I might not have mentioned that I didn’t read the preface.
That’s right, I hadn’t forgotten Joan of Arc just yet! I’m not going to take any time giving you an overview of the story of Joan of Arc, you can find that on Wikipedia. I am going to share some of the profound things I took away, particularly from the character of John de Stogumber. But first, a small quotation from the Epilogue (not necessarily a spoiler, but you’ll appreciate it far more after having read the play yourself, which you can do here):
CAUCHON [kneeling to her(Joan)] The girls in the field praise thee; for thou hast raised their eyes; and they see that there is nothing between them and heaven.
DUNOIS. [kneeling to her] The dying soldiers praise thee, because thou art a shield of glory between them and the judgment.
THE ARCHBISHOP [kneeling to her] The princes of the Church praise thee, because thou hast redeemed the faith their worldlinesses have dragged through the mire.
WARWICK [kneeling to her] The cunning counsellors praise thee, because thou hast cut the knots in which they have tied their own souls.
DE STOGUMBER [kneeling to her] The foolish old men on their deathbeds praise thee, because their sins against thee are turned into blessings.
THE INQUISITOR [kneeling to her] The judges in the blindness and bondage of the law praise thee, because thou hast vindicated the vision and the freedom of the living soul.
THE SOLDIER [kneeling to her] The wicked out of hell praise thee, because thou hast shewn them that the fire that is not quenched is a holy fire.
THE EXECUTIONER [kneeling to her] The tormentors and executioners praise thee, because thou hast shewn that their hands are guiltless of the death of the soul.
CHARLES [kneeling to her] The unpretending praise thee, because thou hast taken upon thyself the heroic burdens that are too heavy for them.
Now, none of those statements won’t be half as profound if you haven’t read the rest of the book to understand everything behind the characters making them (so go read the book!) but I’m just going to focus in on a few of these characters and shed some light on why I found their stories so profound.
Let’s take a look at this John de Stogumber character. Stogumber was zealous for his English blood, for the church and, as he supposed, for God–but mostly for his English blood:
“We were not fairly beaten, my lord. No Englishman is ever fairly beaten.” [p89]
“Englishmen heretics!!! My lord: must we endure this? His lordship is beside himself. How can what an Englishman believes be heresy? It is a contradiction in terms.” [p96]
Scene IV is where we first meet John de Stogumber in a conversation between himself, the Earl of Warwick and Peter Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais. The Earl of Warwick comes with a purely political perspective: Joan must be burned. Still, he pities her and claims to hate the severity of burning. He will spare her if he can. Peter Cauchon is of a similar mind but comes with the perspective of The Church; he will strive for Joan’s salvation–but only to save his own soul. Stogumber, on the other hand is adamant; Joan is a sorceress and must die:
“Certainly England for the English goes without saying: it is the simple law of nature. But this woman denies to England her legitimate conquests, given her by God because of her peculiar fitness to rule over less civilized races for their own good. I do not understand what your lordship means by Protestant and Nationalist (terms used in reference to Joan): you are too learned and subtle for a poor clerk like myself. But I know as a matter of plain commonsense that the woman is a rebel; and that is enough for me. She rebels against Nature by wearing man’s clothes, and fighting. She rebels against The Church by usurping the divine authority of the Pope. She rebels against God by her damnable league with Satan and his evil spirits against our army. And all these rebellions are only excuses for her great rebellion against England. That is not to be endured. Let her perish. Let her burn. Let her not infect the whole flock. It is expedient that one woman die for the people. … I would burn her with my own hands.”
Although the motives of Warwick and Cauchon are far from pure themselves, John de Stogumber will have nothing short of a burning. But although even up to her trial and execution poor old John holds to his belief vehemently, something happens when he witnesses the execution of Joan. He gets a hard reality check:
WARWICK. Hallo: some attendance here! [Silence]. Hallo, there! [Silence]. Hallo! Brian, you young blackguard, where are you? [Silence]. Guard! [Silence]. They have all gone to see the burning: even that child.
The silence is broken by someone frantically howling and sobbing.
WARWICK. What in the devil’s name–?
The Chaplain staggers in from the courtyard like a demented creature, his face streaming with tears, making the piteous sounds that Warwick has heard. He stumbles to the prisoner’s stool, and throws himself upon it with heartrending sobs.
WARWICK [going to him and patting him on the shoulder] What is it, Master John? What is the matter?
THE CHAPLAIN [clutching at his hand] My lord, my lord: for Christ’s sake pray for my wretched guilty soul.
WARWICK [soothing him] Yes, yes: of course I will. Calmly, gently–
THE CHAPLAIN [blubbering miserably] I am not a bad man, my lord.
WARWICK. No, no: not at all.
THE CHAPLAIN. I meant no harm. I did not know what it would be like.
WARWICK [hardening] Oh! You saw it, then?
THE CHAPLAIN. I did not know what I was doing. I am a hotheaded fool; and I shall be damned to all eternity for it.
