From La Pucelle: the Epic of Joan of Arc

1.

Jeanne walks uphill towards the old Fairies’ Tree.
The contorted branches of the ancient beech

used to be mysterious, sacrosanct. Now
they are withering and lifeless. Jeanne remembers

the ritual dances around the sacred bonfire; so,
she’ll perform a ritual of her own. She snaps a twig

off the forsaken tree. She walks downhill past the pastures
towards the river. On the banks

she drops her things and gathers a heap
of nettles and dry weeds. She takes two pebbles

out of the shallows and dries them
on her skirt. She strikes them over the pile of weeds.

Her spark ignites
the kindling. She bends in front of

the young fire and adds the broken branch
from the Fairies’ Tree. She takes a deep breath and watches

the flames rise and change colour from yellow
to green. She repeats to herself

the words that the villagers used to sing
during the dance around the ceremonial bonfires:

The fire ignites passion
                        and lovers unite.

But nothing happens. She looks at the remains
of the statue of Saint Catherine. She places

the half-burnt face of the wooden effigy
in the middle of the fire and stares

into the eyes of the sacred woman
sizzling in the flames. She breaks

into tears as the flames engulf
the face of her spiritual companion. She raises her voice:

2.

                – Sister, this is your burial.
This is the burial of your image.
Sister won’t you speak to me?
Sister, don’t the flames hurt?

                    Why can’t I hear your Voice?
Why have you left me now?
I need you more than ever before.
I need you to be my Counsel, my guide
                    to show me the way towards becoming
                La Pucelle.

        Why won’t you talk to me?
Do you think I’m afraid?
Don’t you think I’m ready for Heaven’s commands?

                    Do you think I’m scared of fighting?
        Do you think I’m afraid of getting hurt by the English?
Do you think I’m scared of their fire?

        Sister. Listen. Archangel Michael, listen! Heavens
give me
my orders, tell me
what I must do
to end the Great Misery
to make the world
a less evil place. Heavens
talk to me
                tell me how
                        to fight for justice. I’m not afraid
        of what the monsters could do to me.
I’m not afraid of their armies and their weapons.
I’m not afraid of their flames.
I want my life. You hear me
all you saints and angels and gods and spirits of sky

                    I want my destiny
                            even it means
                it’s death by fire my life brings.

3.

    Jeanne rolls up her sleeves
and moves her right arm straight
into the fire. Her scream
rises with the flames towards the clear sky. The sun
adds heat
to her suicidal yearning. From the painful crucible
the flames heave
and merge with the shafts of the sun
as Jeanne holds her hand above the flames
pain and desire saturate her vision

                        she sees a golden figure appear
                                    blazing with the sun’s brightness
        and the fire’s destructive brilliance. The figure

                    is a gilded knight with wings. Jeanne tears her hand
out of the flames and cries
                ferociously. The armoured messenger
        floats before her tear-glazed eyes. She
fights the pain and bows on her knees
                    before the fiery agent of Heaven
she pleads:

                – Talk to me Archangel.
I need to hear your Voice.
Will you take me to Paradise.
Will you free me from this world.
If I fight for you
if I fight for divine justice
[10]if I die for you
                        will you take me as your bride
                                    if I stay a virgin
                        if I die fighting the English
                        will you save me from this horrible world
                            if I save France
                                    if I end the English…

But the bright image flickers, almost disappears.
She feels betrayed and lonelier than ever.
The blisters on her hand
sting. She’s about to scream again
to implore the Angel to return
        when she feels a brush of fire
like the blast of a dragon’s breath
        waft above her. She sees
                    sun’s lustre and fire’s fervour
        weave into a shaft or a wand
                        before her eyes. Her senses
                        have overcome her hurt flesh
        and become aware of the golden instrument
                emerging out of sunshine
        integrating with the earthly blaze. She sees

                        the dazzling sword of Heaven. It’s the largest
thing she’s ever seen. Its hot tip
                slowly pats her on the forehead once
and twice on the shoulders.
                Jeanne’s face blooms in an enormous smile
when she hears the Archangel’s
                rousing voice:

