She’s a tween, a mere slip of a girl when it happens.
Out there in the fields of Domrémy, France, where her farmer-parents plow their 50 acres, unknown to the nobility and the mad Valois family that lost their kingdom to the Brit golden boy, Henry V.
But he’s gone, died young, leaving a fragile babe, Henry VI, heir to England and France. So the time is ripe for a new kind of hero – a heroine who’s alone in the lush, sun-dappled greenery when the extraordinary takes hold. She sees and hears them – the dazzling warrior St. Michael and then the virgin-martyr saints Catherine of Alexandria and Margaret – visions and voices so beautiful that she cries when they leave. They tell her she’s been called to drive the English from French soil and see the Dauphin, the future Charles VII, take his proper place on the throne in Reims.
And she thinks, what? That they’re unreal, that she’s mad, as crazy as Charles VI was, bringing madness to two royal lines? No, like the patriarchs and prophets of old she keeps faith and goes forth to meet her destiny. It isn’t easy, of course. Nothing great ever is. But as with all who achieve greatness, she begins by chipping away at the problem – asking a kinsman to help her petition a garrison commander whose rebuff nonetheless spurs her to seek an introduction to the royal court at Chinon from two men of influence, Jean de Metz and Bertrand de Poulengy. And it’s in their presence that she makes a bold prediction – that the French will reverse their fortunes near Orléans.
Naturally, she’s right. You knew that’s how it would go. And she gets to meet the Dauphin, who’s in much need of cowboying up and his mother-in-law, Yolande of Aragon, who’s made of sterner stuff and becomes one of the helping female hands along the way.
Still, she must pass rigorous tests, including intimate physical examinations to confirm her virginity, for the Devil could have no congress with a true maid. Her virginity, Marina Warner writes, is the seal on her mission’s integrity.
The real test, of course, will come at Orléans where dressed like a man and clad in borrowed armor – perhaps to protect herself as much from her new comrades as from the enemy – she leads the bold charge that will finally break the more than five-month-old siege of the city, this despite being wounded in the neck by an arrow.
Winning begets winning. English-occupied towns start falling to the French. Even food supplies appear at the right moment. And Reims readies itself for the crowning of the Dauphin as Charles VII on July 17, 1429.
Despite the odd wound, she fights on, at least as best as she can. For here politics rears its head. And also, winning begets losing. There are negotiations, truces, moments of inaction that are never good for soldiers, who are better at winning the war than winning the peace. As she attempts to defend Compiègne from an attack by English and allied Burgundian forces in the spring of 1430, she’s captured by the Burgundians and sold to the English. And you think, where’s the new King Charles in all this, the one who would not have a crown on his head without her? (You might also think, it’s a good thing for the French that Henry V dies young, because he would so absolutely mop the floor with him.)
The scene shifts. The English try her for heresy, but she’s one tough, smart cookie, this one, verbally jousting with them as they attempt to make the charge stick. But the cards are stacked against her. She can’t read and write. She’s guarded by English soldiers. She’s still barely more than a girl, 19 now, playing a man’s game she ultimately cannot win.
And anyway, she won’t renounce her voices and the voice within that has told her this is what she was born to do.
Her male inquisitors think, what? She’s a witch? A bitch?
Or maybe she’s just an itch they can’t scratch. They concede on the cross-dressing stuff. What better way for a woman on the battlefield to protect her virtue?
Yet even that’s a problem, for she’s no mere virgin but what the Jungian M. Esther Harding calls a psychological virgin, a woman complete in herself. She’s got to go.
And go she does on May 30, 1431. After she burns to death at the stake in Rouen, the coals are raked back to expose the charred remains of a body that so fascinated comrades and enemies alike and that could never be violated in life. It’s then set on fire anew to reduce it to ashes to be thrown in the Seine.
But those ashes drift, so to speak, all the way to Rome, where Pope Callixtus III reopens the case and she is declared an innocent martyr on July 7, 1456.
Yet it’s not until 1920 that she is finally canonized. All saints need miracles attributed to them. Perhaps it is the tales of those gassed soldiers, crying out to her as they struggle for every breath in the trenches of the Marne, that finally turn the tide.
All in all, the modern era has been good to her, with plays by the likes of Jean Anouilh and George Bernard Shaw, operas by Verdi and Walter Braunfels, whose work is performed at Austria’s Salzburg Festival, films starring Ingrid Bergman, Leelee Sobieski and Milla Jovovich, provocative books by Marina Warner, Mary Gordon and Donald Spoto. (Even Xena, Warrior Princess and Katniss Everdeen, the character Jennifer Lawrence plays in “The Hunger Games” series, are riffs on her Athena persona.)
In the it-takes-one-to-know-one department, she is perhaps best captured by Martha Graham’s beautiful “Seraphic Dialogue.” A sort of “This Is Your Life,” the ballet depicts the about-to-be apotheosized saint watching her maiden, warrior and martyr selves perform. After she, too, dances, she takes her place among her saintly apparitions. As Catherine and Margaret close the tracery of Isamu Noguchi’s set on her and Michael, framing them in a living stained glass tableau, she spreads her arms and Michael kisses her forehead, spreading his arms, too, in a gesture of blessing and farewell.
She never leaves us though. She’s there in Reims Cathedral, the rose window giving her serene warrior’s countenance a pink halo glow.
And she’s there in Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Metropolitan Museum of Art canvas, a big farm girl lost in what the specters who peer from the foliage have just told her.
Watch the faces of the viewers who do a double take or pause before her. They are young, female faces for the most part. They smile before they dance away. They know her secret. It is the secret of all womanhood.
And perhaps some of them say quietly with the faithful:
“Jeanne d’Arc, la Pucelle d’Orléans, priez pour nous.”
“Joan of Arc, Maid of Orléans, pray for us.”