Book Review: Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc
by Mary Gordon

Captures the contradictions of the cowgirl-turned-warrior (but ditch the audio book), January 19, 2009

Mary Gordon's biography of Joan of Arc reminds us of the the reasons that the story of The Maid of Orleans has inspired us -- Christians and non-Christians -- for nearly 600 years. Gordon traces the outlines of the story with a few strokes -- the uneasy domestic life in strife-torn Domremy; the otherwordly voices; the meeting with the Dauphin, the lifting of the siege at Orleans and the road to the coronation in Reims; the military victories and failures; the trial, the stake and subsequent glorification.

What stands out is Gordon's attempt to get to the heart of her subject as a person. We see the country girl who was brash, contradictory, intemperate, addicted to action and impatient with ceremony. We also meet the dedicated warrior with a genius for self-presentation, who understood and used the power of symbol and ritual, who wept at the death of friend and foe, and who had the temerity and strength of spirit to challenge and withstand the leading scholarly minds of her day.

Basing her story mostly on the best source of first-hand information about Joan -- her own words as found in still-extant records from her ecclesiastical trials -- Gordon provides fascinating glimpses into the person behind the myth. We learn where Joan learned to ride a horse; her bold threats against church reformer Jan Hus; her disregard for chilvalric niceties; her insistence at wearing men's clothing, even when it meant foregoing her beloved sacraments. Gordon's depiction of Joan's militery endeavors is less about strategy and more about lifting the veil on her subject. Bedeviling those who would paint her as a brilliant tactician, Gordon tells how during one of Joan's first battles, English soldiers evaded capture by dressing as priests-- a simple ruse that seems to have fooled the inexperienced soldier.

Gordon's forays into psycholanyis are intriguing, but often fall short. Shockingly, she seems to suggest that Joan's identification of her voices as belonging to Saints Michael, Catherine and Margaret was perhaps inflenced by her need at trial for the protection of certain strong, armed saints. While Joan's early testimony about her voices seems to vague (she speaks of them as "light" and "comfort") the thesis that Joan didn't ID them until 7 years after first hearing them seems forced. Similarly, Gordon's discussion of Joan's virginity completely ignores the prevalence of the cult of the Virgin that was prevalent in Catholic countries in the Middle Ages. It is fashionable nowadays to suggest that choosing virginity allows women a measure of freedom from the limitations placed on them by male-dominated societies. But virginity can also be a choice taken for other reasons: emulation of the Virgin Mary, or even a primal fear of physical intimacy. Strangely, Gordon does not even raise these theses. Gordon also suggests that Joan may have known about the location of the sword that she claimed her voices told her about. By claiming that Joan "may" have known about the sword on an unconscious level (!) suggests a level of deception and manipulation the part of the saint that seems out of character with the rest of her life. It's one thing for her to lie to her enemies out of fealty to her king, but this?

At the end of the book, Gordon explores some of the artistic responses to Joan's story. Joan has been portrayed as everything from a dreamy, tragic figure to a proto-Marxist. Gordon gives these theatrical depictions (from G. B. Shaw and others) more weight than recent filmed efforts, such as Leili Sobieski's "Joan of Arc" and the admittedly execrable "The Messenger." These, Gordon dismisses with hardly a second look. Yet for its shortcomings, it's Sobieski's TV miniseries Joan that was the most far-reaching vehicle for her telling her story.

I was particularlyy interested in Gordon's discussion of the the case for the Catholic Church's canonization of Joan, 500 years after her birth. To see the Church stretch and trim the real Joan into a pure and unblemished icon is to see he truth being violated in unseemingly ways. The Church needed an icon of medieval sanctity in its doomed fight against Modernism. Give me the brassy, arrogant cowgirl any day.

Though I would not make Gordon's version of the story the only Joan biography I read, its many stengths (and even its well-meant failings) make it a more-than-worthwhile read. Gordon's Joan is always young, with all of the virtues and vanities of the young. She is full of youthful boasting and valor, and more than willing to see her enemies (English and Burgundian) in the black and white terms common to youth. She is both reverent and uncompromising in her petulance at antagonistic Church officials. She urges a weak and reluctant king to reclaim his kingdom, yet is susceptible to the most transparent trickery. Gordon may not have succeeded in plumbing the depths of her hero, but hers is an honest attempt to limn her with modern eyes.

The audio fiasco

Sadly, the audio version of the book is impossibly irrititing. Narrator Mari Bevon has a wonderful and expressive voice and lends a dramatic approach to reading the material. But she sems to have misreprsented herself as a person who can read French. Her attempts to render short sentences were incomprehensible to this French speaker. She takes wild stabs at French words like "ecorcheur" (literally "scorcher" or marauder, anglicizable as "ay-kor-SHAR") and gives us, inexplicably, "ay-ko-RAY." This is careless and sloppy reading to say the least!

And her trouble constant mispronuciation of French town names, though sadly typical, was irritating. Reims becomes "Rimes", Compiegne becomes "Com-pig-nay" or "Compignon"; Vaucouleurs becomes "Vow-coo-lace" and Rouen becomes "Ruin" or "Rowan." Her pronuniations of French proper names also grates. Poor Alencon! He is dyslexically "Alsenon" and "Alksenon." And the Dauphin, who appears throughout the book, is a "Doff-een".

Worse, though, Bevon seems flummoxed by uncommon English words. "Otiose" is rendered "oh-toyce"; Saint Joan endures "canization"; Christ is whipped ith "scrouges", not scourges; papal legates are "leh-jeets"; "Joanolators," those who make an idol of Joan, are "Jan-o-layters"; palatable become "palpitable"; "men-sickant" monks roam the land; condemned criminals are "un-shryven". Abstemious and intransigent Joan becomes "abtentious" and shows "intransience". And her "synesthetic" experience of lending light to her voices becomes "synthesetic." And where she cannot mangle words, Bevon does the unimaginable, and substitutes -- turning "insignificant" into "insufficient." Not satified to mispronouce words, Bevon smears the boundaries between the two languages, giving a French cast to perfectly good English words. "Burgundian" is gallicized into oblivion as "bour-gohn-dien". "Retinue" is "retinyay"; "province" is "Provence" and Agincourt is An-gick-court. These bizarre errors do little to reflect on the care of the editors at Penguin Books, or on Bevon's intelligence or literary experience. It seems that the control booth was empty when this book was taped.

Poor Mary Gordon, whose hard work and insights are transformed so carelessly into birdbrained jibberish. I literally listened again to half the tape just to document these breathtaking and frequent howlers. Buy the book instead, unless you just wouldn't give a "sou" for correct pronunciation.