This book review is part of my 2018 Resolution to read more books of substance. It was chosen for the category “a classic book I’ve never read.”
In case you’ve been living under a rock like I had been (or assumed the 90s Disney movie A Kid in King Arthur’s Court told the same story…), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is the Mark Twain tale of a time-traveling engineer who brings modern technology and democratic ideals to Arthurian England.
Spoiler Alert – I did not like the book at all (but I did enjoy Nick Offerman’s narration because anything Ron Swanson touches turns to gold).
Anyway, I didn’t like it because Hank Morgan (the “Yankee”) is an insufferable protagonist.
He views the Medieval peasants as backwards, gullible, and in desperate need of his help, and constructs everything “modern” in the country from telegraph lines to dismantling the customs of chivalry and knighthood in order to rescue them from themselves. Modern American technology and ideology is their savior.
I imagine the reader is supposed to view him as the hero.
But Hank’s obvious disdain for every person he encounters – save Sandy, the women who would eventually become his wife, and Clarence, his apprentice/assistant/friend – transformed the story from one where a truly benevolent hero brings much-needed reform to a suffering nation to one where an obnoxious know-it-all (his title in the Court is literally “The Boss”) imposes his belief system on an unsuspecting people who are forced to go along.
He basically conducts historical imperialism.
Hank’s personality isn’t the only reason why I didn’t enjoy the book.
Slavery is a huge “ideological antagonist” in the story, and there are many parallels drawn between the antebellum American South and Arthurian England (that part is fine – we get to bad part later).
Hank and King Arthur have the opportunity to experience enslavement firsthand, which results in King Arthur’s heroic abolition of the institution in England.
But if it was abolished, how did it continue to exist in history? That’s all thanks to the Catholic Church.
Though slavery is a true evil, the primary target of Hank’s wrath is Catholicism, the “established crime.”
He declares that most priests are “frauds and self-seekers,” and in the end, “that awful power, the Roman Catholic Church” is the true enemy to science, progress, and human equality.
The Church is the great defender of the feudal system in Arthurian England, and the priests and their followers dismantle all of Hank’s positive advancements when they wage war against the modernized Camelot…and win.
I understand that there is a rich history of anti-Catholicism in America, and Twain’s writings are reflective of the prevailing religious opinions of his day.
(UVA has a great website that details more fully Twain’s obvious campaign against Catholicism and how it reflected the American spirit of the day.)
But I will never understand why, when a person decides to levy an assault on Catholicism (especially when it’s patently false), we are content to indulge or look away.
Twain is not alone in this, I know, but at this moment for me, he is representative of our ability to just accept that such characteristically American bias against the Catholic Church is okay.
If Hank had traveled back to ancient Mecca and criticized the Muslim faith or even waited a few centuries and just torpedoed 17th century Protestantism instead, readers would be far less accepting of his intolerance.
Truly, hatred and distrust of Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice.
And tangentially, the Catholic Church didn’t defend slavery in the antebellum South, that was the Protestants, so the analogy does break down eventually.
All of this to say, I didn’t like the book and Twain also has stupid opinions about Jane Austen anyway, so I don’t feel bad about it. The end.