Jul 27 2017

Joan d’Arc and the Scottish Bookman Andrew Lang

Joan d’Arc and the Scottish Bookman Andrew Lang

Anything by the Scottish bookman Andrew Lang (1844–1912) is usually a rewarding read. This is because he was so well-read.

Now the other day I was curious to read up on Joan, or rather Jeanne d’Arc (1412–1431), and I had no hesitation picking up Lang’s biography of her entitled The Maid of France (1908). I didn’t flinch because I knew him to be well qualified to write a sound account. I know he knew all about history, languages, rare books, blue China, medieval poetry, most of the world’s mythologies, European fairy lore and even conducted (with sound skepticism) researches into the paranormal.

Andy Lang wrote modern poems parodying Ronsard and translated Homer. He was the kind of person who could tell the difference between a first and second edition of the extremely rare Histoires ou contes du temps passé or Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oye (Stories or Fairy Tales from Past Times with Morals or Mother Goose Tales) by Charles Perrault, published in 1697.

But he always considered himself a journalist rather than a scholar, as he admitted in a note to the widow of his sometime rival, the philologist Max Müller:

My own relations with Mr. Max Müller were those of an amateur, or casual inquirer, who ventured, on a single point, to oppose the conclusions of a man eminently learned. We approached the subject, that of the origins of myths, from different quarters, and saw different sides of the shield as in the old apologue….

I am anxious to say is, that Mr. Max Müller always met my criticisms, often petulant in manner, and perhaps often unjust, with a good humour and kindness perhaps unexampled in the controversies of the learned and the half-learned. I shall always remember with pleasure certain occasions when Mr. Max Müller turned my own laugh against myself, with victorious humour and good humour. Our little systems have their day, or their hour: as knowledge advances they pass into the history of the efforts of pioneers. [1]

But as I read through Lang’s book on Miss d’Arc, I kept getting slightly irritated how Lang keeps crowbarring in anecdotal, information concerning Scotland, information often parallel to Joan and events going on in France. On the other hand, I’m new to Joan and her world. I don’t know squat about the Hundred Years War, except that Wikipedia tells me, yes, Scotland and France were often allied against England during the war.

So it does make some sense for a Scotsman like Lang to retell Joan’s tale in the manner that he does. And I haven’t forgotten that Lang often wrote for “the seriously self-educated.”[2] That means Lang wasn’t writing for Oxbridge dons, though many respected his expertise and were his friends, but for the seriously self-educated reading public in late Victorian–early Edwardian Britain. That kind of reading public would probably have known a thing or two about the war beforehand, and might well have appreciated Lang’s anecdotal gestures.

Yet I really don’t feel I learned very much, except about Lang’s adoration for Joan as well as most things Scottish. The book did have some jewels:

The mournful truth is that the historian has a much better chance of being read if he gives free play to his fancy than if he is strictly accurate. But to add the figments of fancy to the facts on record, to cite documents as if they were warrants for the statements which they do not support, is to wander from history into the enchanted forest of romance.[3]

Lang never plays with the facts as he warns here, but his fancy for Joan (and Scotland) sometimes distracts him from telling a plain story with the facts clearly presented, even if the fancy is interesting in itself to some readers:

How did Jeanne overcome the scepticism of Baudricourt so far that he ended by allowing her to have an escort? To answer this question entails what Sir Walter Scott calls “a boring attempt to see further into a millstone than the nature of the millstone permits,” —a process which Sir Walter, as an historian, thought highly undesirable…. [4]

Jeanne endured the irons, the chains, the hideous company of the merry men, because she refused to be on parole not to attempt an escape. This is one more example of her matchless courage and resolution. For five months she bore things intolerable rather than give her faith to any man, rather than abandon the chance of resuming her task. Great in everything as she was, we here see her at her greatest. [5]

I’m glad I read Lang’s The Maid of France, but nonetheless remain surprisingly underwhelmed.

NOTES

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[1] Müller, Max. The Life and Letters of the Right Honourable Friedrich Max Müller. Edited by his wife. Vol. II. London: Longmans. 1902. pp. 428–29.

[2] As Elanor de Selms Langstaff writes in her biography: “Lang did not write for the newly literate, but, good Scotsman that he was, speak he did to the most serious of the self-educated,” (Andrew Lang. Boston, MA: G. K. Hall & Co. 1978. p. 14).

The distinction between scholars and journalists was emphasized by Walter Kaufmann in his The Future of the Humanities (1977):

The journalistic orientation poses an immense threat to the future of the humanities. Some old-fashioned humanists felt that whatever was not worth reading ten times was not worth reading at all. They concentrated on books that had survived for centuries, and they ignored what seemed ephemeral—often even science, because it kept changing. The predilection of journalistic teachers for what is “news” and their concern with the latest fads endangers the conservation of the greatest works of the human spirit. (NY: Reader’s Digest Press. p. 21)

Kaufmann suggests studying George B. Shaw’s distinction:

The Newspaper Man, a cheerful, affable young man who is disabled for ordinary business pursuits by a congenital erroneousness which renders him incapable of describing accurately anything he sees, or understanding or reporting accurately anything he hears. As the only employment in which these defects do not matter is journalism (for a newspaper, not having to act on its description and reports, but only to sell them to idly curious people, has nothing but honor to lose by inaccuracy and unveracity), he has perforce become a journalist, and has to keep up an air of high spirits through a daily struggle with his own illiteracy and the precariousness of his employment. He has a note-book, and occasionally attempts to make a note; but as he cannot write shorthand, and does not write with ease in any hand, he generally gives it up as a bad job before he succeeds in finishing a sentence. (The Doctor’s Dilemma. 1906. NY: Brentano’s. 1909. IV, p. 92)

[3] Lang, Andrew. The Maid of France. London: Longman’s. 1908. pp. 14–15.

[4] Lang 73.

[5] Lang 252–53.