30 January 2013

Humour in Chainmail

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
by Mark Twain

Re-reading this after 35 years or so, I found it alternately entertaining and tedious. The amusement-value of dropping a nineteenth-century Yankee technophile into chivalric society and making the most of the ensuing fireworks has not diminished; but neither have the preachiness, political naivety and frequent spells of tedium that mar this not-so-great novel by an undeniably great author.

Mark Twain employs three different styles in this book. There’s his usually zippy, hyperbolic, idiosyncratic but unmistakably American humorous voice, familiar to readers of Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi. Then there’s a second, less showy, more conventionally Victorian style that he uses for the framing narrative (attributed to ‘M.T.’, no less). He also falls into this style when Hank Morgan, the hero, launches into yet another homily about the evils of monarchy, established churches, social stratification and inherited privilege, or rhapsodises upon the great superiority of democracy, egalitarianism and nineteenth-century gadgeteering. Some of Hank’s harangues are very trying, and I found myself skipping them with ever-increasing frequency as I advanced through the book.

But for tedium, nothing can compare with the third style Twain favours, which is Malory’s style from Le Morte d’Arthur – sometimes presented as pastiche, sometimes quoted directly from the source. In fact, its tediousness is commented upon in the text itself – but that doesn't make reading it any less stultifying. The quality of storytelling, too, declines steadily through the novel. Somewhere along the line Twain seems to have stopped caring about the plot, perhaps having growing too wrapped up in all the secular sermons he wanted to preach. Towards the end of the book, he completely takes his eye off the narrative ball – for example, when Hank Morgan and King Arthur are captured by slave-traders, the King never thinks to ask why Hank, whom he regards as a magician with powers superior even to Merlin’s, cannot use some enchantment to free them from their captivity; it would have been the natural question to ask. And when Hank finally escapes by picking the locks of his manacles, he immediately buys new clothes to disguise himself – where did he get the money? Surely the slavers would have taken all his possessions when they captured him? Straining credibility yet further, Hank’s escape is viewed by his gullible fellow-prisoners as magical – as if lock-pickers had not been in the world as long as locksmiths!

And while we’re on the subject of magic: right through the book, it is presented as mumbo-jumbo and charlatanry, and the great Merlin is shown to be an incompetent fake and a dotard into the bargain. Yet, when the time comes for Hank Morgan to leave the sixth century and return to the nineteenth, it is Merlin's magic that effects the displacement. Surely the author could have found a better recourse than this?

And, finally, a word about centuries. Twain put Camelot and King Arthur in the sixth, smack in the middle of the Dark Ages. That would be about right, I suppose – just before the coming of the Saxons to Britain – if Arthur had, in fact, existed at all. However, the Camelot Twain describes – and it is recognisably the same one we visit in Malory, Tennyson and every other conventional re-telling of the Arthur legend – is a mediaeval society, and one that had to have existed after the Norman conquest of England in the eleventh century, indeed after the Crusades, which is when the concept of chivalry was elaborated. Of course this tells us nothing except that Malory anachronised, like all authors of his era, and his successors followed his lead. Still, it might be amusing to imagine what a real sixth-century Camelot might have been like; pretty foul, I imagine. Has anyone written a King Arthur story like that?

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