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A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

Mark Twain

Chapters 5-6

Chapters 1-4

Chapters 7-8

Summary

Clarence comes to visit the Yankee in his cell the next day and tells him he is to be burned. The Yankee begs him to help him escape, but Clarence refuses because Merlin has cast a spell around the dungeon to prevent any escape. The Yankee observes Clarence's absolute fear of Merlin and claims to be a magician himself, then sends him off to tell the king that he will ravage the kingdom if they try to execute him. Clarence makes him promise to remain his friend and not hurt him and then goes off to do his bidding.

He returns and says that though Arthur was receptive, Merlin didn't believe him and demanded to know what calamity he would produce. The Yankee tells Clarence he will blot out the sun and so destroy all life on earth at the hour of his execution and sends him back. The Yankee passes through fear for his life to a happy confidence in the strength of his plan. Some men-at-arms come to his cell and inform him the execution has been moved up a day. They take him out to the courtyard, where the people of the castle have assembled to see him burned at the stake. Clarence appears and triumphantly tells him it was his idea to have the date moved up (he told the king the Yankee's spell would not be ready yet), so as to take advantage of the initial shock when he told the king of the Yankee's plan. He implores the Yankee only to make enough darkness to convince everyone of his power and not to do any real harm to the sun.

The Yankee resigns himself to die and is bound to the stake. As a monk chants over him in Latin the eclipse begins. Merlin calls for the torch to be applied, but the king forbids it and offers the Yankee anything he wants in exchange for sparing the sun. The Yankee asks for time to consider and then quietly asks the monk what day it is. The monk tells him it is actually the twenty-first. The Yankee tells the king he will let the darkness proceed as a lesson, but he will restore the sun if the king appoints him his perpetual chief minister and executive and agrees to pay him one percent of the annual increase of revenue over its present amount he creates for the state. He has clothes brought to him and delays for a while as the eclipse continues and then calls for it to pass away when the sky becomes completely dark. The multitude rushes down and showers him with displays of gratitude when the sun begins to reappear.

Commentary

The Yankee is a shrewd observer, and he takes advantage of two of the character traits he notices in abundance in the sixth century: superstition and naivete. Everyone believes in Merlin's power, so it is no stretch for them to believe that someone else may have the same power. They are too naive to consider the possibility that the Yankee may simply be bluffing; only Merlin thinks to question him at all. The Yankee's survival in this section depends entirely on a series of highly improbable coincidences. First, that an eclipse is available to save him; second, that he happens to know this eclipse is going to take place; and last, that Clarence makes a mistake in telling him the date but then unconsciously compensates for this error by convincing the king to move the execution up a day. The Yankee believes he is dreaming through most of this section, but he wisely acts to make himself as comfortable as possible in the dream, as he fears the consequences of dying in a dream of such lifelike intensity. The Yankee's absolute trust in science and calculations and his own memory is evident in this section; he doubts reality itself when the eclipse takes place on what he believes is the wrong date, but he never considers the possibility that perhaps the date he remembers for the eclipse is wrong or even that the calendar of the kingdom might be wrong.

The Yankee's flare for showmanship serves him well in this section. His strong entrepreneurial streak also shows through, especially when he makes a business deal with the king. He puts forth a fair deal (the king offered him half his kingdom) and ties his own personal gain to the benefits he brings to the kingdom.

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