"Interview about Time Travel in Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and H. G. Wells's The Time Machine"
1) Why do you think that the portrayal of time travel is different in The Time Machine than in A Connecticut Yankee? Do you think this impacts the messages that the two authors try to get across?
Twain simply wanted to tell a story about a modern man who finds himself in a medieval setting, and was not particularly concerned about how he achieved that goal; having Hank Morgan get a bump on the head and wake up in the past was a quick, easy way to set up his story. In contrast, The Time Machine grew out of Wells's serious speculations about time (originally presented in an article) and by beginning his book with a scientific rationale for time travel, Wells wanted his readers to think that time travel was something that might actually be achieved in the future. I suppose the effects of these different devices is to give Wells's novel a greater aura of authenticity—readers might imagine that the story is depicting a realistic future for humanity, while Twain's novel might be dismissed as Morgan's dream—but in terms of their broader purpose, commenting on the human condition, I don't think their different systems for time travel had any effect on that. Both of their messages come through loud and clear, even though Wells was writing a science fiction story and Twain (as I have argued) was writing more of a fantasy.
2) Some people think that the Sphinx that the Time Traveller meets is an allusion to Oedipus' encounter with the Sphinx on his road to Thebes. If this is so, what, in your opinion, is the Time Traveller's riddle to solve? Why is it necessary that the Time Traveller be in the future to solve this riddle or problem?
I don't know if you can get access to it, but it would be very helpful for you to read the final chapter of my book Science Fiction, Children's Literature, and Popular Culture (2000), which is an essay about The Time Machine; it specifically characterizes the Time Traveller's activity in the future as an effort to solve the puzzle of what is really going on, and describes how he comes up with a series of incorrect answers before finally achieving a correct answer. The connection to the Sphinx would be that the answer to its riddle was the human condition of the present, whereas the answer to the Time Traveller's riddle—what is going on here?—would be the human condition of the future. Looking at his own present-day world, Wells could see that class divisions were growing and might someday even divide the human race, but he needed a protagonist to travel to the future in order to either illustrate the problem metaphorically or to make a literal prediction about the future (both interpretations work).
3) In the Introduction to Worlds Enough and Time: Explorations of Time in Science Fiction and Fantasy, you write that Hank transforms Camelot into a bloody war zone. Why do Hank's attempts to reform and educate ultimately culminate in this war and what does this mean for the modern reader? Why is time travel necessary to show this event occurring?
Twain was not particularly impressed with human beings, or with the culture they had developed in the nineteenth century, and I think that he would regard Morgan's efforts to "reform and educate" the people of Camelot more as an effort to corrupt an idealized pre-technological civilization. The point for modern readers is to recognize that their own civilization is morally debased and, perhaps, to strive to reintroduce some of the ideals of Camelot into their own society. A standard device for criticizing a social order, of course, is to contrast it with a superior alternative, and what I find interesting in A Connecticut Yankee is that while the world of Camelot is initially presented as antiquated and inferior in contrast to Morgan's modern world, it emerges in the latter part of the book as a better culture than the one that Morgan represents and is trying to impose upon them. (There are a few remarks about this in the first paragraph of my entry on Twain in the St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers.)
4) After realizing Hank's failed attempts at education and reform, how should the reader view education, technology, and idealistic reform?
Again, I think that Twain wants readers to realize, eventually, that Camelot is not a realm in need of Morgan's "education and reform," and that its people would have been better off if he had never appeared. He is urging readers, then, to recognize that the values we regard as progressive and enlightened may actually be open to criticism, and that Americans and Europeans undertaking to "improve" the conditions of less developed people should proceed with caution. This is not to say that Twain would like to return to a pre-technological existence—he was no Thoreau-like dreamer, fantasizing about the pleasures of the simple life—but that he recognized that progress and advanced technology had their flaws as well as virtues.
5) Why does Mark Twain use such "American" language when Hank speaks?
Well, Twain could see that it would be humorous to show King Arthur and members of his court being puzzled by American slang; and unlike others of his time who admired and sought to emulate European habits, Twain genuinely valued rough-hewn American ways, and in the first part of the book, Morgan's language functions as a celebration of all things American. I think one can also argue that as the book progresses, and as readers are supposed to grow less and less enthusiastic about Morgan and his ideas, the "Americanisms" in his language tend to become less conspicuous, one of this writer's devices to help make him less and less sympathetic to readers.
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