Imagine an armored female warrior fighting to save the planet. Would she have the same fate as Joan of Arc?
Joan of Arc is one of those historical characters whose story involves more mythical and legendary elements than accurate historical facts. She has become a symbol of female power, faith, sacrifice, and nationalism, and for that reason, her legend has been revised since her tragic death. Now, we can agree that basically all the different books, movies, songs, and paintings based on her tell pretty much the same thing. While they’re all set in the fifteenth century and narrate the story this woman, some delve into her religiousness, some on her heroic deeds, and others on how surprising it was for a young woman to take such risks in a time when women didn’t have a voice. All that is touching and inspiring, and that’s perhaps the reason why Joan is still considered one of the top heroes of history. However, there’s a new story that takes the archetype and transports her into a dystopian setting in a not so distant future that invites us to ask ourselves why is it relevant to reimagine such an iconic character in today’s world.
American author Lidia Yuknavitch brings a whole new take to Joan of Arc’s history in her latest novel The Book of Joan. Taking the science fiction genre, she presents a devastating scenario in 2049 in which global warming and wars have nearly ended the world. The few surviving human beings have fled the planet and now live in a colony orbiting around the planet called CIEL. The colony is ruled by a tyrant man called Jean de Men, whose guru-like personality and clever management of propaganda has made him the ultimate leader of the colony. Soon his politics become more severe, turning his government into a dictatorship not everybody is willing to obey.
One of these dissidents is Christine Pizan, a 49-year-old woman who’s about to get euthanized, since in this tyrannical government lead by a man obsessed with procreating and replenishing the colony, people over 50 aren’t useful anymore. After de Men announces his victory over the “heretic” young rebel Joan and his intention to destroy what’s left of planet Earth, Pizan (who shares name with the Medieval female philosopher and humanist Christine de Pizan), basically on the brink of death, decides that she’s not dying without giving one last fight. Her first act of protest is her determination to not let her fellow colonizers forget about Joan’s heroism. To do so, she decides to get a tattoo with her story by burning words into her skin. That, naturally, becomes the “Book of Joan.” If for de Men storytelling and propaganda is a weapon to conceal and control his subjects, for Pizan it becomes the foundation of her resistance.
Joan becomes a symbol of resistance against de Men and his intentions to end with the last remnants of Earth and their humanity. Despite believing the tyrant actually defeated her, many are determined to become Joan's voice and continue with her mission of preventing the destruction of the planet. In that way, by burning her skin, Pizan assumes the pain and horrors not only Joan might have suffered but those the planet went through due to humanity's neglectful and ambitious behaviors. In that way, the novel questions what have we done to give back to the planet, and makes us aware that, even if we don’t notice it, the damage we're causing can come back to us sooner than we might have thought.
Now, what about Joan? Hidden in a cave, somehow concealed by the debris of the nearly death planet, she’s determined to use her special powers, not precisely in a superhero-like scenario, but in a more spiritually and scientifically based idea of shared energy between every living being. She becomes the female warrior we love from history, but in a more realistic and down-to-earth way that makes her more relatable and approachable. Yes, she has amazing ideals and is willing to give everything to achieve them, but at the end, this also becomes an important commentary to all those who believe they’re working fervently to protect our environment without really considering the impact all our actions have on it. Joan must learn that, even when she uses her powers with the best intentions, there are also consequences.
At the end of the day, the book becomes a story that tells us, through a strong, direct, and raw language, what we all know: we’re destroying ourselves. However, this books isn't just an environmental warning or a means to raise awareness on the subject. It makes you analyze and think thoroughly on our impact on the world, even on a social level, before that floating space colony where people are just miserable becomes a reality. I think that taking such an iconic character like Joan of Arc and putting her not as the martyr who sacrificed for a cause, but as a warrior with virtues and flaws, makes her way more relevant in today’s culture. Perhaps we should start taking a similar apporach to all those untouchable characters that are set as examples to follow.
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Cover illustration by Malverro