A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain

September 12, 2011 at 14:12 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, Literature) (, , , , )

8/10

Is it important for a book to be interesting and entertaining without being likeable or true? Mark Twain’s irresistible humour and jaunty style is positively infectious, and he certainly knows how to tell an appealing story. It is on this merit, and almost this merit alone, that this book receives its recommendation. His note in the preface about Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution turning him from a mild Girondin into a bloodthirsty Marat seems at least to be catching, and his laid-back style sets the unsuspecting reader up for a surprise when he launches jarringly into one searing indictment after another, essaying without pretense to convert others as he himself was converted. His simplistic comment that Carlyle is a neutral man and that therefore the facts spoke their gospel to him is a very telling hint at his beliefs that he trumpets through Yankee Hank’s mouth; namely that conservatism and monarchy are the wickedest evil to be perpetrated upon humanity.

“You see, I had my handkerchief in my helmet; and some other things; but it was that kind of a helmet you can’t take off by yourself.”

-A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

At first it might seem natural that the bold colours he paints in are plainspeaking and obvious facts, and that his gospel ought to run swiftly and be glorified in all the unenlightened nations of his 1889 world. Looking beyond that, however, he presents to his readers only a rather shabby straw man; a sad patchwork creation dredged from every era and nation of history, from the deep south of the slave states to the court of the Sun King to Ancient Rome to the utterly fictitious world of Thomas Malory (in which all things are supposed to find their consummation – and there’s a pretty irony there, if you care to look!). As an indictment of the human race and condition, Twain’s opus might be a fine thing. As a piece of political pamphleteering, it is rather trite. Quite besides the childish reasoning and the immature philosophies that Twain’s Yankee spouts forth at the slightest provocation, and quite besides the book’s uselessness as a historical novel, it is flawless. It is a fairytale, and a story for nineteenth century proto-socialists to pat themselves on the back with, but it comes down a hundred years rather poorly. An excellent novel, then, if the reader can sniff at the posturing.

As a side note, the magnificent illustrations by D. C. Beard are quite as beautiful and poignant as the text itself, and add significantly to the story, enriching and enhancing wheresoever they are found, and often giving the punch line more convincingly than Twain’s prose. Reading an edition with these original illustrations restored is not optional.

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