.. outhwest in the days of slavery, when the primitive distinctions between high and low, bond and free, lord and villein, were enforced with the violence of passions stronger than the laws, could make a shrewd guess at mediaeval life; and I am inclined to accept Mark Twain’s feudal ruffians, gentle and simple, as like enough, or as much like as one can get them at this late day. At least, they are like something, and the trouble with the more romantic reproductions is that they are like nothing. A jolly thing about it, and a true thing, is the fun that his people get out of the affair. It is a vast frolic, in certain aspects, that mystical mission of the inspired Maid, and Joan herself is not above having her laugh at times. Her men-at-arms, who drive the English before them under her miraculous lead, are “the boys” who like to drink deep and to talk tall; to get the joke on one another, and the dead wood. Without this sort of relief I own that I should find their campaigns rather trying, and, without the hope of overhearing some of their lusty drollery, I should not care to follow them in all their hard fighting.
I fancy it is the chance of this that gives the author himself so much stomach for battle; it seems worth while to lay a lot of fellows in plate-armor low if you can have them clatter down to the music of a burly jest and a roaring laugh. He is not at the trouble to maintain the solemnity of the dominant strain throughout; and he has made his Sieur de Conte not only a devout believer in the divine authority of Joan, but a delicately tender sympathizer with her when she suffers as a poor, simple shepherd-girl for the deeds of the prophetess. De Conte is a very human and lovable character, and is rather apt to speak with the generous feeling and the righteous love and hate of Mark Twain, whose humor has never been sullied with anything mean or cruel. The minor note is heard mostly through De Conte’s story of the trial and martyrdom of Joan, which is studied faithfully from the histories, and which I think is the best part of the book. It is extremely pathetic at moments, and as one reads the heart swells with pity for the victim of one of the cruelest wrongs ever done, as if the suffering from it were not over four hundred years ago.
It would not be easy to convey a sense of the reverent tenderness with which the character of Joan is developed in this fiction, and she is made a “sensible warm motion” from the myth that she seems in history. The wonder of her career is something that grows upon the reader to the end, and remains with him while he is left tingling with compassion for the hapless child who lived so gloriously and died so piteously. What can we say, in this age of science, that will explain away the miracle of that age of faith? For these things really happened. There was actually this peasant maid who believed she heard voices from Heaven bidding her take command of the French armies and drive the English out of her country; who took command of them without other authority than such as the belief of her prince and his people gave her; who prophesied of the victories she should win, and won them; who broke the power of the invaders; and who then, as if God thought she had given proofs enough of her divine commission, fell into their power and was burned for a heretic and an idolater. It reads like a wild and foolish invention, but it is every word most serious truth.
It is preposterous, it is impossible, but it is all undeniable. What can we say to it in the last year of this incredulous old century, nodding to its close? We cannot deny it. What was it all? Was Joan’s power the force dormant in the people which her claim of inspiration awoke to mighty deeds? If it was merely that, how came this poor, ignorant girl by the skill to lead armies, to take towns, to advise councils, and to change the fate of a whole nation? It was she who recreated France, and changed her from a province of England to the great monarchy she became. Could a dream, an illusion, a superstition, do this? What, then, are dreams and illusions and superstitions, that our wisdom should be so eager to get rid of them? We know that for the present the force which could remove mountains is pretty much gone out of the world. Faith has ceased to be, but we have some lively hopes of electricity.
We now employ it to exanimate people; perhaps we shall yet find it valuable to reanimate them. Or will faith come back again, and will the future ages be some of them religious? I shall not attempt to answer these questions, which have, with a good number of others, been suggested by this curious book of the arch-humorist of the century. I fancy they will occur to most other readers, who will share my interest in the devout, the mystical, the knightly treatment of the story of Joan of Arc by Mark Twain. Voltaire tried to make her a laughingstock and a by-word. He was a very great wit, but he failed to defame her, for the facts were against him.
It is our humorist’s fortune to have the facts with him, and whatever we think Joan of Arc, inspired or deluded, we shall feel the wonder of them the more for the light his imagination has thrown upon them. I dare say there are a good many faults in the book. It is unequal; its archaism is often superficially a failure; if you look at it merely on the technical side, the outbursts of the nineteenth-century American in the armor of the fifteenth-century Frenchman are solecisms. But, in spite of all this, the book has a vitalizing force. Joan lives in it again, and dies, and then lives on in the love and pity and wonder of the reader.