King Arthur Court A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is a complicated novel that fundamentally deals with the concept of the human experience. Hank Morgan is a nineteenth century mechanic who is transported back thirteen centuries to medieval Britain, during the time of King Arthur. After his initial shock, he becomes determined to “civilize” Camelot by introducing modern industrial technology. At an initial look Twain seems to be favoring the industrialized capitalist society that he lives in over the feudal society of medieval Britain. But in a closer examination of the work it becomes clear that this observation is much too simple, as the industrial world that Hank Morgan creates is destroyed.
Therefore the book can be viewed as a working out of the idea that a quick change in a civilization brings disaster. Civilization and change need to be developed, or at least explained within the culture itself, in order for them to become lasting institutions. Hank’s failing is that he believes that he is superior to everyone, and that he can change the society of Camelot simply by introducing technology. Hank becomes “the boss” of Camelot, and begins his plans to free the serfs and establish a republic. However his plans are destined to fail because he is incapable of understanding values that are different from his own; he is the ultimate know-it all, and sets out to remake the world in his own image.
He is given “the choicest suite of apartments in the castle, after the king’s”(Twain 31), but he criticizes them because they lack the conveniences of the nineteenth century, such as “a three-color God-Bless-Our-Home over the door”(Twain 32). His lack of acceptance of the local culture is also seen through his Victorian modesty, he sleeps in his armor because “it would have seemed so like undressing before folk”(Twain 60), even though he had clothes on underneath, and he is repelled by the language used in mixed company. Although Hank says he only wants to help the poor people of Britain who in his words “.. were merely modified savages”(Twain 61), create a society like his own where “..all political power is inherent in the people..”(Twain 65) instead he promotes himself to the level of despot. He continually criticizes the structure of feudal society because it was a place where, “a right to say how the country should be governed was restricted to six persons in each thousand of its population”(Twain 65), but he sees himself above reproof. “Here I was, a giant among pigmies, a man among children, a master intelligence among moles..”(Twain 40).
Hank forgets his own humanity and begins to believe that his knowledge makes him more of a man, just as the nobility that he shunned believed they were better than the serfs because of the titles they held. Hank Morgan uses his superior knowledge of technology to gain personal power. It soon becomes clear that even though thirteen hundred years have given Hank a technological advantage, they haven’t made him any smarter. Hank possesses all of this technological knowledge, but fails to understand the implications that this knowledge will have on the people of the Camelot. Instead of educating the general public and teaching them how and why something works instead he sends a select few to his “man factories”.
He uses his knowledge instead to produce fantastic miracles, which although they give him personal power, continue to perpetuate the superstitions of the populace that he is trying to overcome. For example, Hank is asked to fix the well at the Valley of Holiness. He installs a pump that will return the water, but instead of explaining the principle behind the pump, Hank keeps the people in the dark and passes off the project as a great miracle. Afterward he says, “..the populace uncovered and fell reverently to make a wide way for me, as if I had been some kind of superior being-and I was.”(Twain 131) It is evident from this that Hank is obsessed with his power. It seems ironic that the very ignorance that he deplores in the people is the same thing allows him to obtain power.
It is this lack of willingness to share his knowledge that will destroy him in the end. Medieval society is a place where things just happen, and are not explained. “Cause and effect..don’t exist in Camelot. Things happen to people in Camelot without purpose, plan, or coherence; God twists and turns the road whenever and however he pleases.”(George 60) Hank’s world is finally destroyed because he forgot this basic principle of medieval life. He tried to establish the physical aspects of modern industrial life, but he ignored the intellectual ones.
He showed all his subjects how to do things, but not why. He failed to develop the reasoning skills of his subjects; therefore in the absence of his magic they reverted back to the safety of the Established Church. When Hank returns from France he finds the nation in turmoil. He happily finds Clarence, but only to discover that the Church has issued an Interdict, and he has only fifty-two followers left who are all young boys. When Hank questions Clarence as to why only boys he says, “Because all the others were born in an atmosphere of superstition and reared in it.
It is in their blood and bones”. The people of Camelot were willing to follow Hank because he was a great magician, not because he had changed their lives in any fundamental way. As soon as a greater power revealed itself to them, they changed their loyalty once again. If Hank had thought to make the citizens of Camelot free thinkers with analytical abilities, instead of susceptible masses who would be awed at his great miracles, his plans for a republic may have worked. The novel ends with the horrible Battle of the Sand Belt where Hank kills thousand knights with an electrified fence.
It seems strange that the Yankee was able to kill so many of the knights in this way. Why didn’t they stop coming at the fence after the first man was killed? Once again it is because of the paradigm that existed within the knightly order that Hank could not kill no matter how many knights lay dead at his feet. The knights believed in magic. Just because the fence killed another knight did not mean it would kill them too, magic is unpredicable, like god. It was their duty to siege the fence or to die trying no matter what the odds might be.
It is evident by the end of the text that Hank failed in his dream of “civilizing” Camelot because he failed to change the accepted paradigm. He wished to bring technology to the people, but he only succeeded in bringing them a new magic that was as unpredictable as the rest of their lives.