The theme of societal order is writ large in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. From the moment that Hank arrives in the sixth century two antithetical visions of society begin to clash, and it becomes increasingly clear throughout the story that only one can survive the epic contest.
On the surface the story might appear to be a simplistic Enlightenment polemic against the “superstitions” of the bygone era of crude, unrealistic “Faith”. Certainly for a long time Hank himself seems content merely to internally rant against the primitive, repressive conditions in which he finds himself even as he externally works to subvert the “barbaric” culture of the sixth century and replace it piece by piece with the “civilization” of the nineteenth. The repeated humiliations of Merlin’s pitiful magical mummery at the hands of Hank’s seemingly omnipotent scientific wisdom serve to underscore that Hank, at least, does not have much place in his worldview and praxis for the supernatural. Like Lewis’ proverbial “materialist magician”, Hank worships believes that if only one applies “Reason” to the problems of the world they will be progressively conquered. As well, the natives whom Hank secretly inducts into his modernity-driven educational and technological apparatus seem to be the very picture of pitiable slaves to primitivism just waiting for an enlightened deliverer to come along and validate their already existent internal sense that something just isn’t quite right with the way society is run in the sixth century.
And yet, as the story progresses even Hank finds that being a creature of profound social connections just like everyone else, not even he with his apparently super-advanced nineteenth century thinking is able to entirely resist falling into the patterns of daily living in the sixth century. Ultimately he even accepts them as in some deeper sense “normal” despite all his own contrary conditioning. Thus he paradoxically labors for years to get King Arthur to abolish slavery while at the same time throughout that period ends up using his own considerable power as Arthur’s right hand man to force his will upon the unwilling. Even his enlightened spirit of tolerance winds up being in no small sense forced to adapt itself to the exigencies of the sixth century, since in the end, democratic ambitions or no, he is forced to devolve to the mere application of brute force to secure his plans against the uprising of the knights and the Church. Indeed, it is perhaps ironic that he spends so much time ranting against the repression of freedom performed by the Church only to find himself the practioner of various schemes to repress the Church in the name of freedom!
In the end, Hank’s scheme for revolutionizing the society of the sixth century is defeated, again ironically, by the very logic which he himself used to justify his attempts at creating a revolution. For just as he himself had noted earlier in the story (Chapter 13), there is something bigger than the institutions with which one contends in society. In the sixth century, for all Hank’s superficial dismissal, it turns out that the Church is no mere “extraneous institution”, no “mere clothing”, and certainly not the “rags” that Hank proclaims repressive monarchical governments demand people die for. For it is the Church who patches up a truce between Arthur’s warring knights and the Church who, with her dreadful weapon of Interdict, more powerful than any of Hank’s technological machinations could ever hope to be, mobilizes the society of England to fight against hopeless odds and drive out the Yankee revolutionary (Chapter 41). Hank’s technology wins the Battle of the Sand Belt, but loses the war for England’s heart and soul.
But the crowning irony comes at the end when the reviled and humiliated Merlin, the practitioner of supposedly “poor little parlor magic” supposedly fit only for taking wild stabs at predicting the weather, at last vindicates the cause of “superstition” against that of “Enlightenment”. Hank’s spectacular array of gatling guns wiped out the cream of England’s knightly army, but not all the Electricity and Reason and Education and Democracy could save Hank himself from the magical sleep inflicted upon him by a backward little sorcerer from the unenlightened trash-heap of history.
Whether it was Twain’s intent or not, it seems to me that one lesson the story teaches is that social order is something far deeper and enduring than Modernity imagines it to be. The work of changing society takes centuries, not a few years. Religion cannot be relegated to the category of mere relative “social glue” and made subservient to the allegedly “objective” truth of Reason. Social order is not amenable to the rigid sterility of Scientific Laws and vague mumblings about the Superiority of Progress. The child of the Enlightenment ends his days on earth alienated by a vast gulf of uncrossable centuries from everything that, he had come to realize too late, made his life truly worth living.
[Originally written May 2004 for Peter Leithart's Literature Colloquium at New St. Andrews College.]