The Girl Soldier, Joan of Arc

The Girl Soldier, Joan of Arc
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irls are not supposed to be violent. But girls are not supposed to be warriors, whose métier is, after all, violence. They are not supposed to be burned alive. It is precisely the disjunction between our expectations of what girls should do and the shape of Joan of Arc’s life that has been, for half a millennium, a source of fascination.

Joan of Arc must be thought of as a girl. Our understanding of her must always be enclosed in the envelope of her age and gender. She was young and female, and the interpretation of her acts is inevitably colored at each moment by these two facts.

She referred to herself as “La Pucelle.” The Maid. Included in her self-description, in the almost heraldic tag by which she wished herself to be known, is a statement about her sexual state: She is a young virgin. But one tinged by romance. So before we look at the facts, we have to pass through our associations with girlhood: desirability, charm, innocence, a kind of claustral protectedness suggested by Yeats’s “Prayer for My Daughter.”

May she become a flourishing hidden tree
That all her thoughts may like the linnet be . . .
Nor but in merriment begin a chase,
Nor but in merriment a quarrel.
Oh may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.

But this girl was a soldier, and the word soldier forces us to put on a very different pair of spectacles from the one we use to watch a girl. Soldiers must be in the thick of things. They protect us; they are not protected. Innocence is a luxury they indulge in to our peril, and their own. God help us all, and them, if they only begin a chase or a quarrel in merriment or if they root themselves in one place alone.

Joan, the girl/soldier, forces us to bathe in two waters of vastly different qualities and temperatures, as if we were swimming simultaneously in a raging ocean and a warm, enclosed lake. The demand for an equilibrium that can tolerate such contradictory elements is a difficult one. Few have endured it. She doesn’t make it easy for us, and most have settled for a Joan whose contradictions have been airbrushed away in favor of a single, static portrait that is primarily a mirror of their own desires.

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There is no one like her.

***

There is no one like her. . .

. . .We pretend to believe that about all human beings. We cannot know ourselves to be ourselves without believing that we would cry out—knife to our throats, gun to our heads—our convictions about the uniquenesses, the non-interchangeability, of each human life. But we don’t live that way; we can’t. We put our faith in correspondences. We test for DNA; we say, “What can you expect from that neighborhood,” or, “Boys will be boys.” We speak of Renaissance man, founding fathers.

But Joan stands on a bare plain, unresembled. She has neither forebears nor descendants. She may be the one person born before 1800, with the exception of Jesus Christ, that the average Westerner can name. The man on the street can even create an image of her; the girl in armor. He can say that she is French, that she died young. He knows she wore men’s clothing. Try to name anyone else in history about whom the popular imagination calls up three facts. Nero? Napoleon? There are local gods—Lincoln, Garibaldi—but could a Spanish child, or a Danish one, identify their faces in a lineup? An Indian friend has told me that as a child, Indira Gandhi played at being Joan of Arc. What other historical character creates a force field so extensive and so wide?

Her rivals are the characters of myth. Robin Hood, King Arthur. But Joan lived in history, and most of what the popular mind knows about her can be verified in trial testimony. Unlike other historical figures, we need not invent stories to flesh her out (there is no chopped-down cherry tree). We need to create nothing; our need is, rather, to suppress.

For we need in her an image of singularity and single-mindedness. A girl, her foot shod in metal ending in a sharp point, digging its way forever into one piece of earth. In fact, she was erratic and self-contradictory, and her real fascination lies in the way that these contradictions did not end in the stillness and silence of her death.

Excerpted from Joan of Arc (Penguin Lives Biographies) by Mary Gordon, published by Viking Adult. © 2000 by Mary Gordon. All rights reserved. This literary biography is a moving meditation on the life of Joan of Arc and is a satisfying companion to Richard Einhorn’s oratorio, Voices of Light.
Guest Writer Mary Gordon has authored novels, memoirs, essays, and criticism. Her most recent book is the novel, The Love of My Youth (2011), the story of two former high school sweethearts, now in their late 50s, who meet by chance in Rome.

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