A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court


Mark Twain

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A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: Allusions 6 key examples

Definition of Allusion
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to... read full definition
Chapter 4: Sir Dinadan the Humorist
Explanation and Analysis—Literary Heroes:

In Chapter 4, Hank references multiple literary heroes, who he refers to during a moment of contemplation: 

I had read “Tom Jones” and “Roderick Random,” and other books of that kind, and knew that the highest and first ladies and gentlemen in England had remained little or no cleaner in their talk, and in the morals and conduct which such talk implies, clear up to a hundred years ago; in fact clear into our own nineteenth century—in which century, broadly speaking, the earliest samples of the real lady and real gentleman discoverable in English history—or in European history, for that matter—may be said to have made their appearance. Suppose Sir Walter, instead of putting the conversation into the mouths of his characters, had allowed the characters to speak for themselves? We should have had talk from Rachel and Ivanhoe and the soft lady Rowena which would embarrass a tramp in our day.

Tom Jones, Roderick Random, Rachel, Ivanhoe, and Lady Rowena are all protagonists of famous works of historical fiction. Tom Jones and Roderick Random are characters in novels written by Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett, both during the 18th century. Both novels are known for their robust and sometimes earthy humor, as well as their portrayal of characters from various social classes. In referencing these works, Twain highlights the fact that characters who are meant to represent the upper echelons of society often engage in conversations that might seem shocking or inappropriate by contemporary standards. Twain does this to make a commentary on how tastes and sensibilities can change over time.

Rachel and Ivanhoe are characters from Sir Walter Scott's novel Ivanhoe. Hank suggests that if Scott had portrayed these characters more realistically, their speech and behavior would have been less refined and more in line with the standards of his own time. This is a commentary on how literature often idealizes and romanticizes historical periods.

Twain makes these allusions to critique romanticized portrayals of historical periods in literature. He suggests that the dialogue and behavior of characters in earlier works did not accurately reflect the realities of those times and that literature has often portrayed historical figures in a way that may not have been accurate. 

Chapter 6: The Eclipse
Explanation and Analysis—Explorers :

In Chapter 6, Hank compares himself to the explorers Christopher Columbus and Hernán Cortez: 

You see, it was the eclipse. It came into my mind, in the nick of time, how Columbus, or Cortez, or one of those people, played an eclipse as a saving trump once, on some savages, and I saw my chance I could play it myself, now; and it wouldn’t be any plagiarism, either, because I should get it in nearly a thousand years ahead of those parties.

Columbus and Cortez are historical figures known for their famous expeditions during the Age of Exploration in the late 15th and 16th centuries. The term "playing an eclipse as a saving trump" alludes to the idea that these historical figures strategically used knowledge of eclipses as a powerful and unexpected advantage in their interactions with indigenous populations. Columbus is often credited with using his knowledge of an upcoming lunar eclipse to intimidate and gain favor with the indigenous people of Jamaica during his voyages.

In referencing Columbus and Cortez, Twain suggests to the reader that Hank is considering using his knowledge of a future eclipse as a strategic advantage in his dealings with the people of King Arthur's Court. In having Hank compare himself to someone like Columbus and Cortez, Twain also characterizes him as conceited and manipulating, if not clever.  All in all, these allusions serve to underscore Hank's resourceful nature. 

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Chapter 7: Merlin’s Tower
Explanation and Analysis—Another Robinson Crusoe :

In Chapter 7, Hank compares himself to a popular literary hero: 

I saw that I was just another Robinson Crusoe cast away on an uninhabited island, with no society but some more or less tame animals, and if I wanted to make life bearable I must do as he did—invent, contrive, create, reorganize things; set brain and hand to work, and keep them busy. Well, that was in my line.

Robinson Crusoe refers to the fictional character from Daniel Defoe's novel The Life and Strange Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe is a well-known literary character who becomes stranded on a deserted island and, much like Hank, must use his resourcefulness and ingenuity to survive. Crusoe is famous for his ability to invent solutions to the challenges he faces while living in isolation. 

Twain was writing for a younger audience, and Robinson Crusoe was a character they would likely have been familiar with; in comparing himself to Robinson Crusoe, Hank characterizes himself as a bold and adventurous hero. Hank also underscores his own determination to adapt and thrive in a foreign, unfamiliar time. Hank, like Crusoe, is willing to "invent, contrive, create" and "reorganize" things to meet the challenges of his new circumstances. Hank's reference to Crusoe also reflects how he sees the setting in which he finds himself as little better than an uninhabited island, since he has to innovate and fend for himself like Crusoe did.

