Frank: Hello and welcome. I’m Frank Lavallo and this is Novel Conversations, a podcast about the world’s greatest stories. For each episode of Novel Conversations, I talk to two readers about one book; and together, we summarize the story for you. We introduce you to the characters, we tell you what happens to them, and we read from the book along the way. So, if you love hearing a good story, you’re in the right place.
This week's novel conversations is about the novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne and I’m joined by our Novel Conversations readers, Elizabeth Flood and Phil Setnik. Elizabeth, Phil. Welcome.
Elizabeth & Phil: Thank you. Thanks Frank.
Frank: And now onto our show. Before we get started, let me read just a brief introduction for our novel published by Mark Twain in 1889, A Connecticut yanking King Arthur's Court is the story of Hank Morgan, a 19th century Yankee from Hartford Connecticut, and his fantastical magical journey to sixth century England, and the court of King Arthur. With great nods to Thomas Mahler and Sir Walter Scott, the adventures that Hank Morgan has, the characters he encounters, and his attempts to civilize England - while at the same time becoming a little bit less civilized himself - make up the story of our novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
Frank: Before we dive into this wonderful story, let me ask you both if you've seen any of the movies that were made from this novel. I believe there's a Disney version and even a Bing Crosby musical version.
Elizabeth: Oh my gosh. Wow. I think I saw the Disney version. I have not seen any of the movie versions. (Phil: Can’t say that I have, Frank.)
Frank: The reason I ask is because in my book, there's even a chapter that recounts a lot of the movies that have been made from this story and they particularly did like the Bing Crosby musical one. I think Bing does a good job! But let's leave the movies aside and actually talk about the book. Elizabeth, we've had a conversation about the novels The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. This really could have been called The Adventures of a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
Elizabeth: Absolutely. It's a great follow up. Its continued adventures… continued high jinks… grand showmanship… all of the fun stuff that Twain loved for Tom and Huck.
Frank: And Phil this novel is full of Mark Twain's particular satire…
Phil: That’s right… that tone and that biting satire… it comes through with this mouthpiece for a lot of his opinions.
Frank: I think so too… If you think of Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer as perhaps a young Mark Twain having some of the adventures that a young Samuel Clemens had while living on the Mississippi… Hank Morgan could clearly be an old Mark Twain telling us what he believes.
Phil: Absolutely. He hasn't become jaded or ‘given up the fight’ so to speak in trying to comment on society. You know he's older, but he still has the biting wit, the hallmark of his stuff.
Elizabeth: And in the stories with Tom and Huck the societal references are really seen through the eyes of the children but here he comments through the eyes of an adult…
Frank: … and clearly, through the preface, and what they call ‘the word of explanation,’ Mark Twain sets himself firmly in this novel. (Elizabeth: HmmMmm.)
OUT: With those introductory remarks. Let's take a break here and when we come back we'll read the preface. We'll look at ‘the word of explanation’ and we'll get into our story of the novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's
court by Mark Twain. You're listening to Novel Conversations. I'm your host Frank Lavalloo. We'll be right back.
IN: Welcome back. I'm your host Frank Lavallo. And today I'm having a conversation about the novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and I'm joined in my conversation by our Novel Conversations readers, Elizabeth Flood and Phil Setnik. Okay, Phil before we took our break, I said that this novel really starts with both a preface and a word of explanation. Tell me a little bit about the preface.
Phil: This is Twain's thing, he always sets us up with a little comment about what he's going to be discussing, and he even sets us up to say that the question of divine right of kings is not settled in the book.
Frank: But this is the question he wants us to have in our minds… whether divine right is something that is divinely inspired or not.
Phil: And he also sets us up with his satire right from the get go; and talking about that it won't be settled in this book but possibly in the next book.
Frank: Yeah, he's got nothing to do next winter so maybe he'll think about it and write about it next winter.
Elizabeth: And it's a business. He sets you up to buy his next book.
Frank: (laughs) That's right. All right, well after the preface, we start with a word of explanation.
Elizabeth: His is word of explanation is the story of how he came to learn this other gentleman’s story… (Frank: … the story of Hank Morgan the Connecticut Yankee.) Our narrator is in a museum and another person on the tour with him makes a comment of a suit of armor and says, ‘I put that bullet hole there. I was there!’ And the narrator says, ‘How could this be, this crazy man. He's telling me he was in the sixth century.’
