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Literature / A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

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A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is a classic 1889 novel written by Mark Twain. Hank Morgan, a resident of Hartford, Connecticut, suffers a blow to the head and inexplicably awakens to find himself in sixth century Britain. There, he is able to convince King Arthur that he is a powerful wizard and ends up assuming the job of the king's adviser, and attempts to impose modern technology and values onto the society.

The novel is both a satire and a seminal work of time travel science fiction. The story has been adapted many times for film, television, and other forms of media. Surprisingly enough, given the book's popularity, most literary critics rank Connecticut Yankee among the worst of Twain's written works. Although, that's like saying Macbeth is the worst of Shakespeare's tragedies.


It's in public domain; the full text can be downloaded for free at Project Gutenberg.

This Work Contains Examples Of:

  • Accidental Time Travel: Hank inexplicably winds up in sixth century England after taking a blow to the head. How he gets back is more explicable.
  • Affably Evil: When Boss met Morgana, at first he could not believe this charming woman to be a psychopathic serial murderer.
  • All Just a Dream: Ambiguous; the book implies Hank may have just been hit on the head too hard and dreamt the whole thing.
  • Anti-Hero: Hank is a charismatic yet flawed hero. The lying starts out as just a means to save his neck, but develops into a plan to increase his own power so he can bring modern civilization to the ignorant, superstitious, and unfree time he finds himself in. Many of the nobles and clergy are outright villainous, and Hank does a lot to help the downtrodden people, so it is possible to overlook Hank’s increasingly autocratic and imperialistic tendencies. In the end, when the nobility and clergy join forces to crush Hank and the potential for popular freedom, he resorts to child soldiers and industrial methods of warfare in a bloody last stand.
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  • Arbitrary Skepticism: For a man who wakes up centuries in the past, Hank is surprisingly reluctant to believe that maybe magic exists.
  • Art Major Physics: Upon contact with the electric fence, the Knights armour should have acted as a sort of Faraday cage, safely earthing the fences current without harming the warrior within. If the plates didn't allow the fence to conduct all the way to the ground, the many insulating (read: leather) parts of the armour (in particular the boots) would have protected the Knight anyway.
  • Author Tract: Twain is not the least bit subtle about his disdain for monarchy, aristocracy, chivalry, and the Catholic Church.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Double subverted with Morgana Le Fay: at first Hank only heard of her by reputation, then thinks she was slandered on seeing her youth and beauty, and goes right back to his previous outlook when she shanks a servant for accidentally touching her.
  • Beginner's Luck: The novel provides one of the most commonly cited examples: "The best swordsman in the world doesn't need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn't do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn't prepared for him."
  • Big Damn Heroes: Sir Launcelot and 500 knights on bicycles turn up just in time to stop Hank and the King from being hanged. Hank's assistant admits he was deliberately waiting until the last minute in order to make the most dramatic entrance.
  • Blatant Lies: Kay's story of capturing Hank describes him as a giant monster. No one notes the discrepancy between the story and the ordinary human standing before them.
  • Blithe Spirit: Hank goes to the middle ages and almost immediately transforms it according to his Industrial Revolution background.
  • Butt-Monkey: Merlin, the ultimate exemplar of human ignorance and superstition, a con man who believes his own con. Merlin does get the last laugh on the Yankee though, and, inexplicably, his final spell appears to work.
  • Brick Joke: "Hello, Central."
  • Child Soldiers: Clarence gathers 52 boys, all 14 to 17 years old, and they become Hank's last army. Clarence recruits boys, because older men fear the Church and would obey its Interdict against Hank.
  • Clarke's Third Law: Hank uses this to his advantage, performing many "miracles" with his knowledge of science and engineering.
  • The Coconut Effect: This story originates several Armor Is Useless subtropes, Twain exaggerates how incredibly cumbersome armor is to the point that Knights can barely move in their mobile shells and can't hit anything that isn't similarly slow with their massive swords. Despite this being entirely a gag for physical comedy, the idea of unbelievably heavy armor and weapons remains solidly ingrained in the public mind, and influenced such things as Dungeons & Dragons equipment having extremely unrealistic weights.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Hank, but also the knights — Hank notes when he's charged by three knights simultaneously that there's none of this chivalrous one-against-one stuff.
  • Conservation of Ninjutsu:
    • 52 boys with 19th-century technology vs. 30,000 knights. Guess who wins...
