One of the highlights of my fall semester has been a chronological study of Arthurian literature with some of our college Juniors. Having begun in the thirteenth century with Geoffrey of Monmouth, we have now reached the end of the nineteenth century with Mark Twain. In his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Twain employs his customary wit and biting satire to tell the tale of an aggressively modern New Englander unceremoniously sucked backward through time (and space), only to be spat out in King Arthur’s court. Ever the practical man, once our Yankee realizes he has no way back to the future, he decides to bring the future to the sixth century, greasing the wheels of progress by introducing newspapers, dynamite, and bicycles to the poor, benighted medievals. Even more important than these mechanical inventions, however, is his enlightened understanding of the moral superiority of American Democracy over the slavish institution of monarchy. Soon enough, our Yankee is certain, he will convince these uneducated yokels that “there is nothing diviner about a king than there is about a tramp,” sending monarchy the way of the dodo.
But years into his unplanned sojourn, our Yankee truly sees King Arthur for perhaps the first time. On a walkabout through the country disguised as peasants to experience “the humbler life of the people,” the Yankee and the king stumble across a wretched scene: a grieving mother dying of smallpox beside the body of her husband while her sole remaining child succumbs to the disease in the loft above. Despite the Yankee’s spirited entreaties that the king flee the hut to preserve his own life, Arthur climbs the ladder to the loft, only to return moments later:
He came forward into the light; upon his breast lay a slender girl of fifteen. She was but half conscious; she was dying of smallpox. Here was heroism at its last and loftiest possibility, its utmost summit; this was challenging death in the open field unarmed, with all the odds against the challenger, no reward set upon the contest, and no admiring world in silks and cloth of gold to gaze and applaud; and yet the king’s bearing was as serenely brave as it had always been in those cheaper contests where knight meets knight in equal fight and clothed in protecting steel. He was great, now; sublimely great. The rude statues of his ancestors in his palace should have an addition—I would see to that; and it would not be a mailed king killing a giant or a dragon, like the rest, it would be a king in commoner’s garb bearing death in his arms that a peasant mother might look her last upon her child and be comforted.
Faced with the possibility of slow, painful, and ignoble death by disease, Arthur transcends the Yankee’s perceptions of the scourge of monarchy. Instead of the “cheap and hollow artificiality” the Yankee expects of someone who rules through inheritance rather than election, Arthur reveals a “quality” that argues that, just maybe, there can be something noble even in a king. Maybe Arthur is not so woefully unenlightened as the Yankee had believed, nor his subjects such fools for recognizing his authority.
In our class discussion, one of my students noted the significance of the Christ-like imagery attributed to Arthur in this scene. It is only when Arthur mirrors the self-sacrifice modeled by Christ that the Yankee realizes he has misjudged and too-readily condemned his neighbor across space and time. And if this image of fraternal understanding means anything at all, perhaps it encourages us that, if the Yankee can see the goodness in a neighbor separated from his own assumptions and ideologies by thirteen hundred years (and an ocean), we can see it in ours separated from us by a mere street or zip code.