Summary and Analysis
A Word of Explanation
"A Word of Explanation," together with a "Final P. S. by M. T." at the end of the novel, establishes a "frame" for the story of Hank Morgan's adventures in Arthurian England. The narrator in this introductory chapter tells us how he came to hear parts of this story and that he read the rest of the story in a manuscript.
It happened that he was taking a tour through Warwick Castle when he met another man, who began walking with him and began telling him tales about such people as Sir Launcelot of the Lake, Sir Galahad, and other knights of the Round Table. In the course of the tour and the conversation, this man introduces to the narrator the idea of the transpositions of epochs and of bodies. He also mentions that it was he who put a bullet hole in the armor of Sir Sagramor le Desirous. This strange man disappears, however, before the narrator can ask him further questions about any of these subjects.
That evening, the narrator reads a tale from Sir Thomas Malory's famous book, Le Morte D'arthur; the tale he reads concerns how Sir Launcelot rescues Sir Kay and conquers three other knights in the process. As he finishes the tale, a knock is heard at the door: It is the stranger. After drinking four Scotch whiskeys, this man, whom the narrator met earlier in the day, tells his story.
He is, he says, an American from Hartford, Connecticut, and he is "a Yankee of Yankees." He learned blacksmithing from his father, horse doctoring from his uncle, and all manner of mechanical arts from a job which he had in a factory. Because of his skill in making and inventing things mechanical, he soon became head superintendent of the factory and supervised several thousand men. One day, however, an unfortunate accident occurred; while he was in a fight with one of his fellow employees, he was knocked unconscious with a crowbar.
When he came to, he was sitting in the grass under an oak tree, and then a man in "old-time iron armor from head to heel, with a helmet on his head the shape of a nail keg with slits in it" rode up and challenged him. Not understanding what was going on, the man from Connecticut, the stranger, told the man in armor to get "back to your circus." The knight backed off and lowered his lance, and the stranger climbed the tree. After some argument, the stranger agreed to go with the knight, even though he believed that the man was probably an escapee from a lunatic asylum.
At this point, the stranger seems to be drifting off to sleep, but before he does so, he gives the narrator a manuscript of his adventures, tales which he has written down from journals which he kept. As he leaves the stranger, who is falling asleep, the narrator begins to examine the manuscript; it is written on old, yellowed parchment over "traces of a penmanship which was older and dimmer still — Latin words and sentences: fragments from old monkish legends, evidently." Filled with curiosity, he begins to read.
Twain uses the age-old literary device of a "frame" to enclose his story; the use of this device adds a certain degree of credibility to a story which will ultimately be seen as a type of utopia in reverse. Here, there will be a constant double vision of Camelot throughout the narrative. Hank Morgan will try to change everything which he sees, and he will try to bring this medieval civilization up to the "standards" of the nineteenth century, and yet, at the same time, the medieval civilization is presented in idyllic images of innocent people playing charming games, surrounded by an elegant landscape which is colored by pageantry of all types.
In the opening frame, the narrator is touring the ancient Warwick Castle, and when the guide mentions a mysterious hole in one piece of ancient armor and suggests that it must have been done maliciously at a much later date in history, a mysterious stranger announces that he was there when the hole was made. In the opening scene of this novel, then, we have information about the final disposition of Sir Sagramor le Desirous, information which will not fully appear until Chapter 39. But our imagination is caught and our interest in this mystery is sparked. We will not know anything further until many more chapters later, but obviously Twain had his basic plot worked out at the beginning of the frame. Later, the mysterious stranger comes to the narrator's room in the Warwick Arms Hotel with the manuscript; it is aged, written on yellow paper and supposedly it was written thirteen hundred years ago; in addition to the manuscript's seeming to be very old, note that the handwriting looks strained. These facts all add to the suspense, and they also give further "credence" to the story inside the frame.
Whereas many of Twain's other great novels deal with the Mississippi River or the Mississippi River Valley or some other subject matter which he knew well, in this particular novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Twain sets his narrative far back in time so as to compare and contrast certain aspects of a long-dead civilization with a modern, industrial one. Hank Morgan, the central character whom Twain chooses for his hero, is perfectly suited for this "transposition of epochs" for several reasons. First, like so many of Twain's narrators, Morgan is one of Twain's innocent people — that is, like Huck Finn, Morgan reports pretty much what he sees. But more important, before his transposition, Morgan has been trained in all sorts of practical matters. The combination of his being associated with both a blacksmith and a horse doctor will serve him well in sixth-century England. More important, his knowledge of "guns, revolvers, cannons, boilers, engines [and] all sorts of labor-saving machinery" will be of the utmost use to him. Furthermore, he can seemingly invent anything; therefore, he is both an inventor and inventive.
The blow on the head that Hank Morgan received in the fight then leaves everything in doubt as to whether or not he was actually back in the sixth century, or whether or not he has dreamed all of these fanciful thoughts. Certainly in the Post Script section, Hank (or The Boss, as he will be called) longs to return not to the nineteenth century but to the sixth century. Thus, in the final analysis, whatever criticism that The Boss makes of Camelot and its civilization, we must remember that at the end of the novel, when Morgan is sick and his mind is rambling, he would prefer Camelot and that century to the one in which he is now living.
Twain's own comments about his Connecticut Yankee help us better understand his intention in writing this novel; he wrote to the illustrator: "This Yankee of mine . . . is a perfect ignoramus; he is boss of a machine shop, he can build a locomotive or a Colt's revolver, he can put up and run a telegraph line, but he's an ignoramus nevertheless." By this, Twain meant that the Yankee was not a person of intellect, but that he was a person of Yankee ingenuity. An intellectual in sixth-century England would not have survived; indeed, it would take an inventive and ingenious person to survive such an incredible, unbelievable time transposition.