The National Catholic Review

"To know Joan of Arc," wrote Mark Twain in his fanciful yet earnest "translation" of her life in 1896, "was to know one who was wholly noble, pure, truthful, brave, compassionate, generous, pious, unselfish, modest, blameless as the very flowers in the fields, nature fine and beautiful, a character supremely great."

Those words were allegedly written by the Sieur Louis de Conte in 1492, as the man, then 82, looks back on having grown up with Joan, fought by her side and watched her trial and fiery death. Twain’s literary device works as well as it does because by then Joan, not yet a saint, was a figure so powerful in religious folklore it didn’t matter that the church considered her something of a problem.

What Mary Gordon’s slender but meaty book on Joan of Arc does especially well is strip away several centuries of accrued mythology and try to explain her enduring appeal.

Gordon opens the book with a dream of Joan’s father, Jacques. His daughter is leading an army. So frightened is he for her virtue, when he wakes he tells his sons he would rather they drown her than let the dream come true. But M. D’Arc, a loyal spouse by all accounts, also tells his wife, Isabelle, who promptly relays the news to Joan.

As would be the case with any contemporary teenager, Joan’s father’s objections just steel her resolve. She cannot read or write and knows nothing, at that point, of warfare. But she hears voices. Their most insistent message is that Charles VII is the rightful king of France and it is Joan’s divine mission to make sure he is crowned. Never mind that Charles might have been illegitimate and subject to bouts of madness. Who knows what drives saints to do what they do other than their own interpretations of divine directives?

Gordon doesn’t waste time going over what most already know about Joan. Instead, she addresses the thicket of contradictions surrounding the saint with a sharp eye and often with her tongue in her cheek: "Joan got into the castle at Chinon relatively easily, and this in itself is extraordinary. It’s as if Dorothy got to Oz with no interference from the Wicked Witch."

The shrewdness of that observation becomes increasingly clear toward the end of the book. Joan, Gordon suggests, was probably the first saint created more by the forces of popular culture than ecclesiastical dictum. Though she was burned as "Heretic, Apostate, Relapsed, Idolater"the words inscribed on the duncelike cap she was forced to wear while being led through the streets of RouenPope Calixtus III finally revoked her sentence 25 years after her death. The church, having stacked the deck so clearly against her while she was alive, went completely in the other direction. The papers from the original trial were torched on the very site where she had been burned. "A directive," writes Gordon, "was given that no images or epitaphs to Joan be set up at Rouen or elsewhere. The directive was ignored."

But why? There were, simply, too many issues involved. She was a hero to French nationalists, women, those who knew of the corruption within the Inquisition and, several centuries later, to a host of mostly non-Catholic writers who understood her alleged defiance of the institutional church with deadly accuracy.

What’s most refreshing and insightful about Gordon’s perspective is that she never loses sight of Joan’s age (she was 13 when she heard her first voices and dead only a few months after she turned 19), her femaleness or the stubbornness of her intelligence. Gordon correctly sees virginity and Joan’s determination to preserve hers as a sign of strength, yet without denying her existence as a fully human, and therefore sexual, entity: "It is not the painfulness of the death that appalls her," Gordon writes, "but its uncleanness, its defilement,’ as if the consumption by flames that would be the mode of her death had, for her, a sexual component. She would be devoured, and above all she had wished to be intact: recognizable as a whole."

That is precisely what kept getting Joan into trouble and would quickly contribute to the building of her myth. Women were tangential and ornamental.

Joan blew that idea to bits in dozens of ways, from her pride in her military accomplishments to deftness, despite her illiteracy, in dealing with her inquisitors, writes Gordon. Joan took great solace and strength from attending Mass and receiving the Eucharist regularly, but when she was told she could not do this unless she agreed to give up wearing men’s attire entirely, she refused. The threat to her wholeness was simply too great.

That Joan was such a thicket of contradictions within her desire to remain whole, is, to Gordon, what makes her so readily recognized and admired among the communion of saints. "There is a certain irony that this loyal daughter of the Church was sentenced to death by an ecclesiastical court," writes Gordon, "but this irony was passed over for the greater good of a clearly legible symbolic truth.... [It] is that this woman, who insisted on the primacy of her individual experience...would be seen as the curb by which the faithful could be brought to obedient, communal heel."

Rome, pay attention. There is real wisdom here.

Kathy O’Connell is a freelance writer and critic in Portland, Conn.