What does Joan of Arc — Jeanne d’Arc in French — say about our notions of heroism?
I’ve been pondering this for a while. So far in this thread on heroism, all the heroes have been male (and mythological). So the question of feminine heroism, raised but not satisfactorily addressed, has become more urgent.
So I read Larissa Juliet Taylor’s biography of Joan: The Virgin Warrior: The Life and Death of Joan of Arc.
Taylor takes the dry — quite dry! — historian’s approach to Joan, and that was the approach I wanted for my purpose. Who was the actual woman, rather than the “saint” and statue that we have made of her. (Yes, in 1920 she officially became a saint.)
So here is I) the background, II) her story, and then III) my interpretation:
I) Historical background
Joan lived her short life — she was executed at 19 — in the 15th century, during what we retroactively call the Hundred Years’ War between England and France.
The most important thing to understand about this time is that nations or countries as we understand them did not yet exist. Instead, there were kingdoms and dynasties, shifting constantly depending on which royal married and procreated with which other royal.
“England” was ruled by French-speaking Norman royalty which, to complicate matters, frequently married royals from “France”, which were in turn more or less descended from Frankish (Germanic) royalty. (I venture to say that the common people neither understood nor cared who ruled them.)
As Joan was growing up, the English king claimed also to be King of France and held most of northern France, including Paris. He was allied with Burgundy, another originally Germanic kingdom that we today consider “French”.
Another contender to the throne, Charles Valois, considered himself dauphin but was considered wimpy and weak. The map above shows the lands under his control as “France”. This portrait of him, I believe, says it all:
Joan was born into a family neither poor nor rich — we would say “middle class” — in the Anglo-Burgundian part.
She was different from the other girls. She didn’t go dancing with them, and seems to have been a bit of a killjoy. She was constantly praying, and obsessed with the Virgin.
Starting at the age of 13, as she later claimed, she began hearing “voices.” The voices told her to go “to France.” She decided that the voices belonged to angels or saints.
Also around this age, she vowed to remain a virgin for the rest of her life. No reason given. She just did. This later became part of her mystique: She became La Pucelle (The Maid), which implied not only virginity but nobility and purity and innocence.
She became what we could call deranged. If she were alive today, she might be a suicide bomber. Guided by her voices, she wrote a famous “letter to the English”. In it, this teenage girl informed them that she would have mercy on them (!) if they did exactly as told, but that
you will not hold the realm of France from God, the King of Heaven, son of Holy Mary, for it will be held by King Charles, the true heir, because God, the King of Heaven wants it to be so, and this has been revealed by the Maid.
In 1429, aged 17, she set out to meet the dauphin Charles — ie, she left the “English” part of France and traveled to the “French” part, specifically a chateau on the Loire where Charles was staying. Already, she had short hair and wore only male clothing, as she would from then on.
When she arrived at the chateau, Charles’ advisers reacted as we might: They thought she was loony. They questioned her for a while. Joan told them that she was on a mission
- to lift the English siege of Orléans, an important town at the time, and
- to lead Charles to Reims (in English-controlled territory) to be crowned king of all France.
So the counsellors admitted her to see Charles. Charles also thought she was mad, or at least suspicious. But she was offering to make him king, and he had no other plan.
So Charles sent Joan to another town for a month for a thorough “theological validation.” This was their equivalent of psychoanalysis — the churchmen being the shrinks. Joan conducted herself well. Even her claims to virginity survived, ahem, examination.
So Charles saw her off to Orléans and put her in charge of some troops. Joan put on shining armor and set off. In the picture above, she is entering Orléans.
She sent another letter to the English:
… King of England, … if [the English forces] do not obey, I will have them all killed. If they obey, I will show mercy. I am sent here by God, the King of Heaven, to kick you out of all of France….
She perplexed but also fascinated every man there, both “French” and “English”.
She had one mode only: Charge!
She did not know doubt.
So she told the defenders to charge, and charge they did. In confused fighting, with Joan even getting wounded by an arrow, the tide turned and the English retreated from Orléans.
Suddenly, everybody either feared (if “English”) or adored (if “French”) the Maid.
Joan now led a laddish camp life. She was one of the guys. She got most angry whenever female “camp followers” came near her boys. She personally attacked the ladies with her sword to keep her soldiers pure.
Apparently feeling invincible, Joan led Charles’ forces to several more victories. Then it was time to bring Charles to Reims for his coronation. And thus the dauphin became Charles XII, King of France.
Charles, however, distrusted Joan more than ever. She seemed just plain deranged to him. Furthermore, Charles now had to begin the adult and mature business of negotiating with Burgundy and England to settle this mess in a civilized way. Joan, however, was constantly going on about her voices from the angels. She appeared not to understand the geopolitical context she was in. Which would be understandable: she was a teenager.
Joan, knowing only her one mode (Charge!), kept charging until she fell off her horse and was captured. In 1430 she was brought to Rouen, English-held Normandy, and put on “trial”.
The English did not prosecute or judge Joan. Instead, it was the French and Burgundian churchmen. Yes, they were aware that the power of the land, England, considered Joan a political problem. But their main bugbear seems to have been more Freudian-patriarchal. Joan threatened … something.
The obvious problem was to find something to accuse her of. What had she actually done?
The trial notes show the church, if not all religion, as silly, petty, ridiculous, irrational, vindictive and dumb. The inquisitors asked questions that were stupid, and Joan made fools of them.
The charges, when read, compensated for vagueness with length. Joan was to be tried
as a witch, enchantress, false prophet, a caller-up of evil spirits, as superstitious, implicated in and given to magic arts … [She was] scandalous, seditious, perturbing and obstructing the peace … [and she] indecently put on the ill-fitting dress and state of men-at-arms…
Sounds like everything I like to do in my spare time. 😉
Up on the scaffold she went, and onto the stake. They burned her. She died of smoke inhalation before she burned, but it was a cruel spectacle nonetheless, and nobody enjoyed it.
Her legend was born in the decades and centuries after her death.
She became, to different people at different times:
- a martyr
- a saint
- a patriot and symbol of France.
