Summary and Analysis
As they ride along, the narrator of "A Word of Explanation" notices the quiet of the countryside and the lack of people and wagons. When they meet a young girl, he is surprised that she is calm; seemingly, the man in armor causes no alarm within her; nor does she seem unusually interested in him. But when she sees the narrator, her hands fly up. She is startled and astonished by his appearance. He cannot imagine why he would cause such fright and curiosity.
The two men ride on, then, and the town they come to, finally, is a wretched place. The streets are narrow and crooked, the dogs and hogs roam at will, and there is a pervasive stench about the place.
The townsmen have unkempt hair, most of the people wear knee-length robes of coarse tow-linen, and many of them wear iron collars; the children are mostly naked. And again, it is the narrator who draws the astonished stares, not the man in armor.
Suddenly, they hear military music, and soon a noble company in rich clothing rides through the town, paying no attention to the people or the animals. The narrator and his captor follow this procession to a huge castle and into the great paved court.
The narrator — we later learn that his name is Hank Morgan — tries to find out what kind of "asylum" he has come to, and he concludes that the first person whom he talks to is one of the "patients." The second person whom he meets refuses to talk, but he points to "an airy slim boy in shrimp-colored tights." This lad comes up to him and tells him that he is wanted. As they walk, the boy tells Hank that the year is 528, that all the people whom they see are not "patients"; they are in their right minds, and this is King Arthur's court into which he has been brought. The boy also tells him that the day is June 19. From his memory, Hank dredges up the fact that at noon of June 21, 528, there is supposed to be a complete eclipse of the sun. He determines to use this as a test of whether or not he is somehow in the year 528 or in his own year of 1879.
That settled, he decides to make the best of his situation and to find out what he can about it; he also decides that if this really is the sixth century, he is going to take charge and make some changes.
Accordingly, he names the boy Clarence. Hank then asks the name of his captor. He is told that the knight is "Sir Kay the Seneschal, foster brother to our liege the king." Clarence also tells Hank that he will be thrown into a dungeon until his friends ransom him, or until he rots, whichever comes first. Before that, however, Hank hears that Sir Kay will show him off to the court and tell the tale of his capture, exaggerating the details.
As they wait for Sir Kay's turn to speak, Hank looks about the place. It is immense and built of ancient stones. There is little ornamentation, except for a few tapestries showing scenes of battle and of men in armor. In the middle of the hall is the Round Table, as large as a circus ring. Around this huge oaken table are "men dressed in such various and splendid colors." They are eating and drinking prodigiously, and one of their diversions is to throw a bone to the dogs surrounding the table and then watch them fight
for it. Hank judges that the "speech and behavior of these people [is] gracious and courtly" most of the time, but that "they [are] a childlike and innocent lot," for they believe every lie that someone tells.
He also discovers that he is not the only prisoner waiting to be exhibited and that the others are in much worse shape than he is; most have been severely hacked up and are in great pain, although not a sound of distress is heard from them. He reasons that they must have treated others in like manner; thus, their punishment is something they could expect and prepare for; it is, in other words, a matter of training rather than of philosophy.
Chapter 1 begins the narrative proper of the novel. For centuries, Camelot has been the idyllic dream of romantic perfection (even in the twentieth century, one of the most popular Broadway musicals is entitled Camelot), thus the fact that Hank Morgan has never heard of Camelot shows him to be grounded in reality and practicality; nothing of the sentimental or romantic will affect him.
Yet part of the dual vision of the novel occurs immediately. Hank's opening description of the landscape suggests that he is affected by the quiet and lovely beauty of the area; thus, the hard-nosed, practical Yankee is placed in an innocent, idyllic land: "It was a soft, reposeful summer landscape, as lovely as a dream, and the air was full of the smell of flowers and the buzzing of insects, and the twittering of
birds . . ." This kind of countryside could belong anywhere in Twain's novels that deal with an innocent person entering into another land; it is very much like Huck Finn's Jackson Island and many other places in Twain's fiction. But Morgan's practicality brings him quickly out of this romantic idyll.
The double view of Camelot and its inhabitants is presented in Chapter 2, and it continues in one form or another throughout the novel. Hank Morgan sees the knights and the royalty as being childish but charming: "As a rule the speech and behavior of these people were gracious and courtly . . . and . . . they were a childlike and innocent lot; telling lies of the stateliest pattern with the most gentle and winning naiveté . . . " Thus, throughout the novel, Hank is charmed by the very people that he is desperately trying to change. Ultimately, Hank Morgan will try to destroy the innocent habits of Camelot, but, ironically, he will, in turn, be destroyed by his own plans. The manner in which these gentle people tell lies in stately patterns is later correlated with the manner in which modern diplomats also tell stately lies in gentle patterns. Thus, the centuries have not changed people in high diplomatic positions very much.