Taylor Roberts' recovery of Mark Twain's own copy of Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur rekindles questions concerning Twain's process of composing A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.(1) As a specialist in medieval English literature, I wish to document more minutely than have Americanists Twain's use of his direct source, purchased in 1884. This article will compare Twain's experience of reading the unabridged Morte Darthur to his expectations primarily based on its condensation as The Boy's King Arthur, which he had owned since 1880.
This comparison can help circumscribe the impact on American literary culture of idealizing Europe's past--that is, of the phenomenon now termed "medievalism."(2) Connecticut Yankee retains evidence of one significant moment in diachronic literary change, which seems so often to lurch onward just out of sight, like Malory's "questynge beeste." Our glimpse of that moment occurs at the oft-discussed disjunction between the first and second paragraphs of chapter 21 of Connecticut Yankee. I suggest that in 1887-88, at some point in between the two summers when he wrote those two paragraphs, Twain finally faced up to amoral nihilism in the real Morte Darthur and therefore, according to the best information then available to him, in the real Middle Ages.
A time frame is well established for the composition of Connecticut Yankee. Early in 1886 Twain wrote the opening frame and chapters 1-4; during the summer of 1887 chapters 5-9, 11-20, and the beginning of 21; then one year later the remainder.(3) After the first paragraph of chapter 21, the novel's plot and comic tone collapse. Thereafter loosely linked episodes writhe with inconsistent characterization, vacillating objects of mockery, and gratuitous bloodshed.
Scholars have documented external events that could have affected what Twain wrote during the summer of 1888: family illness, financial problems (notably overinvestment in the Paige type-setting machine), national or international politics, and his musings about capitalist industrialization, a trip downriver in 1882, or a visit to Hannibal in 1885. Scholars document also Twain's relevant reading, including History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, other historical and scientific works, fantasy stories by Max Adeler, an attack on America by Matthew Arnold, a magazine series on Russian atrocities, and pseudo-medieval fiction, notably that by Miguel de Cervantes (beloved by Twain) and Walter Scott (detested).(4)
In addition to these other factors, I propose, Twain during 1887-88 finally found time to finish reading the whole of Morte Darthur, in the mass-marketed Globe edition he purchased December 6, 1884.(5) The course of composition of Connecticut Yankee reflects not only outside events and readings but also Twain's escalating disillusionment with his primary source text. As one result to be discussed, his novel's Last Battle feels horrific even to readers familiar with its far gorier prototype: the civil war that destroyed legendary Camelot.
In its entirety, Malory's very long book came to confirm what Twain began to suspect while reading its opening chapters, on Sundays and trains during a lecture tour. Le Morte Darthur stands solid witness against any Golden Age of childlike innocence. From Malory Twain learned that the alleged glory days of British chivalry provide no admirable heroes, no moral or ethical standards, no inspirational ideals. Contrary to medievalism's rose-colored reconstruction of the Middle Ages, contrary to the pure-hearted world created in meticulous excerpts for The Boy's King Arthur, contrary to the Globe edition's effusive introduction, Twain discovered for himself that King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table lie and cheat and steal and make solemn vows intending to break them. They casually commit rape and adultery, betray friends and feudal lords, seek blood revenge contrary to law, shrug aside the slaughter of women, children, kin, innocent bystanders, and each other. Twain could not have anticipated so. At his time, scholars of medieval literature were not yet analyzing how Morte Darthur reflects the fifteenth-century Wars of the Roses, during which Malory was adapting the prose narratives of thirteenth-century French monks in order to express his own concerns as a nobly born prisoner in an England in chaos.(6)
Those thirteenth-century monks had applied a Christian veneer to twelfth-century verse romances, which re-told earlier tales, and so on backward into unrecoverable oral tradition. Arthurian legendry, having no canonical text, has long stood as sounding board for reinterpretations that echo the suppositions of each sociocultural era in turn. Twain's preconceptions about the Middle Ages came from various sources, including Alfred Tennyson, but most specifically from The Boy's King Arthur. This article will explore Twain's responses to reading Malory entire after having read Malory excerpted. I suggest that the gaping chasm between expectation and realization helped to compel Twain's swerve, at chapter 21 of Connecticut Yankee, toward a dismal landscape devoid of yet another set of potential ideals.
Of his writings prior to Connecticut Yankee, Twain had explored British history most fully for The Prince and the Pauper. He completed a draft of the earlier novel on September 14, 1880, then sought feedback and made revisions until February 1, 1881, when he considered it ready for publication.(7) While rewriting, he was eager to read a newly published book relevant to his own. On November 18 and December 13, 1880, his household purchased two copies of The Boy's King Arthur: Malory's Morte Darthur as condensed, re-organized, re-spelled, glossed, and introduced by Sidney Lanier. A tour de force of well-wrought censorship, this Young Adult classic remains popular today.
In contrast to the complete Morte Darthur that Twain acquired four years afterward, The Boy's King Arthur does express ethical and educational values. To some extent this condensed version would have reinforced the idealized Middle Ages that Twain still associated "in his complex mind" with mythic dimensions of the Mississippi, the frontier, and the antebellum South: "His criticism of medievalism notwithstanding, Twain yearned at times to escape imaginatively into that very period, as into his own childhood."(8) Lanier's abridgment, however, predisposes Twain or actual boys to regard its chivalric tales more as worthwhile literature than as escapist romance. The introduction assumes readers' knowledge of Shakespeare's plays and British history, their interest in thirteenth-century French and fifteenth-century English, their ability to follow a long passage in the earliest Middle English with interlinear translation. Lanier directs attention to morality as firmly as to linguistic and literary history, declaring decisive distinctions between good and evil.
Into the fine fellowship, then, of lordly Sir Launcelot, of generous Sir Tristram, of stainless Sir Galahad.... of dolorous Sir Balin and Sir Balan, of persevering Sir la Cote Mal Taile, of hilarious Sir Dinadan, and of a hundred more,--as well, alas! as into the ungentle company of cowardly King Mark, of traitorous Sir Mordred, and of wicked Morgan le Fay,--I commit you.(9)
The editor emphasizes that "every word in the book ... is Malory's, unchanged except that the spelling is modernized." Bracketed insertions supply Lanier's own "connective clauses ... to preserve the thread of a story which could not be given entire." Knowing these to be excerpts, Twain could guess that Lanier had cut out scenes with sexual overtones as implied by Tennyson's Idylls of the King, which is loosely derived from Le Morte Darthur.(10)
In Lanier's introduction and bracketed connectives, however, nothing divulges the massive extent of excision. About two-thirds of the original is gone. Entire books of Le Morte Darthur are seamlessly cut from The Boy's King Arthur, besides very many chapters, paragraphs, sentences, phrases, and individual words. A chapter count allows approximate comparison: the twenty-one books of Le Morte Darthur encompass 502 chapters total, whereas the six reorganized books of The Boy's King Arthur include only 173 of those chapters, most of them truncated.
Twain, however, would justifiably assume that the Malory text purchased on December 6, 1884, differed little from his children's version at home. The two books are similar in length: 403 pages for the condensation, 487 for the whole. Moreover, layout and paper stock and print font and illustrations make The Boy's King Arthur larger and much heavier than the Globe Morte Darthur, a small volume printed on thin paper in double columns of tiny typeface.
On that rainy Saturday in a Rochester bookstore, Twain's companion George W. Cable told him that the book in hand was "Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur ... you will never lay it down until you have read it from cover to cover." Twain's journal confirms the acquisition; his copy of the book supplies further substantiation, in the form of notes about that lecture tour jotted on endpapers. A quarter century afterward, in …