Indeed, her retroactive importance is largely that she helped to bring about this concept of “France”.
So, was she a heroine?
Joan seems to belong to a small category of heroines who choose to remain virgins, dress up as boys and then fight with the boys.
China’s Joan, for example, might be Hua Mulan (pictured). Greece’s Joan might be Atalanta; Rome’s might be Camilla (who fought and died in the Italian wars against Aeneas).
But there is an obvious problem with such hermaphroditic or asexual heroines: Their heroism seems in large part to require denial of their femininity. That would suggest that heroism really is a male thing and the girls can play with the boys only if they pretend to be boys. I don’t like that at all.
Contrast that with a variation on her theme: the hyper-sexual warrior woman.
Here, for instance, is Brunhilde of Norse myth, with considerable Va Va Voom:
Then, of course, there are the Amazons, who not only fought but slept with male heroes, including Theseus and Hercules.
These women are seductive and fertile as well as brave and strong, and thus the direct primal equivalent of their male counterparts. As heroines they celebrate their sex rather than hide it. In fact, the Amazon queen, Hippolyta, seems to have been the model for Wonder Woman:
So Joan does not do it. She was a clueless teenager fired by inappropriate certitude (which describes pretty much every teenager) who never had the chance to grow into a whole person and become a genuine heroine.
But there are plenty of those out there, and The Hannibal Blog intends to find them
65 thoughts on “The wrong heroine: Joan of Arc”
In describing Joan, you used phrases like: “……she became what we could call deranged……..”;” …….They thought she was loony…….”; “……She did not know doubt…….”; “…….She appeared not to understand the geopolitical context she was in……..”
Add to this her obsession with sexual abstinence and purity, and you might be describing Sarah Palin.
Sarah Palin as America’s Jeanne d’Arc? There’s a good topic for barroom discussions.
Some folks are obsessed with sexual abstinence and purity. Others are obsessed with open borders, drug legalization, abolishing the military, and bashing Fox News.
Aren’t we all equally “obsessed” with our personal views of right vs. wrong and how things should be vs. how they are?
Yesterday I listened to an Intelligence Squared debate on whether organic foods are mere marketing hype. A representative of the conventional food industry emphatically put forth that organic farmers have a “vested interest” in promoting organic foods and in promulgating whatever studies happen to support their cause.
True enough–and conventional producers do not have a vested interest in promoting their products and preventing competing industries from cutting into their market share? That’s ridiculous. Of course they do. Hence this accusation is exactly as brilliant as whacking oneself in the head with a boomerang.
So these are two examples of what I call boomerang charges, as they generally apply to the accuser as well as the accused and, upon being leveled, come flying right back into the former’s face.
It’s like a member of one party accusing the opposition of “playing politics.” Pardon me for chuckling.
“……Others are obsessed with open borders, drug legalization, abolishing the military, and bashing Fox News……”
And yet others are obsessed with bashing those who advocate open borders, drug legalisation, abolishing the military, and don’t like Fox News.
Precisely. It all comes down to semantics. It’s like the old saw that if our opponents change their minds, they “flip-flop,” whereas those on our team possess the admirable flexibility to “adapt to new realities.”
If someone whistles our tune, we commend that person for the strength of their convictions and their courage to speak out, yet if we take offense to someone’s views, we tend to dismiss that individual as an obsessive attention strumpet.
We essentially use a different vocabulary to describe identical behaviors in different people simply based on our ideological agreement or disagreement with the individual in question.
OK, so we’re all obsessed, and the obsessions cancel one another out?
Surely, even though all obsessions may be equal, some are more equal than others? 😉
Naturally, our own obsessions are healthy and rational, hence better termed convictions, and those which clash with our own are pathological, hence properly termed obsessions.
Pointing fingers and others and calling them obsessed is so ridiculous, it’s painful. Show me a person who isn’t “obsessed” with their own views, and I’ll show you a holy whore, as Frank Zappa would say.
OK, so let’s burn Sara before she causes too much havock.
It seems that the Ingrid Bergman movie wasn’t based on the book you read.
Atalanta was Greek? I had always pegged her as Georagian.
Didn’t see the movie. Tell us about Bergman’s Joan.
I saw it once, dubbed in German, when I was, like, eight years old. All I recall is that Joan was portrayed as a good gal and the sanest person on the screen, and all her opponents were bloody bastards who simply failed to grasp her direct line to the Deity, like the dopey Romans who erroneously crucified the messiah.
to borrow a phrase, very “pithy” re-telling in part II.
of course if she does not “qualify as a female” she can not be a female heroine. part III.
“The trial notes show the church, if not all religion, as silly, petty, ridiculous, irrational, vindictive and dumb. ” – a bold statement, care to elaborate?
being unfamiliar with the trial notes on what basis do they show “all religion” to be petty, ridiculous etc?
i “googled” a phrase you often use mythos vs logos, and found a nice comment on an atheist blog which i will shamelessly steal;
I think that engaging the fundamentalists on a textual level is much more constructive than saying” “all religion is meaningless and those who pay attention to it are idiots.” After all, what would the history of western thought be without biblical or mythological references?
Let’s read religious texts as poetry, not with the belief that they represent history accurately, all the while accepting that poetry is not marginal but a means, like science, to elucidate the unknowable mystery of the human experience.
Possibly too bold, and gratuitous in this context. I I were my editor, I’d edit it out. 😉
“if not” introduces a more extreme possibility, but does not actually make the claim.
I suppose by religion I meant “orthodoxy” of any sort, which needs to go on witch hunts against heterodoxy and invariably finds witches (heretics) everywhere. This is whens reason, truth, sanity, decency generally stop.
@ Andreas: Concur
@ Phil: Concur
@ Cyberquill: Concur
Timing! I am writing from a reunion today, a reunion of a sensible midwestern college that was the first in the country to (gasp!) permit men and women to study in the same institution. Women (and men) at today’s brunch may have some thoughts about prissy Jeanne and about what constitutes hero(ine)ism for women. I’ll raise the question.
As a side note, as we wended our way through the (as we have already established) Punic midwest, I was delighted to notice this addition: Scipio township in Indiana.
Places named after Jeanne? Ummm…not so much.
Let us know what the reunion decided.
I google the township. Unfortunately, no creation story.
Lots of votes for Queen Esther. I like her just fine, but no fireworks.
Gotta read up on Esther.
We seem to like our contenders for heroine status with either extra virginal purity or really super-sized va va voom.
Girls, take your pick: Brittany Spears or Mother Theresa.
Which raises the possibility (but no more than that) that we are dealing with Jungian archetypes….
Please oh please, spare us Freudian interpretations…. But Siggy “Cocaine Makes Me Giddy” Freud aside, I think this post unfairly stacks the deck against Ms. d’Arc.
First off, why do you focus on the historical figure to the exclusion of her myth? It seems like you’re punishing her because she had the misfortune of existing. Yet, by existing, she’s automatically more of a hero than say … Perseus, Hercules, Hector, Cu Chulainn, etc. because she alone of these people existed to act (heroically or not) in the first place. If these dudes can submit mythical evidence to support their heroic cases, why can’t Joan?
Second, you say she’s loony, and … maybe she is, but what’s so different about her behavior and, say … Aeneas’s? She hears what she claims to be the voices of angels telling her to do God’s will. Aeneas heard the voices of the gods too. He even one-ups her because he saw gods too. Hallucinations! Using that yardstick, all those ancient people were mad as hatters. And if Joan’s the equivalent of a suicide bomber (again, I’m not disagreeing from a “historical” perspective), then Aeneas is pretty much a militant Zionist.
Third (and this is my big objection to the “hero” question as posed), you fault Joan for denying her “femininity” but you’re still judging her and Brunhilde and Hippolyta by a male standard—and a specifically ancient one at that. The latter two are heroines precisely because they are strong and brave and hyper-sexual just like the boys. However, Brunhilde and Hippolyta come out of radically different historical contexts than Joan. If hyper-sexuality is a prerequisite for heroism, then are Galahad and Percival, the Buddha, the bodhisattvas, the Christian saints, Jesus, and the lone gunslinger of so many Westerns denied the title of hero? No one (especially women) could be hyper-sexual and considered a hero in the mainstream Medieval media. Galahad and Percival completed the Grail quest precisely because they were virgins. The Buddha achieved enlightenment precisely because he transcended all human desire.
Furthermore, you are confusing the terms masculine/feminine and male/female in sentences like these:
Their heroism seems in large part to require denial of their femininity. That would suggest that heroism really is a male thing and the girls can play with the boys only if they pretend to be boys.
The first of those two sentences assumes a static and prescriptive definition of “femininity,” and the second sentence equates masculinity with male biology. But Joan problematizes that by cross-dressing and performing masculine gender roles. (Which is to say, I also disagree that Joan is “hermaphroditic” or “asexual;” she is a pious virginal transvestite.) So, I guess, in response to the above quoted sentences, I ask three questions:
Must a woman always be feminine?
Must femininity always be submissive and reproductive?
Must a heroic man always seek dominance?
Fertility for a man is qualitatively different from fertility for a woman. Being a hero requires ease of mobility and the readiness to perform great deeds of often staggering danger. A man can impregnate any number of women and still retain both those qualities without necessarily endangering his offspring; a pregnant woman or mother retains neither.
I think asking whether or not a woman can be a hero is, from the get-go, the wrong question. Clearly, women are physically able to perform the deeds that their male counterparts do. A better question (in my opinion), is why don’t they? Or, why don’t they in nearly the numbers that men do? Given the sexism of traditional gender roles, are they allowed to? By what definition are we to understand the term “hero”? And in what ways can a traditional woman be heroic that a man cannot?
Fantastic and incisive comment, Chris. (you’re on quite a roll here on the HB!)
And thanks, Dafna, for my links, which put our common quest in the right perspective.
Chris, as it happens, you voiced exactly the doubts that coursed through my own mind as I was writing the post (not essay, not book, just post). I did feel that I was “cheating” by mixing a real AND mythological heroine with mythological ones. We would run into the same problem with Alexander.
I take your point about Aeneas the Zionist. It was no more ridiculous/epic for Joan to want to crown Charles than for Aeneas to want to found a new Troy in Italy.
But your main point concerns femininity and masculinity. You’re absolutely right in your criticism.
If you say that we should not apply a “male standard” of heroism to heroines, that re-raises precisely the question we are looking to answer in this unfolding thread:
What IS the standard of heroism? Is there a masculine and a feminine one? Are there MANY?
If there are many, then “the hero” cannot be a Jungian archetype. We’d inevitably end up in a lukewarm, modish we-can-all-be-heroes-in-our-own-way-and-mustn’t-judge cul de sac.
So I’d love you to go one step further and answer the fantastic questions you posed here. Must a male hero be manly? Must a female heroine be womanly?
Better yet, whom would you nominate for me to look at in subsequent posts for heroes and heroines?
That, remember, is my m.o. here: I pick actual heroes and heroines of cracking good stories and extrapolate what might make them heroes. If we come up with some theoretical parallel female standard of heroism in our archetypal stories without pointing to any actual heroines, we’ve gone nowhere.
Awwwww … I didn’t realize I’d have to stick my intellectual neck out there … 😉 But I’m glad once again that my comment was welcomed in the spirit it was given and not as asshole-ish chicanery. Academia has trained me to state opinions authoritatively (if not authoritarianly … and I often worry I sound too “sure.”
But anywho. What to dive into first … OK, since this is a Joan of Arc post, I’ll address my views on the masculine/feminine divide and see where that takes me….
Generally speaking, I don’t like the terms masculine and feminine, because they become prescriptive so quickly with regards to gender roles when applied to people. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can avoid them. What’s more, most other people throw them around with glee. Andreas, you said in the post that Joan of Arc and Hua Mulan act as heroes by denying their femininity, but you are already assuming that femininity should be one of their defining traits. That’s problematic to me because masculinity and femininity are largely expectations society has about how men and women should act. But men and women are more complicated than these simple black and white expectations. And I mean black and white, literally … just look at the taiji.
I’ll give some examples. Well, Andreas already supplied some examples of bad-ass women: Brunhilde, the Amazons … I’ll add Scathach (that saucy Celt) to the list. These are all women, undeniably. But are they feminine? If we’re defining masculinity as the projection of power, as hot, active, dominant, focused, all that crap … then it seems clear to me that these are masculine women.
On the flip-side, take someone like King Arthur. Now, Arthur’s a weird hero. Picture King Arthur in your mind and I’m willing to wager that you’re picturing an aging man sitting on a throne, sitting in judgment, not an active, questing knight. Lancelot quests. Galahad quests. Gawain, Gaheris, Bors, Balin, Percival, and Pellinore—they quest. Arthur sits; Arthur judges. Given the chivalric tradition we find him in, Arthur functions much more like a lady of the court than a knightly hero. But Arthur is a hero, just a really feminine one. Historical figures like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. were even more feminine than him.
Or take Odysseus. Odysseus is, at best, a mish-mash of masculine and feminine traits. He’s known for his guile and his deception, his disguises and rhetoric. He’s also no slouch on the battlefield. I guess my point is … what’s my point? Bah, my thoughts are going in about ten thousand different directions.
I can’t fault Joan of Arc for disregarding femininity in a time when women were generally kept from accessing the public realm. And her historical context is crucial to understanding the function she played in her society and her society’s expectations of heroism. Historical context (I think) is crucial to a proper understand of any hero, especially if their societies were radically different from our own. I’ve been trying to catch up with all the posts in this discussion and one of my favorites was the “Alexander meets a yogi” one. Which one’s a hero? Neither are; both. It depends on your vantage point … are you sitting in the dirt or are you standing with a sword?
Joan’s virginity is another illustration of this. In the Middle Ages (and I feel moderately comfortable talking authoritatively here, the Middle Ages being my general era of focus), if you wanted any kind of street cred, especially if you wanted street cred with God, you had to be celibate. Celibacy was not only a sign of your commitment, it was a badge of righteousness and holy favor. Hyper-sexuality was the express train to witchcraft and heresy. That was the world Joan lived in, and Joan was devoted to God. Remember, she didn’t stop at her own virginity; she wanted all of her troops to keep sheathed their private swords, if you will.
I think, too, it’s important for us always to remember that we are in a specific historical context ourselves. We are not objective in this. So, if you haven’t guessed already, I’m not a fan of Jungian archetypes. And I hate with the fury of a thousand suns Joseph Campbell and his ilk. To excise myths of vastly different cultures from vastly different times, to excise even specific incidents within those myths and assemble them as one thought they ought to be assembled is to do violence to the myths and their hero(ine)s.
Bah, this is so long … one more quick word, moving towards a definition of heroism:
When I think of heroes, I think I think (yeah, you read that right) of radical and powerful individuals standing either for or against a system, an order, either to uphold or supplant it. But that’s really vague and I don’t know if it works for ancient Greeks like Heracles and Achilles, but it’s what I’m going with for now. That seems to me to encompass figures as diverse as King Arthur, Aeneas, Gandhi, Jesus Christ, and Arjuna. And, if I may, you gave us one telling of Joan’s story, but another might go something like this:
Joan of Arc, a peasant girl, was born in the countryside of Anglo-Burgundy, a countryside that knew the ravages of war for generations. While only a teenager, but with the certainty of divine authority (and around the established authority of the Church), she galvanized a weary and all but broken people, rallying them under her banner, the banner of an unlikely king, driving the invaders from her land and forging a nation that endured after her death, that endures to this day—and all while defying the expectations of someone of her class, her learning, and her gender.
That sounds damn heroic to me.
Interesting observation, Chris. You say:
“Joan of Arc, a peasant girl, was born in the countryside of Anglo-Burgundy, a countryside that knew the ravages of war for generations. While only a teenager, but with the certainty of divine authority (and around the established authority of the Church), she galvanized a weary and all but broken people, rallying them under her banner, the banner of an unlikely king, driving the invaders from her land and forging a nation that endured after her death, that endures to this day—and all while defying the expectations of someone of her class, her learning, and her gender.
That sounds damn heroic to me.”
If you delete references to gender and teenagers, haven’t you pretty succinctly described Ayatollah Khomeni or Osama Bin Laden? Specifically: ” but with the certainty of divine authority (and around the established authority of the Church), she galvanized a weary and all but broken people, rallying them under her banner, the banner of an unlikely king, driving the invaders from her land ”
Just throwing that out there as an example of my earlier comment that sometimes heroism is in the eyes of the chronicler.
Chris, thank you for problematising the whole masculine/feminine thing, and for pointing out our own “specific historical context”. One of the awful features of this context is that Women, writ large, are viewed only through the prisms of sex, appearance and motherhood.
Very thought provoking–your first two points raise the question of whether time/historical distance impact our assessment of heroism. If the hero/heroine has some “modern” characteristic does that affect our view of the person. For example, we nod knowingly when we read that Ulysses sacrificed a bull to the gods–that is just what they did. If he read that he said 100 Hail Mary’s before getting Polyphemus drunk would we view him differently?
With respect with your second point and especially the last two paragraphs, it is interesting that a key part of Joan’s mystique is her virginity. This shows how cluttered the discussion can get. Does her virginity aid and abet her heroine status because (1) the patriarchy who determine who is/isn’t a heroine values virginity, (2) being an avowed virgin meant she didn’t have to worry about being impregnated and therefore could do what she had to do.
Another important point: How much of the Joan of Arc myth was created by Charles’s spin when he was trying to beef up his claim to the throne and divine support.
Yeah, I’m not sure where I was going with the whole pregnancy paragraph. It started out talking about patriarchal something-or-another and ended up as a quasi-evolutionary justification for why heroines shouldn’t get knocked up….
mmmm, I wouldn’t say taking out the references to gender and teenagers “succinctly” describes the Ayatollah or bin Laden, but I agree with your point. William Shakespeare portrayed Joan as a half-wit and a brute, so who you gonna believe? I absolutely believe the line between hero and villain becomes murky when left in the hands of the chroniclers. Genghis Khan, anyone?
*thumbs up* @ Solid gold creativity
Glad the problematizing is appreciated. I’m living in China right now and having many aspects of my cultural and historical context held up to my face. There are times when all I can do to stop ripping my hair out is to huddle in a corner and chant at myself, “My intuitions are not law. My intuitions are not law….”
this link might help “heroes and heroism” . “By what definition are we to understand the term “hero”?”
i believe Andreas is rounding the corner to “real and modern” on the thread but first trying to establish a definition, either through mythological examples or “existing” examples.
future nominations for hero/heroine from the non-mythical realm probably won’t include the characteristic of “believing in a personified Deity” (i.e. mother theresa, jeanne d’arc).
this older topic might help. “little bones”
i’m relatively new to the blog and i still can’t tell which stories/histories are relegated to “mythos”.
in “the alexandrian solution” post a few non-fiction heroines that fit your “I think I think (yeah, you read that right) of radical and powerful individuals standing either for or against a system, an order, either to uphold or supplant it.”
4) Hillary Clinton
5) Imelda Marcos
6) Aung San Suu Kyi
7) Anna Akhmatova
the blog will likely define our “modern and real” hero/heroine using current cultural paradigms.
To excise myths of vastly different cultures from vastly different times, to excise even specific incidents within those myths and assemble them as one thought they ought to be assembled is to do violence to the myths and their hero(ine)s.
je suis d’accord. it smacks of ethnocentricity.
Thanks for the links, dafna. I’m trying to catch up as quickly as possible. I added a few to the list, and I think, having deliberated, I want to add the characteristic of “crisis” to my crappy, vague definition of a hero. As in:
Radical and powerful individuals standing either for or against a system, an order, at a crisis either to uphold or supplant it.
Bleh, that reeks of structuralism, but all the figures I kept thinking of seemed to have appeared (or created) some manner of crisis. Then I tried to think of heroes that just sprang up out of peaceful times and I couldn’t think of any. A non-crisis hero would be kinda weird, as non-crises generally make for boring drama.
Boy, Chris has really shaken things up here — shaking up being, of course, the objective of the Hannibal Blog. 😉
First, at a practical level, you have nominated Arthur as a subject for a post in this thread. Specifically, Arthur’s femininity. In due course, I will look into that. (But feel free to beat me to it on your own blog.)
But we still seem to be looking for the appropriate female (as opposed to feminine) heroine in the history of storytelling to advance our debate.
Second, you’ve introduced historicism as an argument AGAINST Jungian archetypes. Are our ideas determined by our time and context or are there universal, timeless ideas as well? An interesting tension. I’ll have to take that up in due course.
Third, you’ve ventured to infer a definition of heroism:
“Radical and powerful individuals standing either for or against a system, an order, at a crisis either to uphold or supplant it.”
That’s an interesting one, since it also might exclude a lot of “heroes”.
So, lots to ponder.
I see that you’re taking up the thread on your own blog, which is fantastic. This might become quite interesting indeed…..
A veritable Gordian knot in the making!
I’ve noticed that women are disinclined to brag. If myth-creation is a form of bragging it would go a long way toward explaining why there are so few heroic woman in literature.
I’ve been covering Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina among others lately. If you’re right, we’ll soon get an onslaught of heroines….
Weeee, gauntlet thrown!
Regarding female heroism … I dunno, heroism seems to revolve around performance, and performance is a traditionally “masculine” trait. For thousands of years it was understood that men were the doers. We look back now and we want to find examples of strong and awe-inspiring women because we are not as sexist as the ancients were. There are a few female examples, but not nearly as many as there are of men.
Women for the longest time were relegated to the domestic sphere and since heroism often involves great journeys, that kinda curtails their opportunities. I noticed you covered Medea in another post; she seems to me to be the best example of what can happen when heroic sensibilities are restricted to the domestic sphere.
I also wish to avoid the “lukewarm, modish we-can-all-be-heroes-in-our-own-way-and-mustn’t-judge cul de sac.” Myth makes it clear (in my opinion) that heroism is unique. That’s why heroes have such weird births—they are set apart from the very get-go. I applaud the work of feminist literary critics, myself being a feminist, for interrogating the heroic ideal but, at the same time, no one thinks of Penelope first when trying to think of heroes. We don’t pore over epics looking for disabled heroes to counter ableism; we aren’t surprised when cultural traditions turn out to be fiercely xenophobic and racist. Is this a case where we need to just bite the sexist bullet?
I dunno. But I don’t think we can get a representative group of heroines till we get to modern times. Either way, I look forward to the coming discussion!
Perhaps in the interests of “storytelling science” we need indeed to “bite the bullet” and stipulate that “heroism” (as opposed to “virtue”, say) is, or at least has been, a male idea.
That would cut through the Gordian knot. Is versus Ought. We could move on and find out OTHER interesting things to say about heroism.
Unless…. we are wrong.
I cannot help noticing, in this fascinating discussion (one of the best ever here on the HB), that we all yearn to find heroines that break the mold in our old stories but have so far failed.
Andreas I agree that we need some ground rules. Otherwise we are going to end up discussing whether Michael Jackson was a feminine hero or a masculine villian!
This discussion of heroism reminds me of similar discussions about what it means to be “human” and what it means to “think.”
Whenever an animal is discovered to have an ability previously thought to be uniquely human (e.g., tool-making behaviour) biologists don’t declare that animal to be “human”; instead they readjust their definitions of man. Similarly, whenever a computer is programmed to do some cognitive task previously thought to be uniquely human (e.g., recognize faces) computers are not then declared to “think”; instead it is “thinking” that is redefined.
In this way animals are not, and never will be, “human”; computers do not, and never will, “think”.