Frank: And of course, our narrator is immediately intrigued by this comment.
Elizabeth: It's the introduction of the medieval speech too… the stranger speaks in sort of the medieval tongue.
Frank: And actually I'm glad you mentioned that because that's another aspect of the novel that I found fascinating. Not only do we get some of the 6th century English colloquialisms, but Hank Morgan speaks in a 19th century slang and it gets very funny.
Elizabeth: It gets very interesting. But at this point, it makes him curious… what is this strange character all about. He meets him later that evening. They share a few drinks. So, the stranger loosens up until some more of his story, going back in time. He's tired and when he retires to bed he leaves our narrator with his journal.
Frank: That's right. Not only does he give us a start orally but then he hands our narrator the diary he kept while he was on this journey to 7th century England. And our narrator starts to read it to us, which is essentially the introduction to Hank Morgan, our Connecticut Yankee.
Phil: We learn that Hank was a foreman in a gun factory in Hartford Connecticut. The first line is, ‘I am an American.’ And he also says, ‘I'm a Yankee of the Yankees.’ So, we get a clear picture that he can fix anything he can make anything. He manages large groups of men. His character is pretty solidly fixed in this idea of Yankee ingenuity.
Frank: And actually, let me read that quote because I think it's very important that we know the capabilities of Hank Morgan. The passage from the book reads: “Then I went over to the great arms factory and learned my real trade, learned to make everything; guns, revolvers, Cannon, boilers, engines… all sorts of labor saving machinery; and if there wasn't any quick newfangled way to make a thing, I could invent one. End quote. So, this is a man who's accustomed to not only inventing and creating machinery but controlling and ruling over multitudes of men right.
Phil: And one of these men is the man that sends him back to medieval times by way of a fight.
Elizabeth: Yes, there's an argument and he's hit over the head I think with a crowbar…
Frank: … and the next thing we know he wakes up…
Phil: He comes to and he's underneath a tree and there's a young golden-haired girl looking at him. She sees him and her eyes pop open and she runs away. This is the first sense that he's somewhere completely foreign.
Frank: And Elizabeth, his second sense absolutely confirms that…
Elizabeth: Right. He sees a knight in armor approach him. He assumes this person must be from a circus (Frank: Or an insane asylum). When he takes him captive, Hank assumes he'll just humor the man and follow him to his asylum where he'll return him to the doctors. Of course, they're going to Camelot.
Frank: And who is this knight?
Phil: The knight is Sir Kay who is one of the Knights of the roundtable.
Frank: Sure, for our listeners out there that remember their King Arthur tales. It's Sir Kay who is actually the adopted step brother of the early King Arthur and when Arthur pulls the sword and becomes king Sir Kay becomes one of his leading knights.
Phil: Yeah. And so Sir Kay has him and he's gonna take him back for an audience in front of the King.
Elizabeth: Sir Kay has to return with some sort of accomplishment from his journey. Now he has a captured prisoner.
Frank: All right Elizabeth. So, Hank is taken prisoner by Sir Kay, the knight… brought to Camelot and introduced to King Arthur and the Roundtable. But first were introduced to a person who's gonna become his good friend Clarence the Page.
Elizabeth: Right. Clarence arrives to escort him to prison. We learn a lot of information from Clarence. We confirm the year that he's in that he's in King Arthur's Court. Clarence explains, ‘You're going to come in and you're gonna be claimed a prisoner and we'll put you here in this jail.’
Frank: I love the remark that Hank Morgan makes when Clarence introduces himself as I'm your Page. Hank Morgan says, ‘Page? Well you ain't more than a paragraph!’
Elizabeth: That's probably why we have the sense then Clarence is young and little essentially, a young boy maybe 14, 15 years old. He's his first pupil in all of the lessons he teaches the people from here on and he becomes his right-hand man. (what does this mean?)
Frank: Now what is Clarence tell him he's about to encounter when he goes before King Arthur and the Knights of the roundtable?
Elizabeth: Clarence tells him how the game works (Frank: And how does that game work?) That Sir Kay is going to come in and tell a fantastic tale. And we're all going to listen to it and accept it for truth.
