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Foreword by W. A. Quinn

Foreword to Portrayals of Joan of Arc in Film
By William A. Quinn
Professor, Director of Medieval & Renaissance Studies
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

In this book Dr. Margaret (Peggy) Maddox explores how the characterization of Buffy Summers rose from the ashes of Joan of Arc.

Both the Maid of Orleans and the Vampire Slayer represent a rare ideal for womankind and a challenging idea for mankind: the “female character that is powerful, dangerous and good.”

Maddox probes several key manifestations of a chronic inability by male artists and historians to portray the significance of what Joan most truly represents as a heroine.  The journey of this book is mostly diachronic.  Maddox traces the idea of Joan from Domrémy in the Fifteenth Century to Sunnydale in the 1990s.  Maddox tests the “idea of Joan” in her multiple manifestations and finds Joss Whedon’s reincarnation of Joan as Buffy the closest embodiment to date of a valid archetype of female heroism.  Whedon’s achievement deserves Maddox’s critical praise precisely because, as she likewise convincingly demonstrates, the idea of Joan still remains so important for young women seeking role models.

In each of its component parts this is a brilliant book.  But what makes it especially exciting is Dr. Maddox’s ability to weave together so many diverse fields of expertise, including Comparative Literature and Film Studies, Pop Culture and Medieval Studies, hagiography and Jungian analysis, philology and feminist theory.  Maddox begins with a very provocative essay in which she would marry the absolutist authority of archetypal criticism to the urgent interests of contemporary feminism.  Maddox reiterates with renewed intensity Meredith A. Powers’s question  (The Heroine in Western Literature): why are there no women who fit Joseph Campbell’s description of the Hero?  Maddox picks up this question of the missing or inadequately conceived archetype of the heroine as it pertains specifically to male (mis)understandings of Joan as a woman sacrificed to patriarchy, as an individual forfeited to the institution, as idealism betrayed for political expediency, and as the defeat of good by evil. In an orthodox reading of St. Joan, her final victory is assured in heaven.  If this book moves the reader as it should, Maddox offers a new triumph for Joan, her canonization as pop icon.

From the very first tellings of her story, teenage Joan has proven an especially difficult protagonist for male authority to comprehend and so control.  In her second chapter,  Maddox revisits the transcripts of Joan’s Trial of Condemnation and the Nullification Trial (Jules Quicherat, ed. Le Procès de Jeanne d’Arc, 5 Vols. [1846-49]) as well as the earliest literary records of Joan’s story.

Maddox discusses “limitations of historiography,” what the blind spots reveal.  The jurists, poets and theologians saw her as a witch or as a saint depending on which side of the battlements they stood.  Maddox sees both the conviction and canonization of Joan as radical restrictions of her hero-story.  As saint, she becomes encased in the armor of Divine Will, a servant who utterly subordinates her ego to His plan, not a fully realized heroine to be emulated as an individual. Nevertheless, the exoneration of Joan as martyred saint (a rarely imitable role) seems richer, more active, more autonomous than the several stereotypes of her character in subsequent centuries.

Following up on Marina Warner’s Joan of Arc, The Image of Female Heroism (1981), Maddox reveals–and laments–that “Without exception. . .in written literature and in film, her story is shaped and limited in such as way as to minimize her heroism by showing that it stemmed from circumstances outside her control and that it ended in a horrible death which she brought upon herself by attempting to transcend the role of a woman.”
Maddox’s primary focus is the impact of a cinematic history of utterly misrepresenting Joan to the popular imagination of young women.  Maddox provides detailed and  nuanced critiques of six major film characterizations of Joan during the Twentieth century: Cecil B. DeMille’s Joan the Woman (1916), Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Victor Fleming’s  Joan of Arc (1948), Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan (1957), Christian Duguay’s Joan of Arc (1999), and Luc Besson’s The Messenger (1999).

They are all found to be fundamentally flawed because they all fail (albeit in completely different fashions) to achieve  the archetypal potential of Joan’s history and, therefore, its feminist promise.  Indeed, the chronological succession of these six  films seems a devolution in the representation of Joan as a potential role model.  An entrenched “ritual of scene selection” imposes an interpretive template that delimits Joan and that increasingly makes her seem simply odd.

Yet, Joan remains, after almost six centuries, “a favorite dress up identity” for young women.  The idea of Joan survives despite so many perhaps well-meaning but programmatically misguided appropriations of her story.  The Joan-inspired idea of the true female hero has, however, been recently resurrected in what seems at first an absurd avatar –the ninja Valley Girl.  Maddox celebrates Buffy the Vampire Slayer (a television series, based on a forgettable film, the blood-sucker premise of which seems to have been a capriccio, and which originally had nothing overtly to do with history or mythography) as the first fully realized characterization of  “the heroine.”  The fact that Buffy grows into the role of Joan as her real self can be explained only as an archetype or as a miracle.

To clarify the uniqueness of Buffy, Maddox surveys the quasi-evolutionary progression of pop images towards the idea of a good warrior woman in the guises of Wonder Woman, Princess Leia, Supergirl, Xena, Max (Dark Angel) and Pez (Witchblade).  But it is Josh Whedon’s increasingly sophisticated conception of Buffy that represents the culmination of Joan’s narrative–that is, its unrestricted and heretofore unrealized power as, in Jung’s terms, a “visionary tale.”  Maddox notes the explicit allusions to Joan throughout the series run, but far more important to her  megatext is the television series’ achievement of “the idea of Joan” which  caused Buffy to grow from a blonde-joke into the Slayer, a role that she ultimately enfranchises for all young women.
In medieval exegesis, the most important level of meaning for teachers to teach was the “moral level” because the thematic implications of a story so interpreted spoke directly to each student’s behavior. Today, educators speak of “values.”  But the term “morals” demands more attention; “morality” claims an immutable relevance (as does the archetype) and so demands change, not just the recognition of some current norm or consensus opinion. And, in this sense, Maddox’s study is a profoundly moral project.  Maddox’s inquiry into medieval history is completely relevant; her analyses of pop culture will remain significant. This significant relevance  of Maddox’s book is guaranteed by its profoundly moral message which challenges men to comprehend and women to imitate the true idea of a heroine.

–William A. Quinn William A. Quinn
Professor, Director of Medieval & Renaissance Studies
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville