(Welcome to my first “Let’s Read” series. In these posts, we will be going through a book chapter by chapter and deconstruct its odd bits, idiosyncrasies, and narrative. This series will be salty in character and is a chance for me to disregard normal academic parlence in favor of a relaxed, informal tone. So, please enjoy this first entry and look forward to the next.)
This series will focus on Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
A classic of late nineteenth century Arthurian literature, Twain’s text concerns the transposition of, you guessed it, a (Connecticut) Yankee into King Arthur’s time; or, more accurately, that which, at the time of writing, was passed for King Arthur’s time in the popular unconscious—you know, elaborate stone castles and fancy chivalric knights, the sort of thing which wouldn’t come into vogue until centuries after the historical Arthur’s death. But, at any rate, the text concerns how this young man gets along in the past with nothing but his Yankee ingenuity to hold him together.
In terms of text data, I am using a free version of the story that I got online; specifically, from the Amazon Kindle store. If there are any divergences between this version and a more reliable printed incarnation, then I cannot take those into account at this time (though will at a later date, either via an essay or a short post connected to this Let’s Read). Finally, while reading through this version, I am going along with the audiobook which was available for purchase alongside the free Kindle version. Although this doesn’t change the nature of the text any, I just thought I would let you know regardless, as I plan on reviewing the audio book once the Let’s Read has been completed.
Onto the text!
Twain starts his story with a short preface that, to any other author, would be a chance to set the record straight on what is real in his tale and what is false. To his credit, he does this… sort of.
“It is not pretended that these laws and customs existed in England in the sixth century; no, it is only pretended that inasmuch as they existed in the English and other civilizations of far later times, it is safe to consider that it is no libel upon the sixth century to suppose them to have been in practice that day also. One is quite justified in inferring that whatever one of these laws or customs was lacking in that remote time, its place was filled by a worse one” (6).
Ha! Twain has some humor. I first read this part thinking, ‘why is the audio book going over minutia no one cares about?’ But then, once it got to this part, I said to myself that I was glad it went over this part since I would have likely skimmed, if not skipped completely, over these introductory details. This also being my first Twain book, ever, I was at a loss to what to and expect in Twain’s voice. I am pleased to say that my first impression of him has been favorable.
Twain then comments a bit on how the issue of a king’s divine right is not settled in the book but should, he figures, be settled; hence, he says that “I am not going to have anything particular to do next winter anyway” upon presuming the settlement of this question. Which is great fun. No, I supposed that he would not have anything to do next winter—minus well write a treatise on king’s alleged divinity!
A Word of Explanation
I assume that this is the first actual chapter in the book. My audiobook seems to be uninterested in announcing the chapter transitions, along with being, in general, rather wrapped in how the chapters are listed, and so I am left to grope with my intuition.
“It was in Warwick Castle that I came across the curious stranger whom I am going to talk about. He attracted me by three things: his candid simplicity, his marvelous familiarity with ancient armor, and the restfulness of his company—for he did all the talking!”
When I was still getting used to the audiobook, I had to take a moment to adjust to the fact that this book was going to be told in the first person. For some reason it disoriented me. I think because before coming into this story, I had already known the basic idea, as well as the ending, of the story from various lectures and educational bits concerning the Arthurian legend; however, I had not known anything concrete about the construction of the story, so the fact that I didn’t know where exactly chapters were constituted and who the protagonist was, threw me for a loop.
I recovered, though (no need to cry tears). Turns out, that the first person narrator is not the protagonist. Rather, the protagonist is the person encountered by the narrator in these opening pages, this odd man who seems at home in the early medieval period—in other words, the person the narrator is describing is the individual in question who was transported to King Arthur’s time.
Okay, now that I have gotten that out of the way, back to the text.