Frank: Because that's what these nights do. They tell tales of fighting dragons, rescuing 50 virgins from flaming castles, none of which anyone truly believes. But they don't question it either… (Elizabeth: Right.) And Phil, that is exactly what happened… Sir Kay tells this tale about how he captured Hank Morgan. And this is when the next important character makes his appearance. Merlin the Magician. But it's not the character that we've come to know. This is a different Merlin.
Phil: Yeah, Clarence actually describes him as the mighty liar and magician… and he's described as kind of a long winded, selfish guy who's into glorifying himself. And Merlin begins to tell the story and everyone in the court falls asleep very fast.
Frank: Sure, as Clarence makes clear… they've heard this story over and over, in fact, that's really the only story Merlin ever tells in public. Well, Elizabeth what is the story that Merlin tells?
Elizabeth: Merlin tells us the Lady of the Lake story. It's because of Merlin's power that Arthur has risen to be king.
Frank: And then finally after Merlin finishes his story, what happens to Hank?
Elizabeth: He's sentenced straight to jail.
Frank: Straight to the dungeons.
Elizabeth: And this is where he decides Clarence could help him escape.
Phil: But Clarence will have nothing to do with that you know because Merlin's put a spell over the prison so no one can escape; so everyone just believes that as well.
Frank: And it's hearing the stories of Merlin and his magical incantations…
Elizabeth: How everyone respects him and never questions him…
Frank: … gives Hank an idea of how he can fight back against these knights.
Phil: Right. Hank conveniently remembers on this day in the sixth century that he happened to be in Eclipse. He decides to leverage this knowledge in his favor and claim that he himself is a sorcerer / conjurer and that he's going to blot out the sun unless he's released.
Frank: Right. Hanks sends Clarence to the king with this warning. Free me or I'll blot out the sun everything will freeze, crops will die, animals will die.
Elizabeth: That's a pretty strong magical spell. We've never heard anything like that from Merlin even in his greatest story, he pulled a sword. (Frank: Well do they believe this story?) Everybody does except Merlin. (Frank: You can't con a con.) Right.
Phil: But his plan is thwarted because they decide to burn him at the stake that same day.
Frank: Well sure, these knights aren't that dumb. If Hank Morgan says I'm going to blot out the sun in 24 hours… Well then, we'll just kill you in six.
Phil: Yes. And so, they take him out to the stake. However, conveniently, Hank realizes that the eclipse is actually happening that day - right at noon - when he is scheduled to burn.
Frank: Elizabeth. This is a very dramatic scene.
Elizabeth: It is and it's a riot. He comes out there's all this great fanfare. Tom Sawyer would have loved this. The town is out to see him burned at the stake - who doesn't love to see a good steak burning - He's made all these great claims and … the eclipse begins.
Phil: And Hank (in Huck Finn / Tom Sawyer fashion) is milking it for all the drama that he can. And people start to go crazy.
Elizabeth: And this is where Hank sees a great opportunity…
Frank: Right. He begins the negotiations.
Phil: Yes, and the king actually says to him - as the eclipse is happening – ‘Name any terms, reverence, or even to the having of my kingdom. But banish this calamity. Spare the Sun.’ So, he kind of knows he has them there.
Elizabeth: He can name his price.
Frank: Well, Elizabeth what price does he name?
Elizabeth: Well, he knows he shouldn't take Arthur out of power. That would be too dramatic for everybody. But he wants to be the number two. He says I want a certain position in your court and certain powers and names his income.
Frank: Not a bad income. What he wants is just 1% of whatever revenue he increases for the whole kingdom.
Elizabeth: Now he's got great confidence that even 1% will be a huge number because he's so smart.
Frank: That's right. Don't forget he's got thirteen hundred years of knowledge on the people of this land and he's going to use it to his advantage. But Phil, Hank Morgan realizes he may have overplayed his hand a little bit with this eclipse. It's gonna take a little while and he can't just end the negotiations right here.
Phil: You know he's a talker so he continues talking his way out of this and they want to know how long the eclipse will last. And he's guessing half an hour maybe an hour.