Similarly, when we men think of heroism we tend define it so that women do not qualify. So being nurturing, flexible, and patient; using persuasion in place of threats and violence — to men these traits don’t seem to qualify as heroic, irrespective of how impressively they’re exhibited; how many they inspire; how much good they achieve; how many lives they save. Heroic traits are male. Grant takes Richmond and never mind the body count.
I found this list of woman heros:
which is part of “The MY HERO Project”, a public collaboration on positive role models — myths in the making.
Joan of Arc is on the list, positioned between two woman who sought to persuade others: Jessie Daniel Ames (against lynching) and Jody Williams (against landmines). Jenny’s Anna Akhmatova is also there.
Overview of MY HERO, which is about good role models in general (male and female):
Nurses who tended victims of the 1918 swine flu epidemic risked their lives (e.g., Hemingway’s nurse, Agnes Von Kurowsky). But they, unlike men (e.g., Hemingway) had little inclination to relive and retell their tale of risk over and over. If they got swine flu and survived, they went on as if nothing happened; if they died, it did not deter the other nurses. Without the impulse to brag, or to listen to bragging; without the impulse to lie, or listen to lies; these nurses left behind no “literature” of female heroism, no equivalent of “The Hemingway Myth”.
As a cape-wearing trout-fishing Hemingway was fabricating the modern myth of “Hemingway, The Soldier” (he’d never been a soldier and had only carried the honorary rank of “lieutenant” in connection with the Red Cross), Agnes Von Kurowsky followed her own mythic journey, eventually serving in Port-au-Prince, as Director of Nurses Sanitarium, Haitian General Hospital. Shunning publicity, she never crafted her own myth, but lived on in Hemingway’s robust fantasy life and as a foil in his stories, a modern day Penelope. These myths of ancient heros — they’re a male thing.
Bragging: also known as spinning a yarn, also known as a type of creative expression. For whatever reason, women have not done as much of that (bragging, or, more generally, expressing themselves creatively) as men do.
That’s where I was trying to go with my remarks somewhere around here about Henry V. To make a hero we need heroic action PLUS a memorable retelling of the story. Talented, literate (perhaps even poetic) bragging. Gotta have it.
It’s the beauty of the storytelling (not so much the story) that remains and keeps us enthralled with the hero.
And that brings us to Florence Nightingale, Mother Theresa and an entire genre of potential heroines. Traditionally these fit our “saint” archetype more than our “hero” archetype.
Interesting, though, that they also “save” people (Theseus, eg, saved the Athenian youth from the Minotaur, just in a “heroic” way)
@Jim: Glad to see that Akhmatova made the cut. Thanks for the link!
Surely your persuasive words will bring about a more inclusive definition of heroism, but (just in case) I’m ready to take Richmond. And brag about it. 😉
According to AK’s little gray box, Joan’s first offense was that of being a witch. In addition to matron, mother and whore, we mustn’t ignore the witch archetype. Who is a witch? She is someone who, among other things, is on the fringe of clairvoyance; verbalizing that which, if recognized at all, must not be spoken. Some times it is creepy, like mind reading. More commonly it is merely the truth. I keep thinking about Elpheba in Wicked (Or, the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz). She was largely prosecuted for being smart and telling the truth. Mental va va voom. Not the breasticles, but the brain.
I mean Elphaba (not Elpheba).
Now reading up on Elphaba. From your description, a bit like Cassandra in Troy….
Jeanne remains wooden to me.
If she had a St. Crispin’s Day speech it would bring her to life. I might see that she is passionate and eloquent and not (as I fear) looney and shrill.
I agree with Jim that women are slow to brag (though it sounds kinda braggy to say so) but Jeanne is simply mute.
I think that’s why I prefer fully drawn literary creations who speak for themselves (like Rosalind) or poets (like Akhmatova). Language is such an important part of being human. How can I know whether Jeanne had the (in my book) requisite ‘mental va va voom’ (thank you, Mr. Crotchety) if I do not hear how she uses language?
Or is this a particularly girlie take on heroism, which is supposed to be all about action? I don’t know. ‘Harry the King’ is familiar in our mouths as household words (so to speak) not because of his military daring alone, but because of the poetry in which that daring is packaged.
I think you’re onto something. Then again, we don’t have any St Crispin Day’s speeches from Hercules, Theseus, Jason….
OK, I’m talking nonsense. Mostly. But the poetry does help:
Who remembers Pyramus and Thisbe now that light is breaking through yonder window and fiery-footed steeds are galloping apace?
New kids on the block R & J totally own them!
Well said. Reminds me of Macduff: “I have no words. My voice is in my sword.”
Great blog entry because it made me think, and my wife and I also discussed Joan of Arc and the question of women heroes. My immediate suggestion is to consider Pallas Athena. I’ve always been drawn to Book Thirteen of the Odyssey and how Athena finally helps that wily warrior get back home to Penelope. He couldn’t do it himself for various reasons and now he needs the female energy and power of Athena to complete his journey.
Perhaps it’s at this time of life when men realize that they are incomplete and it’s only by embracing the feminine in themselves and in others (e.g. Athena) that they can complete themselves.
Great point, Ed.
I’ve thought about this: The Greeks seem to have cast their archetypes about men and women into gods and goddesses.
But they also always distinguished between “heroes” and “gods”. So I’ve left gods and goddesses out so far.
But you could probably find out everything you always wanted to know but were afraid to ask about sex just by studying the Olympians:
The talented cripple Hephaistos married to the sex bomb Aphrodite who cheats on him with the war stud Ares….
The patriarch Zeus who cheats on his wife Hera who becomes the ever-vindictive Ur-bitch wreaking vengeance on everybody….
Perhaps this should become a post.
Oh here is my neck sticking out far in this intelligent discussion but permit me to take it to psychological symbolism for myself.
Ten years ago I painted the innocent young Joan listening to the voice of God and burning at the stake because I felt the flames licking all around me. I identified. In my field we call it projective identification.
I didn’t die in the smoke but some part of me was burned and scarred. But what does one do with scars? We look at them and we call them our battle scars. We try to find our way once more if not with a brush than with a wonderful blog such as this one to which I add a link to the same picture that Andreas used for synchronicity seems to work this way.
