Joan of Arc and The Secret Life of Wonder Woman

By Kathryn Harrison
By Jill Lepore

The nation of women warriors known as the Amazons were a myth. Nevertheless, their legend has survived from its first appearance in ancient sources all the way down to present times. It seems they fill a niche in the collective unconscious.

Joan of Arc is an example of a real historical figure who stepped into the Amazon role, becoming, in the words of Kathryn Harrison, “a living myth.” During the dark days of the Hundred Years War there had been prophecies that France would be saved by a virgin. Enter Joan, hearing angelic voices that commanded her to drive out the English and restore the rightful king. Unfortunately, that meant Charles VII, a less than mythic figure who mainly saw Joan as a means to an end.

If you think you already know all there is to know about Joan of Arc, you’re probably right. Her public career only lasted a couple of years, from raising the siege of Orleans to being captured, tried on trumped up charges, and burned at the stake when she was only 19.

Joan came out of prophecy and was immediately absorbed into legend: a “life transfigured.” Harrison’s account underscores this process by choosing to tell Joan’s story with the help of the numerous poets, novelists, and dramatists who have taken it up. Mixed in with the standard historical sources are drawings from Charles Péguy, Bertolt Brecht, George Bernard Shaw, Jean Anouilh, Carl Dreyer, and Cecil B. DeMille.

It’s an approach that purists might object to, though it helps make the point that there’s very little “real” Joan to hold on to, and what was real was not necessarily what was most important.

Less convincing, however, are the constant parallels Harrison makes between Joan’s life and that of Jesus. “More than that of any other Catholic martyr,” she writes, “Joan of Arc’s career aligns with Christ’s.” This is a dubious assertion, and Harrison works it too hard. Unfortunately, aside from this there is nothing in her book that is new, or that adds much to our understanding either of the historical Joan or the legend.

Another woman warrior, this time entirely fictional, is the subject of Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman. This comic creation hailed from a tribe of Amazons living on Paradise Island, but in real life was the brainchild of a bizarre character named William Moulton Marston.

Lepore’s book is really about Marston, who started out as a psychologist (he invented an early version of lie detector test), but had trouble holding a steady job. Writing a comic book was in many ways the end of the line.

He came up with the idea for Wonder Woman as “psychological propaganda” for the new type of woman he thought should rule the world. Yet despite this radical feminist message he lived semi-openly as a bigamist, seems to have had a bondage fetish, and used all the women in his life as a kind of human resource department.

It’s hard to understand what these women saw in Marston. At best he was an eccentric, at worst a creep. And when you get down to it, his original Wonder Woman comics were crude delivery vehicles for a heavy-handed political message.

Despite this crudeness, or maybe in part because of it, long after her first appearance in 1941 Wonder Woman is still with us, even surviving a cheesy “boob tube” television series in the late ‘70s. You can’t keep a good Amazon down.

Lepore does a professional job with the material she’s uncovered, and has a big advantage over Kathryn Harrison in that Wonder Woman’s curious origins will be an unfamiliar story to most people. It’s interesting to set the two books side by side, however, for what they have to say about the manufacture of such mythic figures. Whatever true or hidden history lies behind them, their legends were made, not born.

Review first published February 7, 2015.

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