    • Earlier in the story, Hank Morgan takes on 500 knights with just a pair of revolvers and wins. To clarify, it wasn't Gun Fu. After Morgan killed 9 of them in less than a minute, the Knights decided it wasn't worth it. Good thing, because Morgan was counting on them giving up before he ran out of ammo.
  • Convenient Eclipse: one of the most iconic examples and probably the place where this trope is usually drawn from. Hank is about to be burned at the stake when an eclipse happens, convincing the locals that he really is a powerful magician. They promptly set him free according to his demands. In a tragic inside reference for Mark Twain, Hank is sentenced to be burned at the stake on June 21. Mark Twain's brother Henry was fatally burned in a fire on a steamboat, and succumbed to his injuries on June 21. Twain's biographer Ron Powers argues that this was Twain's way of dealing with his brother's death: allowing his Expy to survive death by burning.
  • Corrupt Church: Hank views the Roman Catholic Church this way and he is proven right when the Church suppresses all his technology near the end of the story. Hank opposes any established church, and reckons that the later Church of England is just as bad as the Catholic Church.
  • Curbstomp Battle: Medieval knights can't compete with 19th century military technology...
  • Demythification: The book portrays the magic in Arthurian Legend as fraudsters (including the title character) fooling the ignorant. Also subverted, when said title character falls unconscious for 1500 years so that he can personally deliver the story to Twain.
  • Disguised in Drag: After the Battle of the Sand-belt, Merlin disguises himself as a peasant woman. In this disguise, he approaches Hank's last army.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Morgan le Fay stabs a servant for bumping her, and has a man thrown into the dungeon (with a view of his own home, where she stages fake funerals to make him think that all but one of his family have died so he'll torment himself trying to guess who the Sole Survivor is) for saying her hair is red (it's actually auburn). And in the Hypocritical Humor typical of the protagonist, Hank Morgan hangs bad musicians and knights who tell jokes that have passed their use-by date.
  • Downer Ending: Arthur has died, his kingdom fallen, and the reactionary forces of chivalry are rallying to exterminate our remaining heroes. Hank manages to survive by sleeping back to his natural time, but all his works are undone and he never sees his wife, daughter, or any of his friends again.
  • Dumbass Has a Point: When incredibly dumb Sandy stops Morgana from executing the mother of the boy Morgana has meaninglessly killed before.
  • The Dung Ages: Possibly The Ur-Example.
  • Emperor Scientist: Since "The Boss" leaves Arthur and his court in charge as harmless figureheads and relies more on inventions than science, he's more of a Shogun Engineer.
  • Evil Sorcerer: Downplayed. Merlin isn't really evil, he's just a Jerkass.
  • Fish out of Temporal Water: Probably the Trope Codifier.
  • Forced Transformation: When Merlin is spreading rumors that Hank is a fraud (*cough*), Hank has him arrested and has it known that he will blow up Merlin's tower with fire from heaven. And he'll only do so once, so anybody asking for another miracle will be turned into a horse.
  • Gatling Good: Hank's last army use Gatling guns to defend their position.
  • Genre Deconstruction: The book is a deconstruction of Arthurian Legend, which a lot of Brits took offense to. (It was compared, at one point, to defecating on a national treasure.)
  • Gentleman Snarker: Hank is this way with almost everyone, but especially the nobility. It usually goes right over their heads.
  • Giving Radio to the Romans: Hank gives many modern devices such as the telephone to medieval Britain, although most of them don't seem to be able to grasp the concept of how these things actually work.
  • God Guise: A late 19th-century American is sent back in time to the Dark Ages and becomes an important member of King Arthur's court, using his advanced scientific and political knowledge to greatly improve the quality of life of the kingdom, while also discrediting Merlin (revealed to be a fraud) with his own advanced technology and intelligence that makes him look like a true Sorcerer. In the end, he's kicked out of the kingdom and he and a small number of his allies make a defensive position with a dozen Gatling guns, dynamite, and electrical wiring that allows them to defeat 30,000 of England's soldiers.
  • God Test: Done memorably when a charlatan claims to be able to tell people whatever is happening anywhere in the world. After listening to various plausible tales of the doings of foreign potentates, Hank takes his turn: "Tell me what I'm doing with my hands behind my back right now."
  • Guns Akimbo: Hank with his Colt Dragoons during his duel with the knights.
