For much of the world, it is George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan" that typifies the French heroine of the Hundred Years' War. Overshadowed by the controversies surrounding "Huckleberry Finn", Twain's version of the Maid of Orleans is too infrequently read. Yet it was his own favourite among the rich production of his writings. The reason is clear: Twain shed all the feelings he held about monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church to write a portrayal in the best Romantic tradition. Whether the reader is aware of Twain's views or not, the way he tells Joan's story remains vivid and compelling.
Twain was fascinated by the brevity of Joan's effective career. In the short space of just over a year, this girl's sense of mission carried her, and her followers, through a succession of victories. As he relates in this tale, it was her inspiration that turned the French nation from a defeated people to one marked for liberation. He shows how the populace took to her almost from the day she launched her effort. Freeing her native land from "the English yoke" meant more than military prowess. It was her wit and persistence which won her followers and converted hardened soldiers to her cause. Behind the scenes, however, corrupt court officials and a Church holding her role in deep suspicion impaired her frequently. Twain makes her almost a genius at evading their machinations or turning them into her supporters.
Twain says "this untrained young creature's genius for war was wonderful". He has her proving it by leading her troops in frantic assaults without ever killing a man. His portrayal of the dichotomy of a general unable to kill is magnificent - no other word will do. He shows her compassion for wounded enemies and her employing a convicted deserter into her ranks. The author's extensive research is conveyed on every page, as is his feeling for her inestimable qualities. He presents her as her followers and companions saw her - without blemish, without guile, having a superior wit and given to exacting insights. Twain is portraying as if a village companion and later follower might have recorded her in a journal. The supernatural voices are thus accepted as fact - the irony of angels speaking in French and supporting France's desire to expel the English is therefore overlooked. What is far more important is the fact of her trial and betrayals. She was shopped by the very people she sought to liberate.
Twain's reputation as a writer of "boys' books" requires modification. This portrayal of a controversial historical figure can reach nearly any audience of any time or place. His "Pike County dialect" lightly intrudes - a "translator's licence" only enough to raise the account above the pedantic. Yet, it is the least of his "American" literary efforts. The standards of that time are fully retained. There are no questions posed - the book remains a personal record of events by a "Sieur le Conte", a purported contemporary. Joan claimed to hear "Voices" and attributed them to angels. Twain accepts this as far as it need be to convey Joan's sense of mission. Further investigation is unworthy of so exquisite a figure in his view. Whatever motivated her, she manifested her abilities fully. And Twain's sensitivity and admiration are also manifest. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on 3 August 1999
A master storyteller tells the tale of one of the most remarkable persons in known history. How a young, illiterate farm girl became commander-in-chief of France's armed forces at the age of 17; leading her army, which had become accustomed to defeat, to victory after victory, putting a reluctant king on his thrown and in the process, for a brief time, becoming the living embodiment of France to its people.
It is a story of Joan's courage, intelligence and most of all her unswerving faith in her destiny and in her God, and how in the last year of her brief life she stood totally alone against her persecutors, whose sole objective was to have her die by fire.
Twain's admiration for her shines through every page, and the more I learn about Joan of Arc, the more I share his admiration.
This is a great book, and a must read for anyone interested in Joan of Arc.
on 2 November 1998
I had not read any books on Joan of Arc, and was not terribly interested to either. I just picked it up because I thought it was weird for Mark Twain to have written it, so different from all the other books he had written. It was his greatest achievement and that he knew it shows in every page. She is brought to life, and the incredible, impossible, improbable accomplishments of Joan are believable and simply told. I loved it.
A paean to the bravery and spirit of Joan of Arc, this novel by Mark Twain is also his most scholarly, having taken twelve years to write. Clearly fascinated by Joan's "voices" and her sense of mission, Twain delves into her religious passion and her belief that God has chosen her to free France from England and restore the Dauphin to the throne. Often focusing on the arguments and trials in which Joan participates throughout her life, Twain shows her childhood attempt to "save the fairies," her struggle to become general of France, and ultimately, her defense against heresy and sorcery. Through these, Twain attempts to reconcile her spiritual commitment with the tumultuous temporal world in which she is engaged.
Born in Domremy in 1412, seventy-five years after the beginning of the Hundred Years War, Joan, an Armagnac, supports the isolated Dauphin, son of Charles VI; another faction supports the Duke of Burgundy, allied with the British. When Joan is fifteen, her angelic voices tell her she will lead God's armies, win back France, and restore the Dauphin. By the time she is seventeen she is General-in-Chief of France. After lifting the siege of Orleans, achieving many victories, and finally, standing beside the Dauphin at his coronation, she is, however, captured by the Burgundians. Sold to the English, she is later surrendered to an Inquisition in Rouen for trial as a heretic and sorceress. The Dauphin fails to intervene, and at age nineteen she is burned at the stake.
