Joan of Arc

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Even so distinguished an author as Edward Lucie-Smith, English poet, art and literary critic, and author/editor of some thirty books, must answer the question: Why another biography of Joan of Arc? She is the best-documented historical figure of fifteenth century Europe. Thanks to the careful recordings of the ecclesiastical Trial of Condemnation (Rouen, January-May, 1531) at which Joan was questioned, tried, and sentenced, and to the recordings of the three series of investigations comprising the posthumous Trial of Rehabilitation (1450; 1452; 1455-1456) designed to reverse the earlier trial’s condemnatory verdict, we have today Joan’s own words and those of over a hundred people who knew her. Translations of these Latinate documents were first made available by the great nineteenth century scholar Jules Quicherat, and more recently by Pierre Tisset and Yvonne Lanhers. As a result of these easily accessible primary materials, as well as of the fascination of the myth itself, there are today well over twelve thousand published items on Joan of Arc. These include many standard biographies such as those by Francis Lowell (1896), Andrew Lang (1908), Albert Paine (1925), Michael Monahan (1928), Vita Sackville-West (1936), Jules Michelet (trans. A. Guerard, 1957), Régine Pernoud (1962), and Frances Winwar (1948). Even more formidable to a biographer are the well-known literary portraits—Joan as a witch in Shakespeare’s Henry VI; an object of ridicule in Voltaire’s La Pucelle; a spiritual savior in Schiller’s Die Jungfrau von Orleans; an apotheosis of chastity in Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc; a saccharine saint in Anatole France’s Life; a doughty Protestant heroine in Shaw’s Saint Joan; a common-sensical mystic in Anouilh’s The Lark.

Lucie-Smith’s answer to the question of yet another biography of Joan is that such portraits as those referred to above when not dull are biased: the woman’s face is obscured by the opinionated controversies her name has always aroused: Devil or saint? Royalist or revolutionist? Feminist or traditionalist? Realist or romanticist? Therefore, Lucie-Smith’s purpose as he informs us in his “Introduction” is to present an objective study, based solely on the historical evidence, that will reveal Joan’s human face. Though his aim is laudatory, the result is a failure. The trouble is that by sticking to historical “facts” and thereby ducking the larger political and social issues, Lucie-Smith’s Joan of Arc becomes a series of discrete surfaces which suggest, but do not make sense of, her complex and puzzling nature.

Moreover, contrary to Lucie-Smith’s asseveration that he holds no opinions, no preconceived theories about Joan, he in fact does. His unquestioned assumption is that mystical or out-of-the-ordinary happenings can be explained naturally—by which he often means psychoanalytically. The extraordinary becomes an aberrant, abnormal reaction resulting from repression of unconscious fears and desires. For example, Joan’s famous Voices, appearing to her from her thirteenth year onward, in the guise of St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret, and impelling her five years later to seek out King Charles VII, to raise the seige of Orleans, and to insure the King’s coronation at Rheims, are patronizingly dismissed as “obsessions,” mere hallucinations familiar to twentieth century doctors. Similarly, Joan’s father’s dream that his daughter would eventually go away with men-at-arms is reduced to a subconscious, incestuous fantasy. Even more unsatisfactory is the explanation of Joan’s predictions, made on separate occasions, of the deaths of two enemy soldiers who had taunted her. Their subsequent seemingly accidental deaths by drowning, Lucie-Smith says, can be interpreted as an attempt at intercourse since water signifies the womb. Less baffling, if equally reductionist, is the author’s interpretation of Joan’s prevision that a sword destined to be hers was waiting hidden by the altar at Sainte-Cathérine-de-Fierbois: Lucie-Smith says she must have seen it before and that it must have registered on her unconscious. This sword, found where she said, became Joan’s victory weapon at the battles of Orleans, Jargeau, Meung, Beaugency, Patay, Troyes, and Rheims. She carried it until, in the abortive attack against Paris in the fall of 1429 when her triumphs were turning to defeats, she snapped the blade by hitting its flat against a camp harlot’s back. Finally, Joan’s accurate prophecy on May 13, 1430, in Compiègne that she had been sold, betrayed, and would be delivered to death (she was captured in battle by the hostile Burgundians ten days later, sold to the English, and burned at the stake May 30, 1431) is described by Lucie-Smith as a “paranoid outburst.” The author’s method of deflating prophecy to paranoia, visions to vacuousness, flattens many-dimensioned humanity into Michael Foucault’s one-dimensional man. We wonder how such an undistinguished, distracted girl-next-door could stir the timorous Charles, inspirit a French nation, and create a myth now five centuries old? At issue here is not Lucie-Smith’s admirable aim to explain events rationally or “naturally.” Rather, at issue is his too narrow interpretation of “natural.” Reducing “rational” to “psychoanalytical” shears Joan of her powerful charisma, just as his substitution of historical facts for a central organizing viewpoint of relevant issues strips her of coherent meaning. Lucie-Smith’s Joan of Arc is an unfortunate example of the twentieth century axiom that the perspective of the viewer always influences what is viewed; every generation sees Joan in its own image. His Joan reveals the impoverishment of our mechanistic, pseudoscientific mind-set.

Yet the author’s noninterpretive objectivity is not without merit. His facts are always trustworthy. In Joan of Arc no speech of Joan’s, or of anyone else’s, is invented; no action is recounted that cannot be verified. If the author’s style is not as flexible and felicitous as that of his other critical works, we can infer that this, too, is in conformity to...

(The entire section is 2544 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Best Sellers. XXXVII, November, 1977, p. 243.

Harper’s Magazine. CLV, October, 1977, p. 92.

Kirkus Reviews. XLV, August 1, 1977, p. 832.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCXII, August 8, 1977, p. 56.