Frank: Right. Essentially, he says ‘Well King, that's a great offer that you're making me. But how do I know you're not going to renege on this as soon as I release the sun?’ And right at the moment when he knows the eclipse is going to start passing, he says ‘All right King, you've kept your tongue. You've not reneged on your promise. I'll pull the Sun back.’ And sure enough…
Phil: He says, ‘Let the chairman dissolve and pass harmless away,’ and the eclipse is over.
Frank: Elizabeth, how does this all sit with Merlin? Here's a better, bigger magician than he ever was.
Elizabeth: This is trouble for Merlin.
Frank: And because it's trouble for Merlin, Merlin is gonna make trouble for Hank.
Elizabeth: Exactly. Merlin is now set up to be a villain and Hank's greatest opposition.
Frank: Now that Hank has pulled this trick off - if we want to call it a trick…
Elizabeth: Merlin challenges him to more magic.
Phil: Merlin begins to spread rumors and gossip about him, that if he's only done this one thing, that he should prove himself.
Frank: But we know we're not going to get another eclipse. So how does Hank Morgan solve this problem?
Phil: Well he turns to his Yankee ingenuity. And he comes up with the idea to blow up Merlin's tower. (Frank: Merlin's home.)
Elizabeth: Both a great show of his magic and getting even with Merlin.
Phil: And this is also when Clarence begins to come into his own as Hank's right-hand man. (Frank: What exactly do Clarence and Hank do?) Just create some gunpowder.
Frank: And essentially what Hank Morgan and Clarence do is pack the foundation with gunpowder and put lightning rods into the gunpowder… (Phil: And then he has to wait for a stormy day.)
Frank: So, there's a little bit of procrastination going on and of course Merlin continues to spread the rumors. ‘He doesn't know what he's doing. He's not going to be able to pull this off.’ Then sure enough one day the clouds show up.
Elizabeth: And because of the rumors... the crowds are huge! (Frank: Massive crowds. Thousands and thousands we're told.) Ofcourse. It’s a big show! What Mark Twain book would be complete without it?
(Frank: And how does that work?) Beautifully! Massive explosion. The towers destroyed. Everybody runs in fear.
Frank: This is how the book describes it, quote: “Well it rained mortar and masonry for the rest of the week. This was the report but probably facts would have modified it. It was an effective miracle.” Well that takes care of Merlin doesn't it?
Phil: Yeah. He actually says that ‘Merlin’s stock was flat.’ The king actually wanted to banish Merlin and stop his wages and send him out of the kingdom. But Hank interfered and said no. But you would think would make Merlin grateful, but it just… (Elizabeth: Angered him even more)… yep, angers him even more.
Frank: Well sure, it's a backhanded compliment at best. Hank Morgan is telling the king ‘Keep him around. We can use him for little things like weather predictions.’
Elizabeth: He (who’s he?) could predict the weather it's the greatest insult because he'll never get it right.
Frank: And Hank is showing Merlin ‘I don't even consider you a competitor anymore. You're nothing to me.’
Phil: And this also brings us to Hank's title.
Frank: Well I'm glad you mentioned Hank's title.
OUT: But before we get to that title ,I think we'll take a break here and when we come back we'll talk about how Hank gets his title, goes on some adventures, and eventually rescues a fair maiden himself. Right now you're listening to Novel Conversations. We'll be right back.
IN: Welcome back. I'm your host Frank Lavallo. And today I'm having a conversation about the novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain. Ok, before we took our break, I said that what happens now in our novel, is Hank Morgan gets a title.
Frank: But it's not really a title that we would expect coming from Camelot and King Arthur. Elizabeth, what is Hank’s new title?
Elizabeth: He learns that people are calling him ‘The Boss.’ He feels very pleased with his new title.
Frank: And what makes him the most pleased is that this title came not from the lords and ladies, but this title came from the people. (Elizabeth: Right.) And Phil, right after Hank Morgan gets this title, ‘The Boss,’ Mark Twain skips us for years ahead and then he tells us Hank Morgan's been very busy these four years.
Phil: Yeah. We learn that Hank has been creating what he calls ‘the future civilization.’ He even says, quote: “In various quiet nooks and corners I had the beginnings of all sorts of industries under way.” I mean he's creating schools he has his own naval academy; he has his own West Point.
Frank: Right. He wants to train the future military officers as well as teachers, iron makers. (Phil: He wants to teach people to read. That's a big goal.)