  • Hand Wave: There's no explanation for how Hank got to Camelot in the first place. Similarly, the paradoxical implications of existing in two places at once while he sleeps for 13 centuries are also never addressed. There's a reference to "transmigration of souls" but that doesn't explain how Hank's body (and clothes) change centuries either. Of course, the most obvious explanation is that it was all in his head while he was out cold from the blow to head he received just before finding himself in the past.
  • Hand Cannon: It's interesting that no-one refers to Hank's revolvers as this. However, the Colt Dragoon was one of the most powerful handguns of its day.
  • The Hero Dies: After the Downer Ending, Hank returns to his own time and gives his manuscript to Mark Twain, but then he loses his mind and dies in bed.
  • Historical In-Joke: Hank is the source of the idiom "paying the shot". He introduced metal balls, or shot, as money. He invented the miller-gun, which is no weapon, but uses a spring to dispense shot for payment. The Church suppressed all of Hank's technology, but the phrase "paying the shot" survived into modern English, though all forget its origin.
  • Humans Are Flawed: The thesis of the book seems to be that it's not the time period, the society, or the level of technology and infrastructure that make people do evil things, it's just basic human nature. This being a Twain book, however, there a few stubborn kernels of optimism that refuse to be stamped out in the book.
  • Isekai: Arguably the very first story in this genre.
  • Jerkass: Medieval society is arranged to specifically encourage and reward this sort of behavior on the part of the nobility and clergy. It is, in effect, the Empire of the Jerkass.
  • King Incognito: Arthur does this at one point while journeying with Hank, who wants to show him first hand what life is like for his people. Arthur has difficulty getting into the role, as he's never been oppressed by society.
  • Knight Errant: Hank reluctantly becomes one, and the Knights of the Round Table also qualify.
  • Lawful Stupid: The denizens of Camelot always put the rules before good sense or basic human compassion.
  • The Münchausen: All the Knights of the Round Table — no-one ever questions another knights' tale of adventure, no matter how ridiculous.
  • Medieval Morons: At least, in Hank's eyes. There's also that situation with Sandy and the pigs...
  • Memetic Badass: Hank becomes one In-Universe, scaring Le Fay shitless when she was going to have him thrown into a dungeon.
  • Mood Whiplash: The story starts as an amusing fish-out-of-water story and a satire of Arthurian Legend, but by the end it's a rather grim lampoon of modern England and America that saddles us with a real downer ending.
  • More Dakka: The final charge of the knights vs. Gatling guns.
  • Mundane Luxury: Hank Morgan misses the conveniences of his own time. From chapter VII "Merlin's Tower",
    There was no soap, no matches, no looking-glass—except a metal one, about as powerful as a pail of water. And not a chromo [a color picture].... There was no gas, there were no candles.... There were no books, pens, paper or ink, and no glass in the openings they believed to be windows.... But perhaps the worst of all as, that there wasn't any sugar, coffee, tea or tobacco.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Hank is distressed that among the thousands of knights are thousands of serfs who are fighting to maintain the monarchy against their own best interests — and they will be slaughtered by the mines, electrified wire and machine gun fire that he will be employing against the knights.
  • No Endor Holocaust: Averted. After the final battle in which tens of thousands of knights are killed, Hank Morgan's hand-picked band start getting ill from all the decomposing bodies. It's implied that these people died because Morgan was the only one who could have negotiated a truce, enabling them to escape the cave they were in.
  • One-Man Industrial Revolution: Hank introduces nineteenth-century technology to sixth-century England. Hank develops bicycles, gunpowder, and even electricity, enriching the lives of the medieval peasants (until the Church declares Hank a heretic and bans his inventions).
  • Polymath: In the beginning of the novel, Hank mentions his skills and knowledge in medicine, multiple disciplines of engineering, and experience of running a weapons factory staffed by two thousand violent cutthroats.
  • Powerful and Helpless:
    • For all his skill and knowledge about modern (for the 19th century) technology, which he used to turn Arthurian Britain into a utopia, Hank Morgan can't do anything when his daughter falls sick. Thankfully, she gets better.
    • Later, he can't do anything to stop the civil war that tears the country apart after Lancelot and Guenivere's affair is revealed. All he can do is use his advanced technology (gatling guns, electric barbed wire and telegraphs) to hold out against the reactionary knights, up until Merlin's spell (the only one shown to work) sends him back to the present.