Thank you, Mary Jane! Great blog post.
You re-affirm the hero as an archetype inseparable from the personal “quest”.
I honestly can not see why people call her deranged for doing what God is telling her to do. I do believe that she was hearing God talk to her. Sorry I’m only 12… Just wondering what people think about my opinion.
Welcome to the Hannibal Blog, Sierra. I’m so glad that I have 12-year-old readers.
Just wondering: what makes you believe the above?
(And you can of course ask the obverse: What makes others believe she was “deranged”, as you put it.)
I’m not surprised you enjoyed Taylor’s autobiography. Her goal was not to explain Joan, but to explain her away in a way that made her approachable for modern readers who only want to vindicate their contemporary prejudices.
Joan was not made a saint based on popular embellishments, but on her character and deeds which are historically verified.
She never diminished or denied her femininity.
She had the mind of an expert tactician.
And rather than sounding like a looney, Mark Twain praised the beauty of her responses.
St. Joan was a true hero, but I guess true heroism and selflessness aren’t that important when you’re trying to hock self-help books to underachieving middle-managers with cosmopolitan ambitions.
jeanne is a real saint. one has to respect her. some thing i readed here are only garbage
Why can’t we call female people hero’s? Why do they have to be called a word specifically for female hero’s? As a person born female and androgynous enough to have taken male hormones and reduced my chest, I see Jehanne from my specific perspective…you do as well, as does each one of us. Jehanne represents different archetypes to different people. A Hero to the French. A Saint to the believers, a Heretic to the unbelievers…
I think it’s a shame that in some places and times, only active, action oriented, androgynously virginal, god-fearing Christians could fit the ideal Hero archetype for their culture, for us in the West, a culture we inherited. But the absence of others types of heroic women from this culture does not make Joan any less heroic. I also think it is a mistake to assume she is rejecting some essential femininity…she had a calling, this was WHO she was. Her identity can’t be separated from her virginity and androgyny. The fact that any female in her position would wear men’s clothes does not make Joan any less androgynous, does not detract from the fact she was burned for dressing as a man and that she clung to it so fiercely as a part of her identity, and believed God wanted her to.
Yes, perspective is relevant. Osama bin Laden is probably a hero to someone, somewhere. History is often written by the victors. It also written in different languages and told from differing perspectives, especially when it comes to religion and war.
Jehanne is so unique because of her military gifts. But many female saints dressed and lived as men. This is often diluted out of history. St. Margaret, one of Jehanne’s matron saints, lived as a man and became a monk called brother Pelagius. Brother Pelagius was even accused of impregnating a nun and accepted the discipline meted to him! Only on his death bed did he confess to being biologically female. Yet we do not even allow this person the respect of calling them their chosen name and identity. From the 5th to 7th centuries, it was quite common for female saints to run away before marrying age, dress as a man for some or all time, and join a religious order or following as a nun, monk, mystic or follower of holy person.
Many different identities of origin might take this path: a girl who is extremely pious and devout. A girl who does not desire men sexually. A girl who wants to do something she finds more meaningful than domestic life. A girl who sees herself as androgynous or male-identified but does not desire women. It always bothered me that any time in a story about a girl who dressed or passed as a boy, it was always alleged that she did it for safety, and always, once she was safe again, she happily resumed being feminine. These stories, films, etc, always seemed Ike propaganda to me as a child-the message I got was that a female couldn’t legitimately be androgynous or boyish or third gender. This archetype has more recently become she is boylike because she doesn’t think she is graceful or pretty, until she meets the right dude or gets a makeover and learns how beautiful she can really be by embracing her femininity. Miss Congeniality is an example of the latter.
The only ones who refuse to “embrace” their “femininity” like Joan of Arc in the 1400’s, like Brandon Teena in the 1990’s, are horribly killed for it (i suppose Athena is an exception, but she IS a goddess).Yet I still see their stories as radical disjunctures from the norm of female = breasts and femininity = this is necessary to be mature and reach your full dignity as a female person. I find it more patriarchical and problematic than medieval virginity and androgyny (which was applied to men as well in the chivalric ideals, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight illustrates this well in his virtues of the chivalric pentacle and unwillingness to be seduced).
I realize that maybe one of the reasons those story trajectories exist is because they speak to a lot of women. But I don’t think it is Joan’s role to provide a heroic model for those women as they see themselves or as how men would like to see them, any more than it is fair to universalize other culture’s personas into a Western archetypal canon. Jehanne is one of a few heroic models for those females who identify with what she was and did, whether that be virtue, (until about 40 or so years ago, you had to be chaste to prevent pregnancy, and the pill coincides with females being able to have it both ways in patriarchical culture for the first time, which is why we have few examples of females who were both sexual and masculine from before then) piousness, political-military leadership of a dispossessed people, or dressing as a man and eschewing women’s roles or clothes, believing this is what God has planned for you, and not compromising yourself, even at risk of being burnt alive.
I think belittling a real female person, who actually lived, dressed as a man and led a successful army, believed this was who she was and it was gods plan for her, lived up the chivalric ideals of her time and place more than any one, including men, and transcended class and gender expectations, was convicted of heresy specifically for being a female in mens clothes, refused to compromisemwhat and who she was even when offered a plea bargain, and was burned at the stake for it, was canonized a saint, became a national hero, and has gripped the minds and imaginations of the western world for over 500 years with her courage, conviction, and virtue ever since… I think it’s pretty reprehensible, on feminist grounds. The idea of hyper sexual action heroine seems more like a regressive post-Christian fantasy to me, than a feminist heroic ideal. Though there were some legitimately awesome women who might categorically fit that description in pre-Christian British isles and Greece, which you do mention. But regardless of whether such figures did or should exist, that does not take away from Jehanne’s identity as a saint, an androgyne, or a hero.