        Jeanne
                                    I Give you
the Art
                                    to Combat and Win
        as a Knight
                                    the Holy Saviour
you Shall Fight
to End the Reign of Fear
End the Great Terror
                                    that Evil Hearts
        Have Wrought upon France
                                    I Anoint you
        with the Creator’s Authority
                                    as the Sacred Warrior
        La Pucelle
                                    my Beloved
        God’s Beloved Daughter
                                    the City of Orleans
        will be Saved by you
                                    You Only
        the Prince will be Crowned
the English shall be Defeated
by you and you only
                                    Jeanne la Pucelle
        we’ll be United at the End
                                    once your Courage has Expelled
        the Fiends from France
                                    a Blissful and Divine
        Marriage for us in Heaven

 

The above poems are extracts from canto XV of the creative component of my PhD thesis, La Pucelle: The Epic of Joan of Arc. They are, as is the epic as a whole, based on the history of Joan of Arc. These poems are, in other words, a representation (via the epic genre) of the ‘reality’ that is presented or, more accurately, hinted at by historical documents such as, in this case, the transcripts of Joan’s trials, her correspondences, the relevant chronicles, and so on.

In developing a syuzhet out of Joan’s fabula I have drawn heavily upon the available sources (mostly primary) not to ‘tell the truth’ or any such thing, but to write a narrative that evokes the life of ‘The Maid of Orleans’; one that draws upon and alludes to a good deal of the ‘facts’ of her existence without the pretence of wanting to pass off this allusion, or perhaps illusion, as ‘authentic truth’. By ‘fact’ I mean something that has been recognized as such by no more reliable a judge than time; a reference, if you like, that can be cited back to a ‘time-honoured tradition’ that is certainly not the reality itself, but often an insufficient attempt at capturing and committing reality to the page, binding its feet it to a text’s mimetic limitations.

I should further add, however, that I’ve aimed to do more than simply regurgitate these well-known particulars via a ‘historical fiction’. As an epic poet, I have tired to breathe life into them; to bring them to life – to return them to the realm of reality – by invoking their presence and casting off their precedence; by reconciling my research into the history of Joan of Arc with prosodic and narrative methodologies and strategies designed to reform and, more accurately, deform the ‘official histories’. In this appendix I would like to address some of the ‘facts’ alluded to in the above poems, and briefly discuss some of the decisions I made while running, as Michael Riffaterre might have it, “the gauntlet of mimesis” (Riffaterre, 1978: 19).

 

The Fairies’ Tree

In the poems of La Pucelle herewith published, “the old Fairies’ Tree” (line 1 of poem number 1) refers to the tree mentioned in the transcripts of Joan of Arc’s answers to the questions regarding her childhood posed by the Rouen Inquisition in 1430:

Not far from Domremy [Joan’s birthplace] there is a tree called the Ladies’ Tree, and others call it the Fairies’ Tree. […] It is a great tree, a beech, and from it our May-branches come; (Trask, 2000: 4)

As noted by Marina Warner, later travellers to Joan’s birth region testified to the existence of this tree. According to them the tree’s branches “swept down to the ground […] and formed a kind of natural chamber within” (Warner, 1994: 98). Such an image, I believe, has a particularly fertile feminine connotation: with ‘the natural chamber within’ striking associations with the womb, the tree is identified as a Ladies’ Tree as opposed to, say, Maidens’ Tree or, come to that, Women’s Tree – ‘Lady’ meaning a married women, as opposed to an unmarried, chaste or infertile one. As further noted by Warner, the ‘May-branches’ that Joan has referred to (Fr. le beau mai) could also be translated as ‘beautiful May blossoms’, a flower that, as an image, has further undertones of female fertility: “its scent is not fragrant like roses, but musky, almost animal. For this reason […] it has been associated with female power of generation” (Ibid.)

In her testimonies, however, Joan is ambivalent about naming this tree. She says that it is called the Ladies’ Tree, but that others call it something else. The ‘call’, in the first instance, seems to have been made from a position of authority – either by community elders, tradition or legend – hence fixing the signified to an ‘official’ identity. The ‘others’, then, are those who do not partake of the authority to signify; those whose name for the tree (the Fairies’ Tree) is incidental, unofficial and, in the context of Joan’s interrogation by the magic-fearing religious tribunal, immensely dangerous. Joan was, after all, on trial for, among a multitude of other accusations, witchcraft.

