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Twain time

Rrishi Raote  |  New Delhi 

An enviable immortality is available to those few who can fuse wit and wisdom to greatest effect. Look through your inbox for collections of ‘funny’ and ‘thought-provoking’ quotes your friends have forwarded you, and very likely you will see these names: Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Benjamin Disraeli, Socrates, Eleanor Roosevelt, Billy Crystal, Mae West (“I didn’t discover curves; I only uncovered them”) — and

It’s easy to dismiss Twain (real name Samuel L Clemens) as a storyteller. He was that, and a damn good one. Like a few of his contemporaries (Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling) he combined popular writing with lucrative lecture tours, chiefly in America. Twain published when he was 49, and he only made his big money after that, but before that he had spent years listening to stories told. So he learnt how to make a story with more than words, with all the physical and theatrical resources at a storyteller’s command. Read his stories and it is obvious how well Twain understood spoken language.

Which is why they might not at first strike one as high literature. Also, Twain’s heroes are ordinary — democratic, plainspoken and practical. Yet, in the tale featuring one of his most practical protagonists can be seen another feature: the author as a tumbler of myths and missionary of democracy.

Superficially, (1889) is heavy satire. is a 19th-century Yank who works in a factory and has a flair for machines and mechanics. One day a dispute with a labourer leads to a knock on the head, and Morgan wakes up in the 6th century, in the time of Arthur of Camelot. Equipped with the formidable mechanical knowledge of the 19th century, he quickly impresses the medievals with displays of fireworks and other shows of magic and miracle. He becomes Arthur’s right-hand man.

While the court and its silly aristocrats amuse themselves with jousting and quests, Morgan gets down to running the country, behind the backs of its idiot rulers. He sets up factories and schools to train intelligent non-nobles, telephone lines and modern armed forces. He aims to slowly sideline the courtly class, which he considers useless and a burden on the country — represented by its honest workers. Finally, Morgan hopes, he will be able to awaken the slumbering people, enslaved by their own ignorance and by the Church’s instructions to suffer and obey.

Of course this is a sarcastic takedown of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur — the collection of medieval romances upon which the modern Arthur legend was built. But eventually he turns from satire. The end of is astonishingly cruel, yet startlingly realistic. The experiment fails, and Morgan’s small cohort of converts wins a battle but loses the war. You can bring tools to medievals, but you cannot change their way of thinking. Morgan is a failed prophet.

Though Twain was one of the progenitors of American literature, in this book he toed an ancient line. is really about the present. The public is always gullible and biddable, rulers are usually delusional. Yet the ideal exerts a powerful attraction. Think of Thomas More’s Utopia, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. The alien outsider who arrives to study or save a people from themselves: Avatar, Star Trek, Tocqueville or the Spanish conquistadors. Consider Nehru and his technocrats/secularisers in newly independent India.

This year is the 175th anniversary of Mark Twain’s birth, and the centenary of his death. It is being celebrated in America with a host of events at places where Twain lived and worked. But Twain is as relevant anywhere in the modern world, and deserves a certain amount of worship here in India as well.


First Published: Sat, May 22 2010. 00:12 IST