Twain’s Joan


To follow up my comments on historical fiction and how they apply to the story of St. Joan of Arc, I thought I might commend Mark Twain, on his stupendous effort to translate the true history of the Maid of Orleans into a very readable and enjoyable novel.

Twain, as always, is full of invention and literary genius in this work, but not only does he avoid adulterating the true character of the saint, he actually enhances our appreciation for her character by the choices he makes as he integrates his own invention with the facts.

Mark Twain considered his Sieur Louis de Conte: Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc to be his greatest work, and assiduously researched the subject before he set to work. He had a strong personal devotion to the Maid, despite his decided lack of faith and his abundance of cynicism. He found St. Joan to be an exception to his general rule that “the noblest man’s meat is inferior to pork” (More Maxims of Mark). Twain was a determinist, that is, he believed that man was inherently and helplessly selfish. Here are serveral other of his cynical gems:

All I care to know is that a man is a human being–that is enough for me; he can’t be any worse. I can get right down and grovel with him.
– Mark Twain’s notebook #42

I am the only man living who understands human nature; God has put me in charge of this branch office; when I retire there will be no-one to take my place. I shall keep on doing my duty, for when I get over on the other side, I shall use my influence to have the human race drowned again, and this time drowned good, no omissions, no Ark.
– quoted in Mark Twain, J. Macy, (Doubleday, Page & co., 1913)

Twain loved St. Joan, because he thought she was different. Why he didn’t think anyone else to be different, I cannot say, but at least in regard to the Maid he was a believer.

I will in this and the next post excerpt at length from the online edition of Twain’s Joan of Arc. This first excerpt (excerpts of chapters 36 and 37, plus the whole of chapter 38) is one of my favorite passages, because it integrates historical knowledge with his own literary invention, a marvelous invention, I might add. His creative genius stays true the the real Joan, I think, and illustrates a really important part of her character, namely, that she was an ordinary girl, given extraordinary gifts. As a peasant girl she was feminine and unambitious, happy to be with her family. But in the execution of her duty as General of the armies of France, she was self-assured, deliberate and unbending. This is true to history and Twain drives this home with an exquisite literary sense.

In this passage we find St. Joan of Arc with her family after the crowning of the Charles at Rheims. As she sees it, she has accomplished her principle task and is dreaming of returning home with her family, who, for their part are surprised to hear her express a desire to leave her military career and return to the humdrum of life in Doremy. (It should go without saying that this passage is full of *SPOILERS*):

. . . . ‘It is not difficult,’ said Joan. ‘I was not ever fond of wounds and suffering, nor fitted by my nature to inflict wounds and suffering, nor fitted by my nature to inflict them; and quarrellings did always distress me, and noise and tumult were against my liking, my disposition being toward peace and quietness, and love for all things that have life; and being made like this, how could I bear to think of wars and blood, and the pain that goes with them, and the sorrow and mourning that follow after? But by his angels God laid His great commands upon me, and could I disobey? I did as I was bid. Did He command me to do many things? No; only two: to raise the siege of Orleans, and crown the King at Rheims. The task is finished, and I am free. Has ever a poor soldier fallen in my sight, whether friend or foe, and I not felt his pain in my own body, and the grief of his home-mates in my own heart? No, not one; and, oh, it is such bliss to know that my release is won, and that I shall not any more see these cruel things or suffer these tortures of the mind again! Then why should I not go to my village and be as I was before? It is heaven! And ye wonder that I desire it. Ah, ye are men – just men! My mother would understand.’ . . .

. . . . We kept the drinkables moving, for that would please the Bailly and the landlord; and old Laxart and D’Arc got to feeling quite comfortable, but without being what you could call tipsy. They got out the presents which they had been buying to carry home – humble things and cheap, but they would be fine there, and welcome. And they gave Joan a present from Père Fronte and one from her mother – the one a little leaden image of the Holy Virgin, the other half a yard of blue silk ribbon; and she was as pleased as a child; and touched, too, as one could see plainly enough. Yes, she kissed those poor things over and over again, as if they had been something costly and wonderful; and she pinned the Virgin on her doublet, and sent for her helmet and tied the ribbon on that; first one way, then another; then a new way, then another new way; and with each effort perching the helmet on her head to one side and then the other, examining the effect, as a bird does when it has got a new bug. And she said she could almost wish she was going to the wars again; for then she would fight with the better courage, as having always with her something which her mother’s touch had blessed. . . .

