|[This long, enthusiastic review filled up almost a full page in the Herald. It included six of Dan Beard's illustrations. But although it summarizes a good bit of the plot, it never sees any hint of irony in the novel's juxtaposition of ancient England and modern America. Like all the contemporary reviews, for example, it doesn't notice the apocalyptic violence of the last act of Hank's performance for the Sixth Century.]|
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
Adventures Among the Knights of the Round Table --
Modern Inventions Introduced Into the Sixth Century --
Shams of Aristocratic Pretensions Ruthlessly Slaughtered
Of all the extraordinary conceits that have germinated in his fruitful imagination, nothing more delicious has ever occurred to Mark Twain than that of running riot among the legendary times of our ancestral race by placing "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court." These quoted words form the title of the latest successor to Innocents Abroad. Here is a rare field for the unbridled play of fancy, and right bravely has the author used his opportunity. There is a most audacious rollicking around among the dusty bric-a-brac of chivalry -- which is not handled at all gently -- and a merry tossing about of poetic finery in a way that ruthlessly exposes in their literal ugliness the illusively mantled facts. Of course there is most abundant fun, and Mark Twain's rich humor never coursed more freely than here, where just provocation is never absent. But there is much more than this; the sources of the claims of aristocratic privileges and royal prerogatives that yet linger in the world are so exposed to the full glare of the sun of 19th century common sense, are shown in so ridiculous an aspect, that the work can hardly fail to do yeoman service in destroying the still existing remnants of respect for such pretensions. Through the book there is a steady flowing undercurrent of earnest purpose, and the pages are eloquent with a true American love of freedom, a sympathy with the rights of the common people, and an indignant hatred of oppression of the poor, the lowly and the weak, by the rich, the powerful and the proud. While much false glamour is dispelled by resolving it into absurdity under the touchstone of truth, the book is marked by real beauty, by a poetry of style worthy of its rich material, with much sympathetic tenderness, as well as frankness of speech. The quaint early English speech is handled with the same artistic skill that characterized the author's facile handling of the stately Elizabethan in that lovely idyll of childhood, The Prince and the Pauper, and the constant admixture of a concisely expressive American vernacular thereto makes a contrast of lingual coloring that is
We may fancy that the same matter-of-fact Englishman who seriously reasoned that certain statements in Innocents Abroad were preposterously absurd, and could not be based upon fact, might again step forward to break a lance against this book by showing, from historical and philological data, that such a language could not possibly have been spoken in the sixth century, since the English tongue did not exist, and that the use of Norman French names before the conquest is anachronistic in the highest degree! But this is an excursion back into the England of the chronicles, and not of strict chronology, and that eminent ethnologist, Tylor, would undoubtedly perceive with delight the accuracy of scientific perception in the treatment of human nature which marks the book. For, in order to characterize with truth a past period we must make ourselves familiar with some existing state of society that is analogous therewith. Only under such conditions can a faithful historical romance be written, for otherwise the writer cannot fail to modernize his work, and falsify its life with 19th century sentiments that could not have been known in a previous age. By resorting to the principle that "distribution in time" is paralleled by "distribution in space," we may solve many a problem. So there is a certain aspect of sober truth in this most fanciful tale, and, just as the Connecticut Yankee went back into the days of King Arthur's court, so might he go out into the world today, into Central Asia or Africa, or even into certain spots in this United States of ours, find himself amidst social conditions very similar to those of 1300 years ago, and even work his astonishing 19th century miracles with like result. For it is a fact that, when Frank Hamilton Cushing astounded the Zuni Indians with an acoustic telephone constructed of two tomato cans and a string, they deemed him a magician, and tried him for witchcraft. And, for parallels of the inhumanities which, as we here read of them, seem to have been left far behind us in the track of the centuries, we have but to look with George Kennan into the dungeons of Siberia; and, in our own country, read the records of the investigations into the horrors of the almshouses, jails and lunatic hospitals here in this enlightened commonwealth of Massachusetts so late as the time of Horace Mann, or look to the record of the nameless barbarities of negro slavery alive in the memories of men still young. How the conscience and the sympathies of the world have quickened with the advent of the railway, the steamship and the telegraph! We have, after all, but just passed out across
and, in view of the few steps we have taken, we can hardly doubt that we are yet to make an infinitely mightier progress into the light of a genuine civilization, putting far behind us the veneered barbarism of the present, that still retains the old standards of conduct and intercourse for our guidance in all "practical" affairs.
As an instance of the scientific fidelity of this book in its picture of mediaeval society, we may take this from the description of the company at King Arthur's Round Table, around which there was an average of about two dogs to one man, watching for bones:
The following also illustrates an exact perception of the essentially savage traits of such a people: "Finally it occurred to me all of a sudden that these animals didn't reason; that they never put this and that together; that all their talk showed that they didn't know a discrepancy when they saw it." Again, when Sir Sagramour le Desirous caught a chance remark of the Yankee applied to some one else and thought it meant for him, and so challenged him to the memorable encounter that took place several years after, and was fought with
the "Sir Boss," as he was called said: "Whenever one of those people got a thing into his head, there was no getting it out again. I knew that, so I saved my breath, and offered no explanations." The foregoing characterizations might apply equally well to a tribe of Dakota Indians, to their hardly more civilized foes, the cowboys of the plains, to the mountaineers of Tennessee and Georgia, or even to the savages in our great city slums.