Twain creates a fast-paced story about this tumultuous period, creating a series of repeating characters who anchor Joan's story from the time of childhood until her death. One of these characters is Sieur Louis de Conte, a childhood friend, supporter during battle, and mourner at her execution, who narrates Joan's story many years later. Rare comic scenes provide occasional changes of mood, and the last section of the novel--Joan's trial and execution--is dramatic and moving. With the focus on Joan and the arguments she promotes to advance her cause and facilitate her actions, Twain explores the phenomenon of religious passion and the lengths to which a "chosen" person will go to fulfill divine will.
As interesting as this book is, historically and thematically, it lacks the unity of some of Twain's other novels. Joan of Arc is so heroic in stature that one feels little emotional connection to her, and Twain's dialogue is so wooden that the other characters fail to come alive, except as mouthpieces for background or philosophy. On several occasions, Twain explains the historical background (how the war began, and later the Five Great Deeds of Joan of Arc) though these delay the action. A serious attempt by Twain to depict a character with whom he was obviously fascinated, this novel is full of biographical and historical detail, but Joan remains an enigma. Mary Whipple
on 30 June 1999
I am very happy to have read this noble and inspiring work, and maybe that should be considered the bottom line. However, I did feel that it succeeded on some levels far, far better than others. In order to understand where this work succeeds and where it falls short, I think the first thing to note is that Twain seems to have accepted uncritically (and faithfully relayed) every glowing thing his research turned up regarding Joan's words and deeds. By that, I mean that almost every dramatically important thing said or done by Twain's Joan can be traced to the testimony of her contemporaries. If we find it plausible that her enthusiastic contemporary allies and admirers stretched the truth here and there, one suspects that Twain the story-teller nevertheless approves. I believe it was Twain's intent to drop this semi-historical "Joan as legend" into his work intact, rather than risk reconstructing the human Joan to his own specifications. There is actually much to admire in this approach. However, it does render Twain's Joan seriously out of phase with his other characters. She is so omniscient and devoid of human frailties as to render her somewhat flat and colorless. Her almost unerring judgement and profuse gift of prophecy often cause her to blend into the backdrop of events. Here she seems less a human being (however sublime) than a force of nature. Twain's true characters become satellites circling a brilliant but dismayingly distant sun. On the other hand, the interplay between these supporting characters is engaging (if sometimes outrageous); and the dialogue is perceptive and lively. Another saving grace is Twain's descriptive gift. I have rarely read a book that made reality melt away and brought to life visions of another time and place so forcefully. I can't speak to how accurate Twain's portrayal of war-torn 15th century France might be, but it is indisputably powerful. This isn't the work I would turn to for a better understand of the human Joan or the history "behind" the legend. However, if your aim is to enjoy a descriptive and inspiring drama while getting an inkling of how Joan's allies might have regarded her, Twain's effort delivers admirably.
on 3 August 1999
This book is a work of great beauty. It makes me very interested in Mark Twain himself, to choose this subject and create this wonderful masterpiece.
on 19 March 1999
Mark Twain's Joan of Arc is the best book I have ever read. It is remarkable to think that this young, uneducated teenager had the courage to convince the king to give her an army to save her country. The book is especially interesting, given Twain's usual disdain for religion.
on 19 February 1999
I read Twain's Joan of Arc simply because it was included in a collection with 2 of my perennial favorites: The Prince and the Pauper, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. I loved Joan of Arc also. But it is a very different cup of tea.
Nowhere else does Mark Twain rein in his irreverent spirit as in this work! He allows his sense of humor to emerge only in the stories of Joan's peripheral friends and fellow villagers (the Paladin, most notably, and even the narrator in the story of the love poem.) The sense of the author's genuine respect and admiration for his amazing heroine permeates the book.
The story of Joan of Arc, always a moving tale, takes on greater weight when a man like Mark Twain - a worldly, cultured, highly intelligent, and totally irreverent man - not only gives 12 years of grueling research to it, but then produces a book that is so unequivocally respectful and devoted.
Such a picture he draws! THIS is a character to excite anyone's admiration, and to inspire us all to give our best selves. And throughout the tale, while one recognizes that it is indeed a "story", it rings convincingly true. No matter what construction a religious or non-religious reader may put on the happenings of Joan of Arc's story, it is still a story of an enduringly noble character and amazing intellect. A woman who stood - and still stands - above the remainder of her species.
This is an inspiring and uplifting piece of work.
on 23 December 1997
I picked up an old copy of this book several years ago. I am not a religious person, and do not believe in things mystical. However, Twain's Joan of Arc may be the closest thing I've ever read that could persuade me to think otherwise. After reading that book, I picked up many other books on Joan of Arc and about that period (near the end of the Hundred Years War). I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in that period, as well as an interest in Joan of Arc. Heck, anyone who can read should read it. Except for traces of Twainisms, one would not recognize this book as a work by Mark Twain.
on 7 July 1999
It is, quite simply, the best book I have read in years. Her story is without equal. That, coupled with Mr. Twain's talent for words, produced a work that touched my soul.