The sci-fi and fantasy novels of my childhood imprinted many cherished images on my brain. Most are fondly remembered: Bilbo on the barrels, Meg Murry in Camazotz, Howl’s moving castle, and so on.
But there is one image—not so cherished—that I recall more often than the others. It goes like this: A medieval force of armored knights attacks a cave full of their enemies, find themselves blocked by electrified wire, and are cut down by Gatling guns.
It’s the climactic scene of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court—the first book that ever left me feeling worse for having read it.
The plot is simple. A firearms engineer, Hank Morgan, is accidentally transported back in time to sixth-century Camelot. In the interest of self-preservation—and a desire to “modernize” what he finds—he uses technology to frighten and subordinate the inhabitants. His growing political power brings war with the Catholic Church, against which he ruthlessly employs the tools of modern war—with gruesome results.
If my description of the novel surprises you, blame the movies. Most people are familiar only with the film adaptations of Connecticut Yankee (there have been many). These are almost wholly comical; a modern person travels back in time to the Middle Ages and wows the locals with technology; hilarity ensues.
Even Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness is an adaptation. Ash’s use of a shotgun to intimidate the “primitive screwheads” is a direct reference to the novel.
Most of us don’t associate Twain with the horrors of modern war. We love him for homespun wisdom, chuckling satire, and frog-jumping contests.
To be fair, A Connecticut Yankee is classified as a comedy. Twain certainly intended it that way, a satire of our romantic notions of medieval chivalry and nobility. In a way, the novel is Twain’s flipped take on Don Quixote. Instead of giving us an old fool who can’t let chivalry go, he sends a “modern” man back in time to destroy it utterly.
The satire works, but it’s Twain’s nihilistic critique of modernity that stuck with me.
The machine-gun massacre at the end isn’t the novel’s only moment of cruelty. When Hank is goaded into a joust, he calmly executes the oncoming knight with a bullet to the chest—and seems to feel no remorse over the action.
Sigh. I can still see my fifth-grade self eagerly choosing the book with “King Arthur’s Court” in the title. He hoped for fantasy and instead found a sadistic engineer waging industrial warfare.
I originally intended this post to be about early time-travel stories. It morphed on me, but it’s worth comparing Yankee to the other major time-travel novel of the period.
Before doing the research, I felt certain that Twain’s 1889 novel predated H.G. Well’s The Time Machine by a wide margin. Nope. Wells published The Time Machine in 1895 and another time-travel short story, The Chronic Argonauts, even earlier.
Twain wasn’t exposed to Wells’ stories before he began writing Yankee; books traveled slowly back then. But the timing is interesting—the first major novels about time travel appearing in the same decade.
I must also note the generally bleak tone of both novels—maybe optimism was in short supply at the turn of the century. Well’s protagonist travels forward, expecting to find even greater wonders than his own age, and discovers ruin. But his instinct is to make things better, attempting to save the members of weakened humanity; he’s a classic hero.
Twain’s story is darker. His protagonist wants to “modernize” the world at any cost, never questioning his right to do so, and reveling in the political power he gains.
The end result of that modernization is, of course, modern war. When the Church sends its forces to attack, Hank fortifies a cave with electrified barbed wire and mounted Gatling guns. Twain probably drew from the Crimean and American Civil Wars for this, but as some have noted, the scene is eerily predictive of World War I battlefields.
Though Twain intended the novel as satire, it offers a deeply bleak view of human nature. The medieval people are pathetic simpletons, but the transformation of their society suggests that modernity will do little to improve on our core failings.
I’m not sure why this image of the knights falling to machine guns resurfaces in my mind so often. I’m not anti-technology, anti-modernity, or pro-superstition. I may be skeptical that our current technological revolution is a net positive—but at this point, who isn’t?
Maybe it was the age at which I encountered the book—a little poison pill slipped in among my dragons and spaceships and magic worlds. It’s still inside me, digesting, giving a painful twitch anytime I worry about human nature.
Did any childhood book ever leave you feeling uneasy? Did it stick in a way that bothers you even now?