The Massachusetts Medievalist reviews Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc

Between watching the crocuses bloom and the robins feast, the Massachusetts Medievalist this past weekend spent some time with my colleague David Elliott’s brilliant and disturbing new book, Voices: the final hours of Joan of Arc.

Ostensibly a YA verse-novel, Voices is genre-defying.  It is indeed all poetry, but it’s not a novel (although it provides a narrative), it’s not a biography (although it relates the crucial events in the life of the historical woman we call Joan of Arc), and it’s not even really “YA” (whatever that amorphous term means).  Elliott has made a space to experiment with a variety of voices as he explores the life of Joan of Arc, probably the most recognizable medieval woman in our contemporary pop culture.

For those who need a refresher: Joan was a teenage peasant girl who followed the instructions she heard in her head from Saints Catherine, Michael, and Margaret to wear men’s clothes and lead the French king to victories in battle during the conflict known as the Hundred Years War. She was captured by the English in 1430, tried as a heretic, and then burned at the stake in 1431.

Cover image of Elliott's Voices

Elliott has given voice to a number of the inanimate objects that figure in Joan’s narrative: we hear the thoughts of the armor she wore, the church altar she prayed before, the sword she used, even the crossbow that wounded her in battle when she was captured.  As she stands bound to the stake of execution, Joan herself speaks her own narrative –  while the fire grows around her, she tells and reflects on her own story. The fire itself speaks as well, the most frequent narrator after Joan.

Elliott’s accomplishment here – and that of the editor and type-designer who supported him – is remarkable on a number of levels. Other than Joan, the characters and voices speak using late medieval poetic forms like the triolet or the rondeau (helpfully listed in the author’s note at the end of the text), forms that Joan and her communities would have known. Some of these poems are also presented as shape-poems: the sword’s episode is presented on the page in the shape of a sword, for example. Joan herself speaks in what Elliott calls “a kind of toned-down spoken word,” with varied line lengths, internal rhymes, and startling, individualized imagery and diction. Direct quotations (in Modern English, not French!) from the Joan trial transcripts are scattered throughout the text.  I can only imagine the consternation at the Houghton Mifflin marketing department: you want us to sell WHAT?

And yet it works. By the end, we know Joan, her thoughts, her dreams, her beliefs, and we dread the fire and the ending even as we know it is inevitable. While I’d recommend Voices to anyone, I especially want my colleagues in medieval studies to read it, to see the ways that contemporary authors continue to reshape the texts of the Middle Ages in exciting and provocative ways.

To whet that appetite, some lines spoken by Joan’s war horse (part of a rondel):

Many a knight had been cowed and outdone
by my spirit, left broken, unseated, unmade.
But she understood. Unbridled blood runs
molten and wild, unrestrained, unsurveyed.

And she was like me and so we were one.

 

And coda: my colleague Anthony Apesos has made a series of paintings loosely based on the Tarot deck, thematically appropriate in a week where I helped the sophomores struggle through T.S. Eliot’s “Waste Land.”  See his unsettling and beautiful “deck” here as well as his kickstarter page, where he explains the “suits” in his deck and some of his thinking behind the images. Enjoy!

The Massachusetts Medievalist on archetypal moments and problematic episodes (Odyssey, Books 21-24)

There are so many iconic literary moments at the end of The Odyssey that it’s hard to do more than simply touch on them (and inevitably leave some out). But here’s a starter list:

The bow that seems to know its true owner (just like “the wand knows the wizard”?)

The test of military skill with specific weapons (think Excalibur or Luke’s light-saber)

The choice to let the bard/poet live during the battle so he can sing immortal songs afterward (think about the various bards that appear during Beowulf)

The test of the bed that can’t be moved (with the special satisfaction of knowing that Odysseus, the wily hero, is now being tested himself by his perhaps equally wily wife)

Athena holding back the dawn so that Odysseus and Penelope can catch up a bit (we have all wanted this skill at some point, if not for this specific reason)

The imposition of peace from the gods to end the action (not technically a “deus ex machina” but pretty darn close)

Each of these moments defines a trope or archetype that is then repeated throughout narrative traditions — sometimes intentionally (think about the preparations for the fight between Hector and Achille in Walcott’s Omeros), sometimes unintentionally (think about the courtroom scene at the end of My Cousin Vinny). The parallels with the Ramayana‘s scene with the bow are so striking that they have led to much critical discussion about whether the original compositors of the Ramayana knew a form of the Odyssey.