As mentioned before, one of my objectives in writing La Pucelle was to deform the ‘official version’. Therefore, to begin with, I chose to call this tree the Fairies’ Tree instead of what seems like the tree’s sanctioned, ‘proper’ and Church-friendly title. This choice led to my description of the tree as “ancient…mysterious, sacrosanct”: a choice of words inspired by Warner’s observation that, as a fairies’ tree, the beech at Domremy would have conveyed a version of female sexuality more complex than a straightforward and positivist celebration of maternity, since “the fairies of the tree were considered ancient powers, with a potential for good or ill, possessed of visionary and oracular faculties” (Ibid. 99). Elsewhere I’ve written of this tree:

Sacred dwelling of dead women
wandering and lost spirits
haunt the timber corridors of Your ancient trunk

(Alizadeh, 2001: 69).

This re-conceptualisation of the tree at Domremy – from a symbol of ‘natural’ female fertility and motherhood to one of ‘supernatural’, possibly pre-Christian, prophetic powers – seemed particularly apt in my poems as the words are articulated via Joan of Arc’s point of view and focalised through the senses of my resolutely virginal, childless and mystical pucelle. In other words, my narration, in being/becoming a representation of Joan’s story (as opposed to being a story about Joan), instigated a re-visioning of the tree’s connotations. From Joan’s point of view, then, this symbol of femaleness was not read as a sign of motherhood, sex and fertility, but one of visions, prophecy and otherworldly powers. In my writing, mimicking what is already known about Joan’s life required/resulted in a shift in perspective from the official to the unofficial; from Joan as the subject of narration to Joan as the narrative agent; and from what is accepted to what is insinuated.

 

The Eve of Saint John

In the poems herewith published, “the ritual dances around the sacred bonfire” (line 5 of poem number 1); and “the words that the villagers used to sing/during the dance around the ceremonial bonfire:/ – The fire ignites passion/and lovers unite” (lines 19-22) refer to the religious feast held on 3 June in parts of regional France known as the Eve of Saint John (Fr. la Veille de Saint Jean). My lines in the poem are based on Dorothy Spicer’s observation that in this festival:

A huge bonfire is set […] and people sing: “This is Saint Jean’s/The beautiful day/When lovers walk together,/Let’s go, pretty heart,/The moon has risen!” It is usual [for the participants] to sing old folk songs and dance traditional rounds as the flames blaze towards the sky (Spicer, 1958: 43-44).

Although Spicer’s 1958 account may seem far too modern to be used as research for a narrative set during the late-Middle Ages, the testimonies of Joan of Arc’s contemporaries, neighbours and compatriots (collected in 1456 during the so-called Trials of Rehabilitation) indicate that this feast day was celebrated during Joan’s life and at her particular village. Interestingly, according to a villager called Michel Lebuin, it was only during a social gathering on “the eve of Saint John the Baptist’s day” that Joan, as far as the records indicate, spoke of her intentions to someone from her birthplace (Pernoud, 1964: 36). According to Lebuin, Joan cryptically told him that: “there lived a maid [in this region] whom before the year was out, would have the King of France crowned” (Ibid.)

I decided to include allusions to this particular ritual in my epic, not only because of the above document, but also because, in the context of my narrative, this ceremony, and its accompanying bonfire, would allude to, and forecast, Joan’s story: her eventual death by burning. While, as with the Fairies’ Tree, in ‘real life’ this ceremony seems to have been an official, Christian bowdlerisation of an initially pagan rite, in my writing the bonfire takes on (regains?) prophetic, somewhat magical qualities (magical – from magi: Zoroastrian priests who foresaw the coming of the Christ), a prophecy of my protagonist’s own future bonfire.

Here the citation of this ritual is intended to underscore my protagonist’s coming-of-age with her historic destiny: the plot of her journey towards an inevitable, and no less ritualised, bonfire: one which, in time, would turn her into a saint a la John the Baptist. I therefore rewrote the folk song mentioned by Spicer by adding a line “The fire ignites passion” and changing “Lovers walk together” to “lovers unite” to indicate that this fire was, as Sufis may have it, a form of sacrifice; a sacrifice made in the name of love; a love for the creator; a love for the ultimate re-union with the creator; a passionate journey towards death.

 

The Voices

In my poems Saint Catherine (poem 1 line 24) and the addressee of poem 2 (“Sister”) are Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a figure identified by Joan of Arc as one of her famous ‘Voices’. The angel appearing and speaking to Joan in poem 3 is another one of her Voices, Saint Michael the Archangel. These representations are, as before, whilst based on the historical records and Joan’s recorded statements, constructs resulting from a negotiation between (my reading of) historical ‘facts’, and the particular technical approaches adopted for narrating them.

