that it will never flow again. Hank, in order to look good, agrees that a demon has corrupted the fountain but also claims to be able to banish it; in reality, the "fountain" is simply leaking. He procures assistants from Camelot trained by himself, who bring along a pump and fireworks for special effects. They repair the fountain and Hank begins the "banishment" of the demon. At the end of several long German language phrases, he says "BGWJJILLIGKKK", which is simply a load of gibberish, but Merlin agrees with Hank that this is the name of the demon. The fountain restored, Hank goes on to debunk another magician who claims to be able to tell what any person in the world is doing, including King Arthur. However, Hank knows that the King is riding out to see the restored fountain, and not "resting from the chase" as the "false prophet" had foretold to the people. Hank correctly states that the King will arrive in the valley.
Hank has an idea to travel amongst the poor disguised as a peasant to find out how they truly live. King Arthur joins him, but has extreme difficulty in acting like a peasant convincingly. Although Arthur is somewhat disillusioned about the national standard of life after hearing the story of a mother infected with smallpox, he still ends up getting Hank and himself hunted down by the members of a village after making several extremely erroneous remarks about agriculture. Although they are saved by a nobleman's entourage, the same nobleman later arrests them and sells them into slavery.
Hank steals a piece of metal in London and uses it to create a makeshift lockpick. His plan is to free himself, the king, beat up their slave driver, and return to Camelot. However, before he can free the king, a man enters their quarters in the dark. Mistaking him for the slave driver, Hank rushes after him alone and starts a fight with him. They are both arrested. Although Hank lies his way out, in his absence the real slave driver has discovered Hank's escape. Since Hank was the most valuable slave — he was due to be sold the next day — the man becomes enraged and begins beating his other slaves, who fight back and kill him. All the slaves, including the king, will be hanged as soon as the missing one — Hank — is found. Hank is captured, but he and Arthur are rescued by a party of knights led by Lancelot, riding bicycles. Following this, the king becomes extremely bitter against slavery and vows to abolish it when they get free, much to Hank's delight.
Sagramore returns from his quest, and fights Hank. Hank defeats him and seven others, including Galahad and Lancelot, using a lasso. When Merlin steals Hank's lasso, Sagramore returns to challenge him again. This time, Hank kills him with a revolver. He proceeds to challenge the knights of England to attack him en masse, which they do. After he kills nine more knights with his revolvers, the rest break and flee. The next day, Hank reveals his 19th century infrastructure to the country. With this fact he was called a wizard as he told Clarence to do so as well.
Three years later, Hank has married Sandy and they have a baby. While asleep and dreaming, Hank says, "Hello-Central" — a reference to calling a 19th century telephone operator — and Sandy believes that the mystic phrase is a good name for the baby, and names it accordingly. However, the baby falls critically ill and Hank's doctors advise him to take his family overseas while the baby recovers. In reality, it is a ploy by the Catholic Church to get Hank out of the country, leaving the country without effective leadership. During the weeks that Hank is absent, Arthur discovers Guinevere's infidelity with Lancelot. This causes a war between Lancelot and Arthur, who is eventually killed by Sir Mordred.
The church then publishes "The Interdict" which causes all people to break away from Hank and revolt. Hank meets with his good friend Clarence who informs him of the war thus far. As time goes on, Clarence gathers 52 young cadets, from ages 14 to 17, who are to fight against all of England. Hank's band fortifies itself in Merlin's Cave with a minefield, electric wire and Gatling guns. The Catholic Church sends an army of 30,000 knights to attack them, but the knights are slaughtered.
However, Hank's men are now trapped in the cave by a wall of dead bodies. Hank attempts to go offer aid to any wounded, but is stabbed by the first man that they encounter. He is not seriously injured, but is bedridden. Disease begins to set in amongst them. One night, Clarence finds Merlin weaving a spell over Hank, proclaiming that he shall sleep for 1,300 years. Merlin begins laughing deliriously, but ends up electrocuting himself on one of the electric wires. Clarence and the others all apparently die from disease in the cave.
More than a millennium later, the narrator finishes the manuscript and finds Hank on his deathbed having a dream about Sandy. He attempts to make one last "effect", but dies before he can finish it.
While the book pokes fun at contemporary society, the main thrust is a satire of romanticized ideas of chivalry, and of the idealization of the Middle Ages common in the novels of Sir Walter Scott and other 19th century literature. Twain had a particular dislike for Scott, blaming his kind of romanticism of battle for the southern states deciding to fight the American Civil War. He writes in Life on the Mississippi:
Time travel as a science fiction subgenre
While Connecticut Yankee is sometimes credited as the foundational work in the time travel subgenre of science fiction, Twain's novel had several important immediate predecessors. Among them are H.G. Wells's story "The Chronic Argonauts" (1888), which was a precursor to The Time Machine (1895). Also published the year before Connecticut Yankee was Edward Bellamy's wildly popular Looking Backward (1888), in which the protagonist is put into a hypnosis-induced sleep and wakes up in the year 2000. Yet another American novel that could have served as a more direct inspiration to Twain was (1882) by Charles Heber Clark. In this novel, a technically proficient American is shipwrecked on an island that broke off from Britain during Arthurian times, and never developed any further.
Twain may have created a specific subgenre in which the time traveler attempts to introduce modern technology into a past society. Subsequent writers have tended to examine further the issues this raises, usually drawing the historical setting more realistically than Twain. A well-known example is L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall in which an American archaeologist of the 1930s arrives at Ostrogothic Italy and manages to prevent the Dark Ages by introducing printing and other modern inventions. Leo Frankowski wrote the Conrad Stargard series in which a 20th century Pole arrives in 13th century Poland and by rapid industrialization manages to defeat the Mongol invasion and annihilate the Teutonic Knights.
