A Word of Explanation
The author meets a man first known only as the "curious stranger" while touring Warwick Castle, England. The stranger is Hank Morgan, who has an extraordinary familiarity with 6th century armor and battle techniques and speaks of characters from Arthurian legends as intimately as one speaks of friends and family. The author notes that his companion lapses into odd courtly speech and his interest is really piqued when Hank makes the audacious claim that he shot the legendary knight Sir Sagramore le Desirous himself. But before the author can press him further, Hank disappears.
Later that night, the author sits by the fire reading an Arthurian legend about "How Lancelot Slew Two Giants and Made a Castle Free," when at the stroke of midnight, Hank comes and is invited in for a drink and a cigar. After several hot scotch whiskeys, he introduces his tale, "The Stranger's History," that comprises the bulk of the book. Hank calls himself a "Yankee of Yankees," born and raised in Connecticut. While there, he was a factory superintendent, in charge of the manufacture of various firearms, machines and gadgets. One day he fell into a brawl with one of his workers and received a heavy blow to the head with a crowbar. When he awoke from his swoon, he found himself in a strange country landscape confronted by a mounted knight in full armor. The knight proclaims that Hank is his captive, and thinking that the knight is a dangerous patient from a nearby asylum, the Yankee agrees to go with him to a fortress on a hillCamelot.
Analysis and Literary Context
At the time Twain wrote Connecticut Yankee, there had been a revival of interest in Arthurian legend, the corpus of stories surrounding the mythical British king who was supposed to have unified England under his banner. In literature and art, Arthur's time was romanticized as the age of chivalry, of honor, and courtesy, driven by high ideals and marked by beauty and magic as well as battle and intrigue. In the prefatory chapter, "A Word of Explanation," Twain's narrator reads a bit from "Sir Thomas Malory's enchanting book" by which he refers to the Morte D'Arthur, the 15th century compilation deemed to be the most extensive and embellished accounts of the Arthurian canon in English. This work was the one most often cited and used as source material for the 19th century romantic retellings of Arthurian legends: Alfred Lord Tennyson used it for his suite of poems, The Idylls of the King and the Pre-Raphaelites used it as rich source material for their paintings of Arthurian themes. Here, Twain cites it as the source for most of the characterization and legend woven into the novel.
Another interesting literary sign of the times in Twain's novel is the scientific fantasy of the book's premisethe stranger asks the author if he has ever heard of the "transmigration of souls" and the "transposition of epochs and bodies"in other words, time travel. Not long after the publication of Connecticut Yankee, H.G. Wells gave birth to the science fiction genre.
Characters and Themes. Hank Morgan embodies everything Twain considers a the modern American Manthe Yankeeto be: self-assured, "barren of sentiment," no-nonsense. Above all, as Twain hints at in this chapter, the Yankee is a technocrat. He knows how to make anything and everything, from cannons to "labor saving machinery," and is always in search of a new way to mechanize and streamline. The Yankee's love for technology, progress and hard reason will emerge as a key theme and force later in the novel as he comes in conflict with the inefficiencies and "irrationality" he finds in King Arthur's court.
In this chapter Twain also gives a foretaste of the satirical approach he will take towards the Arthur story and the age of chivalry. He presents the story of "How Lancelot Slew Two Giants and Made a Castle Free," as Malory's text when it is in fact, his more off-the-wall recreation of an Arthurian legend. All in a day's work, Lancelot slays two giants and delivers the sixty damsels who were kept as the giant's sweatshop workers. Twain mocks Malory's high courtly style by using ungainly and funny words such as "clave" for "cleaved," "holpen" for "helped" and "strake " for "struck." Twain's Lancelot is a little too valorous, since he rescues Sir Kay from three assailing knights but insists that if he is to help, Kay must stand back and let him defeat the men single-handedly. Twain humorously makes the defeated knights indignantly object to Sir Lancelot's command for them to become Kay's prisoners since they had "chased [Kay] and would have overcome him" had Lancelot not been there. Already, the world of knights and damsels painted as a kind of circus with ridiculous rules and patterns and driven by irrational machismo.