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Chapter 8: The Boss
Explanation and Analysis—The Noblemen :

In Chapter 8, after having consolidated his power, Hank reflects and references multiple prominent English families: 

I stood here, at the very spring and source of the second great period of the world’s history; and could see the trickling stream of that history gather, and deepen and broaden, and roll its mighty tides down the far centuries; and I could note the upspringing of adventurers like myself in the shelter of its long array of thrones: De Montforts, Gavestons, Mortimers, Villierses. 

The names in the passage all refer to historical individuals or families who played prominent roles in the history of England. Simon de Montfort was a 13th-century nobleman known for his role in the conflict between King Henry III and the English barons; Piers Gaveston was a favorite of King Edward II and was executed by nobles who opposed his influence. The Mortimers were a powerful noble family during the medieval period, and "Villierses" is likely a reference to the Villiers family, which included George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, who had considerable influence during the reign of James I.

In naming and comparing himself to these chivalrous figures, Hank characterizes himself as courageous and worthy of praise. In mentioning these historical figures and events, Twain highlights how history has evolved and progressed from the time of King Arthur to the periods referenced. All in all, Twain's use of allusion here adds historical context while adding a sense of gravity to the narrative. 

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Chapter 13: Freemen!
Explanation and Analysis—Rebels:

In Chapter 13, Hank makes an allusion to Jack Cade and Wat Tyler:

The thing that would have best suited the circus side of my nature would have been to resign the Boss ship and get up an insurrection and turn it into a revolution; but I knew that the Jack Cade or the Wat Tyler who tries such a thing without first educating his materials up to revolution grade is almost absolutely certain to get left.

The mention of Jack Cade refers to Jack Cade's Rebellion, which occurred in England in 1450 during the reign of King Henry VI. Jack Cade was the leader of a popular uprising of commoners against the nobility and the crown. Cade's Rebellion was characterized by its chaotic and violent nature, with demands for various reforms and grievances against the ruling elite. By alluding to Jack Cade, the passage invokes a historical example of an insurrection that ultimately failed due to lack of organization and leadership. 

The reference to Wat Tyler is also an allusion to a historical figure associated with a popular revolt. Wat Tyler was a leader of the Peasants' Revolt in 1381 in England. This rebellion was driven by similar grievances of the common people against oppressive taxation and feudal conditions. The Peasants' Revolt, like Jack Cade's Rebellion, ended with the leaders being killed and the rebellion suppressed. The mention of Wat Tyler adds another layer to the idea that uneducated or poorly organized uprisings often meet with failure.

Both of these revolutionary figures and these historical events would have been known to readers at the time. In alluding to them, Hank depicts himself as a heroic leader, as he, too, criticizes English government and wishes to introduce democracy instead. Although he contemplates the idea of inciting an insurrection or revolution, Hank is aware that doing so without proper preparation and education of the people involved is likely to result in failure, as history has shown with figures like Jack Cade and Wat Tyler. These historical references serve as cautionary examples, reinforcing the idea that successful revolutions require careful planning, organization, and education. By incorporating these allusions, Twain adds depth to Hank's thoughts and underscores the theme of societal change and the challenges of achieving it.

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Chapter 18: In the Queen’s Dungeons
Explanation and Analysis—Vesuvius:

In Chapter 18, Hank makes a reference to Vesuvius as a way to describe Queen Morgan le Fay: 

She was a Vesuvius. As a favor, she might consent to warm a flock of sparrows for you, but then she might take that very opportunity to turn herself loose and bury a city.

Vesuvius refers to the infamous volcano that erupted and destroyed the ancient Roman city of Pompeii in 79 C.E., a reference most readers of the time would have been aware of. This allusion to Vesuvius alludes to the idea that the Queen possesses intense and potentially destructive emotions or qualities. By comparing the Queen to Vesuvius, Twain suggests that she has the potential for explosive and uncontrollable outbursts of emotion or actions.

The image of a flock of sparrows contrasted with a buried city also emphasizes the queen's unpredictability. Just as Mount Vesuvius could go from a relatively benign state to a devastating eruption, Morgan le Fay's demeanor can shift from a helpful or kind gesture (warming sparrows) to a destructive and harmful one (burying a city).

Overall, this allusion to Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii serves to underscore the idea that the Queen's temperament is volatile and capable of extreme and unexpected reactions. It also adds depth and vividness to the description of the Queen's character and behavior.  Using a well-known historical allusion helps readers grasp the potential consequences of her actions. All in all, Hank's evocative description characterizes the Queen as fickle, chaotic, and unpredictable, just like a volcano. 

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