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TV: A different teen idol

"TV: A different teen idol" Continued...

Issue: "Saber savior," May 22, 1999

But Charles was a weakling, and he allowed her to be betrayed into the hands of the English. She was captured at the battle of Compiegne. After an ecclesiastical trial in which she was provided no representation and allowed to call no witnesses, the English burned her at the stake at Rouen, on the charge of heresy. Just 25 years later, that trial was annulled. The Roman Catholic Church canonized her on May 16, 1920.

Twain's book, recently republished by Ignatius Press, provides the best historical account of Joan's life. It seems odd that the work is now all but forgotten, considering how Twain himself felt about it.

"I like Joan of Arc best of all my books," Twain wrote. "And it is the best, I know perfectly well."

He spent 12 years researching the book, and that research included months of archival work in France. But what drew this satirical skeptic to this particular story? After all, he considered himself a "historical determinist," with an early modernist's rejection of the miraculous.

He simply couldn't get around the nature of her visions. "She foretold her first wound and its character and date a month in advance.... She foretold her martyrdom, using that word and naming a time three months away, and again she was right."

Twain's book was first published anonymously, serialized in Harper's magazine beginning in 1895 (that was the Victorian Age's version of the sweeps-week miniseries). It was written as the personal recollections of one of Joan's childhood friends. The dialogue, of course, is fictional, but Twain worked very hard to make his account historically accurate.

He owed it to the Maid of Lorraine, he said. "There is no blemish in that rounded and beautiful character."

If Twain's book was a work of devotion, then George Bernard Shaw's play, Saint Joan, was something like a work of deconstruction. In his preface (which is longer than the play itself), he makes his opinion very clear: "I cannot believe, nor, if I could, could I expect all my readers to believe, as Joan did, that three ocularly visible, well-dressed persons, named respectively Saint Catherine, Saint Margaret, and Saint Michael, came down from Heaven and gave her certain instructions with which they were charged by God for her," he wrote. Evangelicals, of course, will feel the same way.

And like CBS, Shaw also tries, at times, to make her a paleo-socialist. He even attempts to make her an honorary member of the Fabian [gradual socialism] Society. "If Joan had to be dealt with by us in London [today], she would be treated with no more toleration than Miss Sylvia Pankhurst, or the Peculiar People, or the parents who keep their children from the elementary school, or any of the others who cross the line we have to draw, rightly or wrongly, between the tolerable and the intolerable."

And yet-and yet!-Joan wins out, shining through Shaw's socialistic claptrap.

In the strange epilogue, Shaw has Joan visiting Charles in a dream, 25 years after her death. Into the scene come other spirits and souls; it's all a mystical mess with the good guys in hell and the bad guys waxing philosophical (the archbishop Cauchon tells Joan, "The heretic is always better dead"). Even that fails to spoil the story; as Joan's executioner tells the character Warwick, "Her heart would not burn, my lord; but everything that was left is at the bottom of the river. You have heard the last of her."

Warwick replies, "The last of her? Hm. I wonder."

And this isn't the last we'll hear of her; two feature films centered on Joan are currently in production. Columbia Pictures will release Joan of Arc, starring Milla Jovovich, in November, and a second film version of the story, starring Mira Sorvino and Albert Finney, is now being shot.

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