. . . .There was an interruption. It was a messenger from the King, bearing a note for Joan, which I read to her, saying he had reflected, and had consulted his other generals, and was obliged to ask her to remain at the head of the army and withdraw her resignation. Also, would she come immediately and attend a council of war? Straightway, at a little distance, military commands and the rumble of drums broke on the still night, and we knew that her guard was approaching.

Deep disappointment clouded her face for just one moment and no more – it passed, and with it the homesick girl, and she was Joan of Arc, Commander-in-Chief again, and ready for duty.

In my double quality of page and secretary I followed Joan to the council. She entered that presence with the bearing of a grieved goddess. What was become of the volatile child that so lately was enchanted with a ribbon and suffocated with laughter over the distresses of a foolish peasant who had stormed a funeral on the back of a bee-stung bull? One may not guess. Simply it was gone, and had left no sign. She moved straight to the council-table, and stood. Her glance swept from face to face there, and, where it fell, these it lit as with a torch, those it scorched as with a brand. She knew where to strike. She indicated the generals with a nod, and said –

‘My business is not with you. You have not craved a council of war.’ Then she turned toward the King’s privy council, and continued: ‘No; it is with you. A council of war! It is amazing. There is but one thing to do, and only one, and lo, ye call a council of war! Councils of war have no value but to decide between two or several doubtful courses. But a council of war when there is only one course? Conceive of a man in a boat and his family in the water, and he goes out among his friends to ask what he would better do? A council of war, name of God! To determine what?’

She stopped, and turned till her eyes rested upon the face of La Tremouille and so she stood, silent, measuring him, the excitement in all faces burning steadily higher and higher, and all pulses beating faster and faster; then she said, with deliberation –

‘Every sane man – whose loyalty to his King is not a show and a pretence – knows that there is but one rational thing before us – the march upon Paris!

Down came the fist of La Hire with an approving crash upon the table. La Tremouille turned white with anger, but he pulled himself firmly together and held his peace. The King’s lazy blood was stirred and his eye kindled finely, for the spirit of war was away down in him somewhere, and a frank bold speech always found it and made it tingle gladsomely. Joan waited to see if the chief minister might wish to defend his position; but he was experienced and wise, and not a man to waste his forces where the current was against him. He would wait; the King’s private ear would be at his disposal by-and-by.

That pious fox the Chancellor of France took the word now. He washed his soft hands together, smiling persuasively, and said to Joan:

‘Would it be courteous, your Excellency, to move abruptly from here without waiting for an answer from the Duke of Burgundy? You may not know that we are negotiating with his Highness, and that there is likely to be a fortnight’s truce between us; and on his part a pledge to deliver Paris into our hands without cost of a blow or the fatigue of a march thither.’

Joan turned to him and said, gravely –

‘This is not a confessional, my lord. You were not obliged to expose that shame here.’

The Chancellor’s face reddened, and he retorted –

‘Shame? What is there shameful about it?’

Joan answered in level, passionless tones –

‘One may describe it without hunting far for words. I knew of this poor comedy, my lord, although it was not intended that I should know. It is to the credit of the devisers of it that they tried to conceal it – this comedy whose text and impulse are describable in two words.’

The Chancellor spoke up with a fine irony in his manner:

‘Indeed? And will your Excellency be good enough to utter them?’

‘Cowardice and treachery!’

The fists of all the generals came down this time, and again the King’s eye sparkled with pleasure. The Chancellor sprang to his feet, and appealed to his Majesty –

‘Sire, I claim your protection.’

But the King waved him to his seat again, saying –

‘Peace. She had a right to be consulted before that thing was undertaken, since it concerned war as well as politics. It is but just that she be heard upon it now.’

The Chancellor sat down trembling with indignation, and remarked to Joan –

‘Out of charity I will consider that you did not know who devised this measure which you condemn in so candid language.’

‘Save your charity for another occasion, my lord,’ said Joan, as calmly as before. ‘Whenever anything is done to injure the interests and degrade the honour of France, all but the dead know how to name the two conspirators-in-chief.’

‘Sire, sire! this insinuation -‘

‘It is not an insinuation, my lord,’ said Joan placidly, ‘it is a charge. I bring it against the King’s chief minister and his Chancellor.’

Both men were on their feet now, insisting that the King modify Joan’s frankness; but he was not minded to do it. His ordinary councils were stale water – his spirit was drinking wine now, and the taste of it was good. He said –

‘Sit – and be patient. What is fair for one must in fairness be allowed the other. Consider – and be just. When have you spared her? What dark charges and harsh names have you withheld when you spoke of her?’ Then he added, with a veiled twinkle in his eye, ‘If these are offences, I see no particular difference between them, except that she says her hard things to your faces, whereas you say yours behind her back.’

