Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Joan La Pucelle de Llanas

In 1999 the Llanas family had a gigantic family reunion in Lubbock, Texas. For three days we ate barbecue and danced the two-step while listening to stories about the three Llanas brothers Bibiano, Marcos and Amador who left Mexico after Pancho Villa was assassinated. On Sunday morning we went to mass in a church that the women of the Llanas family helped build. My little cousin, Ali, who must have been two at the time, ran up to the altar in the middle of the mass. The priest said: “Keep an eye on her, she looks like she wants to be the first female Pope.”

I have 3 sisters, 3 stepsisters, a mom, a stepmom, a grandmother who was raised in a lighthouse, and another grandma who keeps my grandfather alive by the sheer force of her love.

Oh, for the strong female protagonist! The Pippi Longstockings, Harriet the Spies, Stargirls and Norma Raes. When I read Anna Karenina, I had to quit a hundred pages from the end because I could no longer bear to see her too brilliant individuality melt and resolve itself into a silly dew because of the wandering affection of Vronsky (that rogue!).

That Joan of Arc is a fascinating historical personage is a ridiculous understatement, but I make it nonetheless. I may have first learned who she was when I saw Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure in 4th grade, but I think I never really understood that what she did was real until I read the scenes in Henry VI Part 1 where her deeds and French character are utterly assassinated by the English playwright.

She is called Joan La Pucelle and she appears to rally the French against the occupying British forces. Obviously, she is a villain to the English and therefore a villain in Shakespeare’s play, but there are peculiar deviations from actual history in this play that are downright un-Shakespearean. Meaning they serve to over-simplify characters and flatten the impact of important moments instead of his usual tricks of shrinking time and re-sequencing events for heightened dramatic impact.

The problem is that the trial of Joan of Arc is unbelievably well-documented. The transcript was used in the movie The Passion of Joan of Arc and it demonstrates almost exactly the questions that were asked of Joan and what her answers were. Thirty years after her execution (and 130 years before Shakespeare penned the play) these documents were used to demonstrate her absolute innocence, the corruption of the Catholic officials who sentenced her to death, and establish the case for canonization.

In the play Joan convinces the Dauphin to accept her leadership by fighting him. Charles yields:

Stay, Stay thy hands! Thou art an Amazon,

And fightest with the sword of Deborah. (1:2)

According to the records of the Trial of Joan of Arc, she convinced the Dauphin of her mission by disclosing to him the three private requests he had made in prayer to God. And during the trial she said: “she herself bore her standard during an attack, in order to avoid killing anyone. And she added that she had never killed anyone at all.” (The Trial of Joan of Arc, p. 82, trans. W.S. Scott) She was an adviser and a military strategist. She was the rallying cry for France. She may never have swung her sword in assault at all.

There’s a scene late in the play, when Joan’s capture seems imminent and she conjures fiends from hell, and asks for their help to defeat the English.

You speedy helpers, that are substitutes

Under the lordly monarch of the north

Appear, and aid me in this enterprise.


This speed and quick appearance argues proof

Of your accustomed diligence to me. (5:3)

What the hell are demons doing in a historical play? The only historically accurate thing about their appearance is that they don't actually help her defeat the English.

It’s not the only time in this particular series of plays that demons are conjured. The ambitious Duchess of Gloucester conjures a demon in Henry VI Part 2 to ask him about the future. Silly women, always conjuring demons.

But it gets worse for Joan of Arc. Her father shows up before she's executed and she denies him:

Decrepit miser, base ignoble wretch!

I am descended of a gentler blood.

Thou art no father nor no friend of mine. (5:4)

But according to the transcript of the trial: “She answered her father was named Jacques Tart and her mother Ysabeau.” (The Trial of Joan of Arc, p. 64 trans. W.S. Scott).

Then, according to Shakespeare, she claims to be pregnant by the Dauphin in order to avoid execution and when that tenders no mercies, she claims it was actually Alanson who loved her. So it turns out the English were right in accusing her of witchcraft and whorishness. But according to records in The Trial, she was examined during her imprisonment and found to be a virgin, which alone should have disqualified her from being convicted of witchcraft according to the laws of the 15th century church.

It’s possible Shakespeare had purely slanderous sources for his historical information. It’s also a popular theory that Shakespeare wrote only the portions of Henry VI that are good, and that other playwrights wrote the unfair and problematic passages. I think it likely that as a young playwright, Shakespeare was still making mistakes and accepting the direction of his patrons or the audience, who would have wanted Joan to be demonized. For God is British and could not possibly have been on the side of the French.

The slander against Joan, reminds me of the sometimes slander against Pancho Villa. I watched an A&E Biography on Villa once and although factually accurate, he was painted with a villainous brush. A tempestuous, egotistical murderer.

To my great grandfather and his brothers, Villa was a hero. He gave them cause to fight and to hope for lives better than those dealt campesinos. It's true he was greatly flawed and not nearly as cool as Zapata, but what do you want? Not every revolutionary leader can be a saint.

After the revolution, the fight he inspired in my ancestors brought them to Texas. That fight lingered in my grandfather, who raised his family in Wisconsin, where he would have good work for almost forty years. The fight sent my uncles and aunts and my father to college. It teaches and serves and leads and creates. It's sending my little sister to medical school. A strong female protagonist. It might not be the papacy, but these days papal dreams hardly seem the hallmark of virtuous ambition. I guess some villains never change.

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