Gems from Joan of Arc by Mark Twain

joan_of_arc_mediumIn past posts, I have talked about two of my three favorite novels–To Kill a Mockingbird and Till We Have Faces. Today, I present Mark Twain’s Joan of Arc.

This is not a typical book review. I will just provide a few gems directly from the story so you can get a feel for its greatness.

How many of you knew that Mr. Twain wrote this novel?  When I first found it several years ago, I had never heard of it, but as I looked through a list of books by Twain for the literature class I teach, I found this one and thought it might be worth a read.  I was richly rewarded by a mesmerizing journey through the life of Joan of Arc, a fascinating young woman.  Mark Twain took twelve years to research this book and two years to write it, and he considers it his best work. He wrote, “I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well.”  I have to agree.

The following excerpts cannot do justice to the book.  Every page has a reward, whether vivid description, passionate dialogue, or stunning narrative.  Some popular authors bore readers with details, or else they major on action at the expense of description.  Twain, I believe, surpasses every author I have read with regard to balancing description, action, and dialogue.

Here is an example of descriptive narrative:

The King had come to Tours to meet Joan. At the present day this poor thing is called Charles the Victorious, on account of victories which other people won for him, but in our time we had a private name for him which described him better, and was sanctified to him by personal deserving–Charles the Base. When we entered the presence he sat throned, with his tinseled snobs and dandies around him. He looked like a forked carrot, so tightly did his clothing fit him from his waist down; he wore shoes with a rope-like pliant toe a foot long that had to be hitched up to the knee to keep it out of the way; he had on a crimson velvet cape that came no lower than his elbows; on his head he had a tall felt thing like a thimble, with a feather it its jeweled band that stuck up like a pen from an inkhorn, and from under that thimble his bush of stiff hair stuck down to his shoulders, curving outward at the bottom, so that the cap and the hair together made the head like a shuttlecock. All the materials of his dress were rich, and all the colors brilliant. In his lap he cuddled a miniature greyhound that snarled, lifting its lip and showing its white teeth whenever any slight movement disturbed it. The King’s dandies were dressed in about the same fashion as himself, and when I remembered that Joan had called the war-council of Orleans “disguised ladies’ maids,” it reminded me of people who squander all their money on a trifle and then haven’t anything to invest when they come across a better chance; that name ought to have been saved for these creatures.

And now, a bit of dialogue:

But the King put his hand on her arm, and there was a really brave awakening in his voice and a manly fire in his eye when he said:

“No, sit. You have conquered me–it shall be as you–”

But a warning sign from his minister halted him, and he added, to the relief of the court:

“Well, well, we will think of it, we will think it over and see. Does that content you, impulsive little soldier?”

The first part of the speech sent a glow of delight to Joan’s face, but the end of it quenched it and she looked sad, and the tears gathered in her eyes. After a moment she spoke out with what seemed a sort of terrified impulse, and said:

“Oh, use me; I beseech you, use me–there is but little time!”

“But little time?”

“Only a year–I shall last only a year.”

“Why, child, there are fifty good years in that compact little body yet.”

“Oh, you err, indeed you do. In one little year the end will come.  Ah, the time is so short, so short; the moments are flying, and so much to be done. Oh, use me, and quickly–it is life or death for France.”

Even those insects were sobered by her impassioned words. The King looked very grave–grave, and strongly impressed. His eyes lit suddenly with an eloquent fire, and he rose and drew his sword and raised it aloft; then he brought it slowly down upon Joan’s shoulder and said:

What did the king say?  You will have to read the book. 🙂

One more excerpt; Joan and one of the king’s advisers are arguing over the next step in the war.

“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 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.”

In this beautiful story, Joan is the primary character, but she does not act as a true protagonist.  It seems that France itself is the protagonist, battling poverty and apathy as well as England, and Joan is the heavenly catalyst who brings their freedom by way of her martyrdom.  Twain’s use of a human catalyst is extraordinary, and other writers may be well served to employ this method themselves.

If you decide to read the book, let me know what you think.


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9 replies

  1. I have never heard of this book before you mentioned it. Sounds interesting. I’ll have to read it.

  2. I’ve been more interested in Joan of Arc since I’ve started to write my own version of her in one of my stories(she’s so very different in my story, far less of a hero in many ways). And since you first mentioned this book I’ve put it on my reading list. It sounds like Twain went for a much more historical version of Joan, so it may be good for both inspiration, learning and enjoyment 🙂

  3. I actually read this book a few years ago, and I found it quite enjoyable. I especially liked they way Mark Twain used lots of detail to describe the characters and the settings throughout the book 🙂

  4. I looooove this book… I only have an audio book of it though so I haven’t actually finished it because I have a hard time finishing audio books. But it’s wonderful what I’ve heard so far of it. Truly amazing. I am very happy you have recommended it 😀 Joan of Arc was an amazing woman.

  5. I have!!!!

  6. Well, now I’ve gone and found the audiobook on YouTube and am listening to it while I work on stuff :p. It’s pretty good so far 🙂

  7. I had no idea that Twain had written this. Sounds pretty interesting.

    Is the fact that Joan of Arc is one of your favorite books one of the reasons that she is in the DIOM world?

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