Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured
Author: Kathryn Harrison
Publisher: Doubleday, 2014
Hardcover Edition: 320 pages
Source: Personal copy
The reader travels with Joan of Arc as she journeys to Orleans and a military victory, is later wounded, captured, imprisoned, suffers examination and trial and is ultimately burned at the stake. This heart-breaking story amazes in its account of a young woman so courageous, so determined and so stubborn that she is a heroine for all time. Psychological and religious mysteries abound. In following Joan of Arc’s story, one understands that the mind and its beliefs can lead to actions that are incomprehensible. Humans and their acts sometimes carry amazing contradictions. One person’s solemn beliefs are for another person a crime punishable by death, true in the fifteenth century and in the twenty-first century.
The beauty of this story is undeniable. It gives meaning to the word awe. Kathryn Harrison’s telling of Joan’s life transports a reader to another time and place to such a degree that, some experiences in the present time and place seemed to echo Joan’s life. Recently, I had the opportunity to sing a fifteenth century devotional text set to a fifteenth century tune. I felt I was with Joan praying after her victory at Orleans. This particular text was written to celebrate the victory of an English king, rather than the victory of a French girl accompanied by angels. Still, the tempo, the mood of the music and the words made me feel I existed in Joan’s time. The fifth verse reads as follows: “And faithful hearts are raised on high/by this great vision’s mystery/ for which in joyful strains we raise/the voice of prayer, the hymn of praise.” Those words sounded like a prayer Joan might have offered.
With the aid of her attentive angels, Joan stands up to the powerful male establishment of the era. She puts on men’s clothing (an act considered evil by church and court leaders) and wins a following through the force of her leadership abilities, intellect, and her unusual talents as a warrior. She rides into battle demonstrating the talent of a seasoned knight with lance, and horse. The mental and physical stamina she enjoys is certainly superhuman. How could this slight young girl do this with a heavy headpiece of chainmail and full armor that bruised her body when she slept in it on the battlefield. She jousted verbally with the bishops even when confined in a small cell, shackled so tightly she could barely take a tiny step, deprived of any comfort. Mary Oliver’s poem “Angels” in her recent volume Blue Horses begins with this line: “You might see an angel anytime and anywhere.” Joan saw angels and heard their voices. She repeatedly told her examiners the voices directed her actions. How could that be? A peasant girl, not yet twenty years of age? The king’s men and bishops would not believe God would speak to the likes of her.
This author makes her heroine clear and shares her research and sources in a manner restoring belief in the extraordinary as possible. Often, the author quotes eye-witness accounts. She is also interested in the art Joan inspired. She uses it to deepen her portrait of this amazing young girl who has possessed her public for many centuries. The historical Joan, the pious Joan, the courageous Joan most aroused the interest and imagination of this reader. She is fearless, before powerful men, before her own army, in the presence of would-be rapists, when shackled and starved.
You might tell Joan of Arc’s story differently than Kathryn Harrison has told it. But any student of history, any reader is indebted to Harrison for the depth and breadth of her research and the story she tells. A reader can only enjoy the beauty of her writing and the powerful nature of this story. Often her prose stands as its own art. Of the horror of Joan at the stake she writes simply and clearly: “The hem of her robe catches fire, and in a second the crude dress has burned away, a flag of fire twirling skyward.” The reader is left with another of the many powerful images of Joan this book conveys.
Reading this life of Joan of Arc, finally made a saint in 1920, is a compelling even transcendent experience. She and her angels speak in a powerful voice for women, equality and justice, one of many reasons to celebrate Joan of Arc’s story. As with any good piece of history, this story out of the distant past enables readers to see human life in our time more clearly.