By some strange means, perhaps more marvellous than those by which Edward Bellamy transferred the hero of "Looking Backward" forward to the year 2000, the Yankee is carried back 1300 years in time, and in the record of his adventures affords us another and very instructive sort of "Looking Backward." He is captured by one of King Arthur's mailed knights, whom at first he takes for a circus performer, and is carried to Camelot as a prisoner. Condemned to be burned alive, according to the pleasant custom of the age, he saves himself by threatening to blot out the sun unless he is set free. He knew that a total eclipse was due as that date, and, as it begins, the superstitious and credulous people at once accept his claim to be a great magician, and King Arthur begs him to let them off and name his own terms. He consents to spare the sun, but just for a lesson he says he will let the darkness proceed and spread night in the world, and exacts as his conditions that he shall be appointed perpetual prime minister and chief executive to the King, simply taking for remuneration 1 per cent of such actual increase of the revenue over and above the present amount as he may succeed in creating for the state. He then proceeds to run the kingdom according to modern ideas; he introduces, step by step, 19th century inventions, his magic of modern science putting old Merlin, with his "parlor magic," quite in the shade. One of the most comical things in the book is the way in which Merlin, who is horribly jealous of his powerful rival, is made to serve as the arch villain of the story. A bright boy, one of the pages at the court, whom he calls "Clarence" for short, becomes the right hand man of the Yankee in carrying out his plans, and is trained according to the most approved modern ideas,
"What a jump I had made!" mused the Yankee.
He describes the people as "the quaintest, and simplest, and trustingest race" though "nothing but rabbits," and, to one born in a wholesome free atmosphere, it was pitiful to listen to their protestations of loyalty to royalty and aristocracy.
all the time at Camelot, "and very stirring and picturesque and ricidulous human bull fights they were, too, but just a little wearisome to a practical mind. Another popular diversion was going for the Holy Grail.
According to the custom of the age, the Yankee, too, goes off in search of adventures, accompanied by the Demoiselle Alisande la Carteloise, who brings in a tale of the usual pattern, all about an ogre's enchanted castle, with captive maidens, etc. He has a most ludicrous time getting into his armor, and starts off, with "Sandy," as he calls her, riding behind him on the same horse. In his armor he felt hot and uncomfortable, he perspired in rivers, he itched and couldn't get at himself to scratch.
Occasionally he encountered one of his own "missionaries" as he called them, knights
bearing such inscriptions as "Persimmons' soap -- all the prime-donne use it!"
The adventures encountered upon this expedition are ludicrous and pathetic by turns; the wrongs and sufferings of the common people under the degrading conditions of that age are described with vivid and touching eloquence.
One day they came upon a group of poor, ragged creatures mending the thing they called a road:
At last they arrived at the Valley of Holiness, a famous pilgrimage resort with great monasteries and convents, and hermits galore. The monks were in sore distress, for the holy fountain had ceased flowing, and Merlin's most powerful magic failed to restore it.
and told Merlin that the best thing for him to do was to go home and work the weather. "It was a home shot, and it made him wince; for he was the worst weather-failure in the kingdom. Whenever he ordered up the danger signals along the coast there was a week's dead calm, sure, and every time he prophesied fair weather it rained brick-bats. But I kept him in the weather bureau right along, to undermine his reputation."
He then worked a modern miracle on the well with stunning effect, sending to the factory and chemical laboratory at Camelot, which had been left in charge of Clarence, for the materials in the shape of lead pipe, a force pump with an electric apparatus and fireworks to give eclat to the proceedings. The account of this miracle is one of the most delicious things in the book, repairing the well with the aid of his trained assistants from Camelot by mending the leak which nobody had thought of looking for, and, when everything was ready, repeating some phenomenally long German words by way of conjuration, accompanied by Bengal lights from the chapel roof, touched off with an electric battery, and finally turning on the water to the accompaniment of a grand outburst of rockets -- all of which pyrotechnics was taken to be the vomiting of hell-fire by the infernal spirit that had enchanted the well.
While he was here at the Valley of Holiness, a rival magician arrived and everybody took stock in him because he claimed to be able to tell what the Emperor of the East and other mighty and distant potentates were doing at any moment. But the Yankee non-plussed him by asking him to tell what he, the Yankee, was doing with his right hand! But the humbug pretended that such trifles were beneath his dignity; enchanters of his degree deigned not to concern themselves with the doings of any but kings, emperors, princes, them that be born in the purple, and them only, and he volunteered to tell what King Arthur was doing. But the Yankee had secretly established telephonic communication with Camelot, and knew just what was really going on at the court, and prophesied that the King and Queen, with their following, would arrive in the valley the day after the next, at vespers, to pay pious homage to the waters that had been restored.
of the royal progress, but he was surprised that in the valley there was no sign of interest in the King's coming; there seemed to be no preparations making to receive him in state.
