Into the Fire, by Manda Scott, retells the story of Joan of Arc from an original and compelling perspective. Two stories are told in parallel, one contemporary and one set in the time of The Maid’s most famous battles in the fifteenth century. Using this device the author is able to show how and why legends are created and, perhaps of even more interest, why they are protected so fiercely by those who benefit from them. As ever with half truths that morph into ‘accepted fact’, religion, politics and business interests play key roles.
The opening chapter is set in present day Orléans where Capitaine Ines Picault has been called to investigate the fourth in a series of arson attacks which have blighted the city over the previous three weeks. This conflagration represents an escalation in hostilities as the burning building contains the remains of a body.
A cursory study of the charred corpse indicates that the unknown male was dead before the fire started. A memory card is later found lodged in the victim’s oesophagus suggesting that the assault was not unexpected and that he had information which he wished to pass on. As the police struggle to recover the encrypted digital data, and to assemble the victim’s last known movements, the arsonists strike again. This time CCTV footage is captured which had previously been so carefully avoided. Picault suspects a false trail.
Interspersed with the chapters which progress this contemporary tale are those which detail the rise and exploits of Jehanne d’Arc, nicknamed The Maid of Orléans. Although her story is familiar and has been appropriated by many; from the suffragettes through LGBT Christians, the Traditionalist Youth Network in the USA (her virginity is a big selling point here) to opposing French political parties; this is a fictionalised, personal account by a fighter sent by the enemy English to destroy her. The author has studied letters and transcripts from the time to provide accuracy but, for me, the most interesting facts were these:
- In 2003, a Ukranian orthopaedic surgeon found within the tomb of a fifteenth century French king, the bones of a woman whom he said had died in her late 50s or early 60s and had been trained to ride a war horse from a very early age: a woman knight. He said, ‘This is Marguerite de Valois. And this was Joan of Arc.’ The French closed the tomb and threw him out of France.
- During the trial of Joan of Arc, which lasted for many months, nobody asked how a nineteen year old peasant girl gained her strategic and tactical skills, how she learned to ride, to wield weapons, to couch a lance. That any girl should be capable of such skills was unthinkable at the time. Those in power preferred to promote her much vaunted purity and to claim that she was a gift from God. It is this story which has been perpetuated.
As the parallel tales unfold the similarities between rulers, nearly 600 years apart, become clear. The public can be swayed by a pretty story which strokes existing prejudices. They appear to find it easier to support perceived beauty, purity and righteousness than to challenge societal structures with which they are comfortable. Then as now those in power will ensure, by whatever means necessary, that inconvenient truths are ridiculed or censored.
The author is a fine storyteller and her writing flows beautifully, maintaining interest and building tension towards the meshing of the two endings. As Jehanne d’Arc faces the deadly wrath of her enemies, Ines Picault discovers that she has been played in a callous and potentially fatal game. As with any good thriller there are twists and turns aplenty.
I enjoyed reading this book. The suggestion of a modern day conspiracy to protect a myth convenient to church and state is all too believable. Taught history is only ever as accurate as the scribes of the day allow.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bantam Press.
I will be giving away a signed copy of this book to one lucky reader. For details check out my tweets: Jackie Law (@followthehens) | Twitter.
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