Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Mark Twain

Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court was a joyous discovery for me. I have long been aware of the story, but didn't have any expectations about it beyond what's obvious from the title. When I started reading it, I discovered that Twain used a simple scenario to explore problems of government and to illustrate freedom's benefits over coercion. Twain's penchant for stories celebrating individual endeavor drives this story.

The Connecticut Yankee is Hank Morgan, a blacksmith and horse doctor, who gets knocked out in a fight and awakens in King Arthur's England. Morgan quickly realizes that with his "modern" knowledge, he can do things the people around him won't understand, and he can use this to gain power that he can use to accelerate progress and bring about an early renaissance. Morgan's concerns are education, sanitation, and preparing the people for democracy. It doesn't take him long to figure out that they aren't ready, but he maintains his confidence that it's only a matter of time and education. He is convinced that once they come to see that the nobles are people, too that they'll be willing and able to govern themselves. In the end, he decides that it isn't the people who are the obstacle, but the hereditary aristocracy who can't learn that they aren't different. I suspect Twain was insinuating that the government of his day was composed of people who thought they were naturally suited to manage other people's lives.

Morgan starts out by gaining King Arthur's trust by recognizing the date of his scheduled execution at the court of King Arthur as the day of a lunar eclipse, and pretending to be a mighty wizard (in competition with Merlin) who can control the Sun. Once he has access to Arthur, he uses his understanding of modern science and manufacturing techniques to develop tools and processes that give him real powers to do things none around him know how to do. He then sets about reforming the country by vanquishing individual knights and setting them to tasks like promoting the use of soap that will completely remake society.

Along the way Morgan has to battle superstition, lack of critical thinking, learned helplessness, and many other obstacles. He builds a corps of youngsters who attend his secret schools and man his secret factories to turn out a long list of products that will improve people's lives.

The story is by modern standards closer to fantasy than science fiction, but Twain clearly intended to make the technology development plausible. There are times when his hero takes shortcuts that modern understanding makes obvious, but were probably less clear in Twain's time. For instance, Morgan's first miracle after calling the eclipse is to blow up Merlin's tower, for which he needs dynamite and wire. Twain assumes that making some wire could be done in a couple of weeks starting from scratch, but it without the infrastructure of a manufacturing economy even something so simple would be a lot more work.

I found this a remarkably enjoyable read, and was surprised that Twain covered so much territory. If you can get past the dated prose and Twain's conceit that a single person could manage such a vast enterprise with help only from people who have no concept of the idea of individual initiative, you'll probably enjoy it, too.

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