While the King is at the valley there is
for positions in the new standing army just instituted, the first regiment of which had just been formed. But the royal preference is given to the young scions of the nobility over the deserving cadets from the Yankee's recently instituted "West Point." The latter, however, effects a happy compromise, by persuading the King to make the 1st regiment the crack one, the "King's Own," officered entirely by the nobility, with possibly five times as many officers as privates, so that it would be the heart's desire of the nobility, and leaving the rest of the standing army to be made up out of common-place materials, and officered with nobodies, as was proper -- "nobodies selected on the basis of mere efficiency."
Another event is the arrival of the first newsboy with the arrival of the new paper started under the management of Clarence, the Camelot Weekly Hosannah and Literary Volcano, gotten up in the regular Arkansas style. The following, from the department of "Local Smoke and Cinders," is a sample item:
When the Yankee mentions his intentions to go out to scour the country disguised as a petty freeman and familiarize himself with the humbler life of the people, King Arthur is all on fire in a minute with the novelty of the thing, and insists on taking a chance in the adventure. So the two start out incognito, and the relation of their experience gives a wonderful chance to describe the customs and manners of the country in that age. He has a hard time
so as to assume the requisite humility in the presence of the gentry whom they meet on the way. On one occasion the King forgot himself. Two knights rode toward them, and it would have fared ill in consequence of the King's lack of proper deference had it not been for a dynamite bomb which the Yankee had taken along to work a miracle with in case of emergency. With this he blew up the knights most effectively, but he had to explain to the King that "this was a miracle of so rare a sort that it couldn't be done except when the atmospheric conditions were just right. Otherwise he would be encoring it every time we had a good subject, and that would be inconvenient, because I hadn't any more bombs along."
Here is a capital saying by the King, when the Yankee is drilling him to walk like a lowly man, which is difficult, since his shoulders have known no ignobler burden than iron mail, and they will not stoop:
On this expedition the King is taught something of sympathy with the common people by becoming familiar with their condition, though it is a difficult lesson, that of bringing a man into touch with a mode of life foreign to that in which he is born and reared. "He could only see one side of it. He was born so, educated so; his veins were full of ancestral blood that was rotten with this sort of unconscious brutality." Finally, the Yankee and the King are
The slave market was utterly stagnant. The King of England brought $7, and his prime minister $9. The King brooded; but not about the prodigious nature of his fall; "what gravelled him most, to start with, was not this, but the price he had fetched!"
They have some exciting adventures, and are on the point of being hanged when they are rescued by the timely arrival of Launcelot and 200 mailed and belted knights on bicycles; Clarence rides along with them and tells how he has had the boys practising this long time, privately, and just hungry for a chance to show off.
and the modern inventions are brought out openly. Even base ball is brought forward with the intention of replacing the tournament with something that might furnish an escape for the extra steam of the chivalry. The account of a base ball match, with the knights playing in their armor, is funny enough. "When a man was running, and threw himself on his stomach to slide to his base, it was like an ironclad coming into port."
The advance in the art of popular bookmaking in the past two decades is illustrated by the contrast between Innocents Abroad and this volume. In illustration, the progress is particularly notable. Even a child of today would turn in contempt from the crude woodcuts of the former to the beautiful pen-and-ink drawings by Dan Beard that adorn the new work. These drawings are graceful, picturesque and thoroughly characteristic of the spirit of the book. Many of them embody instructive allegories, as, for instance, in a cut of Justice, with her scales, one containing the heavy hammer of "Labor" and the other the baubles of "Aristocracy," but the latter made to outweigh the former by means of the string of "Self-interest," artfully attached to the toe of "Law," who stands by; another, in a similar vein, shows the Justice of the 19th century and Justice of the sixth century standing opposite each other, and simultaneously remarking, "Sister, your blind is disarranged," for, with the same manner of string attached to the toe of each, "Money" is made to outweigh "Labor" by the former, just as titles are made heavier in the balance by the latter. One little cut shows "Decorations of Sixth Century Aristocracy" as "Rewards for all Babes Born Under Specified Conditions," such as "Slave Driver," "Robber of Unarmed Savages," "Robber of Orphans," "Absorber of Taxes," "Murderer of Rivals," etc., the whole supported by "Honi soit qui mal y pense!" Another illustrates the remark of the king concerning a peasant: "Brother! to dirt like this?" by depicting the three phases of oppression of man by man, first by violence under the sword of royal power, then by the book of "law," making man subject to the slave driver's lash, and last, the subjection of the workingman to the millions of the monopolist. A strong and spirited picture of an arrogant slave driver shows in its face the unmistakable portrait of a celebrated American billionaire and stock gambler.
We are so accustomed to regard England of today as "essentially a republic, with a monarchical head," that it seems strange that the utterances of this book, so thoroughly in accordance with accepted American ideas, should find any difficulty in obtaining publicity in England, yet so strong is the prejudice there still that its English publisher has cut out some of the best passages, including a portion of the preface, with some persiflage about "the divine right of kings."