Joan of Arc by Mark Twain – the “peerless” person of profane history


At the conclusion of Mark Twain’s book “Joan of Arc” he writes,

I have finished my story of Joan of Arc, that wonderful child, that sublime personality, that spirit which in one regard has had no peer and will have none—this: its purity from all alloy of self-seeking, self-interest, personal ambition. In it no trace of these motives can be found, search as you may, and this cannot be said of any other person whose name appears in profane history.

In his book about four literary luminaries, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Mark Twain, G.K. Chesterton, and William Shakespeare, Frederick Buechner write this about Mark Twain’s view of humanity:

But all of these are little more than glimmers in a world whose essential darkness Mark Twain was no more able to minimize than he could the darkness within himself. Almost everyone Huck and Jim run into on their journey is motivated by nothing so much as greed and self-interest. (Speak What We Feel, p. 73)

The obvious selflessness of Joan of Arc is undoubtedly one of her traits that inspired the rock group “Arcade Fire” to express their “love” of her and their desire to “know” and “follow” her. It seems that Mark Twain was also nearly obsessed with her, possibly for most of his life, for this very same reason.

Unfortunately Joan of Arc, who seems to have been the only true human “light” that Mark Twain ever “saw” in his life, did not prevent him from apparently descending deeply into the nihilism expressed in his final work “The Mysterious Stranger,” published posthumously. Buechner writes of this, saying

All in all, what with Livy’s death in 1904, followed by their daughter Jean’s on Christmas Eve in 1909, the darkness and the lonesomeness became more than the Huck Finn in him could handle, and in his last writings, too full of bitterness, despair, and near madness to be published until after his death, he resorted to a kind of confused, vindictive nihilism. (Speak What We Feel, 79-80)

Mark Twain certainly struggled with “darkness” until the end of his life, and ultimately no-one knows what the outcome of that struggle was. One can only hope that the light that he imagined earlier, expressed in his “Joan of Arc,” did finally dispel the darkness. The excerpt below, from Chapter 6, gives us a glimpse of what Joan of Arc meant to the troubled heart and soul that was Mark Twain.


Jeanne d’ Arc, by Eugene Thirion (1876)

What could have put those strange ideas in her head? This question kept running in my mind during two or three days. It was inevitable that I should think of madness. What other way was there to account for such things? Grieving and brooding over the woes of France had weakened that strong mind, and filled it with fantastic phantoms—yes, that must be it.

But I watched her, and tested her, and it was not so. Her eye was clear and sane, her ways were natural, her speech direct and to the point. No, there was nothing the matter with her mind; it was still the soundest in the village and the best. She went on thinking for others, planning for others, sacrificing herself for others, just as always before. She went on ministering to her sick and to her poor, and still stood ready to give the wayfarer her bed and content herself with the floor. There was a secret somewhere, but madness was not the key to it. This was plain.

Now the key did presently come into my hands, and the way that it happened was this. You have heard all the world talk of this matter which I am about to speak of, but you have not heard an eyewitness talk of it before.

I was coming from over the ridge, one day—it was the 15th of May, ’28—and when I got to the edge of the oak forest and was about to step out of it upon the turfy open space in which the haunted beech tree stood, I happened to cast a glance from cover, first—then I took a step backward, and stood in the shelter and concealment of the foliage. For I had caught sight of Joan, and thought I would devise some sort of playful surprise for her. Think of it—that trivial conceit was neighbor, with but a scarcely measurable interval of time between, to an event destined to endure forever in histories and songs.

The day was overcast, and all that grassy space wherein the Tree stood lay in a soft rich shadow. Joan sat on a natural seat formed by gnarled great roots of the Tree. Her hands lay loosely, one reposing in the other, in her lap. Her head was bent a little toward the ground, and her air was that of one who is lost to thought, steeped in dreams, and not conscious of herself or of the world. And now I saw a most strange thing, for I saw a white shadow come slowly gliding along the grass toward the Tree. It was of grand proportions—a robed form, with wings—and the whiteness of this shadow was not like any other whiteness that we know of, except it be the whiteness of lightnings, but even the lightnings are not so intense as it was, for one can look at them without hurt, whereas this brilliancy was so blinding that it pained my eyes and brought the water into them. I uncovered my head, perceiving that I was in the presence of something not of this world. My breath grew faint and difficult, because of the terror and the awe that possessed me.

Another strange thing. The wood had been silent—smitten with that deep stillness which comes when a storm-cloud darkens a forest, and the wild creatures lose heart and are afraid; but now all the birds burst forth into song, and the joy, the rapture, the ecstasy of it was beyond belief; and was so eloquent and so moving, withal, that it was plain it was an act of worship. With the first note of those birds Joan cast herself upon her knees, and bent her head low and crossed her hands upon her breast.

She had not seen the shadow yet. Had the song of the birds told her it was coming? It had that look to me. Then the like of this must have happened before. Yes, there might be no doubt of that.

The shadow approached Joan slowly; the extremity of it reached her, flowed over her, clothed her in its awful splendor. In that immortal light her face, only humanly beautiful before, became divine; flooded with that transforming glory her mean peasant habit was become like to the raiment of the sun-clothed children of God as we see them thronging the terraces of the Throne in our dreams and imaginings.

Presently she rose and stood, with her head still bowed a little, and with her arms down and the ends of her fingers lightly laced together in front of her; and standing so, all drenched with that wonderful light, and yet apparently not knowing it, she seemed to listen—but I heard nothing. After a little she raised her head, and looked up as one might look up toward the face of a giant, and then clasped her hands and lifted them high, imploringly, and began to plead. I heard some of the words. I heard her say:

“But I am so young! oh, so young to leave my mother and my home and go out into the strange world to undertake a thing so great! Ah, how can I talk with men, be comrade with men?—soldiers! It would give me over to insult, and rude usage, and contempt. How can I go to the great wars, and lead armies?—I a girl, and ignorant of such things, knowing nothing of arms, nor how to mount a horse, nor ride it…. Yet—if it is commanded—”

Her voice sank a little, and was broken by sobs, and I made out no more of her words. Then I came to myself. I reflected that I had been intruding upon a mystery of God—and what might my punishment be? I was afraid, and went deeper into the wood. Then I carved a mark in the bark of a tree, saying to myself, it may be that I am dreaming and have not seen this vision at all. I will come again, when I know that I am awake and not dreaming, and see if this mark is still here; then I shall know. (From online text at

In light of Mark Twain’s vivid description of this divine encounter, it seems strange to me that he could imagine such an encounter with such realism and wonder, yet not himself become a person of faith. It seems tragic to me, that Twain somehow did not discern the link between Joan of Arc and Jesus of Nazareth as G.K. Chesterton did. Chesterton wrote of this “development” in his own thoughts as inevitable:

It was impossible that the thought should not cross my mind that she and her faith had perhaps some secret of moral unity and utility that has been lost. And with that thought came a larger one, and the colossal figure of her Master had also crossed the theatre of my thoughts. (from Orthodoxy, chapter 3)

One also wonders why Mark Twain apparently did not consider Jesus to have been a selfless person of “profane history,” given that most any unbiased person would consider the historical Jesus to have been the model for Joan of Arc’s own selflessness.

For an in depth study of “the riddle” that is Mark Twain’s “Joan of Arc,” follow this link.

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2013. Excerpts, links, and reblogging may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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