Anachronistic values mar this otherwise compelling account of the short career of Joan of Arc.
Voices: the Final Hours of Joan of Arc by David Elliot. HMH, 2019, 194 pages
Reading Level: Teen, 12-15
Recommended for: ages 13-up
She was tried as a heretic (and possible witch) by a French court under English supervision. In the “Trial of Condemnation” of 1433, she testified in her own defense. A later “Trial of Nullification” heard testimony from her village priest, her childhood acquaintances and family members, and declared her innocent. By then, of course, she was long dead, burned at the stake and passed into legend. The “voices” of her final hours are drawn from these two trials and set in rhyming verse, in various medieval poetry forms. Poetry fans will be fascinated, but narrative fans might find this an engrossing read as well. The testimonies come from friends, enemies, admirers, vilifiers, saints—even inanimate objects like a needle, a gown, and a sword. Each category of voice speaks in its own poetry style (the objects, appropriately, in concrete form), but the most prominent is Joan herself:
They insist/ I am a zealot of the black/ demonic arts. They insist on/ evil everywhere but in the/ darkness of their hearts.
Though little is known of her outside trial testimony, the most compelling aspect of Joan’s character is her religious fervor, a faith so intense it inspired hundreds if not thousands. She broke a siege, crowned a king, and challenged an enemy that had occupied her fragmented country for almost 100 years. Her tragically short career gave France its identity and remained a rallying point in times of crisis. Voices attempts to look past the image to the girl, and as she approaches the hour of her execution (and the fire, another voice, continually expresses its fervent love and longing for her), faith grows dim. Her guiding saints, Margaret and Catherine, fall silent and Joan receives no comfort from God. What’s left is a complaint about gender bias:
I will not be shunted back to/ the barn and field, not allow my/ current life to be repealed by/ the domestic rut I hate,/ to be betrothed, wed, and mated,/ like all the girls I used to know. . . . It seems to me my only real/ transgression was to invade the/ world of men; a woman in their/ landscape was a repugnant,/ mortal sin.
. . . a girl who dared to live the life of a brave and honest man.
Contemporary testimony indicates that her cross-dressing was indeed offensive to the men who judged her, but upsetting the political apple cart was probably a greater “mortal sin.” In spite of the careful verse, the authentic poetry forms, and a beautiful layout, Voices seems too contemporary to shed much light on Joan’s real character.
Overall rating: 3.75 (out of 5)
- Worldview/moral value: 3.25
- Artistic value: 4.5
May 30 marks the 488th anniversary of Joan’s death (not that anyone will be celebrating). For a more classic retelling, see if you can get your hands on The Story of Joan of Arc by Maurice Boutet de Monvel, originally published in 1886 (but Dover has an inexpensive reissue). De Monvel’s prose—translated, of course—is florid and worshipful, but his illustrations are gorgeous, and there are lots of them.
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