Friday, July 24, 2009

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

I started this post more than two years ago on June 29, 2007 and I finally got around to finishing it. I wrote three quarters of it back then, but I was reminded of how the book effected me and decided it was important to finish. I hope you enjoy.

One of my favorite authors of all time is Mark Twain. It may sound cliched, but there is no other author that I have read as much. In "Roughing It" he relates an instance that involves the destruction of a certain raincoat at the hands of a camel's ravenous appetite. I laughed for a day. Later on in the same work a dog is humiliated by a coyote. I still laugh about that one. Twain's humor is always balanced by his wisdom. Every subject from social injustice to the high ideals of a republic government to the divine friendship of husband and wife can be found in the writings. Almost all of his stories involve social injustice in some way, but I had no idea what I was getting into with the Connecticut Yankee. In this story he managed to deal with all three of those topics.

The problem with a great story is that it is used over and over and many liberties are taken with the story to give it a semblance of novelty. Also, many authors aren't as concerned with making the reader think and therefore water down the more poignant areas of the story. It is for this reason that I was caught unawares. I had only known the story as a cute tale about a man who finds himself in another time and has some lovely adventures before waking to find it was all a dream--or something. The truth of the matter is that Hank Morgan is about to turn the sixth century on its head.

This Connecticut Yankee is from early 20th century New England. This a man who has been raised with liberty and knows what it is to live free and he is flung into this world that is utterly backward to him. Peasants are treated as scum by the nobles and the fact is illustrated by numerous examples. From the very beginning he begins to work towards the reform of the country. His major targets are the idea of divine nobility, the organized church, and illiteracy. In his estimation these were the conditions and institutions that were most detrimental to the founding of a republic. Nobility and the apostate church (the book names the Roman Catholic Church) work together to continue the oppression of the people with illiteracy as their chief tactic. Early in the story, Morgan's resourcefulness wins him Merlin's post as second in command in the kingdom and he begins to work secretly toward the pulling down of the institutions of the time starting with secret man factories. Man Factories are places where he sends individuals that he meets from time to time. These individuals are usually young men who have shown the capacity to believe that a better situation could exist. In the man factory these students are taught all subjects beginning with literacy. It is from this stock that he hopes to propagate a change in the kingdom to bring about the Republic. It is righting the wrongs of the church and state that is his chief concern in his endeavors.

He says this about the public at large: "The most of King Arthur's British Nation were slaves, pure and simple, and bore that name. and wore the iron collar on their necks; and the rest were slaves in fact, but without the name; they imagined themselves men and freemen, and called themselves so. The truth was, the nation as a body was in the world for one object, and one only: to grovel before king and Church and noble; to slave for them, sweat blood for them, starve that they might be fed, work that they might play, drink misery to the dregs that they might be happy, go naked that they might wear silks and jewels, pay taxes that they might be spared from paying them, be familiar all their lives with the degrading language and postures of adulation that they might walk in pride and think themselves the gods of the world." What a vivid picture of contemptible nobility. Also of note is his indication that the men who consider themselves free are also slaves, but to a different degree.

A republic government is put up as the antithesis of this society which is degrading to its members. Morgan believes it to be the way any country should be run and is thus motivated towards his revolution. The presence of his man factories underlies one of the most important aspects of a republic, that each citizen must be educated. The only way to properly revolutionize a country is with a stock of well-educated individuals. Education is key, but does not stand alone in terms of importance. The individual must have a desire for and a belief in the possibility of change. These characteristics can not be effectively taught; no teacher can force learning if the student does not wish to learn.

Finally, I enjoyed Twain's description of the fast relationship that formed between the hero, Hank Morgan, and his wife, Sandy. The way they came together was unorthodox for our time, but Hank 'drew a prize' nevertheless: "...Ours was the dearest and perfectest comradeship that ever was. People talk about beautiful friendships between two persons of the same sex. What is the best of that sort, as compared with the friendship of man and wife, where the best impulses and highest ideals of both are the same? There is no place for comparison between the two friendships; the one is earthly, the other divine."

The next time you're looking for something to read, give this one a try. Twain has never let me down.


At 9:01 AM, Blogger Packrat said...

Wow. Excellent review. I think I need to reread this book! I read it in high school and loved it. I have seen most of the movies, while good and/or cute, don't do justice to the book. (I also need to reread Roughing It. I don't remember it at all.)

Sort of random, but honestly, how do people justify taking Twain's books out of school libraries? What are they afraid of? Are they afraid that children might actually think for themselves?

At 6:41 PM, Blogger Miriam said...

You've spoken of this before and I've meant to put it on my "gotta read" list - but I kept forgetting to actually do it! It's on there now!!! (Can you believe I've never read anything by Mark Twain? How did that happen?) Thanks for the reminder :)

At 9:20 PM, Blogger Chelsea said...

I'm glad you have an author that you like! As you know I love to read and like it when others do as well!

At 8:54 PM, Blogger Tara said...

I wish I could get Spencer to read, but it just isn't his thing. I like to read when I get time, but the last couple books I've read have been duds. I'm glad you found one that you like because that makes reading exciting.


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