Frank: Essentially, he wants to hurry the industrial revolution about a thousand years…
Elizabeth: And knock the priests down a little bit.
Frank: Tell me about his conflict with the church and priests.
Elizabeth: Well he's so afraid of organized religion - specifically the Catholic Church - because even the Kings and the nobles are obeying the priest’s rules. So, the real ruler and the ultimate enemy for Hank Morgan is the Catholic Church.
Frank: That's right. There are no other churches. There's been no reformation. There's been no restoration. There are no Protestants. This is the Catholic Church, in all its glory and power. (Elizabeth: correct.) Well Phil, now we come to the part that I like to call: The Adventures of a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's court. Essentially, he's been in Camelot now four years. He's starting some factories. He's starting to reorganize the schools. He's hoping to reorganize some of the religion. He's got various industries started and going… even a telegraph and a telephone. But now he needs an adventure. After all… he's a Knight of the Round Table.
Phil: So a young woman shows up in the court. Her name's Allison. But Hank calls her Sandy.
Frank: And she tells quite a tale to the Knights of the Round Table.
Phil: Right. There are 44 maidens being held in a castle by an ogre with one eye.
Frank: There's actually the quote, “Her mistress was a captive in a vast and gloomy castle along with 44 other young and beautiful girls. Pretty much all of them princesses. They had been languishing in that cruel captivity for 26 years…” Old Princesses. There’s not much beauty left there I'm guessing. (laughter) And so, this is Hank's adventure. But, does Hank believe this story?
Phil: No. He thinks it's preposterous.
Elizabeth: He sees Sandy’s tale for just that… a tale.
Frank: Hank Morgan even asks us, (quote?) “Would you believe it? The King and the whole roundtable were in raptures over this preposterous opportunity for adventure every night of the table jumped for the chance and begged for it but to their vexation and chagrin the king conferred upon me who had not asked for it at all.” So, Hank's off on his first adventure. Does he go alone?
Elizabeth: Oh no, of course not. Sandy has to go with him just to show him where the maidens are held captive.
Phil: And this is ridiculous to Hank as well because he has to wear a full suit of armor the entire time that he's on this adventure.
Frank: He starts by wrapping himself in swaddling clothes, and then he has to arm his legs, he has to put on the metal boots, he has to arm his arms, he wears this contraption on his head that he can't see through…
Elizabeth: That wasn't as bad as when he's had it on for a few days…
Frank: … and actually can you read me that part? Slow torture.
Elizabeth: I don't know how long I could read it. It's really gross. (laughter)
Phil: I loved it because you always look at those at the museum and you always wonder what it was like to walk around in those.
Elizabeth: All right. I'll read a few lines from this passage. Here’s the quote: “Well you know when you perspire that way in rivers, there comes a time when you… when you… Well when you itch. Your inside. Your hands are outside. So there you are nothing but iron between. It’s not the light thing. Let it sound as it may. First it is in one place, then another, then some more, and it goes on spreading and spreading and at last the territories all occupied and nobody can imagine what you feel like, nor how unpleasant it is.”
Frank: Yeah, but it gets worse. He has to actually sleep in this armor overnight and that's when the bugs come out. (Elizabeth: UGH!) … and this is how it's written in the book:
“Pretty soon various kinds of bugs and ants and worms and things begin to flock in out of the wet and crawl down inside my armor to get warm and while some of them behaved well enough and snuggled up amongst my clothes and got quiet the majority were restless uncomfortable sort and never stayed still. Especially the ants which went tickling along and wearisome procession from one end of me to the other by the hour. And are a kind of creatures which I never wished to sleep with again.” End quote. Boy oh boy. Not a pleasant night. But it's not all an uncomfortable experience… after all, he does get to have a smoke and that actually comes in handy for him doesn't it?
Phil: Yeah, he's actually able to thwart the attack of some Knights as they're charging him. He blows the smoke out of his armored headgear and that stops them in their tracks because they think he's a fire breathing dragon.
Frank: And he gets to capture these guys and send them back to Camelot as his first prisoners.
Elizabeth: That's right. Sandy will explain to him that they're essentially defeated and awaiting his orders.
Frank: Right now, they'll get to tell their preposterous tales around the table and also they will become his men.
Elizabeth: Right. This is beefing up his power in the court.
