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Oct 14, 2011

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

Mark Twain is often thought of as the great cynic in American literature. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is perhaps one of the most cynical of his works. In this amusing story, Twain takes an American entrepreneur from his own day and age, and thrusts him back through time to King Arthur's reign.

The Golden Age Gone Medieval: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
The novel is therefore about how a nineteen-century American--blinded by the Industrial Age and what Mark Twain himself called the Golden Age--might act if he found himself in medieval England. Mark Twain sees the Golden Age as a rabid attempt to exploit everyone and everything. And, that's exactly what Hank Morgan, also known as the Boss, does when he gets to Camelot.

Hank uses science and technology to exploit Camelot. Threatened with execution, Hank remembers that an eclipse is supposed to occur in the near future, and he uses this knowledge to convince King Arthur and the rest of Camelot that Hank is a stronger magician than Merlin. Once Hank has the trusting ear of King Arthur, he is able to do whatever he wants with Camelot and its people.

Hank quickly goes about "improving" Camelot with all of the principles of industry and technology that are common to nineteenth-century America. One of his schemes involves "inventing" soap and making it available to all of the people of Camelot (since the people don't bathe as frequently as Hank is accustomed to). Also, appalled at the hold the Established Church has over the people, Hank decides that the people need to be educated, which will, naturally, weaken the church's hold.

Exploitation and Other Redirection
Of course, being an entrepreneur at heart, Hank can't help but look on Camelot as an opportunity for exploiting people with his superior knowledge. In a very memorable scene, Hank describes the religious devotions of many of the monks of the time--in particular, a monk who expresses his devotion to God by bowing over and over again, all day long, without stopping.

Rather than being impressed by the monk's passionate display of faith, Hank notes the astounding amount of energy the monk puts out every day. Not to see this wasted, he hooks up a sewing machine to the monk, using his bowing motions to run the machine. In this manner Hank manufactures and sells garments as religious souvenirs, and tells the reader--with not a little satisfaction--about the wild success of these garments.

Mark Twain's Commentary: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
Beyond Twain's customary critiques on slavery and religion, the book also offers a somewhat different brand of cynicism: Twain's critique of science and progress. When Hank Morgan arrives in Camelot, it is a fairy-tale city that has long represented both nobility and weaknesses. Then, in his quest to "improve" the city, he destroys it.

Everything that defines the time--from the smelly, unwashed people to their superstitions and religious fervor--is exploited in the name of progress. Here, then, we see Hank Morgan as an expression of Twain's disillusionment with the value of modern progress.

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