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Book Review: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

by Wendy Van Camp

Book Name: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
Author: Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain)
First Published: 1889

4195Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in Missouri, two weeks after Halley’s Comet appeared in 1835. After his father died of pneumonia, young Clemens was apprenticed at the age of 12 as a typesetter for his brother’s newspaper, the Hannibal Journal. It is there that he gained his first writing experiences by creating articles and funny sketches for the newspaper. Instead of attending school, he learned by reading at the public libraries. He claimed that he found more information at the library than he ever would at a traditional school.

When he was 18, he left Hannibal and went to work as a printer in New York City among other places. He joined the newly formed International Typographical Union. He moved around a great deal, traveling on the packet Keokuk in 1854 and lived in Muscatine during 1855. The Muscatine newspaper published eight of his travelogues.

During a journey to New Orleans down the Mississippi river, steamboat pilot Horace E. Bixby talked Clemens into becoming a pilot himself. Clemens studied for two years before he received his steamboat pilot license in 1859. It was during this time when Clemens developed the pen name of Mark Twain, taken from the cry “mark twain” for a measured river depth of two fathoms. He might have remained a riverboat pilot but for the start of the American Civil War. When war broke out in 1861, all traffic along the Mississippi was curtailed.

At the start of the war, Clemens enlisted briefly in the Confederate military, but soon left for Nevada to work for his brother Orion, the Secretary to James W. Nye, the Governor of Nevada Territory. Eventually, Clemens settled in Nevada as a miner on the Comstock Lode. He did not make a good living as a miner and soon returned to writing. He wrote under his new pen name, Mark Twain, for the first time at a Virginia City newspaper called The Territorial Enterprise. Later, his experiences on the American frontier would inspire his famous short story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County which was published in The Saturday Press, a New York weekly. Twain continued to write and travel all across American and even to the Hawaiian Islands, as a reporter for the Sacramento Union. His travelogues were popular and would become the basis for his future lecture series.

During a trip to the Holy Land, Clemens met Charles Langdon and the man happened to show Clemens the picture of his sister. Later, Clemens would admit that he had fallen in love with Olivia Langdon that day solely on viewing her image. He later met and pursued Olivia until she agreed to be his wife. They moved to Hartford, Connecticut and lived there for almost two decades. It is at the home in Hartford where Clemens wrote most of his popular novels including: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. His novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, features a time traveler from his contemporary American, using the knowledge of science to introduce modern technology to Arthurian England. This type of storyline would later become a common feature of the science fiction sub-genre, alternate history. It also reads as a good fantasy novel.

Clemens grew wealthy from his writing, but due to several poor investments, his gains all but disappeared. In 1895, Clemens organized a world tour with the help of his friend, Henry Rogers, where he gave lectures about his travels and of his famous stories. It was a five-year journey, but would prove to be a hit. He was able to repay his debts and to continue to support his family.

Disaster struck the Clemens’ household in 1910, a decade after his successful world tour. One by one, his wife, two of their daughters and his friend Rogers all died within a short time span. This put the author into a spiral of depression that he never quite recovered from. All his life he had told of having visions of the future. Clemens predicted that he would die on the return of Halley’s Comet and he was right – he died on April 21, 1910, a day after the comet reappeared.

My kind of loyalty was loyalty to one’s country, not to its institutions or its officeholders. The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over, and care for, and be loyal to; institutions are extraneous, they are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body from winter, disease, and death. – Mark Twain

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court begins with Hank Morgan, a 19th century gunsmith from Connecticut, gets hit on the head during a fight and wakes up in Camelot. He thinks that he should run things since he is the most advanced man in the world, but instead he is ridiculed for his odd appearance and is sentenced to be burned at the stake. Hank knows from his study of history that his execution date coincides with a famous solar eclipse. He threatens the king that he will make the sun disappear if he executes him. When the eclipse occurs, the people are convinced of Hank’s power and the King appoints him as chief minister.

Hank observes the medieval ways of the people and sees the rampant ignorance and suffering of the poor. He clashes with Merlin, the king’s previous chief adviser and top sorcerer in the land. In a fit of jealousy, Merlin spreads rumors that Hank is a fraud. To combat this, Hank rigs Merlin’s tower with explosives and a lightning rod, causing a fire that Merlin fails to prevent with his magic.

Hank also uses his knowledge and his authority as the king’s minister to modernize the country and contradict medieval teachings. Assisted by a young boy named Clarence, he sets up secret schools and factories of tools. Hank only allows his hand-picked open-minded people to enter. He goes on to construct modern infrastructure and goes on an adventure with a girl named Sandy. One day, Hank and King Arthur disguise themselves as peasants in order to see how the poor people really live. They get arrested and sold to slavery, and are about to be hanged. Sir Lancelot and the other knights rescue them but the king, horrified by his experience, promises to abolish slavery, which delights Hank.

Sir Sagramore, challenges Hank to a duel to the death upon his return from his Holy Grail quest. Hank wins the day by enlisting the help of a dozen other knights, a lasso, and a revolver. He then reveals the modern infrastructure he has created. He later marries Sandy and they have a child together.

Strangely enough, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is the first Mark Twain novel that I ever read. I was inspired to pick up the book after seeing the movie by the same name starring Bing Crosby. Later, due to prodding from English teachers, I would go on to read his more famous works, but this novel has always stuck with me. The satire about the politics of his day reminded me of other classic authors such as Lewis Carrol, Charles Dickens and others of that time period. It is an early novel of alternate history and a true child of the speculative fiction genre. I fully believe that by reading the classics in a genre, you learn the conventions and gain a stronger understanding of it as a writer. That is why I would recommend this novel to be on a must-read list, in addition to his other more well known titles.

Mark Twain was more than an author, he was an inventor, an adventurer, a steamboat pilot and more. His writing and wit inspires me as an author, but his life inspires me as well. Samuel Clemens did not succeed at everything he attempted, but he never gave up and continued to search for what worked for him. Now he is remembered for being one of the best American authors in history.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is available for free download at Project Gutenberg.

A bit about the columnist:

Wendy Van Camp is the writer behind No Wasted Ink, a blog about the craft of writing, featuring author interviews. book reviews and Scifaiku poetry. She makes her home in Southern California with her husband. Wendy enjoys travel, bicycling, gourmet cooking and gemology. Her work has appeared in literary and science fiction magazines such as “Shadows Express”, “Quantum Visions”, “Serendipity”, and “Far Horizons”. Her first Amazon ebook is a regency romance entitled: "The Curate's Brother: A Jane Austen Variation of Persuasion". Visit author page

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