During her trials Joan of Arc, after noticeable hesitation, identified her Voices as those of three particular saints: the abovementioned two as well as Saint Margaret of Antioch (Pernoud, 1964: 34). According to Karen Sullivan Joan had been “obliged” to identity her Voices as these late-medieval saints in order to save herself from the wrath of an indignant Inquisition (Sullivan, 1999: 32); that, as Sullivan has put it elsewhere, “Joan did not experience her voices as [these saints] but was merely forced to claim to do so by the pressure of the trial” (Sullivan, 1996:102). Being an agnostic, I’ve found Sullivan’s study very plausible; but, in writing my epic, I decided to draw upon Joan’s identification of her Voices because, I believe, the invocation of these saints seems wholly consistent with Joan’s pathos and personality.

For example, as Andrea Dworkin has noted, Joan could have related to the legendary virgin martyrs, and identified her Voices as those belonging to them, in the context of an “adult experience of sisterhood or woman-identification” (Dworkin, 1995: 94). Saint Catherine, in particular, seems to have been in the position to be a role model for our resolutely chaste pucelle. Apart from being, as Warner has noted, “the most popular saint of the day” (Warner, 1981: 140), she was also, according to Barbara Tuchman, due to her martyrdom by decapitation and beheading resulting from her refusal to lose her devotional virginity, the patron saint of unmarried women in the late Middle Ages (Tuchman, 1979:33).

During my research trip to France in 2002 I found numerous depictions of Saint Catharine of Alexandria dating to late 14th and early 15th Centuries. One wooden effigy at Musee Lorraine at Nancy, in particular, convinced me that Joan, if not in reality, then at least in my imitation of reality, would hear the Voice of Saint Catherine and enjoy a strong affinity with her. This particular statue shows the saint in a distinctly defiant, even rebellious posture. Unlike almost all other female saints of the time, she is shown unveiled, visibly young and, most importantly, armed (with a sword that is supposed to signify her martyrdom by beheading). I decided to use this exact image in my writing (e.g. “the wooden effigy” in poem 1 line 25) and to show Joan getting inspired by the courageous resistance and unsheathed weaponry of this icon.

In the case of Joan of Arc’s other Voices, the presence of Archangel Michael has been a source of misgiving for a number of commentators. Simone de Beauvoir, for example, is disappointed at this “great male figure” being behind the female warrior’s heroism (de Beauvoir, 1997: 316). This concern withstanding, Saint Michael does seem like an apt choice for one of Joan’s Voices. During her life this archangel was seen, according to Jan Van Herwaaden, as the mascot of French Valois resistance against the seemingly unbeatable Lancasterian English invaders (Van Harwaaden, 1994: 36). In the oppressive climate of an ongoing military occupation by a ruthless foreign military, as Lucien Fabre has noted, it seems reasonable that the warrior angel known for having defeated Satan in battle, who was often depicted in armour with a set of scales symbolising divine justice, would appeal and appear to the young French civilian would-be resistance fighter:

If, then, it was the voice of Michael that spoke to Joan, and not the voice of Gabriel or Raphael or Azrael, the reason may be found in the cruelty of the times which brought to her a warlike helper, that the scourge of war might be abated in accordance with the dictates of justice (Fabre, 1954: 35).

In representing these Voices in my narrative, I decided to present them as ‘real’ – as opposed to either corporeal or ethereal – presences within the realm of Joan’s senses. I chose to conceptualise Joan’s communication with her Voices as that of a subjective identity communicating with its other/s, in this case, a dialogue between a human and the agents of Heaven. While I must admit that, in my own agnostic way of thinking, such a conception is not feasible in so far as one is concerned with objective realities, ‘visible truths’ and so on, it would be appropriate to assume that such a dichotomy (spatial difference between earthly/heavenly, profane/sacred, etc) would have been active in the context of Joan’s earlier understandings of her Voices.

According to Luce Irigaray, for a being to have an authentic dialogue with its other, it is necessary for the chasm separating the opponents (their difference) to be maintained while, at the same time, transcended – not abolished – through sharing speech. For such a communication to take place, ‘difference’ must first be conceptualised as ‘airy’ as opposed to – not only ‘solid’ or even ‘liquid’, but, importantly – ‘empty’:

Air gives what is indispensable to live, to grow and to speak – to each one, man or woman, and to a relation between two not dominated by the one or by the other. Air allows modulating sounds, speaking with different tones, and also singing, crying or whispering, shouting […] And sounds circulate in it at a more accessible rhythm and with more agreeable tones than in the ether (Irigaray, 2002: 67).

