Today I want to tell you about a lesser known work of one of the English language’s most famous authors, Mark Twain. It is a travesty that this is not one of his better known books…
“I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others needed no preparation and got none.”
This book is one of the best books I have ever read in my life. Ever.
It was an uphill battle given that it is a first person narrative (which I generally hate and explain why I love this first person narrative in this podcast *contains spoilers*). I have never come across a masterful modern retelling of the life of a medieval person. I knew how this story would end (for those of you who have never heard of a Jeanne D’Arc, I won’t spoil it for you), and yet I wept. Stories have brought out a tear in me before, but I have not had a book move me to weep with such intensity. Gosh I am selling it aren’t I?
If you read no other book in your life, let your last book be this one. Twain gives one of the best modern windows into the Medieval world and it’s people, from peasants to kings and gives an intensely coloured, humanity to the Middle Ages that is so often lost in dry history books and modern dismissals of such a world as full of stupidity and superstition.
Let me give you a sample of what I mean: Joan of Arc as a young girl in her little village, despite her lack of formal education and illiteracy was fiercely intelligent and an had an excellent grasp of theology, logic and philosophy that was well beyond her years. Her little village had a large oak tree which was inhabited by fairies. Long ago, there was an agreement with the fairies that they would leave the villagers alone and avoid them completely or they would be exorcised from the tree.
These fairies were not evil creatures, but mischievous and loved by the children and adults of the village, though they never interacted. One day, a woman in the village stumbled upon the fairies having a feast at the base of the tree, surprising them. Given the agreement was that they must stay out of sight of the villagers or risk exorcism, they immediately vanished. Joan was ill and delirious with fever when this woman informed their parish priest and he exorcised them reluctantly.
When Joan recovered and heard of this, she went immediately to the priest and chastised him for being so harsh on the fairies, they doing nothing wrong but be in the wrong place at the wrong time. What did this priest do? He acknowledged his error and asked her forgiveness.
At no point is there any discussion about the existence of fairies. In the Middle Ages, the supernatural existed and were understood to be as real as the flesh and blood people in your village, God, angels demons, and folk creatures like fairies. This is not because medieval people are stupid. People who build gothic cathedrals, illuminate manuscripts, invent universities and make order out of chaos of the end of the Western Roman Emperor are not a stupid people or a people living in a cloud of superstitious terror at all times. They are a people who see the world as enchanted and fully of fertile mystery and spirit and Twain captures that enchantment with such honesty and respect that I have only found in the likes of Sigrid Undsett.
I love this book. Mark Twain makes this worldview so radically different to ours comprehensible with empathy and pathos that makes Joan a compelling and relatable heroine in all her humanity and her extraordinary gifts. If you are looking for a book to read during Lent, I would highly recommend this one. It is a gripping and compelling story that plumbs spiritual depths as well as any explicitly spiritual book.
Read this book. The End.
Image Credit: By Martial d’Auvergne (Vigiles du roi Charles VII) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons