The profoundly inspiring and fully documented saga of Joan of Arc, the young peasant girl whose "voices" moved her to rally the French nation and a reluctant king against British invaders in 1428, has fascinated artistic figures as diverse as William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Voltaire, George Bernard Shaw, Bertolt Brecht, Carl Dreyer, and Robert Bresson. Was she a divinely inspired saint? A schizophrenic? A demonically possessed heretic, as her persecutors and captors tried to prove?
Every era must retell and reimagine the Maid of Orleans's extraordinary story in its own way, and in Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured, the superb novelist and memoirist Kathryn Harrison gives us a Joan for our time—a shining exemplar of unshakable faith, extraordinary courage, and self-confidence during a brutally rigged ecclesiastical inquisition and in the face of her death by burning. Deftly weaving historical fact, myth, folklore, artistic representations, and centuries of scholarly and critical interpretation into a compelling narrative, she restores Joan of Arc to her rightful position as one of the greatest heroines in all of human history.
Joan of Arc was the subject of rumors and legends even in her own time, and from the 15th century onward her experience has been appropriated according to the needs of the age and artist. Novelist and memoirist Harrison (Enchantments) makes Joan's story almost surreal as it's untethered from time or context. Harrison compares Joan to Jesus: "Where no tangible historical records or artifacts provide a counterweight to the pull of a narrative tradition shaped by faith, the historical truth of a life like Joan's or Jesus's gives way to religious truth." But it is never clear whose truth is being discussed. Harrison relays the events of Joan's life by quoting other interpreters such as George Bernard Shaw, Jean Anouilh, Cecil B. DeMille, and Luc Besson. Often it is implied that these are a reflection of Joan's own reality. Harrison draws on previous biographies and the records of her trial for the established facts of the brief life and tragic execution of the Maid of Orl ans. However, just as many, if not more, of Harrison's citations refer to films or fictions, and a host more from other biographers. Too many other reported conversations are not cited at all. In the end, Harrison's jumble of biography and hagiography falls between two stools.