Launching into a new miniseries of podcast scripts from Why I Really Like This Book, the next few weeks will see a long and enjoyable wallow in stories about King Arthur. This will include early British history, fantasies about Merlin, and the utterly compelling theory that when the Romans pulled out of Britain, somehow the Saxon warlord culture that emerged also brought forth the stories about Arthur that were medievalised into the knights of the Round Table. I don’t begin with Sir Thomas Malory, because, entrancing as the Morte Darthur is, it’s rather hard to read, since it isn’t a novel at all, but a collection of repetitious events stuck together. I’m going to start with the American writer Mark Twain’s satire on knight errantry, A Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, first published in 1889, and now more commonly known as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. (Warning: here be spoilers.)
Mark Twain was irreverent. This work of Arthurness may have come as a shock to the pious late Victorians who were used to swooning over Tennyson’s Arthurian poems from The Idylls of the King, only a few years earlier. Tennyson wrote as though he were a Pre-Raphaelite without a sense of humour. The whole point of the Yankee is that the story juxtaposes the ignorant 6th century against the knowitall, up to the minute, technologically superior 19th century, and the 19th century wins, right until the last chapter. Twain makes no explanation as to how his 19th-century man, one Hank Morgan, travels back in time and place from Hartford,, Connecticut, to 6th-century England; he just wakes up one morning and there he is. He is also dealt with as any 6th-century stranger would be: he is challenged by a knight, refuses to fight, and is taken prisoner as that knight’s personal property, and condemned to die at the stake. Luckily (and this is the most ridiculous coincidence in the novel) Hank just happens to know that in a day’s time there will be an eclipse of the sun, so on the strength of that, he sends out word that he is a wizard, and will cause mighty terrible things to happen unless he is released. He is not, the eclipse happens, the populace are very much impressed and terrified, and Hank Morgan becomes King Arthur’s prime minister.
He can see a lot of scope for his brain and superior knowledge, and the nice thing is, none of it is for his own aggrandisement. The Boss, for that is now his name, is not at all interested in getting rich, or commanding power where he doesn’t need it. He is a reformer, and is determined to reform 6th-century society with judicious applications of 19th-century technology. The first things to make their absence known are the basic necessities of life; no soap, no matches, no mirrors. There were no books, paper, pens or ink, and no glass for windows. There was no sugar, coffee, tea or tobacco: and now I think we get the picture. Twain’s hero is not at all interested in enjoying life in the 6th century; he just wants to return to his own time as fast as he can, or, if that isn’t possible, to make where he is like his own time. It helps that the entire nation thinks that he is a magician, and that Merlin (who in this novel is a doddering and malign old man with no power whatsoever) is not going to get in his way. At least, he won’t get in the Boss’s way once the Boss has blown up Merlin’s tower with homemade dynamite. Now that the Boss really is the boss, King Arthur’s sole advisor, the Boss can get on with a more noble long-term plan, of relieving the oppression of the poor, and removing the tyranny of the knightly class. The rest of the novel is part adventure, part philosophical nature ramble, on how an ignorant and illiterate populace can be persuaded to help turn themselves into a republic. Spot the American influence.
Not that Twain has anything against King Arthur. Arthur remains a noble and honourable figure throughout (I think it would be hard to change his character in any circumstances), but he is a bit dim. Twain does an excellent job of thinking through how 6th-century man might think, speak, and reason, and he sticks to it. There is very little anachronism here, in the way of 6th-century people thinking like 19th-century people, that can’t be explained by sustained exposure to the Boss’s own speech and thought processes. His chief assistant, Clarence, learns fast how to keep up with the Boss and his schemes and planning, but he still speaks in the way he was brought up: he’s just a fast learner with the flexibility of youth. King Arthur, on the other hand, is a great and noble savage, with excellent instincts for truth and justice, but that’s about it. The Boss takes Arthur on a tour of his kingdom in disguise, so that the king may see the common people close up, but Arthur’s inability to act common nearly gets them caught several times, and in the end they are sold as slaves. The Boss, in his turn, has to act like a 6th-century knight, especially when a fair maiden arrives at court with a tale of woe and captured ladies. He is provided with a horse and weapons and armour (complicated to put on and manage), and off he goes on a quest, with the lady sitting behind him chattering unstoppably. Problems begin when the sun gets stronger and the shade gets weaker, and he gets hotter, and has an itch on the back, and a fly inside his helmet. These unbearable conditions force him to dismount, and get Sandy (the lady’s name is Alisande, so naturally he calls her Sandy) to take his helmet off and pour water inside his armour until he is comfortable again. Only now, he can’t get back on the horse, so he walks and Sandy rides. By such means are the impracticalities of knight errantry skewered lengthily and lovingly by Twain.
They run into Morgan Le Fay, a terrifying witch, married to King Uriens, who is a doddering old man with no courage (very much like the Red Queen and Red King from Alice in Wonderland, which had been published a few years earlier). In Morgan’s castle the tone of this novel begins to turn sharp, since real human misery and cruelty are here, in her dungeons. The Boss sets people free, and does what he can to alleviate suffering, but he can’t wipe away years of torture and confinement. This is what I admire about this novel. It is not fantasy wish-fulfilment, in which all ills are easily wiped away by a stroke. Actions have consequences, which can’t be got rid of. People get killed and die of other means: the casual brutality of the 6th century is accepted by the Boss, possibly because in the 1880s there was a lot of casual 19th-century brutality as well. The Boss blows people up, kills people, arranges for things to happen that will inadvertently kill people: it’s all rather shocking but also very real. This is what people are like. He deals with the knightly class once and for all by first defeating his most hated enemy in a joust with a lasso, and then with a revolver. Many knights die, and no-one thinks anything of this, because (we are reminded) jousting was not about the spectacle and the romance, it was about maiming and disabling your opponent with heavy, fast and sharp weapons and then cutting his head off. If death has to happen the Boss’s method is cleaner and faster and more humane. In a passage near the end, when the Boss is describing the advance of newspaper journalism in Arthur’s kingdom, he mentions as an aside that the first novelist to have his book published made a bad joke once too often, and so the Boss suppressed the book and hung the author. That sort of thing comes as a shock when we also read about the Boss’s enlightened practices and useful inventions for the betterment of mankind. He really is not like us at all. He’s like we might have been over 120 years ago.
What does this novel have to say about Arthur, and the Round Table? Arthur is untouchable: a bit gullible, but a hero and a great man. Guenevere is a bored and foolish queen in love with Sir Launcelot, which Arthur knows about, but is more sad that the queen doesn’t seem to love him. Sir Launcelot is the greatest of the knights, and a sportsman as well, we can’t say anything bad about him. This eternal love triangle brings the kingdom to ruin in the end, as it must, because you can’t change the end of this story, even if the middle has been seriously messed around with. And after the death of Arthur, in comes the Church, about whom the Boss has been railing all along, since he is afraid of the Church, and rightly so. He had plans for getting rid of the Catholics and encouraging an early growth of Protestantism, but something else demanded his attention, and so the Reformation had to wait for another thousand years. Most sad of all (spoiler alert), now that the Boss has married Sandy and they have a baby girl, he inadvertently gets killed by a malign knight and is flung forward to his own time, where the reader first met him. Luckily he dies not very long afterwards, because to be missing your wife and child who have been abandoned 1300 years ago is torture we don’t want to hear much about.
But don’t be sad: there is so much humour in this novel. Satire means laughter, and the witty asides and terrific snappy dialogue in the inner thoughts of the Boss make this a novel to treasure.