Mark Twain and the Knights of the Round Table

(Post by Winston Bribach)

In American literary (as well as non-literary) circles, there is perhaps no individual author possessing the clout and reverence associated with Mark Twain. His classic stories, The Adventures of Tom Sawyers and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, are indelibly marked at the top of the American canon. This man, who high schoolers and middle schoolers will inevitably study at some point in their academic life, also found nothing but hatred in the chivalry-laden romances written by Sir Walter Scott. What could be so spiteful about knights running around rescuing their ladies fair? Just add context and the answer becomes quite clear.knight
It so happens that the gentrified Southern plantation owners absolutely loved Mr. Scott’s work. In fact, they went so far as to recreate the feudalistic society described in Ivanhoe and Heart of Midlothian. A certain few zealous planters were even known to host jousting competitions on occasion. This was just the lighter side of the game. If you compare the social stratification of Southern society to the stratification existing in 14th and 15th century Europe, the similarities are almost startling. There’s the elite class who held a massive majority of the wealth, then there’s the smaller plantation owners, small farmers, and then the slaves. The distinctions were very clear. Not anyone could simply break into the upper echelon of society. Your family, not your ambitions decided where you stood. Herein lies Mark Twain’s beef with Sir Walter Scott. He was indirectly responsible for shaping Southern society.

When Mark Twain had a problem with something, you can bet your buttons he wrote about it. The resultant novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which was partially inspired by a colorful dream, is full of satire. Just about everything regarding life in Camelot is ridiculed or shamed by Hank Morgan, a logical and entrepreneurial Yank who was somehow transported back in time from the late 19th century. Over the course of the story, Hank whips Camelot into shape and provides them with all sorts of new technologies. This proves highly comical when Sir Lancelot leads a band of knights in on their bicycles to rescue Hank and King Arthur.

Thanks to these new innovations, everyone lives happily ever after, right? Absolutely not. The extremely superstitious 6th century folks come to find hatred for the man who has instituted himself as “The Boss.” Eventually, after Hank is called away for a time due to family concerns, the society reverts back to its old self. Hank’s inventions are outlawed and he is considered a heretic by the church. This results in widespread bloodshed.

What point was Mark Twain trying to prove with the plot twist? Is the force of ignorance strong enough to withstand the wheels of progress? I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s a little more complicated than that. Once again, there’s a need for context. A Connecticut Yankee was published in 1889, not long after the government ended its Reconstruction efforts in the South. Fresh off victory in the Civil War, the government thought they were going to implement long-term changes to Southern society. No more slaves, African-Americans are free to vote, etc. Under military supervision, the process appeared to be going along smoothly. Guess what happens when the military is called back to Washington? That’s right. Everything went back to its old feudalistic self. The stratification was virtually the same, but instead of slaves at the bottom of the chain, there were black sharecroppers or landless blacks.

Included in Mark Twain’s satire is a historical parallel that had yet to fully play itself out. The arrogance of the North to believe the South would willingly take in their enforced societal alterations and the South’s reversion to its old ways the moment the North went away. So not only did Twain have trouble with the Scott and his influence on the South, but he also was disappointed in how the post-Civil War Reconstruction had been handled. He fired shots at both sides, one for the Southern past and another warning the Northerners about their failure.

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