Tuesday, July 4, 2017
Let's Read: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (Ch.1-4)
So, here we are, start of the actual fucking story after several false starts and enough Inception-y hijinks to make Christopher Nolan blush.
“’Camelot—Camelot,’ said I to myself. ‘I don’t seem to remember hearing of it before. Name of the asylum, likely’” (15).
Dear reader: get used to the protagonist attempting to delude himself into thinking this is all still the present day. Because it happens, a lot.
So our narrator arrives in medieval England and things are quite idyllic. The “reposeful summer landscape” is “as lovely as a dream” (ugh), and there is a bunch of beautiful people about who don’t seem to mind the nakedness of children (something which I would be interested in knowing if such is historically accurate) of the extravagance of their own dress. Almost like the narrator has stumbled onto another time!
Protagonist happens upon a troop of knights with magnificent plumed helmets, and they return to the large, anachronistic stone castle which—surprise, surprise—houses King Arthur’s court. Other than the narrator waxing eloquently about the weirdness of his situation, not much happens in this chapter.
Inside the castle!
“The moment I got a chance I slipped aside privately and touched an ancient common looking man on the shoulder and said, in an insinuating, confidential way: ‘Friend, do me a kindness. Do you belong to the asylum, or are just on a visit or something like that?’” (18).
Though I am quite sure by the time Twain was writing, these time travel narratives were far more original than they are today, and though I can also understand someone being disoriented at the idea of time travel and being unable to accept where they are or what happened, I still find the idea that this protagonist believes himself to be in an insane asylum absurd; really, I figure after a while it would be pretty evident that where he is, is in fact real. Honestly, the subtext is making me think that the protagonist himself is actually neurologically unwell and may, in fact, be in an actual such asylum, and that this narrative is the fever dream of someone who is desperately trying to rationalize their situation.
(Do not worry, though, I am not going to continue with that sort of counter-factual criticism, that is better left to the vulgar online theorists who come up with a 1001 inane ‘theories’ about why [so and so] happens without being able to back it up with textual evidence)
“He looked me over stupidly, and said: ‘Marry, fair sir, me seemeth—‘‘That will do’ I said; ‘I reckon you are a patient.’”
My Middle and Old English is not too good, but I do know enough to say that (1) for the time period that this tale is supposedly set in—the early middle ages, specifically the sixth century (!)—they would, if anything, be speaking Old English, not what I feel is this ‘Pig Middle English’ (like Pig Latin). So I guess language can join the stone fortifications.
At any rate, our loveable protagonist continues with his attempt to find someone who is not from their own time; obviously, he fails. But he is directed to a youth described in fantastic terms—“he was pretty enough to frame”—and who is obviously the stereotypical homosexual. Oh, also, our protagonist names, yes, he names the kid, Clarence. Talk about paternalism! But this is fine since from what I remember, Twain wrote this book also as a scathing social critique, so I am pretty sure our protagonist is supposed to be a representation of colonialism.
So, Modern Man finds out that it is the year 528 A.D. on the nineteenth of June.
“I felt a mournful sinking of my heart, and muttered: ‘I shall never see my friends again—never, never again. They will not be born for more than thirteen hundred years yet’” (19).
This part was funny. Yes, I would imagine that being separated by more than a millennium would be difficult in maintaining contact. The human body can only take so much time, you know.
But Protag Man finally accepts that he is back in time, but not before figuring out a last ditch solution to his problems.
“But all of a sudden I stumbled on the very thing, just by luck. I knew that the only total eclipse of the sun in the first half of the sixth century occurred on the 21st of June, A.D. 528, O.S., and begun at 3 minutes after 12 noon. I also knew that no total eclipse of the sun was due in what to me was the present year—i.e., 1879. So, if I could keep my anxiety and curiosity from eating the heart out of me for forty-eight hours, I should find out for certain whether this boy was telling the truth or not. / Wherefore, being a practical Connecticut man, I now shoved this whole problem clear out of my mind till its appointed day and hour should come, in order that I might turn my attention to the circumstances of the present moment, and be alert and ready to make the most out of them that could be made” (20).
I have to take this whole moment as an instance of satire on Twain’s part. The idea that the protagonist would just happen to know the dates of lunar eclipses is ridiculous from the get-go and the fact that it is brought to him by luck, only reinforces the lampooning of dues ex machinia. I think what makes it so amusing is that Twain later connects this to the next paragraph by having his character turn his attention to trying to figure out ways to exploit his current situation—something only brought to him by friggin’ lunar eclipse cycles! Of all the way Yankee men get rich, it is the moon which helps most of all; you can hear the sarcasm in the voice and can tell that Twain is trying to say something about nascent American Dreams.
All of this would make sense since right after this quote comes a moment where the character says that “I would boss the whole country inside of three months; for I judged I would have the start of the best educated man in the kingdom by a matter of thirteen hundred years and upward.” Ah, of course—all’s we need to do in order to get ahead in life is be the best educated gent in the history of history, go back in time, and then predict the future and so forth, then we will show everyone our natural skills! Just like the American dream!
Regardless, Clearance tells our Protag that he was brought in by Sir Kay and would be paraded around for a bit as a trophy with the details of his capture exaggerated. He enters the main hall and marvels at the bigness of everything… some dogs fight… yadda yadda yadda… then the chapter ends with this as Protag muses on his fellow prisoners.
“’The rascals—they have served other people so in their day; it being their turn, now, they were not expecting any better treatment than this; so their philosophical bearing is not an outcome of mental training, intellectual fortitude, reasoning; it is mere animal training; they are white Indians’” (23).
Yup. It’s official—I’m going to hate this protagonist by the end of the book.
Not a whole lot happens here. The protag muses on the violent tendencies of the knights relating them to children and some nasty words are passed about Sir Lancelot; evidently, his attempt at wooing Queen Guinevere by placing a ‘gander in her frock’ (to steal a nonsensical line from an old Family Guy episode) is not looked kindly upon. But the real attraction is Merlin’s boring old tale about the Lady in the Lake and shit, something which is told rather accurately from, I believe, Thomas Malory’s rendition of the myth, but which takes on sinisterly boring connotations here because the court views Merlin as a fraud and a narcissist. It is amusing though that Merlin’s story is so predictable and boring that it, literally, puts the entire hall to sleep. But soon enough the hall is woken by Sir Dinadan the Humorist’s practical joke involving the dogs to which the protag dismisses by calling geologic in nature (i.e., ‘old’). Finally, though, he is paraded as a prisoner, his magic clothes stripped, and thrown in a jail cell with but the rats for company. Yay!
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