Schizophrenic--with A Moral.
Eli Evans of Exodus Books, 10/17/2008
My wife and I just finished reading this book aloud. For me, it was the third time I'd read it. The first time, I was a young teen: I devoured it then, and thought it hilarious (I must have read it too fast and glossed over entire chapters). The second time I was in my early twenties, and that time discovered the serious side to the book. Mark Twain's sharp and exaggerated satire of the middle ages left me disagreeing with many of his criticisms. But I don't think I caught all of the connections he was making to his own world. This third time, having to read it more slowly as a result of reading it to my wife, I think I understood more.
There are, indeed, hilarious elements to the book. Twain's description of wearing armor in his chapter "Slow Torture" keeps you chuckling the entire time, and the very idea of knights "furiously pedaling" bicycles—timed perfectly in the story—made my wife burst out laughing. There are many other comedic episodes in the story. But these episodes are set against a darker backdrop. As T.E.D. Klein said, "at times the narrative seems to follow the veering course of a deeply angry man who writes himself into rages, then lightens the mood with a joke."
In the story, Twain obviously abhors class-distinction and attacks it every chance he gets. He explores slavery, berates the excesses of the nobility and the church, and offers several descriptions of the lot of the common people, often in sobering, even heart-breaking scenes—these vignettes illustrate a variety of human ignorance and cruelty. Yet while he depicts the established church as a malicious entity and the knights of the round table as a gaggle of "big boobies," he also takes the time to show that there were good things even in the nobility.
Two passages especially come to mind: In one instance, the Connecticut Yankee and the King visit a small cottage in disguise. There they find the family mostly dead with smallpox, and the king at one point carries a young girl to lie next to her mother: "He came forward into the light; upon his breast lay a slender girl of fifteen. She was but half conscious; she was dying of smallpox. Here was heroism at its last and loftiest possibility, its utmost summit; this was challenging death in the open field unarmed, with all the odds against the challenger, no reward set upon the contest, and no admiring world in silks and cloth-of-gold to gaze and applaud; and yet the king's bearing was as serenely brave as it had always been in those cheaper contests where knight meets knight in equal fight and clothed in protecting steel. He was great now; sublimely great."
In another, both the Yankee and King have been enslaved, and the slave-driver endeavors to "take the style out of his sacred majesty"—"to undertake to reduce the king's style to a slave's style—and by force—go to! It was a stately contract—at the end of a week there was plenty of evidence that lash and club and fist had done their work well; the king's body was a sight to see—and to weep over; but his spirit? why, it wasn't even phased. This man found that from his first effort down to his latest, he couldn't ever come within reach of the king, but the king was ready to plunge for him, and did it. So he gave up at last and left the king in possession of his style unimpaired. The fact is, the king was a good deal more than a king, he was a man; and when a man is a man, you can't knock it out of him."
The story comes to a climax with the death of Arthur. The church, which has been displaced by the Yankee's scientific knowledge and the technology he has introduced, has been quietly waiting for her chance to reassert herself, and does so. The nobility rises up and it comes down to a final conflict between the Chivalry of England and the "enlightened" Republic led by the Yankee—a cataclysmic battle between the knights of England and a modernly equipped military force with mines, electric wires and Gatling guns.
The entire book seems schizophrenic. Twain blends scenes in which a good belly laugh is required with those that make you want a handkerchief. But I think he succeeds in portraying his moral. Twain, who grew up in the ante-bellum South, realized how easy it is for people under oppression to internalize the world-view of their masters, until they become enthusiastic participants in their own oppression. Connecticut Yankee makes it clear that freedom must be taught, and that physical slavery is not the only form possible. Far more horrible—and more common—is a mind in chains. While we would disagree with many of Twain's ideas about what make up those chains, we believe his basic moral is sound, and it applies to us in the twenty-first century every bit as much as it did to people in the nineteenth.