Shakespeare’s rebuilt theater, London’s Globe, will soon stage a production called “I, Joan,” that portrays Joan of Arc as “nonbinary,” complete with progressive pronouns. This isn’t a defeat for feminism (though Joan has long been co-opted for causes she never would have endorsed). It’s not even a meaningful moment in the transgender debate (Joan, who was a woman, will be portrayed by a woman).
Instead, it’s just another victory of Joan over the spirit of the age. She has a way of doing that; she fascinates — and often converts — the leading skeptics of the time, precisely because her story cannot be pigeonholed into a convenient modern or postmodern category.
A quick refresher: Joan was an uneducated farm girl, who at the age of about 13 began hearing voices. They told her she must lead an army to raise the siege of Orléans, and she must crown the French prince (the Dauphin) in the Reims Cathedral. She convinced a local official to send her to meet the Dauphin, and she then convinced him to send her to Orléans as part of a relief force. She rallied the French troops and brought off a victory that allowed the French to retake Reims — and to crown Charles VII.
She was later captured by the Burgundians, then tried for heresy by the English (one of the charges was that she wore men’s clothes during the military campaign). She was burned at the stake at the age of 19. A few years later, the Catholic Church overturned the verdict; she was canonized as a saint in 1920.
Mark Twain Was Devoted to Joan
But Joan didn’t merely conquer — she converted. Two of the modern world’s leading skeptics grappled with Joan’s story — and were utterly defeated. Mark Twain was one of them.
Twain was once approached by a fan, a young man who declared his love for “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn.” Twain responded he’d rather the young man had said his “Recollections of Joan of Arc.”
That book, he said, is “my very best.”
Though it receives little attention now, Twain’s “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc” stands out as the author’s most deeply researched work. As he put it, “twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing… The others needed no preparation and got none.” It was also the last novel of his career.
Twain was — at best — a deist.
“By the time he’s writing Recollections, he’s not a believer,” Twain scholar Susan K. Harris has said. “He is anti-Catholic, and he doesn’t like the French. So he writes a book about a French-Catholic martyr? Ostensibly, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
But it’s a fact. As Ted Gioia noted in America magazine, “Twain’s enthusiasm is still alive in these pages. That is, after all, the most conspicuous quality in this entire novel: the author’s devotion to Joan of Arc. It jumps off every page.”
George Bernard Shaw Also Wrestled with Her Story
Twain wasn’t the only famous skeptic that fell under the Maid’s spell. George Bernard Shaw also wrestled with Joan’s story — and the result was his play, “Saint Joan.”
Strangely, his play was published with a lengthy preface, in which he attempted to explain his fascination with Joan’s history and her role in world affairs. He didn’t quite know what to make of her.
“She lectured, talked down, and overruled statesmen and prelates,” Shaw wrote. “She pooh-poohed the plans of generals, leading their troops to victory on plans of her own.”
Was she mad? Shaw concludes that she wasn’t; the “soundness” of her voices and visions prove this. Instead, he writes that “her dramatic imagination played tricks with her senses.”
Yet “Saint Joan” shows that the Maid remained a riddle to Shaw, one he could neither solve nor set aside. As his great friend and intellectual sparring partner, G.K. Chesterton, wrote of him, “The whole force and triumph of Mr. Bernard Shaw lie in the fact that he is a thoroughly consistent man.”
Because he was consistent, he couldn’t deny the miracle of the Maid of Orléans.
And that’s why the Globe’s new play is strikingly unremarkable. It’s merely another attempt to fit the historic figure of Joan, the young, untutored girl from Domrémy, into a version of history that denies both miracles and common, observable facts. Our culture continues to grapple with questions such as “what is a woman?” Joan was sure of something far more important — what is a woman of God?
Skeptics and revisionists come and go. Joan’s banner still waves, unconquered and uncowed.