EDITOR’S NOTE: This post originally appeared at KeepingClassics.com and is excerpted with permission from the author. The Center for Mark Twain Studies has embedding some supplementary materials which may further assist teachers. KeepingClassics.com is a blog focused on sharing pedagogical approaches to literary works from throughout U.S. history, but with a focus on making such texts accessible and relevant for contemporary students.
“A Medieval Romance” by Mark Twain (Buffalo Express, 1870)
Lessons: Tone, Voice, Plot, Irony, Conflict, Character Stakes & Motivation, Pronoun Usage, Gender Identity, Women’s Rights, Destiny
Students truly enjoy this one. It’s the story of a young man, Conrad, who is actually a young woman. His/Her father lied about his/her sex from birth in order that Conrad might secure the throne on the death of the uncle and current Duke who had no male heir to the throne. At age twenty-eight, Conrad reluctantly accepts the duties of being the Duke of Brandonburgh. Although he rules the land with mercy and justice, his guilty secret weighs on him. The stakes increase when his cousin falls in love with him. You see, she is the rightful heir to the throne, for if no male heir was born to either brother, the female heir of the elder brother (the uncle, in this case) would inherit the crown.
So Conrad’s guilt doubles. Not only has he stolen his cousin’s crown, he now must shun her romantic advances and disappoint the kingdom and the uncle who had come to expect a royal wedding. The twists don’t stop there. A few months earlier, the cousin had been duped into a brief dalliance with a handsome rogue as a secondary assurance that she would never reign. Only virtuous female heirs could ascend the throne. When the cousin gives birth to an illegitimate child, she stands trial before Conrad whom she still hates for having scorned her affections. If the cousin will not name the father, by law, Conrad must order her to be put to death. Conrad, who desperately wants to spare his cousin’s life, is saved when she relents and names the father. Sort of. In a vengeful act against her former crush, the cousin points an accusatory finger at Conrad and names him as the father.
So how does the story end? Actually, we never know. Twain explains it like this:
Okay, there is so much goodness in the story, I almost don’t know where to start. First, it’s set in 1222. Twain’s ability to switch up his voice to make this story sound like a Medieval story is a study in itself. It is far, far removed from Huck Finn, for sure. Comparing/contrasting this story to Twain’s other pieces highlights his gift for changing his voice to fit the needs of a story. In addition, it helps students understand voice, which is sometimes a difficult concept.
Let me warn you, though, you might have a tough time getting to the discussion on voice. If your students are like mine, they will immediately jump on the Women’s Rights angle.
Why can women reign only if there is no male heir and only if they’re virgins? Do the male heirs have to be virgins? Why doesn’t Conrad simply admit her true identity? How come she has to pretend to be something she’s not just so her father gets what he wants? What about the mom? Doesn’t she have a say in whether or not her daughter has to be raised as a boy?
When the questions start coming, it’s a good idea to have a couple of supplement pieces handy. Essays from Pink Think (2002) by Lynn Peril or Michael Ian Black’s New York Times Op Ed piece, “The Boys are Not All Right” (2018) are good reads. At this point, you don’t even have to cajole students into reading non-fiction. They want it. They have all these opinions and thoughts stirring around inside them. They are hungry for more words on this topic. Don’t worry, you’ll get back to analyzing the original story, but often you have to ride the wave of emotion and interest to gain optimal engagement. Learning is circular, after all. So is reading. So is analysis.