Essay, Research Paper: King Arthur Court

Literature: Mark Twain

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A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is a complicated novel that
fundamentally deals with the concept of the human experience. Hank Morgan is a
nineteenth century mechanic who is transported back thirteen centuries to
medieval Britain, during the time of King Arthur. After his initial shock, he
becomes determined to "civilize" Camelot by introducing modern
industrial technology. At an initial look Twain seems to be favoring the
industrialized capitalist society that he lives in over the feudal society of
medieval Britain. But in a closer examination of the work it becomes clear that
this observation is much too simple, as the industrial world that Hank Morgan
creates is destroyed. Therefore the book can be viewed as a working out of the
idea that a quick change in a civilization brings disaster. Civilization and
change need to be developed, or at least explained within the culture itself, in
order for them to become lasting institutions. Hank's failing is that he
believes that he is superior to everyone, and that he can change the society of
Camelot simply by introducing technology. Hank becomes "the boss" of
Camelot, and begins his plans to free the serfs and establish a republic.
However his plans are destined to fail because he is incapable of understanding
values that are different from his own; he is the ultimate know-it all, and sets
out to remake the world in his own image. He is given "the choicest suite
of apartments in the castle, after the king's"(Twain 31), but he criticizes
them because they lack the conveniences of the nineteenth century, such as
"a three-color God-Bless-Our-Home over the door"(Twain 32). His lack
of acceptance of the local culture is also seen through his Victorian modesty,
he sleeps in his armor because "it would have seemed so like undressing
before folk"(Twain 60), even though he had clothes on underneath, and he is
repelled by the language used in mixed company. Although Hank says he only wants
to help the poor people of Britain who in his words "… were merely
modified savages"(Twain 61), create a society like his own where
"…all political power is inherent in the people…"(Twain 65)
instead he promotes himself to the level of despot. He continually criticizes
the structure of feudal society because it was a place where, "a right to
say how the country should be governed was restricted to six persons in each
thousand of its population"(Twain 65), but he sees himself above reproof.
"Here I was, a giant among pigmies, a man among children, a master
intelligence among moles…"(Twain 40). Hank forgets his own humanity and
begins to believe that his knowledge makes him more of a man, just as the
nobility that he shunned believed they were better than the serfs because of the
titles they held. Hank Morgan uses his superior knowledge of technology to gain
personal power. It soon becomes clear that even though thirteen hundred years
have given Hank a technological advantage, they haven't made him any smarter.
Hank possesses all of this technological knowledge, but fails to understand the
implications that this knowledge will have on the people of the Camelot. Instead
of educating the general public and teaching them how and why something works
instead he sends a select few to his "man factories". He uses his
knowledge instead to produce fantastic miracles, which although they give him
personal power, continue to perpetuate the superstitions of the populace that he
is trying to overcome. For example, Hank is asked to fix the well at the Valley
of Holiness. He installs a pump that will return the water, but instead of
explaining the principle behind the pump, Hank keeps the people in the dark and
passes off the project as a great miracle. Afterward he says, "…the
populace uncovered and fell reverently to make a wide way for me, as if I had
been some kind of superior being-and I was."(Twain 131) It is evident from
this that Hank is obsessed with his power. It seems ironic that the very
ignorance that he deplores in the people is the same thing allows him to obtain
power. It is this lack of willingness to share his knowledge that will destroy
him in the end. Medieval society is a place where things just happen, and are
not explained. "Cause and effect…don't exist in Camelot. Things happen to
people in Camelot without purpose, plan, or coherence; God twists and turns the
road whenever and however he pleases."(George 60) Hank's world is finally
destroyed because he forgot this basic principle of medieval life. He tried to
establish the physical aspects of modern industrial life, but he ignored the
intellectual ones. He showed all his subjects how to do things, but not why. He
failed to develop the reasoning skills of his subjects; therefore in the absence
of his magic they reverted back to the safety of the Established Church. When
Hank returns from France he finds the nation in turmoil. He happily finds
Clarence, but only to discover that the Church has issued an Interdict, and he
has only fifty-two followers left who are all young boys. When Hank questions
Clarence as to why only boys he says, "Because all the others were born in
an atmosphere of superstition and reared in it. It is in their blood and
bones". The people of Camelot were willing to follow Hank because he was a
great magician, not because he had changed their lives in any fundamental way.
As soon as a greater power revealed itself to them, they changed their loyalty
once again. If Hank had thought to make the citizens of Camelot free thinkers
with analytical abilities, instead of susceptible masses who would be awed at
his great miracles, his plans for a republic may have worked. The novel ends
with the horrible Battle of the Sand Belt where Hank kills thousand knights with
an electrified fence. It seems strange that the Yankee was able to kill so many
of the knights in this way. Why didn't they stop coming at the fence after the
first man was killed? Once again it is because of the paradigm that existed
within the knightly order that Hank could not kill no matter how many knights
lay dead at his feet. The knights believed in magic. Just because the fence
killed another knight did not mean it would kill them too, magic is unpredicable,
like god. It was their duty to siege the fence or to die trying no matter what
the odds might be. It is evident by the end of the text that Hank failed in his
dream of "civilizing" Camelot because he failed to change the accepted
paradigm. He wished to bring technology to the people, but he only succeeded in
bringing them a new magic that was as unpredictable as the rest of their lives.
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