He was pleased with that neat shot and the way it shrivelled those two people up, and made La Hire laugh out loud and the other generals softly quake and chuckle. Joan tranquilly resumed –

‘From the first, we have been hindered by this policy of shilly-shally; this fashion of counselling and counselling and counselling where no counselling is needed, but only fighting. We took Orleans on the 8th of May, and could have cleared the region round about in three days and saved the slaughter of Patay. We could have been in Rheims six weeks ago, and in Paris now; and would see the last Englishman pass out of France in half a year. But we struck no blow after Orleans, but went off into the country – what for? Ostensibly to hold councils; really to give Bedford time to send reinforcements to Talbot – which he did; and Patay had to be fought. After Patay, more counselling, more waste of precious time. O my King, I would that you would be persuaded!’ She began to warm up, now. ‘Once more we have our opportunity. If we rise and strike, all is well. Bid me march upon Paris. In twenty days it shall be yours, and in six months all France! Here is half a year’s work before us; if this chance be wasted, I give you twenty years to do it in. Speak the word, O gentle King – speak but the one -‘

‘I cry you mercy!’ interrupted the Chancellor, who saw a dangerous enthusiasm rising in the King’s face. ‘March upon Paris? Does you Excellency forget that the way bristles with English strongholds?’

That for your English strongholds!’ and Joan snapped her fingers scornfully. ‘Whence have we marched in these last days? From Gien. And whither? To Rheims. What bristled between? English strongholds. What are they now? French ones – and they never cost a blow!’

Here applause broke out from the group of generals, and Joan had to pause a moment to let it subside. ‘Yes, English strongholds bristled before us; now French ones bristle behind us. What is the argument? A child can read it. The strongholds between us and Paris are garrisoned by no new breed of English, but by the same breed as those others – with the same fears, the same questionings, the same weaknesses, the same disposition to see the heavy hand of God descending upon them. We have but to march! – on the instant – and they are ours, Paris is ours, France is ours! Give the word, O my King, command your servant to -‘

‘Stay!’ cried the Chancellor. ‘It would be madness to put this affront upon his Highness the Duke of Burgundy. By the treaty which we have every hope to make with him -‘

‘Oh, the treaty which we hope to make with him! He has scorned you for years, and defied you. Is it your subtle persuasions that have softened his manners and beguiled him to listen to proposals? No; it was blows! – the blows which we gave him! That is the only teaching that that sturdy rebel can understand. What does he care for wind? The treaty which we hope to make with him – alack! He deliver Paris! There is no pauper in the land that is less able to do it. He deliver Paris! Ah, but that would make great Bedford smile! Oh, the pitiful pretext! the blind can see that this thin pourparler with its fifteen day truce has no purpose but to give Bedford time to hurry forward his forces against us. More treachery – always treachery! We call a council of war – with nothing to counsel about; but Bedford calls no council to teach him what our one course is. He knows what he would do in our place. He would hang his traitors and march upon Paris! O gentle King, rouse! The way is open, Paris beckons, France implores. Speak and we -‘

‘Sire, it is madness, sheer madness! Your Excellency, we cannot, we must not go back from what we have done; we have proposed to treat, we must treat with the Duke of Burgundy.’

‘And we will!’ said Joan.

‘Ah? How?’

At the point of the lance!

The house rose to a man – all that had French hearts – and let go a crash of applause – and kept it up; and in the midst of it one heard La Hire growl out: ‘At the point of the lance! By God, that is the music!’ The King was up, too, and drew his sword, and took it by the blade and strode to Joan and delivered the hilt of it into her hand, saying –

‘There, the King surrenders. Carry it to Paris.’

And so the applause burst out again, and the historical council of war that has bred so many legends was over.

4 thoughts on “Twain’s Joan

  1. I’m one of those people that secretly enjoys acynical sense of humor … it’s probably a sin, I suppose! So, I enjoy Twain’s quotes. He has quite the ego, that’s for sure! Here are some more:

    “I am the entire human race compacted together. I have found that there is no ingredient of the race which I do not possess in either a small way or a large way.”

    “Often it does seem a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat.”

    “It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.”

    “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear — not absence of fear.”

    I never read his ”Recollection of Joan of Arc” … I was never into historical fiction but I’m finding it more and more interesting as I get older. Thanks for the excerpts of the book.


  2. Pingback: Damsels in Distress « Mary Victrix

  3. Pingback: Twain’s Joan III « Mary Victrix

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