As a social and political commentary, Mark Twain tells us the adventures of a 19th century technician in who travels back to King Arthur's time and tries to transform 6th century England with technology and ideologies from his own time. The main character, known for most of the story as "the Boss," is an American factory manager with a knack for technology. He is sent back in time during a fight with one of his underlings, who hits him on the head with a piece of iron. Upon waking up in 6th century England, it takes him a while to accept where he is, and by the time he does, he has been taken captive by one of King Arthur's knights and made himself a peasant friend, Clerence, who is able to bring him up to speed on some of the local customs. As a knight's captive, after a dull evening around naive, braggart noblemen (by the Yankee's standards), he finds himself sentenced to death by burning. Using his own knowledge and information from Clerence, the Yankee is able to use a fortuitously timed eclipse to avoid execution and make himself second in the kingdom after Arthur. He is able to use his technical knowledge thenceforth to set up "miracles" to maintain and reinforce his power. Through the eclipse, the Yankee is able to establish his reputation as a magician, drawing the unwanted attention and rivalry of Merlin. The Yankee is able to keep him in check, though not without embarrassing Merlin on a number of occasions, provoking Merlin's resentment.
With Clerence's help, the Yankee begins building factories and schools in secret. His plan is to gradually educate the populace, introduce modern technology, generally raise living standards, and convince the people to abolish the monarchy in favor of democracy. He creates telephone lines, builds guns, and so on. After the foundations for this have been laid, the Yankee is drawn into a mission, led by a young lady named Alisande (Sandy), to rescue princesses from a castle. The princesses turn out to be pigs, and the castle, a sty and cottage. The Yankee must resolve the situation while pretending to see them as Sandy sees them so as not to appear crazy to 6th century Englishmen (whom he views as equally crazy). This mission accomplished, he and Sandy accompany some pilgrims to the Valley of Holiness, where a miraculous spring has stopped running. When they arrive, Merlin is trying to restart the spring through magic. When he gives up, the Yankee reinforces his superiority by solving the problem using technology under the guise of magic, topped off with fireworks made by his factory in a spectacularly dramatic display. Rather disrespectfully (though no one seems to pay any mind to this disrespect), the Yankee also uses some of the monks' pious quirks to his own advantage, using them to generate energy to create products that he sells for his own profit. Nonetheless, he has begun to change; he sees Sandy's virtues and accepts her as a friend rather than an annoying guide that he must put up with.
Upon returning, Arthur and the Yankee create a standing army and then tour England in disguise as peasants. The Yankee encounters many difficulties during this time with Arthur's stubborn belief, engrained through years of training, that the nobility is superior simply by virtue of being born noble, and that this counters any training or education they may have. This is contrary to the Yankee's typical American belief that a person can and should be able to rise in the world by virtue of his or her own merits. His gradual change also allows him, however, to see elements of good in Arthur's character. The two are accidentally sold as slaves, but the Yankee is able to escape and call Clerence for help.
Some years pass, and the Yankee marries Sandy and has a child. The church, however, wary of him, eventually plots to get him out of the way. They ship the three of to an island for the child's health, and by the time the Yankee returns to the mainland, they have effectuated their plan. The Yankee, Clerence, and a band of boys make a last stand in which they electrocute an army of knights. They are unable to dispose of the bodies, however, which proves to be their undoing. The Yankee is, ironically, despite his own unbelief in magic, put to sleep and returned to his time by Merlin.
Best part of story, including ending:
The social, political, and economic issues Mark Twain raises are interesting to reflect upon in the context of the book.
Best scene in story:
At the end, Merlin sends the Yankee to his time through magic - wonderfully ironic, especially when one takes into consideration the Yankee's confidence in his technological greatness. We are today in some ways guilty of the same.
Opinion about the main character:
He's a bit arrogant, especially at the beginning, though he does begin to change to see some of the good things in the people of the 6th century.
In this short novel, Twain undertook to make an enjoyable story for children that also highlighted a couple pet peeves of his own. First, the "courtly honor" of knightly times was, to him, a delusion that led directly to the destruction of several hundred thousand men in the US during the Civil War. He despised Sir Walter Scott and his whol set of Waverly novels with what he considered to be the pernicious themes of knightly honor. Here, he undertakes to show the exact same characters as ignorant, power hungry tyrants. Second, the idea of technology as a boon bothered him. Certainly, he accepted the value of much of technology, but in his view it was overstated in its value so he used this anachronistic story to highlight technology hurting, rather than helping, his main character and the ignorant selfishness of supposed "knights."
The review of this Book prepared by Kelly Whiting