Frank: And it's right around this time that we meet the next important character in our novel… who's Morgan Le Fay?
Elizabeth: Morgan LeFay is Arthur's sister.
Phil: And Morgan Le Fay is a smooth talker. She's able to talk at length very eloquently. And she's also a cold stone… witch. (Frank: Well how do we know that?) In the way that she casually sends people to the stake and there's a particular scene where a Page is offering her a goblet, and the Page accidentally stumbles and brushes her knee, and she casually slips a knife into him and kills him right there. And then goes on talking… (Frank: Cold stone was right.) This is also the first time when we really get the sense of the divine right of nobles. Because she just feels like it's her right to do anything.
Frank: And Elizabeth it's while he's at Morgan La Fay’s castle, that he makes a mistake with her. He brings up King Arthur.
Elizabeth: He sure does. He mentions his friendship with Arthur. And Morgan hates her brother. So, he's immediately sent off to the dungeon.
Frank: We meet free men and we meet slaves in this dungeon. And Mark Twain takes this opportunity to tell us about how they interact with each other, how the free men interact with slaves, how some slaves will even turn in their fellow slaves siding with nobility instead of siding with their own people. They're so brainwashed.
Elizabeth: … examples of this divine right and how ridiculous it is…
Frank: … they truly believe that these lords and ladies have this right to do whatever they want to them. No questions. How does Hank Morgan get out of the dungeon?
Elizabeth: Well as soon as she learns that he is actually, ‘The Boss.’
Frank: That's right. The name comes up and it’s Sandy that says but, he's ‘The Boss.’
Elizabeth: Exactly. And Morgan LaFey says, ‘Oh I was just kidding.’ This is just a funny scene though where he helps save all these people she's about to imprison or execute. With the exception of the bad musicians, he lets her kill them.
Frank: And then Sandy and Hank Morgan ,’The Boss,’ continue on their journey. Finally they arrive at the Ogre’s castle. The castle where Sandy's mistress and the 44 other princesses have been held captive for these last 26 years.
Phil: And we discover that this castle is in fact a pigstye. (Frank: A pigstye?) And the princesses are hogs. (Frank: Now wait a minute what's going on here?)
Phil: Well Sandy's woven this tale of these princesses and I think she has to live up to the lie now that these pigs are actually princesses. (Frank: And so, Hank rescues the pigs.) Yes, he rescues the pigs and they have dinner with the pigs.
Frank: Ok, after this banquet with the pigs, for their next adventure, they meet up with a group of pilgrims travelling to a monastery at the Valley of Holiness to take the holy baths at their fountain. But of course, when they get to the monastery in the Valley of Holiness, they find no fountain. And they find Merlin.
Elizabeth: So, they come to the Valley of Holiness and discover the town in complete panic because the wells have gone dry. The fountains are dry. The bath is dry. The well is dry.
Frank: That's right Elizabeth. The superstitious monks think the well has gone dry because of sins.
Elizabeth: Hank suspects there's a problem in the well. Merlin's up conjuring and waving his arms. (Frank: How did Merlin get there?) Merlin was called because Hank was away. So, Merlin came out of retirement of weather telling. (Frank: The monks needed some magician to fix this.) So, Hank lowers himself down to the well. Discovers the crack. Knows how to fix this. He sends word for Clarence in his team to bring all his materials and he sees this as another opportunity to have another huge show completely embarrass Merlin… save the well… and the town.
Frank: And with the restoration of the fountain, two things occur. Of course The Boss's fame spreads even wider and Merlin's fame is dealt another serious blow.
Phil: Right. So, King Arthur and his court decide to come and see for themselves. And they show up and they're not disappointed. It's at this time that Hank tells Arthur of his plan to travel as a peasant throughout the country. And Arthur's immediately smitten with this idea and says he's going to join him.
Frank: So, Hank's ready to start off on another adventure. And this time King Arthur is coming along.
OUT: All right Elizabeth, Phil, let's take a break here and when we come back, we'll join Hank and the King traveling the countryside disguised as peasants. Right now, you're listening to Novel Conversations. I'm your host Frank Lavallo. We'll be right back.
IN: Welcome back. I'm your host Frank Lavallo. And today I'm having a conversation about the novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. By Mark Twain. Okay. Phil before we took our break, Hank and King Arthur decided to travel incognito around the countryside to get an experience of what it's like for the King's subjects to live in his land.
