Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Review: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

by Nathan Stout (of AccordingToWhim.com)

As you well know by now I am a lover of audio books. I talked about it in this post. Last week I finished listening to Books On Tape's 1979 edition of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. This was one of those older 9 tape library editions that I picked up at the Decatur Library during one of their book sales sometime in the last year. It was a buck so I knew I couldn't go wrong. I love book sales and the very first place I head is to the audio books. If you have ever looked online at the cost of library edition audio books you know they are expensive. This edition was probably around a hundred dollars when it came out.

Anyway the book is considered to be one of the first in the sub genre of Time travel. It is about a man living in modern (modern back in late 1800's) Connecticut who is knocked unconscious and wakes up in the year 528, in England around the court of King Arthur. After coming to the realization that he is not in a dream he fights Merlin for supremacy as Arthur's councilor and quickly becomes known as "The Boss". The use of his modern day knowledge allows him to not only become one of the most powerful men in the country but enables him to make changes to the brutal Noble run society of the time.

The books seems to be a commentary about society (society at the time of its publication). The book is written from the perspective of Hank (the main time-traveling character) finding the cruel and nonsensical ways of the gentry and the church. Mark Twain seems to have had a bit of a beef with the Catholic Church. I guess we should have all slight beef with them since they appeared to have stifled learning and enlightenment for several hundred years. I approached the book from the perspective of a fun look into what it would be like to have all the knowledge of a modern person in a world of superstition. Hank learns that people simply believed whatever you told them since they were all so simple and guileless.

The book is filled with humor and the absurdity of very modern things (well, modern for 1899) happening in the Arthurian world. One particular scene involves Hank and Arthur, roaming the countryside dressed as peasants, getting sold into slavery (one of the more obvious commentaries about the times Twain lived in) and about to put to death when up over the hill the knights appear in record time to save the day... riding bicycles. I really wasn't expecting this and I laughed heartily. The reader just know the knights will arrive in time but it was totally unexpected to have this image pop into your head. The absurdity of it is perfect.

Hank introduces all sort of technology into Arthur's world such as telephone service, rail roads, a new monetary system, an army, etc. He sneaks all this new technology slowly into society to where he has effected many changes and works to change the way the nobility do business (in relation to their 'freemen' and slaves). These social changes are the hardest as he discovers that hundreds of years of this beating down of the common man has bred itself deep into humanity.

I really enjoyed the tale and how it progressed. The story could have literally gone on and on and I would have continued to enjoy it. I felt the book ended a little too abruptly. In the end Hank becomes unconscious and Merlin (who is an utter charlatan) tells everyone he put a spell on Hank so he will sleep for more than a thousand years. Hank's second in command tells the others to hide Hank deep in the cave they are to sleep his unwaking sleep. The narrative ends with the old Hank simply lying in his bed back in modern times (presumably having slept for eons then picking up his life as if nothing happened) and dying of old age. It is really fuzzy (aka nothing was explained) how anything resolved and how Hank re acclimated back into our time or anything like that. I am guessing we live in a too-modern age where everything has to be spelled out for us to be happy.

If you are a fan of the movie: Army of Darkness and know about the ending, it happens much the same way with the hero Ash taking a potion and sleeping for centuries in a cave where he would wake back up in his own time. In the alternate ending to the movie Ash drinks too much potion and wakes up after the apocalypse... doh!

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