The narrator speaks of how this man is so familiar with the medieval. He invites him over to his home so that they may talk. Before he comes, though, the narrator reads a sizable segment from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur. The excerpt in question is, unfortunately, reproduced in its entirety; though I am one who enjoys a degree of narratological embedding, the excerpt in question was a bit much for me. There comes a point where something is a novelty and where something stretches over into a joke.
“As I laid the book down there was a knock at the door, and my stranger came in. I gave him a pipe and a chair and made him welcome. I also comforted him with a hot scotch whiskey; gave him another one; then still another—hoping always for his story. After a fourth persuader, he drifted into it himself, in a quite simple and natural way” (11).
I haven’t quoted too heavily from the book so far but I just want to comment at how… folksy, the writing is as it really pulls you into the turn of the century; that period where the Victorian era was fading into the recent past, and the wonders of the modern era were in full swing. Though it sounds a bit absurd, part of this I feel is reflected in Twain’s usage of semicolons when he is describing his free supply of liquor to his guest. In short, it feels like a style that one would not see in any prior period (except, perhaps, in a select few Avant Garde works). It is one of those small things which add to Twain’s authorial voice—oddly enough—while signaling the start of a new literary era.
The Stranger’s History
So our narrator’s mysterious guest begins his tale in full. At this point, the first person narration shifts; this is what gave me a bit of trouble as now the first person is not the previous narrator, but the guest. So the positions have altered. I have a funny feeling that this is something that will be a recurring thing in this story, being unable to clearly delineate where one voice ends and another begins.
“I am an American. I was born and raised in Hatford… My father was a blacksmith, my uncle was a horse doctor, and I was both, along at first. Then I went to the great arms factory and learned my real trade; learned all there was to it; learned how to make everything: guns, revolvers, cannon, boilers, all sorts of labor saving machinery” (12).
So we have an archetypical American arms worker who might as well be a steel mill worker due to his quintessential Americana-ness. There was some stuff I left out, such as trite remarks involving a river, but that wasn’t important. Point is, this worker, our protagonist, soon climbed his way up to the top. But one day, he got into an altercation with an underling and was knocked out via crowbar. When he awoke? That’s right—back in the olden times!
Protag-Guy quickly encounters an elaborately dressed knight. The knight, I think, tries and help the stranger but the stranger believes him to be either an escaped inmate from either a prison or a lunatic asylum and doesn’t give him the light of day, though does manage to insult him whereupon he is taken prisoner to Camelot. So, not the best first few minutes in a new time.
Then we shift back to the present.
“I find that I can’t go on; but come with me, I’ve got it all written out, and you can read it if you like” (13).
Ah, it is going to be one of those stories—what we really came to hear about disguised as a framing narrative. Cool.
“In his chamber, he said: ‘First, I kept a journal; then by and by, after years, I took the journal and turned it into a book. How long ago that was!’” (14).
I find it interesting that the story we are waiting to hear is actually already completed and is simply not being told because of the framing narrative. Usually, in these time-bending stories, what happens is that it is more or less linear. The first person narrator would be describing things as they happened, not through a mouthpiece. Not that I am berating the book, mind you.
But, as I was saying, what I find intriguing about it is that whatever happens to the protagonist, what happened to him after his fantastical experience has already been said—he resumed his life, pines at the historical sediment which he helped form, and has written out his experiences to anyone who will listen. So it is a sequel to the end of the story at the beginning of the story. Again, cool.
“I sat down to examine my treasure. The first part of it—the great bulk of it—was parchment, and yellow with age. I scanned a leaf particularly and saw that it was a palimpsest. Under the old dim writing of the Yankee, the historian appeared traces of a penmanship which was older and dimmer still—Latin words and sentences: fragments from old monkish legends, evidently. I turned to the place indicated by the stranger and began to read—as follows.”
Hopefully, the narrator remains the same, now. This I can get—the story of the protagonist being read from point A to B without interruptions. I can wrap my head around that; of course, I can wrap my head around others things as well, I just don’t care in the mild mental gymnastics.