  • Princess Classic: Also deconstructed, as the ladies of the time are as rude as anyone else.
  • Real After All: After being systematically defeated and shown to be a fraud for the entire book, Merlin uses his magic to send Hank home.
  • Red Baron: Hank Morgan's title is "The Boss", with one illustration calling him Sir Boss.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Hank's reaction to being burned at the stake is to declare himself a more powerful wizard than Merlin, and demand to be made Arthur's prime minister or he'll leave the sun extinguished.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Twain had taken a break from writing it. When he came back to it, his outlook on life had soured immensely.
  • The Resenter: Merlin, after Hank out-magics him. Of course he brought it on himself by trying to kill Hank essentially at first sight.
  • Revolvers Are Just Better: Justified. Revolvers were the only handguns in Hank's native time and Hank is the only gunslinger in a world full of sword-wielding knights.
  • Ridiculous Future Inflation: In anticipation of which, medieval Britain's new decimal currency is the cent, composed of 100 milrays.
  • Rip Van Winkle: Merlin's last spell (the only one that works) puts Hank Morgan to sleep for thirteen centuries, thus returning him to his home time.
  • Rock Beats Laser - Subverted: During a joust Merlin steals Hank Morgan's lasso which he's been using to rope one knight after another. Everyone thinks The Boss is finished... only for him to draw a Colt Dragoon and gun down his charging opponent. Morgan then challenges anyone who thinks he didn't fight fair to attack him then and there — and has an Oh, Crap! moment when several hundred knights charge him at once. The trope would have been played straight if the knights had only known that he had a very, very limited number of bullets.
  • Snipe Hunt: Inverted. Everyone but the Yankee actually expects the harebrained quest they send him on to turn out to be genuine.
  • Spanner in the Works: Discussed. "The best swordsman in the world doesn't need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn't know the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn't prepared for him."
  • Stable Time Loop:
    • Played straight in a tragic You Can't Fight Fate manner.
    • Though averted in one animated adaptation — the hero wakes up in the present-day hospital and immediately goes to an encyclopedia to look up King Arthur... and bursts out laughing when he finds a picture of the king straddling a motorcycle.
  • Stranded with Edison: Hank is impressively knowledgable about the details of 19th-century technology, even leaving aside the part where he's apparently memorized a 6th-century almanac.
  • Talkative Loon: Sandy, though Hank realises she's not actually crazy; she just lives in a world where people seriously believe that enchantments can turn princesses into pigs. Although she goes on and on driving him to distraction, Hank starts warming to Sandy once her quick talking gets him out of a sticky situation.
  • This Is My Boomstick: Hank manages to be quite impressive with a few homemade explosives.
  • Timeline-Altering MacGuffin: The inventor himself... or so it seems.
  • Time Travel: To go backwards: a head injury knocks out Hank, who wakes up 13 centuries ago, in the time of Arthurian Legend. To go forwards: Merlin puts Hank to sleep for 13 centuries. It is also the Ur-Example of Science Fiction Time Travel, a decade before H. G. Wells.
  • The One Thing I Don't Hate About You: Hank sees the aristocracy as lazy, violent and useless warmongers, but he admits their religious zeal is entirely genuine.
  • The Tourney: Hank Morgan uses a lasso.
  • Trapped in Another World: THE Ur-Example, as The Connecticut Yankee ends up in another world and proceeds to (for better or worse) bring massive changes to the setting. Written literally a century before it became a genre of Anime and Light Novels.
  • Trapped in the Past: Hank Morgan gets whacked over the head with a crowbar and finds himself in Arthurian England.
  • The World Is Not Ready: Hank does try his best to modernize the medieval era, but it's obvious too many of the locals are too entrenched in their old ways to accept the change. This leads to the fall of the kingdom and a full blown war.
  • Values Dissonance:
    • In-Universe, between the Yankee and the Arthurian Britons. The reader may also feel some disassociation from the Yankee's worldview, which is probably intentional.
    • Particularly exemplified when a village blacksmith boasts of his wealth: he ate salt meat eight times a month, fresh meat twice a month, and has five chairs despite only having a family of three. Hank is from the 19th century and finds it laughable.
  • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: Sandy speaks like this. Amusingly, she has difficulty understanding 19th-century English, and says as much-in her own semi-comprehensible tongue.