An unnamed narrator (identified in the postscript as M.T.) explains that he met a “curious stranger” (Hank Morgan) at Warwick Castle during a tour. The stranger seems knowledgeable about the medieval artifacts, and when the tour guide explains that the bullet hole in a suit of armor probably happened after the age of chivalry, the stranger mutters that the real story is he shot the knight himself. The narrator is so surprised that he misses the stranger slipping away. Later that night, the narrator sits in his hotel reading tales from Thomas Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur. He transcribes one of the tales into the novel.
The book begins with the narrator—whose initials associate him with Mark Twain, the book’s author—as a tourist. This positions the medieval castle and its contents as exotic objects of curiosity, suggesting that ideas like monarchy are outdated and outmoded. The narrator reading Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur reinforces this feeling of antiquity and oldness, as his collection of Arthurian mythology was first published in the 15th century.
In the tale, Sir Launcelot kills two giants, rescuing the dozens of young ladies they imprisoned. Later that night, he wakes at midnight to the sound of a man—pursued by three other knights—knocking at the gate. Lancelot arms himself and comes to the aid of the man, since three men against one is a dishonorable fight. After Lancelot wins, the three aggressors try to pledge their loyalty to him, but he insists they give it to Sir Kay (the knight they were chasing), riding to Camelot and placing themselves under Guenever’s protection until Kay returns. In the morning, Launcelot secretly trades armor with Sir Kay. Since no one dares to challenge Launcelot, Kay returns to Camelot without suffering any more attacks.
Mark Twain copies a medieval tale directly from Mallory’s book. In many ways, it bears the typical marks of medieval tales, including monsters, midnight visions, and an emphasis on honor. It depicts a world in which defeated men can be trusted to turn themselves in at Camelot, and where knights band together for mutual protection. This world is both idyllic—Launcelot selflessly comes to Kay’s rescue and protection—and full of danger and violence. The ease with which Launcelot impersonates Kay by donning his armor also points to the importance of clothing and appearance as a marker of status throughout the book.
As M.T. finishes reading, the stranger (Hank Morgan) knocks on his door. By way of introduction, he explains that he is an American, born and raised in a working-class Connecticut family. He worked in an arms factory, learning to make all sorts of things and ultimately becoming the supervisor of a few thousand men. One day, during a workplace brawl, Hank received a crack on the head and blacked out. When he came to, a “fellow fresh out of a picture book,” wearing armor and mounted on a horse challenged him to joust. The knight overpowered Hank and led him back to Camelot.
Hank’s story exemplifies the American ideal: democratic social mobility combined with his inherent technical aptitude allow him to rise to a position of authority at a local factory. Factories—where raw materials are transformed into useful and uniform goods—are important symbols of 19th century progress in the book. In light of this, it’s notable that Hank’s factory makes destructive weapons, which suggests a potential inability on his part to create things of lasting good. And, like the knights in the story, he uses violence to settle disputes. Hank’s initial impression of medieval England recalls picture books, hinting at the childishness he will soon attribute to medieval ideals of knighthood and chivalry.
The stranger (Hank Morgan) says he is too tired to go on, but he gives M.T. a book with the story of his experiences. It’s written on parchment, and much of it is a palimpsest—a book written on previously used sheets that have been (imperfectly) erased. M.T. begins to read it.
Hank’s book being a palimpsest offers a touch of medieval realism—parchment was a precious resource and often repurposed in this way. But the idea of overwriting also suggests the way that the novel uses a medieval past to examine the social issues of 19th century America.