Victorian Summer Reads, 1978: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
  Book Reviews    July 22, 2016     Eric Larkin

 

Some parts of your childhood are lost forever, but you can always go back and reread a book from that period. You won’t experience it the same way, but if the book is any good, it won’t just leave you in a melancholy puddle, like most reminiscences will: you’ll at least have read a good book. This is my experience so far with this series, wherein I reread classics I first experienced as a wee lad, thru the glorious Moby Illustrated Classics included in McDonald’s Happy Meals in the late 70s.

 

A few random thoughts and then my favorite part of the book.

 

Again with the time travel, but it would be tough to call this science fiction. Speculative fiction works. There is definitely the “What if?” thing: what if a 19th century American industrialist went back to King Arthur’s Britain? However, there is no science technique in the time travel; unless you call getting hit upside the head with a crowbar some kind of proto-time machine. I’m thinking, no. Call it, quasi-sci-fi or just spec fic. Who cares – it’s dyn-O-mite.

 

The cover illustration for this post is from the work of David Hughes, in The Folio Society edition…

What’s interesting about what Hank Morgan (the protag, the Yankee) experiences in his trip back in time is not the contrast in technology. This is mostly used for humor, witness the charge of the knights mounted on bicycles. What sinks deep and is 100% relevant to the modern American reader is the entrenched, narrow thinking of the Arthurian characters. You would expect the ruling classes of the realm to resist Morgan’s lead towards democracy and rational thinking – his ideas are a threat to the power structure – but the groups who suffer the most under that power structure, the peasants, slaves and “freemen”, are ultimately the ones who back down. One problem is their whole worldview: they can’t get past the entrenched idea that the king and his ilk are divinely appointed, that it’s natural for someone “highborn” to own someone who is “lowborn”. On the other hand, they’re just afraid. They’re afraid of losing what little they have. Perhaps that’s the real idea in the story. Neither the upper class nor the lower class are ready for change. Maybe our situation is the same. This is what I take from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: all the great ideas in the world won’t save us from ourselves.

 

folioinside

… and look at that endpaper – This is why ebooks will never replace real books. This is for your permanent collection.

My favorite moment, and the heart of the story for me, is not any core theme of the book. It is profound, though – and challenging. Morgan and Arthur have entered a peasant’s shack, and found a mother lying on the ground, dying.

 

There was a slight noise from the direction of the dim corner where the ladder was. It was the king descending. I could see that he was bearing something in one arm, and assisting himself with the other. He came forward into the light; upon his breast lay a slender girl of fifteen. She was but half conscious; she was dying of smallpox. Here was heroism at its last and loftiest possibility, its utmost summit; this was challenging death in the open field unarmed, with all the odds against the challenger, no reward set upon the contest, and no admiring world in silks and cloth-of-gold to gaze and applaud; and yet the king’s bearing was as serenely brave as it had always been in those cheaper contests where knight meets knight in equal fight and clothed in protecting steel. He was great now; sublimely great. The rude statues of his ancestors in his palace should have an addition — I would see to that; and it would not be a mailed king killing a giant or dragon, like the rest, it would be a king in commoner’s garb bearing death in his arms that a peasant mother might look her last upon her child and be comforted.

 

Through most of the book, the courage of the knights is lampooned as brainlessly misguided, beating each other to death for no purpose, for example, to say nothing of their self-serving “morality”. Arthur himself is not spared. But here, the great Mark Twain shows his quality: even in this buffoonish symbol of chivalry, he shows us what chivalry should be, true courage, nobility and love in dangerous action, as this otherwise unassailable King at deadly risk to himself stoops to the lowest place of the lowest people in his kingdom. It’s so perfect.

 

And there’s more, but I’ll leave that to you. This book is a bullseye in every direction.

 

1978 King Arthur

Illustration © David Hughes from The Folio Society edition of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

 

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