London Daily Telegraph [unsigned]
1890: January 13

At this holiday season, in books and newspapers, on stage and in drawing-room, the poet and the painter, the author, the actor, and the dramatist compete with one another to bring before young and old scenes and suggestions of beauty, heroism, purity, and truth. One writer is an exception. MARK TWAIN sets himself to show the seamy side of the legendary Round Table of King ARTHUR'S time. He depicts all the vices of feudalism -- the licentiousness of the nobles, their arrogance and insolence to the middle classes, their neglect of the poor, their hours of gluttony and idleness, varied by raids and brawls and riotous disorders. He describes how a Yankee visiting the Court uses modern inventions, defeats the best warriors, and redresses the wrongs of the poor. It is quite possible that a serious purpose underlies what otherwise seems a vulgar travesty. We have every regard for MARK TWAIN -- a writer who has enriched English literature by admirable descriptions of boy life, and who in The Prince and the Pauper has given a vivid picture of mediæval times. A book, however, that tries to deface our moral and literary currency by bruising and soiling the image of King ARTHUR, as left to us by legend and consecrated by poetry, is a very unworthy production of the great humourist's pen. No doubt there is one element of wit -- incongruity -- in bringing a Yankee from Connecticut face to face with feudal knights; but sharp contrast between vulgar facts and antique ideas is not the only thing necessary for humour. If it were, then a travelling Cockney putting a flaming tie round the neck of the "Apollo Belvidere," or sticking a clay pipe between the lips of the "Venus de Medici," would be a matter-of-fact MARK TWAIN, and as much entitled to respect. Burlesque and travesty are satire brought down to the meanest capacity, and they have their proper province when pretentious falsehoods put on the masks of solemnity and truth. Stilted tragedies, artificial melodramas, unnatural acting, are properly held up to ridicule on the stage or in parodies. The mannerisms of a popular writer like CARLYLE, BROWNING, or even TENNYSON, may, through caricature, be good-humouredly exposed; but an attack on the ideals associated with King ARTHUR is a coarse pandering to that passion for irreverence which is at the basis of a great deal of Yankee wit. To make a jest of facts, phrases, or words -- Scriptural, heroic, or legendary -- that are held in awe or reverence by other men is the open purpose of every witling on a Western print, who endeavours to follow in the footsteps of ARTEMUS WARD, BRET HARTE, and MARK TWAIN. They may finally be successful enough to destroy their own trade. They now live by shocking decent people who still retain love for the Bible, HOMER, SHAKESPEARE, SCOTT, and TENNYSON; but when they have thoroughly trained a rising generation to respect nothing their irreverence will fall flat.

