By Mark Alpert
One of the most popular thriller plotlines runs like this: A character with hidden talents or untapped potential confronts an extraordinary challenge and rises to the occasion. The epic struggle transforms the character and perhaps changes the world as well.
That’s the story of Moses, Jesus, and many other biblical figures. It’s also the story of ancient Greek heroes such as Perseus, Theseus, and Orpheus. In modern literature, it’s the story of Huck Finn, Jay Gatsby, Tom Joad, and Harry Potter.
In my nine previous novels, I created several characters that fit the same mold: David Swift, Monique Reynolds, Jim Pierce, Sarah Pooley. But when I was looking for ideas for my tenth novel, I decided to focus on the historical figure who best exemplifies this story of trial and triumph. Her name was Jeanne, and she came from the French village of Domrémy, but in English she’s known as Joan of Arc.
She was born in 1412, at a time when France was engaged in a long series of conflicts with England, collectively known as the Hundred Years’ War. Basically, it was a battle over succession. The English royals, descended from the Normans who’d crossed the Channel and conquered most of the island in 1066, had many connections by marriage and blood with the French royals, and in 1340 the English king claimed that he was the rightful heir to the French throne as well. Generations of bloodshed ensued, culminating with the remarkable victory of the English at Agincourt in 1415, which was wonderfully reenacted in Shakespeare’s play “Henry V.” This was a catastrophe for the French, who descended into civil war when the Duke of Burgundy sided with the English. The French royal court and their uncrowned Dauphin, Charles VII, retreated to the central part of the country while the English occupied most of the north (including Paris) and laid siege to Orléans, the last French stronghold on the Loire River.
Meanwhile, the teenage Jeanne was starting to have her holy visions. Her region of eastern France had been devastated by warfare and banditry. She claimed that while she was tending her family’s sheep, three key figures of medieval Christianity appeared to her — Saint Margaret, Saint Catherine, and the archangel Michael. Over the course of several visitations, she said, they gave her the mission of driving the English out of France and crowning Charles VII at the cathedral city of Reims (which was then under Anglo-Burgundian control).
Jeanne was an illiterate peasant, with no military training whatsoever, but she eagerly accepted her divine mission. At the age of 16, she convinced a relative to take her to the nearby town of Vaucouleurs, where there was a French garrison. She met with Robert de Baudricourt, the garrison commander, and asked him to help her travel to the French royal court in the central town of Chinon. De Baudricourt immediately dismissed her and sent her back to Domrémy, but she returned to Vaucouleurs the next year, and this time she somehow managed to convince the commander to provide her with an armed escort to Chinon. It was the first of Jeanne’s many triumphs, which remain mysterious and awe-inspiring to this day.
The mystery drew me to her story. It perfectly dramatizes the old conflict between faith and doubt. During the Middle Ages, there was a broader acceptance of supernatural visions; the bigger question back then was whether Jeanne’s instructions had come from God or the devil. Nowadays, we’re more inclined to see Jeanne as delusional, but if neither God nor Satan inspired her, what did? Where did this uneducated seventeen-year-old find the military talents and charisma to take command of the French army? And after she was finally captured by her enemies, where did she find the strength to endure her trial and execution?
I’ve tried to tackle these questions by writing a modern-day retelling of Jeanne’s story. The result is SAINT JOAN OF NEW YORK, which will be published by Springer in January. I’ll reveal more about the novel over the next few weeks, but if you’re interested in reading the first chapter, you can find it here.