Also, in 5th -7th centuries, many women ran away dressed as boys, were chaste, and joined up with monasteries, or were taken in by nuns, or killed, and became saints. “St. Margaret” lived as a monk called brother Pelagius for most of his life, was even convicted of impregnating a nun, and only confessed to being biologically female on his deathbed, for example. Sanctity was embodied thru androgyny and chastity in both men and women. Think about the most prevalent Western “hero” by far, Jesus. This was what the ideal hero was for at least a thousand years, the “model” of this culture, as it were.
Sorry I edited some of that to half as long but it went thru whole….Well, sorry for being repetitive…and I do appreciate the inquiry of the article, I am just really protective of Jehanne, (and took my confirmation name after her.)
Wow, what a comment, Rick. I mean, in sheer length and depth. Let me mull this over properly.
Thanks for engaging!
Thanks Andreas, your piece was very thought provoking in so many directions for me, and the more I wrote the more thoughts came… I really had not intended to post my unexpurgated rough draft!. And I certainly meant no offense as to your writing, I just felt these needed to be taken into account, because there is so much more going on culturally with this historical individual, mythos “archetype” than can be explained by youth or supression of femininity. There are still identity politics happening in contemporary groups who all want to claim her as an antescedent, (nuns, virgins, servicewomen, trans men/ ftm’s, lesbians ,mainstream feminists, etc). So whatever archetypal quality she represents in the west, it still strongly resonates and is relevent among many people born female.
Thanks for your blog!
Beyond the “cultural substratum”,the correction for the obvious silly blog is that the religious implications for such a war ware horrific for the Church at that time. Say a Basque female (a Catholic population) today would claim she received divine orders to attack Madrid, a large Catholic holding. The Spaniards would go atheist. The Pope was risking the loss of England from the fold (Just imagine being told that the Virgin Mary which you adore commanded the death of your armies). The French priests couldn’t care less, they had to regain some prestige with the nobility.
You would have to remember the same charges ware brought before against the Templar. The Church had to clean its affairs and Jeanne’s execution as a heretic was an obvious solution.
Of course Joan is a heroine, no more and no less than say, Sophie Scholl is a heroine. Teenage idealism & naivete aside. You have the expected “ingredients” : dastardly English bullies, downtrodden French people, cowardly & selfish Dauphin, the inevitable betrayal & martyrdom. Her bravery and the willingness of people to follow where she leads is not in question… although, I do wonder what would have happened if she had faced a truly accomplished opponent like say, Hannibal or Scipio? If she had faced a crushing military defeat, might she then have been no more than a footnote in history?
Compare say, Cleopatra, whom while certainly no virgin, could arguably be said to have conquered all the invincible generals whom she faced (I mean, who else had conquered Great Caesar?) But because one does not find the usual attendant “ingredients”, many would not call her a “heroine” in the same mold – some would categorize her alongside Jiang Qing 🙂
Or for that matter, consider the “4 Great Beauties” of Ancient China. They did change Chinese history, albeit certainly not on the battlefield. In most cases except one, they sacrificed themselves for their country or state. But they are primarily known as “4 Great Beauties” even if 3 are also heroines of atypical mold. And no, Hua Mulan isn’t one of the 4.
I think the popular idea of “hero” or “heroine” is very much context driven, subjective, and also changes somewhat with the times & fashion.
Not feeling the judgement of a medieval teenage girl as “deranged” or “prissy.” If she was mentally ill, so what? If she didn’t want to sleep with men, so what? Remember, a virgin was a woman who hasn’t slept with a man or a man who hasn’t slept with a woman. Holy celibacy could be a way for women to escape heteronormativity, marriage, childbirth, etc. Anyway, I find Joan of Arc more feminine than the Amazons. Joan wore male clothes for practicality, yet the Amazons were bloodthirsty, violent, cruel warlords (er … warladies?) They’re cool to learn about but they suck as a society from a moral standard. I wish we could not define heroism of women based on how they dress or if they are “sluts” or virgins. Every time a woman is a hero and masculine or a virgin we don’t need a lecture on how they are denying their womanhood. They are just being who they are, not following constrictive social constructs of gender or sexuality. And … I hope I just read you wrong and you didn’t suggest Joan “doesn’t do it” as a heroine because she isn’t “seductive and fertile” … unless you just meant in a Ancient Greek POV she “doesn’t do it” which, yes, maybe, but the Ancient Greeks were … special. Anyway, my personal interpretation of Joan is a schizophrenic butch lesbian. Heroine? In ways, yes. (Standing up in a medieval patriarchal society as a young girl, hell yes! Work that bob haircut and pants, girl!!!) In other ways, no. (War is lame. God is lame.) Regardless, she is amazingly interesting to me.
Not feeling the judgement of a medieval teenage girl as “deranged” or “prissy.” If she was mentally ill, so what? If she didn’t want to sleep with men, so what? Remember, a virgin was a woman who hasn’t slept with a man or a man who hasn’t slept with a woman. Holy celibacy could be a way for women to escape heteronormativity, marriage, childbirth, etc. Anyway, I find Joan of Arc more feminine than the Amazons. Joan wore male clothes for practicality, yet the Amazons were bloodthirsty, violent, cruel warlords (er … warladies?) They’re cool to learn about but they suck as a society from a moral standard. I wish we could not define heroism of women based on how they dress or if they are “sluts” or virgins. Every time a woman is a hero and masculine or a virgin we don’t need a lecture on how they are denying their womanhood. They are just being who they are, not following constrictive social constructs of gender or sexuality, yet your post implies that a woman needs to embrace Domestic Pink Femininity TM and sex with The Men TM to be a True Heroine TM. And … I hope I just read you wrong and you didn’t suggest Joan “doesn’t do it” as a heroine because she isn’t “seductive and fertile” … unless you just meant in a Ancient Greek POV she “doesn’t do it” which, yes, maybe, but the Ancient Greeks were … special. Anyway, my personal interpretation of Joan is a schizophrenic butch lesbian. Heroine? In ways, yes. (Standing up in a medieval patriarchal society as a young girl, hell yes! Work that bob haircut and pants, girl!!!) In other ways, no. (War is lame. God is lame.) Regardless, she is amazingly interesting to me. She is not the “wrong heroine”