Phil: Right. And it's at this time that they have several adventures. But we need to talk about one in particular. Hank has to save the king from himself, really, throughout this time because the King is acting as a King dressed as a peasant.
Frank: Even in peasant rags, he has a kingly bearing that's hard to disguise.
Phil: Correct. This eventually leads to them becoming enslaved and one of the funny things about this is that the king is really more worried about his value as a slave as opposed to being enslaved.
Frank: And Elizabeth, the slave master considers the king worthless. (Elizabeth:
He's completely arrogant)… and that's not a good attitude for a slave. (Elizabeth: Terrible.) So, it turns out that Hank is more valuable as a slave than the King is. And that's what bugs the King.
Elizabeth: Right. Hank knows how to play the game. And he also shows a little bit of this Yankee ingenuity. So, he's a much more valuable slave.
Frank: Well I'm glad you brought up his Yankee ingenuity because he's gonna need all the ingenuity he's got to be rescued from this slavery. How does he go about that?
Elizabeth: Well he takes a little piece off of a guard's uniform to pick the locks on his handcuffs. He escapes. Finds the local telegraph office. Calls ‘Hello Central.’ Rings up Clarence and calls for a support crew.
Phil: That's right. The King and Hank are now waiting for the Knights of the Round Table to ride on in their trusty steeds and rescue them.
Frank: And while they're waiting to be rescued, they're sentenced to death. Now Hank's not sure they'll be rescued in time. Thank God Clarence has been working overtime.
Elizabeth: And West Point has been in full force. They've been testing out their new bicycles. (Frank: Bicycles?!). So, the entire Roundtable and Army arrive on bicycles.
Frank: And do they rescue Hank and the King? (Elizabeth: Of course!) So, finally the King is recognized for who he is… King Arthur. Hank in He are saved. They go back to Camelot. But Hank's got one more adventure to go on.
Phil: Right it's the adventure of getting married and having a child. (Frank: Who does he marry?) Well we find out when he gets back that he's actually had a child with Sandy. And so, he marries Sandy. But the child falls ill and they have to go to France to find a cure. (Frank: Why did they go to France?)
Elizabeth: Well the doctors recommended they go to France. He only discovers after they've been there quite some time… it was really the priests behind the whole effort.
Frank: And why did the priest want to get rid of Hank Morgan?
Elizabeth: They knew that he had transformed Camelot and they wanted to regain control of the region. (Frank: And do they?) They do.
Phil: Yeah. When he's away they basically undermine all of his efforts to civilize the country and when Hank and Sandy return, he realizes that they've pretty much reverted to the state they were in before.
Frank: So, here's Hank Morgan who for the last, let's say six years in Camelot, has been battling evil magicians like Merlin, battling cold stone witches like Morgan Le Fay, battling to escape from slavery… Turns out his biggest enemy really was the Catholic Church. (Elizabeth: Right.)
Phil: So, he realizes that no revolution ever occurs peacefully and that he must shed blood in order to civilize the country.
Frank: He decides he's going to shed a lot of blood. (Phil: MmmHmm.) Elizabeth, he decides to make a final stand. And he brings along some of his secret weapons.
Elizabeth: Yes. He pulls out the big guns. (Frank: Literally.) Gunpowder, electric, every form of violence he can conjure.
Frank: They actually build an electrified fence around their cave. He positions six Gatling guns.
Elizabeth: He has a small army of few dozen of his most loyal followers who are still in the West Point Group (Frank: Hiss West Pointers, he calls them). Right. And he's gonna make a final stand. And it is a bloody horrible battle.
Frank: Well that's why I said in my introduction, that Hank Morgan tries to civilize England, but I think he becomes a little less civilized himself. And that's very clear in this final scene. (Elizabeth: It's gruesome.) Phil, you want to tell me what happens?
Phil: So, they're in a fortified fortress with guns and electrified fences, of which the Knights know nothing about, so, it's really a slaughter. The Knights come in and they're either electrified or shot down by the thousands.
Frank: Thousands and thousands. Well Phil, after this carnage what happens to Hank? Does he survive?
