A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
(1889) is a satirical novel by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens). It adapts Malory’s work, providing commentary and critiques on capitalism and economic inequality, religion, and democracy. The novel also satirizes the genre of romance and notions of chivalry, the latter of which was fetishized in the American South, particularly around the Civil War. Humor blends with bleak observations of the dark side of human nature, and Twain condemns religion and superstition for fostering ignorance even in the face of science and reason. The novel has been adapted numerous times into films, cartoons, plays, and television. A beautifully illustrated and fully digitized text of the 1889 edition can be found online through Gutenberg.org.
At the beginning of the novel (which is written as a narrative diary an old man gives a stranger to read), Hank Morgan, an engineer at a firearms plant, suffers a head injury at work and wakes up in sixth-century Camelot. He meets with Sir Kay who challenges him to a joust—unchivalrous considering Hank is unarmed—and Hank narrowly escapes by climbing a tree. Kay takes him prisoner and brings him back to Camelot. Hank at first thinks he is in an asylum or a circus, but he quickly realizes that he has time traveled and is now the smartest person in the world. At Camelot, he is ridiculed because of his clothes, and then stripped naked and sentenced to be burnt at the stake. He narrowly rescues himself by taking advantage of a fortuitous and imminent solar eclipse, convincing them all that he caused it. Arthur frees him, giving him a position at court as the second most powerful man in the kingdom. He becomes known as “The Boss.” Merlin, miffed at his displacement, spreads rumors that Hank is a fake. Hank throws him in prison and plans to blow up Merlin’s tower with lightning rods and gunpowder to provide the doubters with another “miracle.” Once he settles into his new job, he takes stock of the kingdom and is appalled at the level of poverty, ignorance, slavery, and the level of influence wielded by the Church. Throughout the novel, he muses over his plans to undermine the church to bring his own brand of freedom and egalitarianism to the land.
He immediately starts planning social reform. He attends tournaments because both the commoners and nobility like the events and he considers his attendance mandatory for good statesmanship. He also plans to start a patent office, then a school system, and once literacy takes hold, a newspaper. At a tournament, he runs afoul of Sir Sagramore who challenges him to a duel in four years’ time (in the meantime, Sagramore is going to seek the Grail, and that could take a while). Hank takes the challenge and then spends the next four years creating a school system, converting everyone to Presbyterianism under the Church’s nose, and generally bringing nineteenth-century American values, technology, and education to sixth-century England. One day, the king sends Hank on a quest to rescue forty-five princesses from captivity. Hank’s guide is Demoiselle Alisande “Sandy” la Carteloise. He begrudgingly goes with her, contending with heavy plate armor all the while. He finds out the princesses are not humans but hogs, and he buys them all. On their way back, they meet some pilgrims on the road. They tell him of a holy fountain that ran dry. Merlin tried to fix it but claims a demon is in the fountain. Hank examines it and, finding that it is leaking, organizes its repair while pretending to exorcise the demon.
One day Hank decides to go among the people disguised as a peasant to see how the common folk live. Arthur is enchanted by the idea and demands to go with him. Unfortunately, the king is a terrible actor and keeps forgetting to act like a peasant, even when Hank coaches him on the language and behavior of the commons. They meet a peasant woman stricken with smallpox. With her sons in captivity, they were unable to work the fields and they were fined. Facing starvation, they fell ill, her daughters, husband, and herself; she dies shortly after. Her sons escape, arriving too late, and Hank and Arthur try to blend into the village. Unfortunately, Hank missteps with the villagers by saying some incendiary things, and the villagers decide to kill them both rather than risk betrayal. They narrowly escape the local lynch mob by climbing a tree. They are saved by Earl Grip, who tricks them down and sells them as slaves. The experience of slavery and the cruelty he witnesses is enough to change the king’s mind about it; he resolves to abolish slavery once he returns to Camelot. In London, Hank manages to escape to call his right-hand man, Clarence, to send Lancelot and knights to rescue them. They arrive just in time to save them from the gallows.
Back in Camelot, the long-awaited duel to the death between Sir Sagramore and Hank looms. The combatants can use any weapon they want. Merlin has made Sagramore a cloak of invisibility. It does not work, but Hank gamely pretends he cannot see Sagramore. After dodging a few passes, Hank lassos Sagramore with a rope and unhorses him. Sagramore refuses to yield, and he comes for Hank with a sword after Merlin steals the rope. Hank shoots the knight dead with a revolver.
Three years after the fateful duel, Hank takes stock of his accomplishments in modernizing England. He eliminates the need of knight-errantry by making them obsolete. He is also married to Sandy and has a child called Hello-Central. While he is away from court to enjoy his marriage and to help with his child’s sickness, the adultery between Lancelot and Guinevere is revealed, and the country falls apart. Many of the knights are dead, including Arthur, Guinevere is a nun, and the Church has resumed control of everything, destroying and banning every progressive move Hank ever made. Even the people who benefited from the progress reverted to the old ways. Hank organizes a last stand at Merlin’s Cave. They win in the end, using mines and electric fences to kill tens of thousands of knights, but the victory is hollow and depressing. The diary ends there, but Clarence adds a postscript saying Merlin cast a spell on Hank so that he will sleep for thirteen hundred years. In the present day, the elderly Hank Morgan, having passed on his story, dies.