It was this particular idea of Irigaray’s that prompted me to position the meeting between Joan of Arc and the Archangel in ‘airy’ surrounds. Here (poem 3 lines 7-8), as fire consumes what is earthly, the flames of the fire (Joan) “heave/and merge with the shafts of the sun” (Heaven) midair. As a result “she sees a golden figure appear/blazing with the sun’s brightness/and the fire’s destructive brilliance” (lines 11-13). While this image may initially seem more ‘fiery’ than ‘airy’, it soon “flickers, almost disappears” (line 34) and turns into air, as the wand in line 43 (a symbol of fire) is transformed into a sword (a symbol of air) in line 49.

While this transformation is taking place, Joan and the Angel speak to each other, not in the form of a conversation, but by letting their words flow and ‘circulate’; instead of listening to each other and replying in turn, they, as Irigaray would have it, ‘cry, whisper, shout’ and use ‘different tones’ (I’ve tried to indicate these different tones by using a larger font for the Angel’s voice and a more ‘projective’ typography for Joan’s speech). My aim here has been to create a scene in which, as Irigaray would have it, “an alliance between earth and sky, human(s) and divinity(ies) takes place in a proper manner, an alliance that is carried out through the relation to oneself, to the other, to the world” (Ibid.136).

While some of the ideas and images in my poems – that of Joan of Arc wishing to become the Archangel’s bride and taking a vow of chastity for him, or the Angel’s appearance as an imposing, no doubt phallic, manifestation – may strike the reader as misogynistic, I should here mention that these poems are but a very small section of my entire epic. In the concluding cantos of La Pucelle: The Epic of Joan of Arc, Joan comes to believe that the she herself was the Angel; that the Angel was nothing more, or less, than a projection of her own desires; a prophetic vision of herself arrayed in full armour, wielding a sword and leading others; that her childish vow of celibacy – an imitation of Saint Catherine of Alexandria – was in effect a vow to protect her integrity and her body’s sanctity against the brigands and the English marauders.

This conclusion to my epic, as with the rest of the work, is based on Joan of Arc’s recorded testimonies – she is recorded as having said “I was the angel and there was no other” prior to her execution (Trask, 2000: 143). But, as I’ve been demonstrating in this critical appendix, my epic has been a conversion of the records into poetry; the transformation of what is known of reality into what I’m capable of achieving with words. Nothing more, or less, than that.

 

REFERENCES

Alizadeh, Ali. ‘Joan of Arc Sets Fire to the Fairies’ Tree’. In Adams, Kathryn (ed.). Red Weather, Fall Issue. New York: Hamilton College, 2001.

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Parshley, H. M. (trans.). London: Vintage, 1997.

Dworkin, Andrea. Intercourse. New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1995.

Fabre, Lucien. Joan of Arc. Hopkins, Gerard (trans.). New York: Mc Graw-Hill Book Company, 1954.

Irigaray, Luce. The Way of Love. Bostic, Heidi and Pluhacek , Stephen (trans.). London: Continuum, 2002.

Pernoud, Regine. Joan of Arc: By Herself and Her Witnesses. Hyams, Edward (trans.). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964.

Riffaterre, Michael. Semiotics of Poetry. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.

Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. Festivals of Western Europe. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1958.

Trask, Willard (ed. and trans.). Joan of Arc: In Her Own Words. New York: Turtle Point Press, 2000.

Tuchman, Barbara. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.

Sullivan, Karen. The Interrogation of Joan of Arc. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Sullivan, Karen. ‘I do not name to you the voice of St. Michael: the Identities of Joan of Arc’s Voices’. In Wheeler, Bonnie & Wood, Charles T. (eds.). Fresh Verdicts on Joan of Arc. New York: Garland, 1996.

Van Herwaarden, Jan. ‘The Appearance of Joan of Arc’. In van Herwaarden, Jan (ed.).Joan of Arc: Reality & Myth. Rotterdam: Erasmus University Press, 1994.

Warner, Marina. ‘Joan of Arc: A gender myth’. In van Herwaarden, Jan (ed.). Joan of Arc: Reality & Myth. Rotterdam: Erasmus University Press, 1994.

Warner, Marina. Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism. London: Vintage, 1981.