I read Mark Twain's 1896 PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS OF JOAN OF ARC for the first time this week, and I was rather surprised to find Twain, the master satirist, delivering the legend of "the Maid of Orleans" with complete seriousness. He only utilizes his trademark humor to delineate some of the side-characters in Joan's dramatic arc, but contrary to my expectations the book was surprisingly affecting.
In terms of the book's plot and main character, it rings in as a subcombative work. Joan herself does not fight, but simply leads her troops to victory up to the middle portion of the book, and the rest of the story is inevitably devoted to her martyrdom at the hands of her political and religious enemies. To be sure, however, there are a handful of strong fight-scenes in the book. Even more surprisingly, Twain endorses a view of Joan's glorious greatness that seems at odds with such down-to-earth Twain characters as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
Here's how the POV character-- implicitly speaking for Twain himself, IMO-- sums up the greatness of Joan in Chapter 17, during the ardors of her accusation.
Consider. If you would realize how great Joan of Arc was, remember that it was out of such a place and such circumstances that she came week after week and month after month and confronted the master intellects of France single-handed, and baffled their cunningest schemes, defeated their ablest plans, detected and avoided their secretest traps and pitfalls, broke their lines, repelled their assaults, and camped on the field after every engagement; steadfast always, true to her faith and her ideals; defying torture, defying the stake, and answering threats of eternal death and the pains of hell with a simple "Let come what may, here I take my stand and will abide."
Yes, if you would realize how great was the soul, how profound the wisdom, and how luminous the intellect of Joan of Arc, you must study her there, where she fought out that long fight all alone—and not merely against the subtlest brains and deepest learning of France, but against the ignoble deceits, the meanest treacheries, and the hardest hearts to be found in any land, pagan or Christian.
She was great in battle—we all know that; great in foresight; great in loyalty and patriotism; great in persuading discontented chiefs and reconciling conflicting interests and passions; great in the ability to discover merit and genius wherever it lay hidden; great in picturesque and eloquent speech; supremely great in the gift of firing the hearts of hopeless men and noble enthusiasms, the gift of turning hares into heroes, slaves and skulkers into battalions that march to death with songs on their lips. But all these are exalting activities; they keep hand and heart and brain keyed up to their work; there is the joy of achievement, the inspiration of stir and movement, the applause which hails success; the soul is overflowing with life and energy, the faculties are at white heat; weariness, despondency, inertia—these do not exist.
Yes, Joan of Arc was great always, great everywhere, but she was greatest in the Rouen trials. There she rose above the limitations and infirmities of our human nature, and accomplished under blighting and unnerving and hopeless conditions all that her splendid equipment of moral and intellectual forces could have accomplished if they had been supplemented by the mighty helps of hope and cheer and light, the presence of friendly faces, and a fair and equal fight, with the great world looking on and wondering.
This subcombative work, which recognizes the importance of "exalting activities," makes a marked contrast with Shakespeare's 1602 TROILUS AND CRESSIDA. Like JOAN, TROILUS is a work which includes a handful of violent scenes which are not integral to the main arc of the plot. Troilus, unlike Twain's Joan, actually engages in one or two briefly described martial encounters on a battlefield. Yet Shakespeare, who sometimes emphasized the ethic of glory in earlier plays, rejects that ethic firmly in TROILUS, as I noted in my commentary here:
....in essence, Shakespeare undercuts all the glory and honor associated with the great duel-- though, to be sure, Homer seems quite aware of the innate brutality of the war itself-- and makes Achilles into a honorless dog who lets his personal guard the Myrmidons, chop down Hector when the latter has partly doffed his armor.In Part 3 of this new series, I'll explore some of the ramifications involved when a subcombative work aligns itself with themes most often seen in combative works.