Saturday, 9 February 2013

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

Mark Twain A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889)

Before I get started, and so as to throw a juicy marrowbone of peace and reconciliation to those needled by my recent admittedly provocative assertion of Doctor Who being a festering pile of poop produced by twats and enjoyed by arseholes since its return in 2005 with an Easter Island statue in the lead, I offer this startling find:

'I've known Merlin seven hundred years, and he—'

'Seven hun—'

'Don't interrupt me. He has died and come alive again thirteen times, and travelled under a new name every time: Smith, Jones, Robinson, Jackson, Peters, Haskins, Merlin—a new alias every time he turns up.'

I don't really wish to ruin yet another corner of the internet with protracted discussion of something that doesn't matter, but those failing to see the significance should recall Ben Aaronovitch's Battlefield and note that Merlin is the seventh name here listed by Hank Morgan, time travelling narrator and protagonist of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.


Anyway, Twain's roughly groundbreaking satirical time travel novel, the premise of which is explained in the title, ambles along vaguely in the tradition of Gulliver's Travels as investigation by means of absurdity. It initially does a Don Quixote, pulling apart  myths of chivalry and monarchy from a distinctly American perspective, namely that of a writer quite happy to have been born in a country which rejects the European traditions of hereditary and inheritance:

It was pitiful for a person born in a wholesome free atmosphere to listen to their humble and hearty outpourings of loyalty toward their king and Church and nobility; as if they had any more occasion to love and honour king and Church and noble than a slave has to love and honour the lash, or a dog has to love and honour the stranger that kicks him!

Twain seems to be at his most eloquent when explaining why nineteenth century America is better than sixth century England, and so the novel gets off to a promising start.

As Morgan acclimatises to life in the middle ages, he enlists supporters and creates a hidden society with steam technology, buried telephone lines and so on. Oddly, this is where the story seems to lose direction, or at least did for me. The imposition of a nineteenth century economy destabilises the country and represents Twain's striving for narrative balance - acknowledging that his own time is no less rife with problems, albeit different problems to those of a feudal monarchy. I'm sure he communicates his points very well to those more versed in political science - even delivering one section as rhetoric in the style of Socratic dialogues - but I found it all a little mystifying and hence unengaging. This coupled with the anachronistic introduction of nineteenth century technology as something peripheral, mostly referred to in passing, made for a slightly unsatisfying read during the last third of the novel.

I realise this may constitute blasphemy but A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court feels like a good idea that ran out of steam leaving one with the impression that whilst Twain was clearly a great writer, this could not have been his best book.


  1. Hmmm, sounds like I can probably safely jettison that one from my stupendously big pile of books waiting to be read with a clear conscience. Thanks for that!

    Be interested to see what you have to say about other older books like Gulliver's Travels and Robinson Crusoe, which are both sort of precursors to science fiction in their different ways...

    1. Thanks and blimey - thought I was the only person in the world who ever considered Robinson Crusoe as being proto-science-fiction, so it's gratifying to realise it wasn't just my overthinking things. As it happens I reviewed both elsewhere on various forums prior to starting this blog, but seeing as this is the closest I've ever had to a request, I'll dig them out and post them here over the next couple of days. For what it may be worth, I recall loving the Swift without reservation and enjoying parts, but not all of Crusoe.

      I've a feeling A Connecticut Yankee may actually be better than it seemed in my experience, and I just wasn't in quite the right frame of mind, although on the other hand, perhaps had it been superior, my frame of mind would not have been a factor.

  2. Heh! Thanks for posting up the GT review! Yep, definitely agree Robinson Crusoe is (sort of) science fiction.
    Actually, that reminds me of the excellent Michael Winterbottom film 'In this world'. Knowing it was about two economic migrants travelling from Afghanistan to the UK, I avoided it because it sounded dull and worthy, but loved the film when i was finally dragged along to see it because it wasn't like that at all. It's more about how strange and disorienting it must be to travel halfway round the world, not understanding the languages or even knowing what country you're in which is of course the stuff of science fiction. Interestingly I recently heard an interview with the director who said that he'd envisioned it as a science fiction film too although I distinctly remember none of the film critics picking that up when it was released...