Hank Morgan, the protagonist of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, is torn from nineteenth-century America and transported back in time to sixth-century England. The novel uses Hank’s experiences to explore the contrast between the democratic, egalitarian ideals of the American “New World” and the “Old World” ideals of medieval England. This contrast is a favorite theme of Hank’s, who is a big fan of the New World and of the revolutions—American, French, and Industrial—that advanced democracy. Hank describes himself as a “true Yankee,” a working-class man born and raised in Connecticut who rose through the ranks at the local arms factory to become the boss of 1,000 workers. As a self-made man, Hank respects those who earn their position through hard work. Therefore, he respects (and feels a sense of competition toward) medieval blacksmith Dowley, who worked his way into the medieval version of middle-class success after a childhood of poverty. Hank resents the limits that the monarchy’s strict, hierarchal social classes impose on merit. Despite his relative wealth and his advanced technological know-how, the fact that he wasn’t born with a noble title limits his influence. This contrast between a democratic meritocracy (where the best and smartest rise to the top) and an aristocracy can be seen with acute clarity during the episode where Hank and King Arthur examine army officer candidates. Hank’s man, although clearly much more qualified, is a commoner, and so he loses to an unqualified but nobly born knight.
Although Hank believes in the New World’s inherent superiority, the book also examines its limits. The contrast Hank draws between the America of his birth and medieval England becomes less distinct when he considers the inhumanity of slavery in both societies. Hank may think it’s better for Sir Launcelot to channel his fighting instincts into a 19th-century innovation like the stock market, but Launcelot’s aggressive trading is nevertheless violent enough to instigate a civil war. The book also shows how technological progress doesn't automatically assure the public good. Some of Hank’s technological innovations allow for fast, accurate communication across the kingdom (the telephone and telegraph lines); but other novel products, like land mines, bring nothing but wholesale destruction. In this way, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court praises many of the ideals of New World American democracy while simultaneously suggesting that it’s challenging—if not impossible—to create a just and human society regardless of time, place, or political philosophy.
New World vs. Old World ThemeTracker
New World vs. Old World Quotes in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
I was not the only prisoner present […]. Poor devils, many of them were maimed, hacked, carved, in a frightful way; and their hair, their faces, their clothing, were caked with black […] blood. They were suffering sharp physical pain […] and weariness, and hunger and thirst, no doubt; and at least none had given them the comfort of a wash, or even the poor charity of a lotion for their wounds; yet you never heard them utter a moan or a groan, or saw them show any sign of restlessness, or any disposition to complain. The thought was forced upon me: “The rascals—they have served other people so in their day; it being their own turn, now, they were not expecting any better treatment than this; so their philosophical bearing is not an outcome of mental training, intellectual fortitude, reasoning; it is mere animal training; they are white Indians.”
[…] many of the terms used in the most matter-of-fact way by this great assemblage of first ladies and gentlemen in the country would have made a Comanche blush. Indelicacy is too mild a term to convey the idea. However, I had read “Tom Jones” and “Roderick Ransom,” 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.
I have reflected, Sir King. For a lesson, I will let this darkness proceed, and spread night in the world; but whether I blot out the sun for good or restore it, shall rest with you. These are the terms, to wit: You shall remain king over all your dominions, and receive all the glories and honors that belong to the kingship; but you shall appoint me your perpetual minister and executive, and give me for my services one per cent of such actual increase of revenue over and above its present amount as I may succeed in creating for the state. If I can’t live on that, I shan’t ask anybody to give me a lift. Is it satisfactory?
There were no books, pens, paper, or ink, and no glass in the openings they believed to be windows. It is a little thing—glass is—until it is absent, then it becomes a big thing. But perhaps the worst of all was, that there wasn’t any sugar, coffee, tea, or tobacco. 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.
They were the quaintest and simplest and trustingest race; why, they were nothing but rabbits. It was pitiful for a person born in a wholesome free atmosphere to listen to their humble and hearty outpourings of loyalty toward their king and Church and nobility; as if they had any more occasion to love and honor king and Church and noble than a slave has to love and honor the lash, or a dog has to love and honor the stranger that kicks him! Why, dear me, any kind of royalty, howsoever modified, any kind of aristocracy, howsoever pruned, is rightly an insult; but if you are born and brought up under that sort of arrangement you probably never find it out for yourself, and don’t believe it when someone else tells you.
Four years rolled by—and then! Well, you would never imagine it in the world. Unlimited power is the ideal thing when it is in safe hands. The despotism of heaven is the one absolutely perfect government. An earthly despotism would be the absolutely perfect earthly government, if the conditions were the same, namely, the despot the perfectest individual of the human race, and his lease of life perpetual. But as a perishable perfect man must die and leave his despotism in the hands of an imperfect successor, an earthly despotism is not merely a bad form of government, it is the worst form that is possible.
Meantime, it was getting hotter and hotter in there. You see, the sun was beating down and warming up the iron more and more all the time. Well, when you are hot, that way, every little thing irritates you. When I trotted, I rattled like a crate of dishes, and that annoyed me; and moreover I couldn’t seem to stand that shield slatting and banging, now about my breast, now around my back; and if I dropped into a walk my joints creaked and screeched in that wearisome way a wheelbarrow does, and as we didn’t create any breeze at that gait, I was like to get fried in that stove; and besides, the quieter you went the heavier the iron settled down on you and the more and more tons you seemed to weigh every minute.
So to speak, I was become a stockholder in a corporation where nine hundred and ninety-four of the members furnished all the money and did all the work, and the other six elected themselves a permanent board of direction and took all the dividends. It seemed to me that what the nine hundred and ninety-four dupes needed was a new deal. 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.
