- Hank Morgan in the Garden of Forking Paths:A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court as Alternative History
Commentary on Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court has concentrated overwhelmingly on the social criticism contained in the book-within-a-book, the palimpsest account of Hank Morgan's adventures in sixth-century England. One is safe in stating that, outside of science fiction criticism, few if any critics deal seriously with the framing device, the account of the tourist Mark Twain's encounter with Morgan in Warwick Castle and the methods that propel the Yankee into the past and back again to his native nineteenth century. Yet that frame constitutes one of Twain's most important contributions to what would become known as science fiction.
Philip Klass has noted the novel's success in treating, for almost the first time in Anglo-American fiction, one of the most prevalent devices of imaginative literature: "All backward-in-time stories come from . . . A Connecticut Yankee. . . . there was no such story before. And every such story since uses themes he discovered in that book" (23).1 David Ketterer [End Page 109] is equally emphatic:
Time travel into the past raises all kinds of paradoxical and science-fictional possibilities centering on the problem of historical anachronism. That Twain realistically faces the anachronism issue constitutes a major point in any argument for considering A Connecticut Yankee an example of classic science fiction.(233)
Indeed, the three basic "themes," perhaps better stated as "challenges," of time-travel fiction are present in Twain's novel: the mechanics of traveling backward to the historical event; the paradoxes involved in visiting the presumably fixed past, from which no report of a time traveler has reached the present; and the method of returning the time traveler to his own present day. Lacking any analogues upon which he might improve, Twain's development of these challenges is embryonic. But read in the wake of later, more sophisticated approaches to time travel, A Connecticut Yankee demonstrates how successfully Twain identified the genre's inherent problems.
For the forward-in-time segment, Morgan's return to the nineteenth century, there were already precedents, though in many of them the fantastic element was vitiated by the ubiquitous "It was all a dream."2 Suspended animation as a device to move a human far beyond his normal lifespan appears to have exploded onto the literary scene during the writing of A Connecticut Yankee; W. H. Hudson's The Crystal Age, whose protagonist is caught in a landslide and preserved miraculously for several thousand years, had appeared in 1887, and Edward Bellamy was putting the insomniac protagonist of his Looking Backward into a hundred-and-thirteen-year sleep via hypnosis while Twain was putting the finishing touches to his own novel. And of course all three Americans had before them the exemplar of Washington Irving's Rip van Winkle.
The trip backward through time, which receives its first major fictional treatment in the Twain novel, is a much more difficult challenge because, as Fritz Leiber has pointed out, "Time travel is quite impossible . . . because it would change the past, disordering history and unfixing the framework of reality" (144). Leiber goes on to quote Thomas Aquinas that such a feat would be beyond even the power of God. And, of course, our own perceptions, if we can trust them, confirm that no one from the future has visited us. And yet, the great question "what if. . ."—common to all speculative fiction—nowhere unfolds more temptation [End Page 110] than in the contemplation of a visit to some enigmatic historical period or some grand turning point of human destiny.
In order to fulfill at least fictionally the longing for intimate contact with the past, some writers, such as H. G. Wells, invented machines that, in spite of all known laws of physics, worked. Others, like John Taine, have cloaked their time travel in extradimensional mathematics of which present-day science is ignorant. Still others, and Mark Twain was only the first, simply provide an unexplained and unexplainable natural accident that, somehow, momentarily tears the fabric of time (whatever that...