We do a necessary disservice to children when we explain to them the difference between the land of Fancy and the Real World. It is necessary because there is a difference, practically speaking. Yet, it is a disservice, because it is not true, really speaking. In the land of Fancy, the sun shines every day and any adventure, no matter how daunting, ends in triumph and laughter. Meanwhile, according to all the authorities up to the authority of faith, this world is a vale of tears. But again, this vale of tears is the one that will disappear, while the new heaven and new earth, which has already begun, in which there is neither death nor mourning nor crying, is the one that will remain. The land of Fancy is in a sense more real than our real world because it is more like the realest world.
Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc is a perfect example of this paradox of three parts, for it is a literally true romance that is the story of a saint. It is literally true because the woman he describes was a person who lived on this earth, and it is a romance because it is also an adventure story written by a human author, and it is about not only a saint, but one of the most remarkable saints of all time.
Consider the side of romance first. It has several marks. One mark: a hero of noble bearing. Its plot contains several of its other characteristics. It is simple, a conflict between good and evil. It involves perilous journeys, pitched battles facing tremendous odds, and merry interludes in between. Mysterious, even magical events occur. The small bring down the great, the innocent ignorant defeat the wise wicked, truth conquers falsehood. The world is shown to be delightful. Beauty and friendship are vindicated as values worth dying for, even though the protagonists do not usually end up dying.
All of these things sound lovely, but they sound insubstantial. If it were not for Joan of Arc’s life, we could hardly believe such things to be possible. We would instead believe modern historians who wax pedantic about how the romantic Middle Ages are a whole-cloth invention of men like Howard Pyle and Sir Walter Scott. We would dismiss stories of peasants rising to greatness. Familiar with the sexism of the period, we would scoff at stories of heroic women, at the very best anachronistic inventions of modern authors, and at the very worst the fantasies of repressed men. We would say that the Middle Ages were just like any age—a time when the pragmatic, the cruel, the powerful dominated all. And yet, as Mark Twain realized, and as he has brought readers to realize ever since, there was a real flesh-and-blood romantic adventure that took place in the Middle Ages, and that is the story of Joan of Arc.
In order to understand this real person better, Mark Twain employs artistic liberties and invents a few people and a few events, but his real mastery is shown in letting the history transform into a story. It opens with a nation at the mercy of its enemies, defeated, betrayed, all of its worldly hope centered on a young, vain, cowardly monarch. Of all its citizens, one young peasant woman alone is assured that France will rise again. Not only is she assured of the impossible, but she is assured by immaterial voices. Even the reader who is familiar with the basic life of the saint may begin to feel doubts. Yet the voices are proven true again and again. Joan tells an unwilling governor that not only will she have men-at-arms to escort her to the king, but that he will give them to her. And he does. Joan repeatedly evades the vengeance of the English, conquers the cowardice of her countrymen, and foils the schemes and stratagems of churchmen opposing God’s desire for the salvation of France.
Throughout the book, other strange and wonderful things occur. A prophecy of Merlin himself is fulfilled by this little maid. An ancient sword is found underneath an altar. A brave woman throws herself into battle again and again, yet uses her sword for no bloodshed. An entire army is convinced to lose not only their loose women but their blaspheming mouths. Parents are reconciled with their daughter. A cowardly knight becomes brave. A cowardly prince is set on the path to becoming a brave king. And perhaps most wonderful of all, the champion of this fairy tale pitifully announces that “But indeed, I would rather spin with my poor mother, for this is not my calling; but I must go and do it, for it is my Lord’s will.”
Considering the contrast between Joan’s sincere desire for a quiet life and the active mission she is compelled to pursue, a brief digression may be in order here: the considerations above show one way to look at the adventure story that is also the life of a saint; that is, to consider how unique that combination is and how much grace it requires. An even more insightful way to reflect on this life is to see that it helps us understand how every life of grace (and, in a way, every life) is an adventure. Most are quieter than Joan’s, but they are no less adventurous. There is St. John of the Cross, vindicating the cause of contemplation against not only his own Order but even his own Church. There is St. Pius X, perpetually yearning for a country parish as he is elevated step by step to the Pontificate. When we notice a paradox in literature, it is because such paradoxes surround us in life. The one merely awakens an awareness of what is ample in the other.
To return to Twain’s account of Joan’s life and its happy coincidence with both history and hagiography, one more thing should be mentioned. Perhaps one fault of most romances is that they rarely go far enough in answering the question that informs all romance: is love really stronger than death? Most romances take us into but the shadow of death; the hero or heroine will be rescued. This path was not open to Mark Twain. Spurred on by his faithfulness to history, he follows his heroine on a path that most novelists never travel, and watches his protagonist endure a long trial and a cruel martyrdom. It is perhaps for this reason that the novel has always kept an awkward place among Twain’s works. While he suspends his known skepticism through much of the work, and even defends the very Catholic Church he despised, it is all for Joan’s sake, and with Joan leaving the scene, all Twain can offer as a happy ending is that Joan’s memory was rehabilitated, and that her “purity from all alloy of self-seeking, self-interest, [and] personal ambition” are unique in “profane history.” Yet for those who love not only Joan but also the God that made her lovable, there will be less bitter-sweetness than the eager hope of making this great woman’s acquaintance in heaven.
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail of “Jeanne d’Arc ayant la vision de l’archange saint Michel” painted by Toile d’Eugène Thirion (1876).
This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Crisis Magazine.