Hank Morgan, a nineteenth-century American man who’s travelled backward through time and space to sixth-century England, upholds many believes about himself and his beloved American democracy; but above all else, Hank believes he’s superior to everyone in the medieval world. And in order to persuade his unsuspecting medieval followers of this superiority, he uses his superior technological know-how to create one stunning “effect” or “miracle” after another. During a natural eclipse, he pretends to have power over the sun. He goes on to blow up Merlin’s tower with a lightning rod and blasting powder, restore a miraculous fountain to working order, and accurately predict King Arthur’s arrival at a holy site. These performances earn Hank the second highest position in the kingdom and the title “The Boss.” Hank’s ascendance demonstrates that one route to power lies in convincing people of one’s own superiority; meanwhile Merlin, who was only powerful because people feared him, loses authority in the face of Hank’s seemingly more powerful, fearsome magic. In contrast, King Arthur’s authority comes not from fear but from love. The commoners love their sovereigns, and King Arthur shows that he is worthy of this devotion when, disguised as a commoner, he cares for some of his lowliest citizens, a woman and her daughter who are dying of smallpox. Further, Hank realizes that King Arthur’s power would be compromised if people stopped believing in his ability to heal “the king’s disease” (the skin infection scrofula).
Because Hank has earned his power through force and fear, not love, his authority is doomed to be temporary. When he tries to flaunt his wealth and superior knowledge to Marco, Dowley, and other simple villagers, he earns their distrust and fear instead of their respect. At one point, as Hank prepares to abolish the monarchy, Clarence warns him that the people love their kings and queens and worries that the social order will collapse without the cult of royalty. But Hank, blinded by the knowledge that his showmanship and technological know-how are superior to anyone else in the kingdom, fails to hear Clarence’s message. When Hank “magically” defeats nearly a dozen knights in a tournament, he proves the superiority of nineteenth-century technology over sixth-century chivalry. But the defeated chivalric order’s resentment simmers in the background until its knights have a chance to challenge Hank again. In the climactic Battle of the Sand Belt, Hank unleashes the full extent of his power in a show of wanton destruction: he massacres thousands of knights with land mines, electric fences, and gatling guns. But this last “effect,” while powerful in sending a message about his destructive capabilities, also shows the limitations of his power. Having defeated the knights by a show of his power, without earning the true love and respect of the medieval population, Hank traps himself behind a wall of dead bodies. Showing the full extent of his destructive capabilities ironically deprives Hank of his power over the kingdom, offering a stark reminder that brute force alone is not enough to earn true authority.
Superiority, Power, and Authority ThemeTracker
Superiority, Power, and Authority Quotes in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
He spoke of me all the time, in the blandest way, as “this prodigious giant,” and “this horrible sky-towering monster,” and “this tusked and taloned man-devouring ogre”; and everybody took in all this bosh in the naivest way, and never smiled or seemed to notice that there was any discrepancy between these watered statistics and me. He said that in trying to escape from him I spang to the top of a tree two hundred cubits high at a single bound, but he dislodged me with a stone the size of a cow, which “all-to-brast” the most of my bones, and then swore me to appear at Arthur’s court for sentence. He ended by condemning me to die at noon on the twenty-first; and was so little concerned about it that he stopped to yawn before he named the date.
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?
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.”
“Yes, keep open. Isn’t that plain enough? Do [the hermits] knock off at noon?”
“Knock off—yes, knock off. What is the matter with knock off? I never saw such a dunderhead; can’t you understand anything at all? In plain terms, do they shut up shop, draw the game, bank the fires—”
“Shut up shop, draw—”
“There, never mind, let it go. You make me tired. You can’t seem to understand the simplest thing.”
“I would I might please thee, sir, and it is to me dole and sorrow that I should fail, albeit sith I am but a simple damsel and taught of none, being from the cradle unbaptized in those deep waters of learning that do anoint with a sovereignty him that partaketh of that most noble sacrament, investing him with reverend state to the mental eye of the humble mortal […]
Well, I was smarting under a sense of defeat. Undeserved defeat, but what of that? That didn’t soften the smart any. And to think of the circumstances! The first statesman of the age, the capablest man, the best-informed man in the entire world, the loftiest uncrowned head that had moved through the clouds of any political firmament for centuries, sitting here apparently defeated in argument by an ignorant country blacksmith! And I could see that those others were sorry for me—which made me blush till I could smell my whiskers scorching. Put yourself in my place; feel as mean as I did, as ashamed as I felt—wouldn’t you have struck below the belt to get even? Yes, you would; it is simply human nature. Well, that is what I did. I am not trying to justify it; I’m only saying that I was mad, and anybody would have done it.
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.
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.