In effort to keep myself well educated, I decided to read one classic text this month. Twain’s works have always been, in my humble opinion, some of the more withstandable from his time period. With my interest in science fiction and fantasy, this book was an easy choice.
That being said, I am one of those people who just doesn’t like old books. Victorian works are needlessly wordy and often follow a lackluster plot – and this book does not disappoint in that manner. As far as old works go, I found it fantastic, but I don’t really feel edified or like having read an old book brought me benefit. I suppose I did not suffer as I read, and that alone sets it above such works as Jane Eyre in my mind.
At the very least above Ready Player One.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
Author: Mark Twain
Text I read was first copyrighted in 1979, but it appears to have been first written in 1889 based on the preface
University of California, Berkeley Press
I borrowed it from my library in electronic form.
The whole premise – time travel of an industrial man, an engineer at that, to the 6th century – seems sort of silly and cliche today, but I can’t easily think of another book of its age with the same sort of idea. I looked it up on Wikipedia afterwards – and there really were very few time travel books before this one.
With ‘fake news’ being all the rage these days, I was fascinated to find that A Connecticut Yankee contained monstrous amounts of jabs at fake news. The difficulty of disseminating the truth was one of the major plot motivators and mechanisms used throughout the book, and I thought it hilarious that yellow journalism is still around today. I needed that historical reminder.
As an engineer myself, I loved how this book took engineering principles and applied them in a way that wasn’t altogether bad. I usually cringe at science in writing, but this one (save the time travel bits) saved me from that fate. Part of it was the focus on character and plot events over the nitty-gritty details of the engineering, as I think should be true in a book.
Another aspect that I didn’t expect was how it often referenced slavery in the American South and sharply satirized the fates of both black and white Southerners. As a white Southerner myself, one who grew up very poor, I found a couple instances in the book extremely poignant and filled with lessons many fellow whites could use today. Twain must have been a raging liberal, back in the day.
That being said, the overall plot of the book was lacking. Like many Victorian works, this book contained multiple plotlines that began and ended back-to-back. Some of them felt like they were pushed to the wayside altogether too quickly, especially when some of the characters were forgotten. Whenever one plot ended and another came up, I found the change abrupt and always missed the plotline I had just left.
I also just don’t like Victorian style. Some of the paragraphs were monstrous, as were some of the sentences. There was a whole lot of telling rather than showing, and a whole lot of philosophical asides that didn’t really add to the work. Old writing is always hard for me to trudge through, and I think it fair to judge the book for what it is: just not good.
3/5 Discoball Snowcones
SPOILERS AHOY: Plot Review
A Connecticut foreman at a Colt factory gets in a fight and is punched back to King Arthur’s time. Upon arrival in the 6th century, Hank Morgan establishes himself as a magician along the lines of Merlin – except his magic, industrial age engineering and science, actually works. After shaming Merlin, he goes on a quest with Sandy, a woman who is a veritable word machine, and rescues some hogs by buying them from some willing peasants. He then fixes a well for some holy monks, heaping further shame upon Merlin. He then quests with King Arthur himself, dressing as a peasant with his traipsing monarch and discovering the plights of the poor. When the two are accidentally sold into slavery, Hank finds a way to escape and calls the bicycle knights to his aid.
Once free, Hank Morgan finds Sandy – abandoned earlier, since he didn’t like her – and marries her. They have a kid before the war between Arthur and Launcelot breaks out, then Mordred and Arthur kill each other. The Church then decides to take over since the throne has no clear lineage to pass through. Hank is declared anathema by the Interdict, and he must defend his castle. Most of his amazing works are destroyed in the battle, and Merlin puts a REAL spell on him to make him sleep until the 13th century. Time remains composed, and no Republic is established.
The plot jumped all over the place. I even left out some of the lesser plots in my summary above. I enjoyed the story about Sandy the most, where Hank traipsed about with her on her quest. They got to know each other, faced a few difficulties, and worked through all the problems together. Because they had an overall plot to defeat while poking their heads into lesser plots, it felt put-together and had a thread that tied the whole set of stories in a bundle.
That being said, there were simply multiple short plotlines back to back. In Huck Finn, Twain can get away with it due to the backdrop of the river journey, and he can do it with the boyish qualities in Tom Sawyer. In this book, though, it felt really weird. I didn’t like how easily he just dropped characters and plots. Each plot finished quickly, then was forgotten. It felt like binge watching an episodic TV series.
Beyond the plot with Sandy, the back half of the book was also pretty boring. Two whole chapters were interspersed with this strange set of arguments about the value of a dollar, combined with gilded age problems with greenbacks. It was both boring and, in my opinion, completely useless chatter.
SPOILERS AHOY: Characters
First, I want to praise the character of Sandy (Alisade). She was rather funny and useful, and at the same time forced Hank into a lot of fun adventures. When her role as sidekick was replaced by King Arthur, I found something lacking. She was just a much fuller, better character than Arthur was. At times she could be a dimwit in the narrator’s eyes, but she was so in ways that Hank failed to simultaneously see her genius. Very well done character.
I also thought Clarence was interesting. Hank’s first pupil and right hand man, Clarence was potentially more useful than Hank himself. He stood right by the Yankee to the very end. At the same time, with Clarence alive and well at the end of the book, why did the Yankee’s plan to bring modern technology and civilization to England fail? If the clever tie-up of all the Yankee’s plans were to succeed, Clarence and the 52 warrior boys needed to die.
Beyond those characters, Twain did a fair job setting apart each of the minor characters. All of them had a separate, distinct voice, though often it was lost in the mill of Hank’s philosophical debates.
No characters, major or minor, developed over the course of the book. The fates were either Hank’s – stay alive and the same person – or refuse to change and die, usually at Hank’s hand. It was unclear whether Arthur actually changed as a result of his tromping about England as a peasant, and even if his opinions changed, his character didn’t. He was ever prideful.
Due to the lack of dynamic characters and lack of singular plot, the book felt like it didn’t fit together well. It just felt like a hodge-podge rant against aristocracy, chivalry, nobility, and inequality. While the message is one most modern people can get behind, its vehicle felt strangely misshapen.
SPOILERS AHOY: Setting
The setting was about as you’d expect, but the addition of Victorian technology made it interesting. I enjoyed the descriptions of machines of the time, and I was reminded why I sometimes dabble in reading Steampunk works.
A part of the setting included Twain’s use of ‘oldspeak,’ or making his 6th century characters speak with ‘thee’ and ‘thine’ and other qualities associated with ancient speech patterns. This could be extremely hard to trudge through, and that was on top of the already difficult Victorian sentences. I absolutely despised this. I hate old-style English, and Twain didn’t even acknowledge that English of the 6th century would have instead been completely unrecognizable. Have you ever tried to read Beowulf in the original text? Yeah, didn’t think so. If Hank had learned Old English during his stay, Twain could have easily just ‘translated’ everything that happened and rid his book of the crappy ‘oldspeak.’
Next week: NEW BOOKS
Next week I’ll introduce the three books I’ll review in the month of May! If you’re an indie author and you’ve published a book you’d like me to read, leave a comment. If I like what I see in the excerpts or ads, I may choose to read it in June (May has been selected)!