Thoughts on Twain’s Yankee (#SFWApro)

Following up on the previous post, to cover the books flaws (besides the polemic angle), including one I think people miss a lot. And the difference between the book and the movies.
One of the biggest flaws for me is the sequence where Hank goes on a quest with Alisande, who claims he must free a castle of captured women from three terrifying ogres. When he reaches the castle, it’s actually a pig-sty. The ogres are swineherds, the women are pigs. When he points this out, Sandy assures him otherwise and concludes he’s been enchanted so he can’t see the truth. Sir Boss realizes Sandy is so mired in superstition it never occurs to her these are just pigs.
The mired-in-superstition bit works fine when dealing with Merlin and other fakers, who are actually trying to gull people, but here? Based on what I read, Sandy has made this thing up out of whole cloth, and genuinely sees the pigs as women. That’s not superstition, that’s insanity. It doesn’t work, at least not for me.
This is another of themes Twain thumps throughout the book, the ignorance and naivete of the ancient English. They’re children. They’re animals. I find this a little creepy; it’s one of the things that makes some critics see the book as a metaphor (intentional or not) for imperialism. The Yankee is very much shouldering the white man’s burden, convinced he can transform these backwards savages into modern-day Americans. At the same time he’s blind to how arrogant and brutal he himself is (as witness the mass killing at the end of the book).
One of the flaws most frequently pointed out is that Hank’s engineering skills are super-human. He can, as he brags, make anything from telephone wires to guns to sewing machines to matches. He can also build the factories to make these things in quantity. By implication he can also smelt and alloy the metal and find power sources. It’s the inspiration for deCamp’s Lest Darkness Fall and Poul Anderson’s “The Man Who Returned,” both of which take a more realistic view of what a modern man could build.
What very few people touch on is that Hank’s social engineering skills are every bit as amazing. He not only sets up a press to print a newspaper, he trains journalists. He sets up schools, so presumably he trains the teachers (he’s not using educated monks, as he assumes correctly the Church will oppose everything). He introduces new coinage, sets up a patent office, organizes a stock market and spreads literacy. That’s quite an unbelievable skill-set.
The movies, unsurprisingly, cut out a lot of this and squeeze the Yankee into a stock swashbuckler mode. Twain’s anti-Catholic bigotry (yeah, I think it’s that bad) never makes it to the screen, and the books are fine with the divine right of kings so long as they’re good kings.As the book Swordsmen of the Screen points out, for all that movie swordsmen are overthrowing tyrants, the movies tend to be very pro-monarchy. The problem isn’t that monarchy is bad, it’s that we’re stuck with a usurper instead of the rightful (and therefore good) king, or that the evil vizier/prime minister has misled the king. Time and again, the incognito trip the Yankee takes with Arthur is seized by the usurpers as a chance to overthrow the king. And rather than reform and educate the people, all that’s necessary to create a better kingdom is to make the king see the light (as in the Keshia Knight Pulliam version).
I can’t say I enjoyed the book, but it has been informative to read it and compare to the adaptations.

1 Comment

Filed under Now and Then We Time Travel, Reading

One response to “Thoughts on Twain’s Yankee (#SFWApro)

  1. Pingback: Like sands in the hourglass, so are the movies of our lives (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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