Protag-man endures what all men fear—questing!
“There never was such a country for wandering liars; and they were of both sexes. Hardly a month went by without one of these tramps arriving; and generally loaded with a tale about some princess or other wanting help to get her out of some far-away castle where she was held captivity by a lawless scoundrel, usually a giant. Now you would think that the first thing a king would do after listening to such a novelette from an entire stranger, would be to ask for credentials—yes, and a pointer or two as to locality of castle, best route and so on. But nobody ever thought of so simple and commonsense a thing” (71).
I actually really like this section because this is where Twain takes aim at what one Arthurian scholar called “Quest Maidens”, or, those damsels in distress which entreat knights to go on quests for fame and honor. While King Arthur and company are eager to swallow every detail and find themselves lost on some ill-begotten errand, Protag-man just sits in disregard at their guibility. Enter a maiden who speaks of her twenty-something odd girls who are all held captive by monsters.
“By an effort, I contained my joy when Clarence brought me the news [that I was to go on this quest].”
What works well here is the collusion between modern and medieval sensibilities. Everyone except the protagonist is eager for the quest, and so when the protagonist gets saddled with that quest, that object of desire, he simply sarcastically laments his misfortune; this is something really only possible for a time-traveler and is one of the gems of Twain’s writing.
Here follows a section with the Quest Maiden. Protag-man tries to his best to wrangle out information but that effort doesn’t amount to much. No matter what he asks the maiden has an allusive answer. This makes me think that these maidens are dedicated liars, or this whole knighting affair is an elaborate pyramid scheme. In any case, where it not too long, I would copy a passage from the book where the maiden gives Protag-man a masterfully round-about explanation when asked in what direction the castle of her master lies.
Oh, what the hell, I will post it in full.
“Ah, please you sir, it hath no direction from here; by reason that the road lies not straight, but turneth evermore; whereas the direction of its place abideth not, but is some time under the one sky and anon under another, whereso if ye be minded that it is in the east, and wend thitherward, ye shall observe that the way of the road doth yet again turn upon itself by the space of half a circle, and this marvel happening again and yet again and still again, it will grieve you that you had thought by vanities of the mind to thwart and bring to naught the will of Him that giveth not a castle a direction from a place except which pleaseth Him, and if it please Him not, will the rather that even all castles in all directions thereunto vanish out of the earth, leaving the places wherein they tarried desolate and vacant, so warning His creatures that where He will He will, and Where He will not He—“ (74).
Jesus. Sounds terrible, no? Like, if someone came up with this sort of explanation for the locale of a castle, I would be pissed. No, I wouldn’t be pissed, I would simply dismiss them out of hand. But the protagonist can’t do that, he must find this castle. So you can see why he is none too happy with this predicament. But, honestly, I think this maiden’s words speak for themselves.
“Oh, well, it was reasonably plain, now, why these donkeys didn’t prospect these liars for details. It may have been that this girl had a fact in her somewhere, but I didn’t believe you could have sluiced it out with a hydraulic; nor got it out with the earlier forms of blasting, even; it was a case for dynamite. Why, she was a perfect ass; and yet the king and his knights had listened to her as if she had been a leaf out of the gospel” (75).
Clarence and Protag-man have a playful row, a back and forth about the girl. Clarence says that the girl will be accompanying him as he goes about to the castle. So, yeah, just what you wanted, right? Liar of the century to accompany you as you attempt to sort out the lie. Damn.
“The boy was eager to know all about this tender matter [about my fiancé]. I swore him to secrecy and then whispered her name—‘Puss Flanagan.’ He looked disappointed, and said that he didn’t remember the countess. How natural it was for the little courtier to give her a rank.”
You gotta love the condescension and arrogance on the part of Protag-man. That he thinks little of his young friend because– *gasp*– he was raised in a time where everyone in a court had a significant other of noble stature. It is as though Protag-man thought Clarence would, somehow, be different. Maybe he was expecting his modern day brainwashing to take a stronger effect by now?
In any case, there is then a long section where Protag-man speaks about what a pain in the butt it is to put on armor. It involves putting on a cushion around your body to fit over your chain shirt and armor and whatnot. I wonder if Twain actually tried to put on armor for research purposes when writing this book. It seems like an unusually vivid description so a part of me feels that he either had donned armor or went all out with BSing.
“And so we started, and everybody gave us a goodbye and waved their handkerchiefs or helmets. And everybody we met, going down the hill and through the village was respectful to us, except some shabby little boys on the outskirts” (78).
I wonder at this. I think this is the second time, at least, that Twain has taken a mildly lengthy tangent at how something in the medieval time is like the bellicosity of adolescent boys. It is a weird thing to keep going back to. Not creepy just weird. In any case, I wonder if there is historical records of young medieval boys disrespecting knights; could it be that hooligan teens in the medieval period were depicted in the same way that youthful anti-police people are today? I really want to say yes.