Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Joan of Arc and The Maid of Orleans (Lighthouse Catholic Media and Ignatius Press)

If you had to pick Mark Twain's greatest work what would it be? Tom Sawyer? Huckleberry Finn? The Prince and the Pauper? All of these are all great novels, and you could make a strong case for any of them. However, if you asked Mark Twain what his greatest work was, he would tell you it was Joan of Arc. In fact, he spent twelve years in France researching the subject and went through several drafts and iterations before finally feeling like he had done Joan of Arc justice.

The book itself is told in the format of a novel, which was translated from the memoirs of Louis de Conte (a fictional characterization of Joan of Arc's page, Louis de Contes). There are three sections to this novel. Book I begins with the birth of the narrator, Louis de Conte. It also talks about Joan's early life in Domremy and how she was different from other children. She came off as wise and learned, despite being an illiterate peasant. Book II largely deals with Joan's military exploits. It takes place when Joan is 17 and is seeking to gain control of the King's army. This is unheard of not only because she is a girl, but because she is so young. In this section we see the opposition she faced, not just on the battlefield but from her own country. The king's counselors were evil men and always in the king's ear, trying to make Joan look foolish or get her killed. Book III deals with her imprisonment, trial, and eventual martyrdom. Here we see people take advantage of her illiteracy by getting her to sign a false confession. They also forbid her from wearing men's clothes, but while in prison, they took her female apparel and replaced it with men, so she would either have to wear nothing or put on the male garb and be branded a lapsed heretic. She chose modesty, knowing that it would ultimately result in her death. There is also a brief summary, which tells the fate of Joan's family, King Charles VII, and several other figures.

I was pleasantly surprised reading this book. Mark Twain is not known for his reverence or piety, but he did a remarkable job keeping this book respectful and enthralling. Lovers of history, saints' lives, or homeschoolers/history teachers will find a great treasure in this book. Lighthouse Catholic Media is currently selling copies for $5 a piece. This is such a great price that you can buy one for you and several for friends.

The Maid of Orleans is an Ignatius Press reprint of a title that was published in the 1950s. The author, Sven Stolpe, was a Swedish writer/journalist and wrote numerous books, including this one on Joan of Arc and one on Queen Christina of Sweden. Stolpe's book on Joan of Arc begins with background information on The Hundred Years' War and the state of France during that time period. In fact, Joan of Arc isn't even mentioned until the third chapter of the book. This creates a good background for the reader who does not know much about the era in which Joan grew up and lived. Stolpe presents a very detailed account of Joan. The level of detail is astounding and it seems he took to heart the advice to always assume your audience knows nothing about the subject.

As someone with a degree in psychology, Chapter 4 stood out to me as the most interesting. In this chapter Stolpe discusses the voices which Joan heard. He explains that people will ever agree on the voices Joan heard. Believers will see these voices as God. Skeptics will see these voices as hallucinations. He then cites several examples of the voices and a psychologist's rebuttal. The other interesting section to me was the trial almost two decades after Joan's death. It ultimately showed how unfairly treated Joan was, that her trial was held in a kangaroo court, and that her death was unnecessary. Stolpe's concludes that "Joan's real greatness is her willingness to die as shameful a death as the Savior upon the Cross."

This was a very detailed account of Joan of Arc. Stolpe's goal in writing this book was to show that Joan's life was more than just trying to free France, but that she was to share in Christ's Passion. The book was very dense, and there were times I had to put down the book often because of the depth and level of detail that Stolpe took in this book. It also had parts that were hard to read, because the level of betrayal and cruelty that Joan suffered was overwhelming. If you have an interest in history and/or a devotion to Joan of Arc, this book will be of great interest to you. If on the other hand you do not, you might find yourself weighed down by information overload and be unable or uninterested in finishing the book. That's not to say the book is bad, I just believe you have to be interested in the subject or in the right frame of mind to read a book this dense with facts.

These books were provided to me for free by Lighthouse Catholic Media and Ignatius Press, respectively, in exchange for an honest review.