WARWICK. Nonsense! Very distressing, no doubt; but it was not your doing.
THE CHAPLAIN [lamentably] I let them do it. If I had known, I would have torn her from their hands. You don’t know: you havnt seen: it is so easy to talk when you dont know. You madden yourself with words: you damn yourself because it feels grand to throw oil on the flaming hell of your own temper. But when it is brought home to you; when you see the thing you have done; when it is blinding your eyes, stifling your nostrils, tearing your heart, then–then–[Falling on his knees] O God, take away this sight from me! O Christ, deliver me from this fire that is consuming me! She cried to Thee in the midst of it: Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! She is in Thy bosom; and I am in hell for evermore.
WARWICK [summarily hauling him to his feet] Come come, man! you must pull yourself together. We shall have the whole town talking of this. [He throws him not too gently into a chair at the table] If you have not the nerve to see these things, why do you not do as I do, and stay away?
THE CHAPLAIN [bewildered and submissive] She asked for a cross. A soldier gave her two sticks tied together. Thank God he was an Englishman! I might have done it; but I did not: I am a coward, a mad dog, a fool. But he was an Englishman too.
WARWICK. The fool! they will burn him too if the priests get hold of him.
THE CHAPLAIN [shaken with a convulsion] Some of the people laughed at her. They would have laughed at Christ. They were French people, my lord: I know they were French.
WARWICK. Hush! someone is coming. Control yourself.
– Scene VI, p141-142
De Stogumber had become so wrapped up in his own self-righteousness that he fairly went mad when Joan was nearly acquitted entirely, neither had he been happy to learn that the customary torture was not to be performed on Joan. But when he stood in the crowd as she was burning, his house of cards came collapsing in on him and he saw everything as it was. He saw the Law staring him down and knew he was fit for hell.
And it changed him.
John de Stogumber, chaplain to the cardinal, came to the end of himself, and received a revelation of grace. We find him in the epilogue, a much different man:
The door opens; and an old priest, white-haired, bent, with a silly but benevolent smile, comes in and trots over to Joan.
THE NEWCOMER. Excuse me, gentle lords and ladies. Do not let me disturb you. Only a poor old harmless English rector. Formerly chaplain to the cardinal: to my lord of Winchester. John de Stogumber, at your service. [He looks at them inquiringly] Did you say anything? I am a little deaf, unfortunately. Also a little–well, not always in my right mind, perhaps; but still, it is a small village with a few simple people. I suffice: I suffice: they love me there; and I am able to do a little good. I am well connected, you see; and they indulge me.
JOAN. Poor old John! What brought thee to this state?
DE STOGUMBER. I tell my folks they must be very careful. I say to them, ‘If you only saw what you think about you would think quite differently about it. It would give you a great shock. Oh, a great shock.’ And they all say ‘Yes, Parson: we all know you are a kind man, and would not harm a fly.’ That is a great comfort to me. For I am not cruel by nature, you know.
THE SOLDIER. Who said you were?
DE STOGUMBER. Well, you see, I did a very cruel thing once because I did not know what cruelty was like. I had not seen it, you know. That is the great thing: you must see it. And then you are redeemed and saved.
CAUCHON. Were not the sufferings of our Lord Christ enough for you?
DE STOGUMBER. No. Oh no: not at all. I had seen them in pictures, and read of them in books, and been greatly moved by them, as I thought. But it was no use: it was not our Lord that redeemed me, but a young woman whom I saw actually burned to death. It was dreadful: oh, most dreadful. But it saved me. I have been a different man ever since, though a little astray in my wits sometimes.
“Well, you see, I did a very cruel thing once because I did not know what cruelty was like. I had not seen it, you know. That is the great thing: you must see it. And then you are redeemed and saved.”
Isn’t that so GRACE for you, to say nothing of the purpose of the Law! Stogumber puts it like no other; he did not know what cruelty was until he saw it. Neither do we see sin until the Law reveals it in our lives. And you must see it, and then you are redeemed and saved–grace. And he was. How I wonder what would be the response of the disillusioned could they but receive a revelation like Stogumber’s. Salvation would come to every house.
And then there is his final blessing over Joan: “The foolish old men on their deathbeds praise thee, because their sins against thee are turned into blessings.” And that’s just how incredible our God is, that He could transform all our mistakes to blessing.
And I love this character, because out of all of them, his is the most felt transformation. He stands out to me as the one who was the most changed, and in the end more righteous than all the rest because of his allowance to the grace of God. The man with the greater sin loves that much more after he has received forgiveness, but also the man who is more than passive in his repentance. Many others such as the Earl of Warwick felt justified enough in that The Church made Joan a saint, but not John de Stogumber; he may have become only a gentle, white-haired and possible slightly senile old man, but on the day the fire was lit to burn Joan of Arc, a Holy fire was kindled to consume him also, spirit and soul for a God of unending grace.