A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

At first blush, my choice of Mark Twain as my first foray into a SteamPunk booklist might seem odd. Of all of the books he wrote, perhaps this and 'Tom Sawyer Abroad' might fit the category. Actually it shouldn't seem odd, it's damn odd. And while it rates highly on the Steampunk factor, I'm left wondering if it's not a fluke.

An unexpected meeting.

I  chose it for these reasons:

  • It is the only book in the list which I had read before
  • I had recently heard a discussion about it on 'Chivalry Today' which piqued my interest of the final battles between Sir Boss' chosen 53 and the flower of English chivalry.
  • As it deals with time travel and Victorian atemporality, it dovetails with some of last summer's steamish reading. (Wells' "The Time Machine' and Verne's 'In the year 2889')
  • I hoped that it would prove a safe place  for me to explore the issues of race and culture that came up in the Victorientalist debates of the early summer.

Steampunk Factor Rubric:

Technofantasy: 6/10  - The technofantasy is pretty high here. Not only is the method of time travel pretty far fetched, but the amount of knowledge and mastery of every skill that Sir Boss attains is practically worthy of an S.M. Stirling novel. But it's the story social commentary that Twain is really trying to push here, so I almost wonder if a soft SF argument could be made.

Neo-Victorian: 10/10 - Sir Boss' attitudes are entirely keeping with his age and social status. One of the things I like is how current 'conservative' economic views are shown as progressive values. How things have changed in the last 121 years.

Retrofuturism: 9/10 This is about a 19th century person getting tossed back in time and bringing the advancements of the modern world to the benighted 6th century. Very retrofuturist for Twain's take on the 6th (15th) century.

Steampunk Score: 25/30 = 84.333% brass content

My reaction to this story was a complete surprise to me. I remembered from my childhood a rollicking medieval tale with Sir Boss yucking it up over the medieval yokels but eventually learning some thing of value. It was that, but the degree to which he yucked it up far surpassed the little that he learned. It was not a give and take.

This summer saw a firestorm of anti-imperialist sentiment within the steampunk world with the Victorientalist debates. I thought that my own personal views on 19th c. hubris might be given a bit of atest in this book. It did quite well. I felt it safe as it colonized not another culture or race, but the history of the writer's own culture. And  he did that, without a glance back in that refreshing bravado that I waslooking for.  Twain  completely evicerates the culture and practices of the Arthurian world.

But sadly it proves that I am a post-modern, even when I wanted it, I cannot stomach it. As a medievalist and former serious re-enactor I could not help but be annoyed and had to pick apart the many historical inaccuracies. On the other hand as the above illustration shows, the gist of commentary was rather  socially progressive. Oh what to do?

As a time travel story, it is interesting, Twain takes care as an author to deal with the issues of temporal paradox and perenial questions like how such a strong realm as Arthur's Britain might be weakened for the Saxon conquest. Beyond that, time travel is simply a way to get a modern voice into a medieval setting. It does make me want to read more of Twain's Mediaevalia, such as Prince & the Pauper and 1601.

Finally I had heard recently that the last battle between  Sir Boss' forces and the combined might of the Chivalry presaged the Great War. It does a great job of  describing the consequences of industrialized warfare but doesn't go far enough.  I found that the unravelling and the end happened to quickly and wished it might have been dealt with in a longer manner.

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