Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Review: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain

This is a book for those who enjoy overtly political fiction. Those who treasure world-building and the mechanics of magic systems will be profoundly disappointed. The main character, Hank, is bonked on the head and inexplicably sent back to the sixth century. Having just as inexplicably memorized the date of every total eclipse going back over a millennia, Hank uses the knowledge of a conveniently-timed rare astronomical event to make himself King Arthur’s official court wizard, deposing Merlin.

And thus Mark Twain quickly gets all sorts of inconvenient plot necessities out of the way (the kind of power-struggle or magic system exploration that might have kept a Robert Jordan-type occupied for some 4000 pages), allowing us to focus on the real topic at hand: education is absolutely crucial for a mass social revolution.

Armed with the knowledge of the nineteenth century, Hank embarks on a modernization of the kingdom, from a patent office to telephone lines to newspapers. It quickly becomes clear that the barrier to creating a “civilized” society is not (solely) technological, but social. The feudal society is nearly alien to him in their understanding of truth and justice.

Inherited ideas are a curious thing, and interesting to observe and examine. I had mine, the king and his people had theirs. In both cases they flowed in ruts worn deep by time and habit, and the man who should have proposed to divert them by reason and argument would have had a long contract on his hands.

Hank finds himself repeatedly frustrated trying to reason with people about how they should go about making the world better for themselves only to be met with self-sabotaging superstition.

The painful thing observable about all this business was the alacrity with which this oppressed community had turned their cruel hands against their own class in the interest of the common oppressor.

The principal target of Twain’s polemic is the feudal system and the religious institutions that accompanied it. In 2024, it seems like a dead horse that doesn’t need further beating, but I suppose the horrors of nineteenth century capitalism had Twain’s contemporaries romancing the chivalry and bucolic villages of an imagined dark ages, just as 135 years later we romanticize some good, kind capitalism that never was.

Twain’s story shows its age in other facets too; Hank initially repeatedly refers to the sixth century denizens as animals, and once as “white indians”, in need of civilizing. These aspects felt rather uncomfortably colonial (and of course, Twain was writing at a time of American colonialism). On the other hand, Hank wasn’t using economic and military means to force a people to submit: the victims of his authority and his superior ballistics were all aristocrats, the beneficiaries their oppressed and imprisoned serfs. If anything, in his role of transforming society through enlightenment, Hank was more of a missionary. Slowly, Hank learns to relate to the people around him, and his language ceases being quite so derogatory. His friendship with his apprentice, Clarence, was quite cute.

Though the premise and some of the humour is really very silly, the novel bursts with incisive and empathetic observations about oppression, violence, leadership and political education that will linger in my mind for a while.

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