The stories of King ARTHUR that have come down to us represent in legendary form not any historical fact, but an ideal of kingship and knighthood which had birth in the hearts and aspirations of mediæval men. This was their ideal of what a King amongst his warriors ought to be, and the beautiful image has fired the thoughts and purified the imagination of millions of men and women for many generations. Will this shrine in human souls be destroyed because a Yankee scribe chooses to fling pellets of mud upon the high altar? The instincts of the past and the genius of TENNYSON have consecrated for ever "the goodliest fellowship of famous knights Whereof this world holds record." The Round Table is dissolved, but we can still "delight our souls with talk of knightly deeds," as they at Camelot in the storied past. We can still apply the image of the ideal knight as a criterion of modern worth. King ARTHUR swore each of his followers to "reverence his conscience as his King, To ride abroad redressing human wrongs, To speak no slander, no, nor listen to it, To honour his own word as if his GOD'S, To lead sweet lives in purest chastity. To love one maiden only, cleave to her, And worship her by years of noble deeds." Such an oath presented to a modern Yankee would seem to convey in almost every phrase a covert insult to American institutions. In a land where commercial fraud and industrial adulteration are fine arts we had better omit appeals to "conscience." The United States are not likely to "ride abroad redressing human wrong" -- as they never gave a dollar or a man to help Greece, Poland, Hungary, or Italy in their struggles to be free. "To speak no slander, no, nor listen to it," would utterly uproot America's free press -- based to a great extent on scandalous personalities. Loving one maiden only and cleaving to her must seem too "high-toned" in the States, where there are many facilities for ready divorce. So far MARK TWAIN is right as a Western iconoclast to pelt with sarcasm ideals which are not included in the Constitution or customs of the United States. Yet, in spite of all that America has done or can do to deface images of self-sacrifice and beauty, there are chosen souls in her own borders who have fulfilled the heroic ideals of the olden time. The Abolitionists of New England encountered great perils when they first set out to redress the great human wrong of negro slavery, and they fought as noble a contest against organised iniquity as any knight of ARTHUR'S Court. They faced political obloquy, mob violence, loss of limb, sometimes of life, and the falling away of friends and relatives, because they had inherited the old instinct of knights, to lead lives of duty to their fellow-men. They were jeered and derided by the MARK TWAINS of the day, but their foresight was proved at the end of the war, when the world recognised the two-fold result, "a nation saved, a race delivered." What, too, would have been the fate of the Republic if no ideal image of their country shone before the souls of the men who died to save the Union? Coward souls at the North said, "It will cost much money and many lives to re-conquer the South: let them go; let the Republic break up; what is a country to us?" but a chivalry that came down from British ancestors animated the men who followed GRANT, and they kept to their high purpose until the field was won. Where was MARK TWAIN then? Why did he not satirise the patriotism that would not let a Republic be mutilated? Why did he not sneer at Yankee reverence for a paper Constitution not a hundred years old? Why did he not sing the glories of trade as better than any preservation of the Union or liberation of negro slaves?

Even if we look at the real feudalism idealised in the legends of King ARTHUR, it was not all evil. No doubt there were licentious nobles at all times, and there were great landlords who were occasionally cruel to the peasants in their fields. The change to modern times, however, is not all a gain. A great lord of old held his possessions by "suit and service"; he was bound to follow his King to the wars. Now he owns his broad lands free of duty, and may live a life of shameful luxury when he likes. The peasant of the olden times was not always in distress. The country was thinly peopled; he had as much land as he wanted; the woods were full of wild game, the streams of fish; except on occasions of rare famine he was fed well. Such a thing as an eviction was unknown, and for one good reason -- the lord was not only bound to serve the King, but to bring men for his army; consequently he had an interest in raising on his estates a body of faithful followers. The modern landlord drives his peasants into the towns, where, uncared for by him, they degenerate and die in slums. We must remember, too, that the vices of the past were characteristic of rough times; they were the sins of brutality, not of fraud. A bad knight of the feudal age wronged a maid or widow, and refused redress; but what are the offences of a commercial age? In America and in England, to a lesser extent, financial swindling is elaborately organised. The wicked man of modern times does not couch his lance against the weak or lowly; he sends out a prospectus. In twelve months the widow and orphan are breadless; the promoter and the financier have added another twenty thousand to their stores. Were King ARTHUR to descend in New York to-morrow he would make for Wall-street, where he would find a host of men whose word is as good, and as bad, as their bond -- railway schemers who plunder the shareholders of a continent, and are ever intent by every device of falsehood and of plot to deceive each other and to defraud the public. Talk of the inequality of man! King ARTHUR and the meanest menial in his halls were nearer to each other in conditions of life than the cramp in the slums of New York and the ASTORS, VANDERBILTS, and JAY GOULDS who have piled up millions extracted from the pockets of less successful men. The Republic is a 'land of liberty,' yet its commerce, its railways, and is manufactures are in the hands of a few cliques of almost irresponsible capitalists, who control tariffs, markets, and politics in order that they may be enriched, to the disadvantage of the masses. Which, then, is to be most admired -- the supremacy of a knight or the success of a financier? Under which King will the Americans serve -- the ideal or the real? Will they own allegiance to King ARTHUR or JAY GOULD?

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