A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

by

Mark Twain

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A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Morgan tries to give Hank an excuse to show off. The call to evening prayer spares Hank from having to demonstrate his sorcery. No matter how immoral they are, the members of the medieval nobility are “deeply and enthusiastically religious.” Everyone prays in their family chapel several times a day. After prayers, Morgan welcomes her guests with a grand banquet. While people sit down at tables according to their social ranks, Morgan’s band plays truly awful and discordant music. People socialize over dinner, with guests drinking heavily and telling improper stories.
Hank’s reputation depends on people’s beliefs, so Morgan’s desire to see it poses a serious danger to him. Since his magical “effects” are all the result of carefully planned applications of technology (or lucky coincidences of natural phenomena like eclipses), there’s no way he can fulfil her request. Luckily for him, despite his aversion to the Roman Catholic Church (in part because it cares more about power than morality), the court’s belief in its rules saves him in this moment.
Themes
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Suddenly, an old woman hobbles into the hall, calling a curse down on Morgan for killing her grandson (the servant she murdered earlier). Unafraid of the curse, Morgan instantly orders the woman to be burnt at the stake. Sandy jumps up to intervene, promising that “The Boss” will dissolve the castle if harm comes to the woman. An alarmed Hank knows that he can’t follow through on the threat. Fortunately, Morgan believes his reputation enough to back down. Then she’s afraid to execute the band leader without Hank’s blessing. Hank makes the band play their song again and since it’s so awful, he gives her permission to execute not just the composer but the whole band. 
Thus far in the book, Hank has asserted his abhorrence of violence, claiming his own interest in fair laws and peace. Yet, in this moment, he reveals himself to be as capricious and bloodthirsty as any of the medieval nobles he reviles. It seems unlikely that a band leader or composer in a democracy would be executed for poor music. But in this moment, Hank’s thirst for power and authority draws him into alignment with Morgan over the values he claims to hold. He even surpasses her violence by condemning the whole band to death.
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During a lull in the after-dinner conversation, Hank hears a scream from the depths of the castle. Morgan offers to take Hank to see the “blithe sight”: her executioners are torturing a man who has been anonymously accused of poaching game that belongs to her. The torture is meant to extract his confession, since if he dies unconfessed, he’ll go to hell. Morgan doesn’t want to be responsible for his damnation, so she needs him to confess before she kills him.
The fate of the prisoner, as related by Hank, indicts the medieval nobility for their cruelty and capriciousness. The tortured man has been accused but not proven guilty, and in Hank’s mind, the torture thus amounts to unjust punishment. However, it’s important to remember that Hank’s mercy is variable; he just executed the whole band. He seems to be more bothered by the man’s lack of a fair trial than the pain of his torture.
Themes
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In the torture chamber, a giant young peasant lies strapped to the rack, a table with winches at the ends. As the executioner puts tension on the winches, it pulls the man’s arms and legs in opposite directions painfully. In the corner, a woman huddles with a small child. A horrified Hank stops the execution. He has the peasant unbound and then dismisses Morgan and her men, leaning on his position as “The Boss” to secure their compliance.
Hank’s description of the torture chamber and instruments paints the time and place as barbaric, inhumane. This barbarity stands in implied contrast to his 19th-century experience. Yet, in the end, he intervenes in this situation on the strength of his reputation as “The Boss”—which he earned through manipulating people’s fears in much the same way the threat of torture scares people into submission.
Themes
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The peasant’s wife rushes to embrace him. Hank, worried about a false accusation by the anonymous informant (whom Hank suspects of being the real poacher), asks to hear the rest of the story. He’s surprised to learn that the peasant is the poacher. The poacher wants to avoid confessing because as long as he doesn’t he can’t be proven guilty and Morgan can’t confiscate his property after his death, leaving his widow and child penniless. His wife wants him to secure a quicker, less painful death with a confession. These bitter laws disgust Hank, but the couple’s bravery impresses him. He promises to send both to his “colony” where he has a “Factory” that turns “groping and grubbing automata into men.”
In Morgan’s castle, the power Hank possesses by virtue of being “the Boss” allows him to interfere with justice. Although he espouses democratic ideals, he freely uses his unelected authority as he sees fit, up to and including allowing guilty criminals to go free. The same sense of superiority that characterizes all medieval people as sub-human machines (as opposed to real, factory-produced “men”) underwrites his casual assumption that his legal judgement is above reproach, whether he’s executing the innocent or freeing the guilty.  
Themes
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