“Joan of Arc,” by Mark Twain
Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1989, 452 pages, Grades 8 and higher.
Few people in history are more illustrious than St. Joan of Arc. A young, illiterate peasant girl becomes the military victor of France in the short period of two years. How did all of these momentous events happen? Joan of Arc’s life truly shows the truth of the old proverb that “man proposes but God disposes.”
For anyone familiar with the history of American literature, this biography is almost jaw-dropping. Mark Twain, the master of fiction and avowed agnostic, seems to undo his self-proclaimed denials of religion in this powerful and moving fictional biography of the young saint’s life.
After reading this masterpiece, readers will wonder if the Maid of Orleans, in addition to repeatedly defeating English armies had also conquered the high walls of the great writer’s heart. What a story this is.
As a young child, Joan plays with her childhood friends in the fields and woods of the rustic village of Domremy. At a young age, the girl already seems to be highly developed spiritually. As the ghastly 100 Years War continues to grind the French Nation into submission, Joan begins to hear “The Voices.”
These spiritual beings are actually angels and saints sent by God to tell Joan about her mission to liberate France from the clutches of English rule. For more than 90 years the wretched war has dragged on and the northern half of France is under English rule. The French people have been so beaten down by horrible military defeats that there seems to be little left to do but surrender to the invaders. The Voices tell the 17-year-old that she is to go to the King of France and tell him to make her the commander of the French armies.
She tells him that these armies will sweep the English from France and deliver the nation from captivity. No one believes that a 17-year-old girl, unable to read, has the power to accomplish such immense deeds. The king vacillates and his spineless councilors suggest not listening to this raving child.
But Joan of Arc insists, and eventually the king gives in. In short order, Joan raises the siege of Orleans and wins numerous battles. She is now known as the “Maid of Orleans.” Joan tells the king how to destroy the English power but he again acts the coward. During this time of indecision, Joan of Arc is captured in battle.
The second half of the book details the hypocritical trials held by faithless bishops and priests. Bishop Cauchon of Beauvais is the guiltiest of all these wretched men. Through lies, deceits, isolation and fear of torture, Cauchon and his 60 or so culprits from the University of Paris and elsewhere break the poor, now 19-year-old Maid of Orleans into submission. But man proposes and God disposes. There is a reason the Catholic Church declared Joan of Arc a canonized saint and later excommunicated Bishop Cauchon. How does all of this happen?
Mark Twain stated that this historical biography is the finest writing of his career. It is impossible to read it and not fall in love with St. Joan of Arc. Her courage, purity, valor and love for France and her Catholic faith resound throughout the book.
Today some will have trouble recognizing that this saint wore a man’s suit of armor into battle to serve God, and not because of some need to become a countercultural cross-dresser. If some modern people think this, it is they who have the problem, not St. Joan of Arc.
Though this is a long book, I highly encourage people to read it. The second half of the book is especially gripping and Twain masterfully tells us the story of her battle victories, her bitter trials and her magnificent martyrdom. The book is second to none and I highly recommend it.