So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

The Executioner's Knife; or, Joan of Arc

The Executioner's Knife; or, Joan of Arc by Eugene Sue

The Executioner's Knife; or, Joan of Arc is the 15th book of Eugene Sue's 21 volume series The Mysteries of the People; or History of a Proletarian Family Across the Age. The series was created to depict the struggle between the ruling and the ruled classes in European history. One family, the descendants of a Gallic chief named Joel, represent the oppressed and the descendants of a Frankish chief Neroweg, typifies the oppressors. Down through the ages the successive struggles between oppressors and oppressed are depicted as each generation of Joel's family writes the story of their lives and adds it to the collective story gathered so far.

The Executioner's Knife is set in the early 15th Century and tells the famous story of Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans. Written in the mid-19th Century and translated into English in 1910, the book portrays Joan as guided by inner voices and an ancient legend to save France. The author depicts her as an inspirational figure to the downtrodden French who are caught in the conflict between an invading British army and a divided France. She herself is drawn as a heroine of the people who is betrayed by the ruling classes.

The book only tangentially fits into the series as neither Joan nor her major accusers are related to Eugene Sue's fictional families. He has one of the series' family members present at Joan's execution to tell the story of her death. One drawback for me, a modern reader in the USA, is that the author tells his French readers who each of Joan's enemies were and what they said against her. I found myself wanting to skip over pages in the last section of the book that deals with her capture, trial and execution as each person in her trial is identified by name, position and home city and quoted. As a result this book has over 100 footnotes, most to the transcript of the trial or other historic documents. Each book in the English translation series has a Preface written by the translator Daniel De Leon.

TRANSLATOR'S PREFACE. Whether one will be satisfied with nothing but a scientific diagnosis in psychology, or a less ponderous and infinitely more lyric presentation of certain mental phenomena will do for him; whether the student of history insist on strict chronology, or whether he prize at its true value the meat and coloring of history; whether a reader prefer in matters canonical the rigid presentation of dogma, or whether the tragic fruits of theocracy offer a more attractive starting point for his contemplation;—whichever the case might be, The Executioner's Knife; or, Joan of Arc will gratify his intellectual cravings on all the three heads. This, the fifteenth story of the series of Eugene Sue's matchless historic novels entitled The Mysteries of the People; or, History of a Proletarian Family Across the Ages, presents the picture of the Fifteenth Century—a historic elevation climbed up to from the hills of the era sketched in the preceding story, The Iron Trevet; or Jocelyn the Champion, and from which, in turn, the outlines become vaguely visible of the critically historic era that forms the subject of the next story, The Pocket Bible; or, Christian the Printer. As in all the stories of this stupendous series bestowed by the genius of Sue upon posterity, the leading characters are historic, the leading events are historic, and the coloring is true to history. How true to the facts are the historic revelations made by the author in this series, and how historically true are the conclusions he draws, as they rise in relief on the canvas of these novels, appears with peculiar conspicuousness in The Executioner's Knife; or, Joan of Arc, above all in this century, when the science of history has remodeled its theory, and, instead of, as in former days, basing man's acts upon impulse, has learned to plant impulse upon material facts. In the pages of this story the central figure is the charming one generally known to history as the Maid of Orleans. If ever there was in the annals of man a figure that superstitious mysticism combined with grovelling interests to annihilate, it was the figure of the pure-minded, self-sacrificing, intrepid shepherdess of Domremy. Even the genius of a Voltaire succumbed. In righteous revolt against man-degrading superstition, his satire "La Pucelle" in fact contributed, by the slur it placed upon Joan, to vindicate the very lay and prelatical interests he fought, and whose predecessors dragged her name through the ditch and had consigned her body to the flames. Harried by the political interests whom her integrity of purpose menaced and actually thwarted; insulted and put to death by the allies of these, ambushed behind religion; the successors of both elements perpetuating the wrong with false history; and even the enlightened contributing their sneers out of just repugnance for supernaturalism;—all this notwithstanding, the figure of Joan triumphed. Even the head of the prelatic political machine, which had presumed to speak in the name of the Deity with Anathema over Joan's head, has felt constrained to fall in line with the awakened popular knowledge. The Papal beatification of Joan of Arc in this century is a public retraction and apology to the heroine born from the lowly. Of the many works of art—poetic, dramatic, pictorial—that have contributed to this conspicuous "reversal of judgment" Sue's The Executioner's Knife; or, Joan of Arc has been the most powerful. The pathetic story cleanses Joan of the miraculous, uncovers the grovelling influences she had to contend against, exposes the sordid ambitions she had to overcome and that finally slaked their vengeance in her blood. The master's hand weaves together and draws, in the garb of fiction, a picture that is monumental—at once as a work of science, of history and of art. DANIEL DE LEON. Milford, Conn., October, 1909.

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