1. Consider the use of humor in this novel.
This is a satirical novel that uses the tales of the Knights of the Round Tale as its central vehicle for invoking humor. The knights are used as the most prominent figures of fun, in particular when they insist on wearing their armor at all times (including playing baseball).
The humor is used, then, to cut down the pomposity surrounding these mythic tales. Those who believe in enchantment are depicted as childlike and gullible and the knights who love to search for the Holy Grail are characterized as typically oafish. The centuries-old romance with Malory's Morte D'Arthur is, therefore, deconstructed by Twain as he determinedly parodies the notions of chivalry and nobility.
Humor is not the only tool used to undermine the traditions associated with romance, however, as this work also offers social criticism of the two periods that the novel is set (in the 6th and 19th Centuries). Most notably, the rule by a monarchy and the trade of human slavery are the main topics that are treated with a sharp social critique. In addition, the Catholic Church is lambasted in a serious tone whenever mentioned.
2. Consider how this work challenges the age of chivalry.
This novel may be understood as an anti-romance in that the legend of the Knights of the Round Table is mocked throughout. The notion of chivalry is despised by Hank and the characterization of Merlin as an old bore who is jealous of rivals adds to the general tone of disenchantment with this period. Technology is preferred over both magic and the excesses of the nobility by Hank. This, in turn, inflects the novel with a dry tone that debunks the 'mass of chivalry', which culminates in the destruction of 25,000 knights at the end. Whilst in Camelot, Hank is driven by two main passions: to dilute the power of the Catholic Church and to banish the concept and traditions of chivalry.
There are occasions, however, when Hank relents in his mission against knight-errantry and the codes of chivalry. This may be seen in his favorable characterization of Sir Launcelot and in his admission that King Arthur's bond with the knights' code of honorable behavior is worthy of praise when he helps the woman with small pox.
3. Ostensibly this is a time-travel novel, but how does it also act as a criticism of the present?
As well as parodying the romance and the age of chivalry, this novel also looks to the past to criticize the present. Allegory is used to convey, for example, the inhumanity of slavery. This is most evident when the king and Hank disguise themselves as freemen and are powerless to stop Lord Grip from selling them as if they were his property. In Chapter XXXIV, Hank, the narrator, makes a pointed reference that in his own time a slave auction had made no impression on him. It is only now that he is in a similar position (he is being held as a slave) that he recognizes the inhumanity of this trade.
Further criticisms of the present are engaged with when Hank keeps returning to his dislike for the Catholic Church. His references to his usual life in the United States include how he would like to see the power of the church as diluted in Camelot as it is back home. His preference for self-regulating, relatively powerless sects is reiterated with no claims to objectivity. Because of this criticism of Catholicism (and slavery and rule by monarchy), it is possible to see this novel as more than a satire of the legends associated with Camelot.
4. Consider the role of the narrator.
As the first-person narrator of most of the novel, Hank influences the narrative enormously. For the most part, Hank's opinions and descriptions of the 6th Century are comical and are a useful antidote to the usual reverence paid to the Knights of the Round Table myths.
The readers are privy to his perspective for the majority of the time and his opinions are notable in that they are consistently republican and in favor of capitalism. These two points are offered unquestioningly to the reader as though they are the superior way to live.
It is also possible to argue that Hank offers contradictory views on occasions. He detests inequalities in this 6th Century society, yet enjoys the benefits bestowed on him as The Boss. His inconsistencies may be regarded as a flaw in the novel; they may also be considered strategic measures taken for survival purposes. Further to these two arguments, it is also possible to see that Hank's own time (19th Century) is criticized gradually over the course of the novel, and is most evident when he becomes a slave. Hank is characterized initially as brash and patriotic character; he is unhappy with this new society he has travelled to. As the novel progresses, though, he changes somewhat and begins to question his earlier life. On reading the newspaper, for example, he realizes the writing style of the 19th Century journalist is not fitting for this new life.
5. Examine this novel's position in relation to the values of education.
Training is valued by Hank as the means to improve a society and to bring about progress in science and technology. A decent education also helps to undermine the dominance of superstition and sharpens one's critical faculties.
Further to these points, Hank also understands education to be responsible for shaping our moral decisions. This becomes clear in his confrontation with Morgan Le Fay, who, he believes, is a demonstration of the potential evil that may be unleashed if education is not responsible and accountable. She has been raised to believe her word is law and has been educated to show her court and her subjects that her power must not be questioned. Her behavior, Hank argues, may be explained by her upbringing rather than human nature. It should also be remembered that Hank is not only recommending ethical education, but is also criticizing the notion of divine rights when he attacks the nobility.
Hank is, therefore, also a mouthpiece for expressing the preference for educating the populace to recognize that the rule by monarchy, rather than a republic, is unjust to the citizens of the nation. When the populace is taught that it is natural for a king or queen to rule their lives so thoroughly, the populace comes to believe it is inevitable. Hank argues against this and shows a preference (which is limited at times) for equality and education.