Chapter 1 Camelot
Hank does not even recognize the name, "Camelot"; he doesn't note its connection to King Arthur and instead thinks it to be the name of the asylum. As the knight and prisoner move along, the Hank notices that it is he who seems to be the one who is oddly out of place; however, he concludes that everyone he sees must also be mental patients. The pair walks through a village and Hank is appalled to see what he describes as "wretched" thatched cabins with dirty and meager people with matted hair staring out at him. He notes that all are "no better than slaves" and some even have shackles about their necks and hands. Naked children play in the streets along with the swine and dogs who wallow there. They hear trumpet blasts and a gorgeous cavalcade cuts through the town, seemingly oblivious to the poverty and misery there. The knight and Hank merge into the procession and follow it into the fortress court, where courtiers in lavish costumes range about in happy bustle and activity.
In direct contradiction to the often romantic and heroic retellings of the Arthur story, Twain already sets about on his social commentary on the contrasts between the legend and what he projects to be the historical reality of the inequality of the time. While legend has it that the time of Arthur was one of prosperity and peace, Twain paints the town just outside the gates of fabled Camelot as depressed and sordid, inhabited by peasants who are no better than slaves and who live in poverty and filth. While often weaving sardonic humor to satirize institutions and people, when it comes to descriptions of inequality in Connecticut Yankee, Twain is serious and joke free. With almost muckraker -like reportage of social conditions, he depicts the indifference of the gentry and 'gallant' knights in armor towards the people; they pass coldly as the commoners bow and scrape in automaton-like deference.
Language and Tone: Much of the humor that Twain employs is in the language of the book itself. By adapting and exaggerating some of the stilted courtly prose found in the Morte D'Arthur, he brings ironic twists into the speech of the knights in contrast with the Yankee. For example, he retorts at the page Clarence that he "is no more than a paragraph," to which the boy shrugs off gaily without understanding the insult.
Chapter 2 King Arthur's Court
Hank meets a young page named Clarence who tells him that he is in King Arthur's court and that the year is 528. Hank realizes that something has gone terribly wrong, but his reason refuses to believe that he has been transposed 1300 years before his birth. He knows that if what Clarence says is true, there should be a total eclipse of the sun in exactly two days time, and he resolves to wait out that period to test the truth. He also pulls his wits together and resolves to either take over and run Camelot should it prove to be an asylum or take over and run Camelot and England should it prove to be the year 528.
Clarence tells Hank that he must soon report to Sir Kay the Seneschal, his captor, that he might be displayed before the court as Kay tells the story of how he defeated and captured the strange Yankee. He is escorted to the great hall containing a round table as large as a circus ring, seating knights arrayed in fabulous colors and plumed hats. All of these knights drink and feast while recounting to the king their exploits. The Yankee stands with the other prisoners, many of whom are maimed and gory, as one by one, the knights describe how they vanquished their captives.
King Arthur's court, in the words Twain used to describe the fortress of Camelot, is "full of loud contrasts." The space is lofty and grand, yet crudely hewn. The people, too, are a mixture of courtly grace and rough instincts. Twain describes the hundreds of dogs lying about the round table, yapping and fighting over the gristly bones thrown to them by feasting courtiers; these courtiers interrupt their fellow storytelling knights to watch the dogfights. Also the Yankee describes the court as a "childlike and innocent" lot, credulous beyond anything he has ever seen, believing every tall tale that comes before them, even though it is a known fact that all of the knights exaggerate and lie to aggrandize their exploits. The stories of gore and gruesome battle become acceptable by virtue of the "guileless relish" with which they are told. Here, the Yankee is already asserting his intellectual superiority over these people. To him they are no more mentally developed than children, while he, with his rationality and know-how, is confident that he can "boss the whole country inside of three months" if necessary.
