Mark Twain’s narrator in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Hank Morgan, can be downright disagreeable. He even has Sir Dinadan the Humorist hanged for his humor being ‘rather worn.’ On the other hand, Morgan displays profound pity, and shows a complexity in the medieval world that can be quite surprising, given Twain’s often strongly caricatured portrayal of that time period. Ultimately, Twain’s narrative serves as a personal yet deeply enriching glimpse into the psychology of not only the medieval world, but of the human condition.
When Morgan is not busy hanging humorists, he is acting in the role of technological and social savior to a populace of intellectual toddlers. The peasants he comes in contact with are utterly miserable and subjected to deplorable treatment by their masters. The slaves and freemen in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court were treated like dirt, and no matter how diluted with religious concerns he believes the peasant’s minds are, Hank won’t stand for that.
Slavery and Erotic Love
Morgan is severely depressed at how the crown and the Church thrust their hefty supremacy upon the commoners, those poor farmers and artisans who practically carry the weight of the whole nation on their shoulders. When he first arrives in the 6th century, slavery is the primary element to financial stability of the realm, but over time, Morgan works to turn that around.
“The Boss,” as he is called, encounters one of the bitter atrocities of the barbaric trade early in the story when he passes a group of slaves on the road. They suffer from exhaustion while being driven on by their slavemaster. The sequence which then ensues is an intense one:
“For it was the track of tears. One of these young mothers was but a girl, and it hurt me to the heart to read that writing, and reflect that it was come up out of the breast of such a child, a breast that ought not to know trouble yet…She dropped on her knees and put up her hands and began to beg and cry and implore, in a passion of terror, but the master gave no attention. He snatched the child from her, and then made the men slaves…throw her on the ground and hold her there and expose her body; and then he laid on with his lash like a madman…One of the men who was holding her turned away his face, and for this humanity he was reviled and flogged.” (pg. 136)
As it turns out, the man was, in fact, the girl’s devoted husband, and together they were making their way through this hellacious ordeal. The torment does not end with the couple and their child being brutally mistreated;its climax comes in their being parted from one another as the girl and infant are sold and her husband left in the caravan of chained bodies.
The scene showcases one of the ugliest consequences of the calamity of slavery: the breakup of the family. After witnessing this heartwrenching affair, Hank Morgan vows, “If I lived and prospered I would be the death of slavery, that I was resolved upon” (pg. 137). It should be noted that Twain, or Samuel L. Clemens, was an observer of slavery in the South and a participant (in numerous capacities) in the American Civil War, which he actually mentions in his novel in passing. He was well acquainted with the slave trade of the 19th century and, when depicting slavery in ancient England, he displays it, with heartbreaking accuracy, as an attack on the union of the family.
Tragedy and Tenderness
Tragedy is utilized by Twain throughout A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to show how precious family is. In the book, tragedy befalls so many lovers, mothers, and parents; yet, it is in these moments that the tenderness and sweetness of family life are made quite evident.
One of the most impressive of these scenes (appearing chronologically earlier in the novel) is when Morgan is clearing out the mistreated misfits locked away in Morgan Le Fay’s dungeon. Some of the cells “had no light at all,” recounts Morgan, in the role of narrator. “In one of them was a woman, in foul rags, who sat on the ground, and would not answer a question, or speak a word, but only looked up at us once or twice, through a cobweb of tangled hair” (pg. 113).
The tragic description continues on, adding several new faces to the unknown unfortunates, and Morgan observes that the cases against many are invalid. Once again, the power of higher authorities has been terribly abused. In regards to one of these pitiful cases, Twain eloquently and expertly crafts the deep fondness a man ought to have for his spouse. In a very poetic sense, it illustrates the natural beauty of eros itself:
“I could not rouse the man; so I said we would take him to her, and see – to the bride who was the fairest thing in the earth to him, once – roses, pearls, and dew made flesh, for him; a wonderwork, the masterwork of nature; with eyes like no other eyes, and voice like no other voice, and a freshness and lithe young grace, and beauty that belonged properly to the creatures of dreams – as he thought – and to no other” (115).
A Family Man
Moving further into A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the reader finds Hank Morgan (when he isn’t founding colleges, printing his newspaper, or designing new mechanisms of communication or destruction) to be a family man at heart. In the latter chapters, it is revealed that Sandy, the young woman whom he had ventured with on his quest for saving “maidens” disguised as swine, has become Hank’s wife. The two are happily married and devoted each to the other.
What is more, they are the proud parents of a little girl, Hello-Central. (You can read the book to learn how she ends up with that name.) Hank Morgan admires his spouse, complements her on her virtues and strengths, and sums up their union as “the dearest and perfectest comradeship that ever was” (pg. 284). When away, he consoles himself by writing to her, embodying a fine example of the of a righteous married man, with his wife always in his thoughts and heart. Mark Twain goes so far as to dub the union of man and woman as one which is “divine,” And his story portrays that reality.
Sprinkled throughout A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court are numerous instances that illustrate the natural order of love, family, motherhood, and marriage. The above are a few of the examples, but there are certainly more in the book. In this book, Mark Twain shows off his knack for comprehending and explaining those deepest truths concerning what it means to be human.
The excerpts and page references employed in this essay were taken from the Signet Classic A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, published by the Penguin Group and featuring an afterword by Edmund Reiss. Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 88-63179.
John Tuttle is a young Catholic man with a passion for truth and beauty. He has served as the prose editor for Loomings, the literary magazine of Benedictine College. His writing has been featured by Grotto Network, The Millions, Tea with Tolkien, Culture Wars Magazine, Templeseeker, Movie Babble, and elsewhere. He is also the founder of the web publication Of Intellect and Interest.