Ladies’ Tree, Fairies’ Tree: Joan of Arc as Muse

Though Joan of Arc was not herself an author, nor—as the daughter of a farmer—literate, she has become a popular figure in speculative and literary fiction alike. As the teenager who led soldiers in a briefly successful rally against English forces on French soil during the Hundred Years’ War, she is seen as a feminist icon. Given the popularity of her story, Joan has inspired a range of speculative texts, from the recent sci-fi/post-apocalyptic The Book of Joan and the fantasy novella The Armored Saint (both texts concerned with representations of gender and sexuality) to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

Joan also contributed to a text that ranges over topics at home in any fantasy novel: her own trial, which has been translated and examined many, many times since the fifteenth century. In this trial, readers and historians praise the oratorical skill with which she defended herself against a clerical court motivated by English animus. Canonized as a saint, Joan is a religious figure and much of her trial examines fine points of theological doctrine. Part of her interrogators’ concerns, however, focused on whether the voices she claimed as inspiration were associated with fairy or demonic forces.

As Richard Firth Green has argued in his recent book Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church, fairies are part and parcel of understanding the development of medieval theology. The medieval church was very much concerned with rooting out or supplanting folk belief in supernatural forces that might detract attention from God. Thus, in Joan’s trial, the court questions her closely regarding tales of fairies in her village:

“Then she was questioned about a certain tree growing near her village. To which she answered that . . . there was a certain tree called the Ladies’ Tree and others called it the Fairies’ Tree; . . . and often she had heard the old folk say (not those of her family) that the fairies frequented it . . . As far as she knew, she said, she never saw the fairies at the tree.”

Joan acknowledges that stories of fairies were part of her early upbringing but is careful to distance herself from any beliefs that can be held against her. She claims “consort with fairies” to “be witchcraft” and denies tales told by her brothers that it is at the Fairies’ Tree where she heard one of her divine messages. It is interesting, however, that Joan’s very identity as a woman seems linked with these beliefs. It is the women who talk about the fairies, women who participate in dancing and May Day festivities, and it is a woman who is mentioned in a local prophecy which the courts questions Joan on immediately after.

Joan declares that she does not believe the prophecy that “out of this wood would come a maid who should work miracles.” Instead, she insists on flouting one main signifier of her female identity within the same back-and-forth: that of a woman’s dress: “Asked if she wanted a woman’s dress, she answered: ‘Give me one. I will take it and go: otherwise I will not have it, and am content with this [masculine clothing], since it pleases God that I wear it.’” Not only does Joan dismiss femininely-encoded knowledge and community in order to preserve her soul, she also has to in order to use and protect her own body as she wishes.

Joan notoriously wore the armor and clothing of men, in order to more effectively lead in battle and because she claimed it was the will of God that she should do so. Once imprisoned, Joan was also likely protected from sexual assault by the appearance and coverage of men’s clothing. Throughout the trial, her insistence on wearing men’s clothing is a sticking point for the judges. They offer that she might go to Mass if she dress according to her gender, and this, alongside the hope for release from prison, often induces Joan to accede to the request in trial. However, her accession is continually undermined by her statements that she will return to men’s clothing at first opportunity.

It is, in part, her insistence on wearing men’s clothing that condemns Joan to death as a lapsed heretic. Her gender-bending performance both in court and on the battlefield has encouraged modern authors to speculate on gender in their own books. Lidia Yuknavitch contemplates a society in which bodies have evolved (both by force and nature) beyond sexual organs and Myke Cole casts his young, female protagonist as the armored savior of her people. Despite not being an author by any technical definition, then, Joan’s voice echoes and re-echoes through centuries of literature, revolutionizing our ideas of how both the fifteenth and the twenty-first centuries view and represent women.