La Cote was much depressed, for he had scored here the worst failure of his campaign. He had not worked off a cake; yet he had tried all the tricks of the trade, even to the washing of a hermit; but the hermit died. This was indeed a bad failure, for this animal would now be dubbed a martyr, and would take his place among the saints of the Roman calendar. Thus made he his moan, this poor Sir La Cote Male Taile, and sorrowed passing sore. And so my heart bled for him, and I was moved to comfort and stay him. Wherefore I said—
“Forbear to grieve, fair knight, for this is not a defeat. We have brains you and I; and for such as have brains there are no defeats, but only victories.”
The newest prisoner’s crime was a mere remark which he had made. He said he believed that men were about all alike, and one man as good as another, barring clothes. He said he believed that if you were to strip the nation naked and send a stranger through the crowd, he couldn’t tell the king from a quack doctor, nor a duke from a hotel clerk. Apparently here was a man whose brains had not been reduced to an ineffectual mush by idiotic training. I set him loose and sent him off to the Factory.
Early in the afternoon we overtook another procession of pilgrims; but in this one there was no merriment, no jokes, no laughter, no playful ways, nor any happy giddiness, whether of youth or of age. Yet both were here […] Even the children were smileless; there was not a face among all these half a hundred people but was cast down and bore that set expression of hopelessness which is red of long and hard trials and old acquaintance with despair. They were slaves.
A man is a man, at bottom. Whole ages of abuse and oppression cannot crush the manhood clear out of him. Whoever thinks it a mistake, is himself mistaken. Yes, there is plenty good enough material for a republic in the most degraded people that ever existed—even the Russians; plenty of manhood in them—even in the Germans—if one could but force it out of its timid and suspicious privacy, to overthrow and trample in the mud any throne that was ever set up and any nobility that ever supported it. We should see certain things yet, let us hope and believe. First, a modified monarchy, till Arthur’s days were done, then the destruction of the throne, nobility abolished, every member of it bound out to some useful trade, universal suffrage instituted, and the whole government placed in the hands of the men and women of the nation there to remain.
Self-made man, you know. They know how to talk. They do deserve more credit than any other breed of men, yes, that is true; and they are among the very first to find it out, too. He told how he had begun life an orphan lad without money and without friends able to help him; how he had lived as the slaves of the meanest master lived; how his day’s work was from sixteen to eighteen hours long, and yielded him only enough black bread to keep him in a half-fed condition; how his faithful endeavors finally attracted the attention of a good blacksmith, who came near knocking him dead with kindness by suddenly offering, when he was totally unprepared, to take him as his bound apprentice for nine years and give him board and clothes and teach him the trade—or “mystery” as Dowley called it.
This same infernal law had existed in our own south in my own time, more than thirteen hundred years later, and under it hundreds of freemen who could not prove that they were freemen had been sold into lifelong slavery without the circumstance making any particular impression upon me; but the minute law and the auction block came into my own personal experience, a think which had been merely improper became suddenly hellish. Well that’s the way we are made.
We took up our line of march and passed out of Cambenet at noon; and it seemed to me unaccountably strange and odd that the King of England and his chief minister, marching manacled and fettered and yoked, in a slave convoy, could move by all manner of idle men and women, and under windows where sat the sweet and the lovely, and yet never attract a curious eye, never provoke a single remark. Dear, dear, it only shows that there is nothing diviner about a king than there is about a tramp, after all. He is just a cheap and hollow artificiality when you don’t know he is a king. But reveal his quality, and dear me it takes your very breath away to look at him. I reckon we are all fools. Born so, no doubt.
So the world thought there was a vast matter at stake here, and the world was right, but it was not the one they had in their minds. No, a far vaster one was upon the cast of this die: the life of knight-errantry. I was a champion, it was true, but not the champion of the frivolous black arts, I was the champion of hard unsentimental common sense and reason. I was entering the lists to either destroy knight-errantry or be its victim.
The worship of royalty being founded in unreason, these graceful and harmless cats would easily become as sacred as any other royalties, and indeed more so, because it would presently be noticed that they hanged nobody, beheaded nobody, imprisoned nobody, inflicted no cruelties or injustices of any sort, and so must be worthy of a deeper love and reverence than the customary human king, and would certainly get it. The eyes of the whole harried world would soon be fixed upon this humane and gentle system, and royal butchers would presently begin to disappear; their subjects would fill the vacancies with catlings from our own royal house; we should become a factory; we should supply the thrones of the world; within forty years all Europe would be governed by cats, wand we should furnish the cats. The reign of universal peace would begin then, to end no more forever…M-e-e-e-yow-ow-ow—fzt—wow!
The sun rose presently and sent its unobstructed splendors over the land, and we saw a prodigious host moving slowly toward us, with the steady drift and aligned front of a wave of the sea. Nearer and nearer it came, and more and more sublimely imposing became its aspect; yes, all England were there, apparently. Soon we could see the innumerable banners fluttering, and then the sun struck the sea of armor and set it all aflash. Yes, it was a fine sight; I hadn’t ever seen anything to beat it.
“Stand to your guns, men! Open fire!”
The thirteen gatlings began to vomit death into the fated ten thousand. They halted, they stood their ground a moment against that withering deluge of fire, then they broke, faced about and swept toward the ditch like chaff before a gale. A full forth part of their force never reached the top of the lofty embankment; the three fourths reached it and plunged over—to death by drowning.
Within ten short minutes after we had opened fire, armed resistance was totally annihilated, the campaign was ended, we fifty-four were masters of England! Twenty-five thousand men lay dead around us.