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Mark Twain has gone down in history as one of the greatest (possibly THE greatest) writer that the USA has yet produced. His masterworks and best known books are normally thought to be Tom Sawyer, and in particular Huckleberry Finn, with its daring comments about social values and slavery, wrapped up in a charming and action-packed story. A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur (its original title when published in London), was written between 1886 and 1889, a turbulent period in Twain's (or Samuel Clemens' - his real name) life. Huckleberry Finn had been published the year before. Far from being instantly acknowledged as a classic it was even banned by some libraries as "trash only suitable for the slums" although the author was not too concerned , quipping "that will sell us 25,000 copies for sure." Of greater concern was his financial state. Having been shown an automatic typesetting machine Clemens had appreciated the possibilities and invested pretty much his entire fortune. The only problem was that other more advanced machines were brought out at the same time and Clemens was left having invested in the Betamax video recorder of its day. All this is relevant in understanding the tone of the book. The basic plot is simple: a Yankee from the 19th century is somehow transported back in time to 6th century Arthurian England. Being unhappy with the way things work there he uses his more advanced knowledge and understanding to set himself up as Arthur's right hand man and "improve" the society by introducing 19th century technology and practices. Superficially this seems to be the satirical fare typical of Twain's brilliant short stories, and sure enough his observations on modern society seen through its construction from scratch in the ancient world are razor sharp and often achingly funny. The simple practicalities that Twain manages to grasp, such as not being able to scratch y
our nose while wearing armour, pointed out in his irreverent style, make the book worth reading on its own. The difference to earlier works seem to creep up in the middle of the book (just as the scale of his financial blunder was becoming apparent during writing). It seems to me to take on a darker and almost sarcastic tone, with the innadequacies of modern society exposed more viciously. Possible allusions to such things as slavery and the bloodbath of the American Civil War (still in living memory to most of his readers) start to permeate. Without giving away the plot, the book comes to an apocalyptic and extremely distressing ending which is unexpected and actually a grim portent of events in Flanders just 20 years later. If you like books full of sweetness and light this probably isn't for you. I think it may well be the ultimate in black humour: the humorous fun-poking passages really are hilarious, and the darker parts really are very black. It's not a beach novel but is likely to be one of the funniest, most thought-provoking and memorable novels you'll ever read.
When Connecticut mechanic and foreman Hank Morgan is knocked unconscious, he wakes not to the familiar scenes of nineteenth-century America but to the bewildering sights and sounds of sixth-century Camelot. Although confused at first and quickly imprisoned, he soon realises that his knowledge of the future can transform his fate. Correctly predicting a solar eclipse from inside his prison cell, Morgan terrifies the people of England into releasing him and swiftly establishes himself as the most powerful magician in the land, stronger than Merlin and greatly admired by Arthur himself. But the Connecticut Yankee wishes for more than simply a place at the Round Table. Soon, he begins a far greater struggle: to bring American democratic ideals to Old England. Complex and fascinating, A Connecticut Yankee is a darkly comic consideration of the nature of human nature and society.