A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court

Thursday, August 16th, 2007

A few weeks back, while discussing the notion of bootstrapping society, a colleague mentioned that he had a first edition of A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court, and he’d lend it to me if it would inspire me to read it.

I waved off the offer, not wanting to risk even a small chance of harming a rare book, but he made sure I got the book, and I made sure I read it.

One great advantage to reading the first edition is that it comes lavishly illustrated by Daniel Beard. (And one curiosity is that the first edition’s cover says A Yankee in King Arthur’s Court — the Connecticut doesn’t appear until the title page.)

At any rate, the book matched my expectations in some ways and defied them in others. For instance, from what I’d osmotically absorbed over the years, I’d assumed the book was largely about the protagonist’s Yankee ingenuity and technical superiority over the primitives of King Arthur’s court:

Twain’s book precipitated an entire sub-genre of science fiction, characterized by the depiction of a modern time traveller arriving at an ancient society, anachronistically introducing modern technologies and institutions and completely changing its character.

The best-known example is L. Sprague de Camp‘s Lest Darkness Fall in which an American archaeologist of the 1930s arrives at Ostrogothic Italy and manages to prevent the Dark Ages by introducing printing and other modern inventions. Leo Frankowski wrote the Conrad Stargard series where a 20th century Pole arrives in 13th century Poland and by rapid industrialization manages to defeat the Mongol invasion, as well as completely annihilating the Teutonic Knights. Poul Anderson presented an antithesis in his story The Man Who Came Early, where a modern American who finds himself in Viking Iceland fails to introduce modern technologies despite being an intelligent, competent and well-trained engineer, and finds that in a 10th century environment 10th century technologies work best.

In actuality, the book is more about the modern liberal ideals of America, as it repeatedly attacks the notions of hereditary aristocracy, slavery, and an established church.

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