Hank, even in the midst of this highly improbable and fantastic situation, loses no time in trying order and reason his way through his predicament. Though his "consciousness knows" that he is in the year 528, his reason, something of which the Yankee is very proud, refuses to accept it without scientific evidence. While it may seem improbable that Hank would suddenly remember that the first total eclipse of the sun during the 6th century would be on June 21, "three minutes after twelve noon," this is precisely the type of cold, objective evidence that the Yankee needs to assure himself that he is, in fact, in King Arthur's court. A go-getter northerner, he "wastes no time" when his "mind's made up and there's work at hand," and begins to think of a plan to master his situation. His calculating rationality has a cold edge, however. As he watches maimed and captive knights endure their wounds in silence as they stand in the great hall, instead of feeling pity, he comes to the conclusion that their fortitude is "mere animal training" since they must have done the same thing to others "in their day." Here is a theme that Hank (and Twain) will often revisitthe question of how much human behavior is refined through learning and how much is inherent to humans' nature.
Twain already sets up the main themes that he will constantly reframe during the course of the novel. In his preface, he claims that the "ungentle customs and laws" and barbarism depicted in the book are not meant as a libel against the 6th century, insofar as such things have always existed and continue to exist to the present day. It is this issue of barbarism contrasted with law and order that becomes a thematic focus for Twain.
Clarence, while young, possesses an openness that makes Hank like him and sets him apart from the rest of the court, who at this point, regard Hank as the oddest of oddities, a practical monster. He will become an important help to Hank very soon.
Chapter 3 Knights of the Table Round
Hank describes the proceedings of the Round Table: each knight brings forth his elaborate tale of valor and adventure before the reveling crew. Six or eight knights come forward before the Table and yield themselves as prisoners of Kay the Seneschal, who supposedly vanquished them single-handedly. Everyone becomes incredulous at this point and Queen Guenevere urges Kay to tell the truth, and he does, giving an exaggerated account of the 'Malory excerpt' found in a the first chapter. The knights there are Launcelot's prisoners in Kay's name. Clarence whispers to Hank that the tale would have been twice as exaggerated had Kay drunk another flask of wine. As soon as Kay finishes with his tale, Clarence looks up with alarm as the crowd rolls its eyes in anticipation of some great boredom. It is Merlin, who stands to tell the same tale that he has told hundreds of times. Clarence curses and foams as people prepare to doze off. Merlin tells of his quest to obtain a magical sword for Arthur from the Lady of the Lake. All around him "soft snoring" rises as he tells how Arthur grasps the magical sword from the middle of the lake and of the value of its scabbard, which is able to keep its wearer from injury.
Hank reduces the collective stories of the Knights of the Round Table to a heap of lies, half-truths and exaggerations. The gorgeous rites and adventures of Arthur's time are based on the one hand, a perfect facility with stretching the truth into fantasy, and on the other hand, a special credibility that marks everyone in that society. Merlin is introduced to the story, not as a potent and piercing figure, but as an old fogy with the same weary tale to tell. Merlin becomes an important symbol throughout the book of the type of fantasy and bogus magic that holds the romance of Arthur's court. To say, however, that Twain's purpose in writing Connecticut Yankee was to prove Arthurian legends to be a bunch of useless lies would be to undermine Twain's ability. The stories still have a magnetic draw, but instead of emphasizing the romantic elements of the legend, Twain finds a rich source of humor by playing up the incongruous, illogical and arbitrary within the Arthur story itself.
Chapter 4 Sir Dinadan the Humorist
Hank is actually quite charmed by the tale; however, he has only heard it once while everyone has heard it for the thousandth time. A knight named Sir Dinadan the Humorist awakes and ties tin mugs to a dog's tale, laughing hardest at his own practical joke while telling other jokes that Hank claims were as "poor, flat, [and] worm eaten" then as they would be thirteen hundred years later.
Finally, Kay the Seneschal stands up and fabricates an account of how he encountered and captured Hank, whom he describes as a ' horrible sky-towering monster" and a 'tusked, taloned, man-devouring ogre.' Hank is amazed that the crowd doesn't seem to notice the disparity between these descriptions and his real-life presence, and he is even more shocked at Kay's matter of fact conclusion: Hank is to be executed at noon on the twenty-first.
