The magical and romantic legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table Is one of the great stories of the world. The most famous version - Le Morte d'Arthur by the 15th century writer Sir Thomas Malory, which told of Arthur, Excalibur, Merlin, Sir Launcelot, Guinevere, Sir Gawain, the search for the Holy Grail and the final battle between the King and Mordred - is full of excitement, heroism and mystery.
Like most of his generation, Mark Twain, the great 19th century comic American writer, knew and loved the book. He wrote mainly about his own time - and his greatest successes such as Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer drew on the Mississippi countryside where he grew up. But he also had a wicked sense of humour, and he wanted to show that Malory's picture of brave knights and rescued damsels was not as shiny or honourable we may like to think.
From the moment the idea came to him, to whisk a modern man (modern=1880s for Twain) back in time to the heyday of Camelot, he couldn't resist elaborating on the realities of life In Arthurian times. His Connecticut hero. Hank Morgan, found not a land of grace and ideals but one which was smelly, dangerous, uncomfortable and backward.
Hank finds that life is regarded as cheap, that torture and execution are commonplace, that superstition is everywhere and even Merlin is a con-man. Few wash, the music is terrible, living in armour is horrendous and deception is everywhere.
So Hank decides that he will make the best of his situation and introduce 6th century England to some of the improvements of his contemporary (19th century) existence - advertising, soap, newspapers, stocks and shares, and the railroad. And, with his superior knowledge, he will become The Boss.
How do the people of an older time take to it? In much the same way Twain suggests, as we would if someone from the distant future came down and tried to make us live their way: The older people generally do not like giving up their traditional ways, even though there were very clear advantages and only the youth can adapt.
Yet despite this, Hank cannot but admire some qualities of those knights and their damsels - not least the ability to stand up and fight in steel armour that would crush the contemporary man.
The novel began mainly as a delightful fantasy, but as Twain wrote, the darker side of his own character and view of the human race emerged. He believed in science, economics and practicalities; and government based on the equalities of opportunity that characterised America of Twain's day He couldn't accept a people who would choose monarchy. A Connecticut Yankee shows what can happen when these two very different societies come together.
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