Book Review: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain (Classics Club Spin #31)

Title: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
Author: Mark Twain
Publication date: 1889

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Synopsis (Goodreads):

One of the greatest satires in American literature, Mark Twain’s ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ begins when Hank Morgan, a skilled mechanic in a nineteenth-century New England arms factory, is struck on the head during a quarrel and awakens to find himself among the knights and magicians of King Arthur’s Camelot. The ‘Yankee’ vows brashly to “boss the whole country inside of three weeks” and embarks on an ambitious plan to modernize Camelot with 19th c. industrial inventions like electricity and gunfire. It isn’t long before all hell breaks loose!

Written in 1889, ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ is one of literature’s first genre mash-ups and one of the first works to feature time travel. It is one of the best known Twain stories, and also one of his most unique. Twain uses the work to launch a social commentary on contemporary society, a thinly veiled critique of the contemporary times despite the Old World setting.

While the dark pessimism that would fully blossom in Twain’s later works can be discerned in ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, ‘ the novel will nevertheless be remembered primarily for its wild leaps of imagination, brilliant wit, and entertaining storytelling.

And from Wikipedia:

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.

In the book, a Yankee engineer from Connecticut named Hank Morgan receives a severe blow to the head and is somehow transported in time and space to England during the reign of King Arthur. After some initial confusion and his capture by one of Arthur’s knights, Hank realizes that he is actually in the past, and he uses his knowledge to make people believe that he is a powerful magician. He attempts to modernize the past in order to make people’s lives better, but in the end he is unable to prevent the death of Arthur and an interdict against him by the Catholic Church of the time, which grows fearful of his power.

Twain wrote the book as a burlesque of Romantic notions of chivalry after being inspired by a dream in which he was a knight himself, severely inconvenienced by the weight and cumbersome nature of his armor. It is a satire of feudalism and monarchy that also celebrates homespun ingenuity and democratic values while questioning the ideals of capitalism and outcomes of the Industrial Revolution. It is among several works by Twain and his contemporaries that mark the transition from the Gilded Age to the Progressive Era of socioeconomic discourse. It is often cited as a formative example of the time travel genre.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is my fall 2022 Classics Club Spin book, and once again, I’m delighted that the CCSpin has given me reason to finally read a classic that I might never have considered otherwise.

Way back in my middle school days, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn were both required reading, and that was about it in terms of my experience with Mark Twain. Still, I’d been more or less familiar with the general plot of this book as well as The Prince and the Pauper, which have both been adapted and retold in countless formats over the years.

1889 frontispiece by Daniel Carter Beard, restored

In Connecticut Yankee, a “modern” man of the 1880s finds himself transported back in time to the world of King Arthur. Being a proud Yankee, our narrator isn’t content to just find a way to fit in and survive, but instead decides to bring 19th century civilization to life a full thirteen centuries early.

First, seeing the power that Merlin holds over King Arthur and his court, the narrator proclaims himself to be an even greater magician, and uses his 19th century scientific knowledge to create supposed miracles — for example, using dynamite and fireworks — to astound and frighten everyone there. Quickly, he is given the title of “the Boss”, second only to Arthur himself in power and authority.

From there, the Boss begins a plan to introduce modern technology to the kingdom, instituting factories, newspapers, electricity, schools, currency, and more. Determined to improve health and sanitation, he introduces soap, then has the knights roam the countryside carrying advertising shingles to promote it! Of course, obstacles arise, and the Boss finds himself challenged and inconvenienced many times throughout his adventures, but his knowledge of unknown mechanics, science, and communication techniques help him triumph, again and again.

The writing in Connecticut Yankee is sly, sardonic, and often outright funny. From the earliest chapters, I was charmed and entertained, as in this encounter with a young boy as the narrator enters the court at Camelot:

He arrived, looked me over with a smiling and impudent curiosity; said he had come for me, and informed me that he was a page.

“Go ‘long,” I said, “you ain’t more than a paragraph.”

Mark Twain satirizes and skewers concepts of class throughout the book, as the main character — while appreciative of Arthur himself — is determined to do away with nobility, chivalry, and all the inherent injustices of a societal order that holds some people to be better than others.

Intellectual ‘work’ is misnamed; it is a pleasure, a dissipation, and is its own highest reward. The poorest paid architect, engineer, general, author, sculptor, painter, lecturer, advocate, legislator, actor, preacher, singer, is constructively in heaven when he is at work; and as for the magician with the fiddle-bow in his hand, who sits in the midst of a great orchestra with the ebbing and flowing tides of divine sound washing over him – why, certainly he is at work, if you wish to call it that, but lord, it’s a sarcasm just the same. The law of work does seem utterly unfair – but there it is, and nothing can change it: the higher the pay in enjoyment the worker gets out of it, the higher shall be his pay in cash also.

The application of justice, as portrayed in this book, is particularly brutal, and there’s one especially heartbreaking scene of a young desperate mother’s punishment that’s truly haunting.

Still, even during scenes of great violence or inhumanity, Twain’s humor shines through. Even the more serious situations are lightened by his skill with words, and I couldn’t help laughing at so many of the small little lines and comments that are thrown in throughout the story.

His head was an hour-glass; it could stow an idea, but it had to do it a grain at a time, not the whole idea at once.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is an early example of a time-travel novel, and while the genre has certainly changed over the years, it’s a fun look at the concept. Mark Twain does it well, showing both the influence of the 19th century on Arthurian times and offering a solid set of circumstances to explain why history continue on as expected.

There have been many, many movie and TV adaptations of this story over the years, including a musical version from 1949 starring Bing Crosby, a 1989 TV movie starring Keshia Knight-Pulliam, and a really strange-looking 1995 movie called A Young Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, starring Michael York as Merlin and featuring a guitar-playing teen in the lead role.

I’d decided to read Connecticut Yankee via the Serial Reader app — which I did — but instead of sticking to just one 10-minute installment per day, I got caught up in the story and finished well ahead of the October 30th deadline. I expected to be interested in the story, but I didn’t realize just how entertaining it would turn out to be.

I’m really glad to have read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. I’m not sure that I’d pick up more Mark Twain immediately, but I think at some point, I’ll want to read more of his works, perhaps venturing into some of his non-fiction writing.

Are you a Mark Twain fan? Which of his books would you recommend?

Once again, I’m so happy that I decided to participate in the Classics Club Spin! Looking forward to the next one!

12 thoughts on “Book Review: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain (Classics Club Spin #31)

  1. I read this one years ago and thought it was very funny and entertaining, too. Your review makes me want to read it again. 🙂 Have you ever read Twain’s The Diary of Adam and Eve? It’s wonderfully fun.

  2. Hi Lisa – I haven’t read this one, but it’s nice to hop on and see a post about an old book. Thanks for sharing your review! I’ve only read Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. Hope you are doing well!

  3. I read this book years ago. I never like Mark Twain’s writing style. However I do like some of his essay I had to read for school, maybe because their short and I didn’t has to deal with the writing style for long.

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