But there are also some problems with the end of The Odyssey, all of which tie into Wilson’s description of Odysseus as a “complicated man.” Foremost is the issue of the slaughter of the slave girls in Book XXII – Odysseus orders Telemachus to murder them for their sexual infidelity to his house.  Numerous feminist critics have pointed out that these “maidservants” (see last week’s post for references to translation choices around these and other enslaved characters) had no choice in the matter, as female slaves were assumed to be sexually available to male guests.  Both Margaret Atwood and Madeline Miller have provided fictional redress to this problem as part of their novels that re-tell (some of) the events of The Odyssey from the points of view of female characters. (Side note: fanfic is an entry at Merriam-Webster but only a “draft addition” in the Oxford English Dictionary.)

For me this time around, Odysseus’s test of his father in Book XXIV was especially infuriating.  He’s back, he’s beaten the suitors, he’s reunited with Penelope, he has the adulation of his young adult son….but he still needs to make up one more lie, one more fake back story for Laertes to see if he can fool him. He can’t just give the old guy a break, announce his identity, show his scar, and get on with the important point that he’s just killed a lot of the young male population of Ithaca and surrounding districts.  The peace at the end of the epic is a divinely-imposed peace which seems very precarious to me right now (August 2018); the humans in the narrative have agreed to peace only under duress, and the violence under the surface has not been eradicated or dealt with but merely suppressed.  It seems like the end of any epic sequence (Beowulf, the Ramayana, Star Wars, Harry Potter…..) in that the ending isn’t really an ending but more of a pause. Homer didn’t compose a sequel — the Telemachy of books I-IV did not presage a separate epic of the heroic deeds of Telemachus — but he has definitely left wide open the door of opportunity to continue to think about what could happen next. Many of the authors in global literary traditions have walked, consciously or unconsciously, through that door.

So here ends the Lesley summer reading group 2018, though I’ll be monitoring comments here and on twitter through the month of August – I have very much enjoyed this chance to revisit one of the cornerstones of literary tradition!

The Massachusetts Medievalist praises the small, local art show

Small, local art shows have become an inadvertant theme for the Massachusetts Medievalist this month.  I’ve always inclined toward larger, established institutions when seeking out art; I get to the MFA and the Harvard Art Museums pretty regularly. Three small art shows in Cambridge this March have me rethinking that strategy, however, as I’ve found that I enjoy thinking deeply about fewer pieces seen in a shorter period of time.

Anthony Apesos, my erstwhile co-conspirator for an interdisciplinary class on Milton’s Paradise Lost, features in a show at the Cambridge Art Association; all of Tony’s paintings are “illustrations” of Greek myths, but the moments he chooses to depict are not the typical epitomic moments of those narratives.  For example, in “Dedalus and Icarus” (below, with the artist), the illustration is set in a contemporary landscape; Dedalus digs a grave in the sand for the body of his dead son. Perhaps assisted by the presence of a nice white wine, I spent a long time looking at this image, much longer than I would have in a larger exhibition context.  Dedalus’s modern shorts contrast with the timelessness of Icarus’s plain shroud, and Tony forces the viewer to look at the exposed face of the dead boy, to imagine the grief of the isolated father digging the grave.

Anthony Apesos in front of "Dedalus and Icarus"

Right around the corner from my office, Maud Morgan Arts provides exhibit space for local artists. Renaissance man Bill Porter works in the academic technology department at Lesley; he also teaches animation and makes very cool paintings. I popped into his show “Impact” as part of an extended lunch break on a Friday afternoon and was immediately taken by his use of nontraditional items as “canvases” for his paintings. He uses old shingles, boards, and even bits of fences, as in “Clearing Skies,” with the whimsical but unsettling unicorn/narwhal skull as the perch for the pipe-smoking raven. The fence injected a note of reality into the otherwise almost absurdist image.

Bill Porter's "Clearing Skies"

Finally, two Lesley students have installed a specatcular series of portraits of African-American women in the atrium of our university library. “Portraits and Power” by Mosheh Tucker and Rocky Cotard presents larger-than-life images of women in the artists’s communities. Tucker works on traditional canvas, while Cotard’s pieces use loose fabric hung on rails, evoking the femininity implied in cloth and cloth making. Tucker’s “Ms. Marcel” (below) plays with geometry and space in the background of this full-length portrait in an almost Escher-like way; I also really enjoyed the ways that the colors of the figure’s clothes and skin interact with those of the background.

Mosheh Tucker's "Ms Marcel"

I’m realizing as well that all of these shows are associated with Lesley University, so I’m suddenly feeling a warm regard for my university as an art-supporting venue in the community. As spring semester progresses, I’ll be looking for more small art shows to explore.