They strip Hank of his nineteenth century clothes because they were believed to be enchanted, and he stands naked in front of the court ladies, who regard him as "unconcernedly as if he had been a cabbage." As he contemplates the crude morals of the gentry, he is carried off to a dark dungeon cell to eat and sleep with rats.
Twain uses this chapter to attack the manners of the lords and ladies of Arthur's court. While 'chivalry' brings with it connotations of the utmost reserve and gentility, Hank describes the bawdiness and ill manners of the ladies in the court as being as barbaric as the armed combat of their counterpart knights. He rails on that in morals the nobility has never been distinguished from the masses and that perhaps only in modern times have we established a distinction between the manners of the upper classes and the lower classes.
Chapter 5 An Inspiration
Hank awakes to his dreary cell just as Clarence comes to see him. Hank pleads with Clarence to help him escape, but Clarence shrinks from the idea in fearnot because of the guards, but because of the enchantment that he believes looms over the dungeons: it is said Merlin has cast a spell over the prison, and no man dare escape lest he fall prey to whatever disaster Merlin has put in store.
The powerful display of superstition gives Hank an idea. He tells Clarence to tell the King that he too, is a great magician, capable of bringing calamity on them all if he is not released. The terrified boy goes off to give his grave message.
Meanwhile, Hank racks his brains for the miracle he is to produce when he hits upon the very thing: since he is to be hanged on the 21st, the date of the solar eclipse, he will threaten to blacken out the sun.
The power of superstition becomes a recurring theme throughout the work, and it is this power that Hank harnesses to capture the imagination and the respect of the people. The general credulousness that he had noticed earlier becomes magnified when applied to the supernatural or magical; Hank, in his cunning and willingness to manipulate his odds uses people's trust to his advantage.
Chapter 6 The Eclipse
Hank is sure that his threat has made such a considerable impression on everyone that he will negotiate his freedom in no time. The dungeon door opens, and men-at-arms announce that he is to come, for the stake is ready. Hank is led startled out of his cell as he demands why his execution has been moved up a day. Clarence gives him a wink and whispers that he set up a ruse by telling the king that Hank's powers were still growing to their full strength and that executing him on the twentieth was a sure way of circumventing the calamity. This lie was meant to free Hank early: he would perform some smaller magical trick, intimidate the court and be set free. Of course, Hank is in despair and doesn't even have the heart to tell Clarence that his trick would spell doom for the poor Yankee.
As Arthur's men finish tying Hank to the stake and a priest intones his last rites, the assembly freezes in terror as a solar eclipse begins across the edge of the sun. Hank takes immediate advantage of the moment and raises his hand to the sky, and declares that if any man move, he will consume everyone present fire and brimstone. He negotiates terms with the King, promising that he will not blot out the sun eternally provided that he be made the King's executive and that he be given 1 percent of the increase of the annual revenue thereafter. The King agrees to Hank's terms and orders him to be released. Hank plays his hand for all its worth and delays until the eclipse has become total before grandly declaring, "Let the enchantment dissolve and pass harmless away!"
When the sun's disk appears from the other side of the black shadow, the entire crowd cheers for joy and rushes Hank with blessings and gratitude.
We get here a taste for the Yankee's sense of showmanship, which emerges as a very important part of his character. Even in dire and life threatening situations, Hank never loses a sense of flair, always maximizing a dramatic effect when he gets the chance. While this element of Hank's character adds to the brand of humor Twain sells in his book, there is something also very telling about the way Twain has chosen to characterize his nineteenth century man: showy and shrewd, a PT Barnum type character who knows how to play a crowd.