Phil: Hank survives yes, but, he does not go unscathed. They actually go to the surveyed the lines and there is one night who hasn't been completely killed and Hank reaches down to help him. And the night reaches up and stabs him in the side.
Frank: And Phil this is where Merlin makes his last appearance.
Phil: Right. Merlin has snuck his way into the fortress by posing as a female cook. So, he's already in there...
Frank: That's right but no one knows that Merlin's in the fortress. So, they bring Hank back in hopes that he recovers from this knife wound. But it doesn't transpire that way.
Phil: The next morning, Clarence comes upon Marlin over Hank's body and he's casting a spell. And Merlin actually says, “You were conquerors, ye are conquered, ye all shall die in this place. Everyone except him. (He's referencing Hank) He sleepith now and shall sleep 13th centuries. I am Merlin.”
Frank: And so that's how our story ends. Merlin is restored to his previous fame and glory and Hank is restored to Hartford, Connecticut. Well now Elizabeth, Phil, obviously in a novel of this size we can't discuss every character and we can't cover every adventure that our heroes go through. So, now's the time for you to perhaps read a favorite passage or discuss a character that we didn't get a chance to talk about. Elizabeth, do you have something?
Elizabeth: I do. I have a very funny comment about the nobles in the church. Hank tells us, quote: “Nothing could divert them from the regular and faithful performance of the pieties enjoined by the church. More than once, I had seen a noble who had gotten his enemy at a disadvantage, stopped to pray before cutting his throat. More than once they had seen a noble, after ambushing and dispatching his enemy retired to the nearest Wayside Shrine, in humbly give thanks, without even waiting to rob the body. All of the nobles of Britain, with their families attended divine service morning and night daily, and even the worst of them had family worship five or six times a day; besides the credit of this belonged entirely to the church. Although I was no friend to that Catholic church, I was obliged to admit this and often in spite of me I found myself saying, what would this country be without the church?” End quote.
Frank: And Hank thinks it would have been better.
Elizabeth: He thinks it would've been better because he certainly respected its magnitude and the hold it had over these people. I think that's what he wanted, and he saw that the Kings wanted that too, but the church had the ultimate hold.
Frank: He essentially felt there should have been more churches. The fact that there was just one Catholic Church, made it too powerful. He would have broken up their monopoly, so to speak, and made some Protestants, he would have had Presbyterians he would have had Episcopalians. (Elizabeth: Division of power.) Exactly. Phil, do you have something?
Phil: Yeah, I do Frank. One of my favorite aspects of the book is Hank's mission to bathe the country. And basically, he sends out missionaries who sell soap. (Frank:
Soap that his factories are producing.) Yeah. And he really believes in this cause. He actually says, quote: “These missionaries would gradually, and without creating suspicion or exciting alarm, introduce a rudimentary cleanliness among the nobility and from them it would work down to the people. This would undermine the church.”
Frank: (laughter all) That's right. It also reminds me of another scene with another Knight who's out selling toothpaste. Same idea.
Elizabeth: And he had an understanding for how advertising could work for them. So, his knights would wear sandwich boards to advertise his soap and toothpaste.
Phil: Yeah, he's on a mission to civilize the people through bathing.
Frank: One of my favorite passages reminded me a lot of something we had read from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. If you remember Tom Sawyer empties his pockets and Mark Twain gives us a long list of all the things Tom Sawyer had in his pockets.
Well here's a list of things that Hank misses. Quote: “There was no gas. There were no candles. A bronze dish half full of boardinghouse butter with a blazing rag floating and it was the thing that produced what was regarded as light. There were no books, no pens, no paper, or ink, and no glass in the openings they believed to be windows. It is a little thing, glass is, until that's absent. Then it becomes a big thing. But perhaps the worst of all was there wasn't any sugar. No coffee. No tea. No tobacco. I saw that I was just another Robinson Crusoe, castaway on an uninhabited island.”
Phil: What we'd do without our Pottery Barns and our Home Depots and our Targets and our iHops…
Frank: You know what Phil. I don't want to find out. (laughter all) You know and I think that's where we'll end our conversation today on the novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
by Mark Twain. Elizabeth. Phil. I want to thank you both for coming in and having this conversation with me today.
Elizabeth & Phil: Our pleasure. Thank so much Frank.
Frank: You’ve been listening to Novel Conversations.