- The Good: Humor, time-travel, Arthurian legend satire, denouncement of slavery
- The Bad: Distasteful protagonist, meandering plot, misogynistic, and racist
- The Literary: One of the first time-travel novels
Hank Morgan, a 19th century skilled mechanic awakens in King Arthur’s Camelot after being struck on the head during a quarrel. Upon the day of his hanging as a sorcerer, he claims to be a magician and vows to blot out the sun. As he remembers his medieval solar eclipses, Hank becomes an asset to the King. With his self-proclaimed title as “The Boss”, Hank endeavors to modernize the whole country.
On the surface, the arrogant, ambitious, and con-man protagonist seeks to take advantage of the poor ignorant souls of a primitive world, an in so doing, creates technology, introduces democracy, creates a school system, abolishes slavery, and ultimately learns to care a great deal for the people. The first person narrative begins light in tone and the opening chapters are loosely tied together in a narrative arc, but as the protagonist digs himself deeper into his new world, so does the somber reflective voice and plot-driven storytelling.
Don’t get me wrong, there are several knight brawls to lighten the mood. And the interactions with the famous personages of King Arthur’s court, particularly Merlin, are really fun, even if depictions of Merlin as a no-talent magician hurt my inner child’s feelings. And as our self-righteous hero and Arthur decide to parade around the countryside as peasants, Twain uses the farce to shed light on the terrible living conditions of this highly romanticized period.
What saves this novel and gives it any timelessness is the commentary on slavery, the Catholic church, and monarchs. These are great and modern ideas in Mark Twain’s time, and he uses the backdrop of the Arthurian age to show how unjust they are. Unfortunately, the commentary is ruined by several misogynistic comments (e.g. “Suffrage should be given to all, or at least mothers who at middle age should be found to know nearly as much as their sons at twenty-one”), and an even larger handful of racist depictions of Native Americans, from describing the round table as a “court of Comanches, and there isn’t a squaw in it who doesn’t stand ready at the dropping of hat to desert to the buck with the biggest string of scalps at his belt” to the abbot’s robes described as an “extreme of the fantastic; as showy and foolish as the sort of thing an Indian medicine-man wears”.
Mark Twain is a treasure among American authors, and I’m not the only one to love his satire, dry wit, and commentary on society. That being said, this early novel doesn’t quite have his fullest mastery of insight, despite the new setting and scifi elements. If you’re new to Twain, read Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn first.