Poul Anderson presented an antithesis in his story The Man Who Came Early, in which a modern American who finds himself in Viking Iceland fails to introduce modern technologies despite being an intelligent, competent, well-trained engineer, and finds that in a 10th century environment 10th century technologies work best. Ford Madox Ford presented another antithesis in his Ladies Whose Bright Eyes, in which the time traveler, in spite of being a trained engineer, lacks the technical know-how to develop modern technology from scratch in medieval society. After some half-hearted attempts he "goes native" and makes a credible effort at becoming a knight.
S. M. Stirling introduced a new twist in the Nantucket, books and Eric Flint in the 1632 series, in which it is not a single modern individual but a whole modern community (American in both cases) transported into the past—to the Bronze Age and Germany of the Thirty Years' War respectively. This premise increases the plausibility of their ability to influence the past.
Some maintain this entire subgenre shares with Twain's original book a mindset that regards Western culture as inherently superior to other cultures, past and present. Specifically, some assert that Stirling's "Nantuckars" are depicted as embarking on colonial empire-building in the Bronze Age. In Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's Monday Begins on Saturday, Merlin is transported to the Soviet Union of the 1960s, where he explicitly refers to Twain's novel, declaring its protagonist an early exponent of American imperialism. He boasts to his Soviet hosts that he already opposed that "imperialist". (However, this reference—like much of the Strugatsky novel in general—is clearly satire).
In Timeline, author Michael Crichton explored the practicality of time travel through theoretical quantum physics. His characters went back in time knowingly and attempted to not be anachronistic in their ways, though they use grenades and teach the locals how to use special chemistry techniques.
In "That Hideous Strength", the final novel in the space trilogy by C.S. Lewis, Merlin is brought forward into 1940's England, woken from his long sleep in his cave prison. In disguise, he assists the protagonists in their struggle against the imperious
Film, television and theatrical adaptations
Since the beginning of the 20th century, this famous story has been adapted many times to stage, feature-length motion pictures, and animated cartoons. The earliest film version was Fox's 1921 silent version. In 1927, the novel was adapted into the musical A Connecticut Yankee, by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. A 1931 film, also called A Connecticut Yankee, starred Will Rogers. A 1949 musical film featured Bing Crosby and Rhonda Fleming, with music by Jimmy Van Heusen and Victor Young. In 1970, the book was adapted into a 74-minute animated TV special directed by with Orson Bean as the voice of the title character. More recently it was adapted into a 1989 TV movie by Paul Zindel which starred Keshia Knight Pulliam of The Cosby Show.
It has also inspired many variations and parodies, such as the 1979 Bugs Bunny special, and Disney's Unidentified Flying Oddball. In 1995, Walt Disney Studios adapted the book into the feature film A Kid in King Arthur's Court. In 1998, Whoopi Goldberg starred as the protagonist in A Knight in Camelot, as a physicist who accidentally goes back in time during an experiment gone bad. She gains the people's respect after predicting a solar eclipse by checking a computer that went back in time with her, along with other "convenient" things in her backpack. In 2001, actor and comedian Martin Lawrence portrayed Jamal/Skywalker, an American miniature golf park employee who goes back in time to 14th century England in the film Black Knight. Additionally, Twain's novel was extrapolated by Sam Raimi in the third installment of the Evil Dead film trilogy, Army of Darkness. In the film, the protagonist, Ash, is hurled into a medieval land where he uses his contemporary knowledge to battle primitive and sorcerous foes.
In 1988, the Soviet variation called New adventures of a Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Fantasy over Mark Twain's theme appeared.
A 1978 episode of Once Upon a Classic was an adaptation.
The BBC TV series Life on Mars has a similar premise. In the series, the lead character, Sam Tyler played by actor John Simm wakes up from a 2006 car accident to find himself in 1973. The series explores Sam's attempts to adjust to life in the past and his quest to discover why he is there. The sixth episode of the first season features a character who refers to feeling like "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court", a sentiment with which Sam sympathizes. See also the sequel, Ashes to Ashes.
The TV series The Transformers had a second season episode, "A Decepticon Raider in King Arthur's Court", an episode that, as the title suggests, had a group of Autobots and Decepticons sent back to medieval times.
Another one would be TV series Macgyver, in which Macgyver was knocked unconscious and woke up in the 7th century in a two part episode "Good Knight Macgyver". An interesting adaptation of Macgyver vs Merlin. When he came back to his consciousness in the present real world at the end, despite the implication that he had had a dream, many of those medieval characters he met were very familiar around him in the present.
Also, the animated series SpongeBob SquarePants had a special episode called "Dunces and Dragons", in which SpongeBob and Patrick are knocked out in a jousting accident and transported back to medieval times.
The book is referenced in the title of An American Werewolf in London and is present throughout the movie, particularly when Alex reads "A Word of Explanation" to David in the hospital room, and just before David's transformation in Alex's flat.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court was adapted as an hour-long radio play on the October 5, 1947 broadcast of the Ford Theatre, starring Karl Swenson. The CBS Radio Mystery Theater produced an hour-long version on January 8, 1976.
Musical adaptations and references
- Tuck, Donald H. (1974). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Chicago: Advent. pp. 104. ISBN 0-911682-20-1.
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