Chapter 7 Merlin's Tower
Hank loses no time in setting about his business. He sadly notes of all of the nineteenth comforts he lacks in his sixth century surroundings, from matches and soap to posters (chromos) and coffee and tea. Furthermore, he realizes that since the eclipse and his sudden rise to power, the masses have been eager to see him perform another miracle, and that Merlin has been spreading rumors that Hank "is a humbug." So Hank takes Clarence into his confidence and with him, sets up a new "miracle. " They create a few barrels of blasting powder, planting charges in Merlin's tower that will be sparked off by a lightning rod. Hank has Merlin arrested as he waits for the appropriate storm to come along. When the moment does arrive, he summons Merlin and challenges him to try to ward off the disaster. Merlin's enchantments and imprecations are to no avail; a lightning bolt blasts his tower into a fiery inferno of broken brick and mortar. This new miracle is quite effective: it firmly buries Merlin's reputation and sets up Hank as the undisputed wizard of England. As Hank says, "Merlin's stock was flat."
Chapter 8 The Boss
Hank considers his new position in the land as something entirely unprecedented and never seen again. Here, thirteen centuries before his time, he is a colossal power, holding knowledge that no one else will approach for a millennium; he considers himself equal, if not greater in power to the King. Hank muses on the power of the Church, of which he is wary, and is critical of the fact that despite his great 'miracles' and high position as Arthur's right-hand man, people do not give him respect because he is not a titled nobleman. Hank, and thus, Twain, issue invective against the British system of hereditary nobility. Though Hank could easily obtain a title, his Yankee sensibilities reject the notion. Instead he takes on a title given to him while passing through a blacksmith's shopThe Boss. He likes the idea, and from then on is officially known to the English people as The Boss.
Hank considers the English people of Arthur's time as a collective bunch of childrensimple, quaint, trustful"nothing but rabbits." Although he sees himself as a grown man in a great playpen, he must endure the fact that as a person without rank, he is not entitled to the respect and honor he feels he deserves.
Furthermore, in this country of 'rabbits' there are serious social problems to overcome. As he sees it, most of the inhabitants are slaves, "in name or in fact," living with misery and inherited attitudes of servility. Twain's Yankee constantly considers the power of "inherited ideas" on the outcome of a person and if people can change their ways once taught how.
Twain is merciless on the Roman Catholic Church, claiming it as "awful power" that had "converted a nation of men to a nation of worms." In fact, he attributes the social stratification of Europe and all of its injustices to the Church's apparatuses and doctrines, which bolstered the "divine right of kings" and the meek humility of the masses to their betters. Twain makes this very clear attack connect to the modern Europe, whose societies still retained the residual effects of this legacy. For Hank and Twain, there is nothing more ridiculous than the idea that a man would bow and scrape before another on account of his title or rankmeaningless things in political and human terms.
Chapter 9 The Tournament
Among the very first acts of office that Hank performs as the Boss is to create a patent office to register all of his future work in the country. While he is busy planning how he will run the country, King Arthur and his Knights of the Table Round are busy having tournaments every week. Interested in how he might improve this too, Hank sets about attending and studying the tournaments.
During a particularly long tournament, Hank sends "an intelligent priest from the Department of Public Morals and Agriculture" to report on the proceedings. He is trying to train up journalists for the future time when the country would be ready to circulate newspapers. While Hank himself was reviewing the lists, Sir Dinadan the humorist enters his box and begins to tell him his humorless, sour, boring jokes, exasperating Hank to his wit's end. When Sir Dinadan finally leaves to take his place at the end of the lists, Hank mutters, "I hope to gracious he's killed," just as Sir Sagramore le Desirous is slammed against his box in heated combat with Sir Gareth. The hotblooded knight takes the comment as an insult, and challenges Hank to armed combat at a date to be set three or four years laterafter Sir Sagramore comes back from hunting for the Holy Grail.
As an institution of Arthurian chivalry, the tournament becomes an object of ridicule for Twain's satiric pen. Hank describes the tournament as a type of weekly get-together, like a game of croquet or bridge. As an idea, tournaments are at heart illogical displays of testosterone driven foolhardiness; Hank calls them "ridiculous and picturesque human bullfights," and Hank's practical mind sets to work on how to improve the practice. Twain also takes a shot at the famed search for the Holy Grail, saying that the knights who searched for it had no expectation of finding it, and wouldn't know what to do if they found itit is a type of endless and useless expedition, "the Northwest Passage of that day, that was all."