What makes the historical heroine so appealing to fiction writers?
She's appeared in, or inspired characters in, everything from Yu-Gi-Oh! to Fate/Apocrypha to RWBY. Her story is known to people all over the world, with or without its historical context. At this point, she's practically an archetype. Jeanne d'Arc is a favorite of creators of historical fiction, and appears once again this season in the anime adaptation of Ulysses: Jeanne d'Arc and the Alchemy Knight.
But why is the Maid of Orléans such a popular subject for creators? As it happens, she's one of the most perfect historical figures to adapt into fictional works, in equal parts because of what we know about her and what remains a mystery — or inexplicable. The latter of those in particular leaves the door open for some pretty wild interpretations, which we can likely brace ourselves for as Ulysses continues this season.
So what do we know about the historical Jeanne? She was a peasant girl who claimed to be visited by angels and saints, who entrusted her with the duty of driving the English out of France during the Hundred Years' War. After many battles and victories she was captured by the English, found guilty of heresy and cross-dressing, and sentenced to death.
For the French, Jeanne became a symbol of bravery and faith. What goes somewhat less talked about is the fact that she was largely a symbol for the English, too — and this is what led to her execution.
The heresy charges were, as will likely shock no one, mostly politically motivated. The English just wanted to embarrass the French as much as possible, and trying and executing the country's heroic heroine seemed like the best way to go about it. This is also why the cross-dressing charges were brought up, in reference to Jeanne disguising herself as a soldier to get around. Heresy was only punishable by death as part of a repeat offense, so tossing another accusation on the pile was just a way to ensure Jeanne was executed.
This mix of heroic, miraculous, and tragic makes Jeanne an ideal figure for creators looking to play with history. Moreover, her rise from the life of a peasant — her family was ennobled for their services to the crown — carries just the right amount of fairy-tale romanticism. The world loves an underdog, and you can't do much better than a peasant girl turned military leader.
Where things begin to get interesting, though, is the interpretation. There are martyred saints all throughout the history of Christianity of all ages and backgrounds. Jeanne's background in particular, though, makes for enticing possibilities. Regardless of whether you believe she was visited by angels and saints, it's completely true that she led an army. There was a source for her bravery and power, be it spiritual, personal, or otherwise.
This is where things get interesting if you're a writer, because depending on how you choose to interpret that power, you get a very different sort of Jeanne. Take Kinoko Nasu's Fate franchise, which contains two different Jeannes: a Ruler class, praised for her wisdom and piety, and the Avenger class Jeanne Alter.
Ruler is a much more traditional interpretation. It's with Jeanne Alter that things start to get interesting. "Alter" Servants are distinct entities, corrupted "what ifs" of their source. The black-clad Jeanne Alter, who delights in her power and detests her true form, acts as the witch she was burned as. More than that: she turns the fire she was burned with into her own attack, embracing both her heresy charges and her method of execution.
Jeanne d'Arc as vengeful, violent, and perhaps just as wicked as the English accused her of being is an enticing approach for a writer. As we get closer to meeting Jeanne in Ulysses, it seems fairly clear from her sharp-toothed grins that we won't necessarily be seeing a pious woman of God. What else we'll likely be seeing, though, is interesting.
For those who haven't yet delved into the first episode of Ulysses, let's put one important canonical fact on the table: Jesus used fairy magic. Seriously, this is important to know before we go any further.
As mentioned above, regardless of the source of Jeanne's strength and bravery, it existed. Depending on the universe of the story, that means Jeanne could have been communing with saints as she said, or it could be something else. Perhaps it was internal fortitude that no one could believe would come from a rural teenage girl. Perhaps it was a magical element that was part of a greater universe.
In Ulysses, protagonist Montmorency attempts to unlock the secrets of alchemy using the legendary Philosopher's Stone. His reasoning is surprisingly selfless: he wants to enable French soldiers, specifically his friends, to become immortal sot hey won't die in battle against the English. His research leads him to discover the secret of the title of "Ulysses," held by great miracle-workers and rulers throughout history.
While Jeanne isn't even a presence in the first episode, the magic system for this alternate version of the Hundred Years' War seems designed to enable a unique interpretation of her. Montmorency dreams of creating soldiers who can't die, which would enable bolder, all-out fighting. Essentially, a kiss from Montmorency gives Jeanne the power to go nuts with little to no worry.
Jeanne d'Arc will always be a fascinating character to reinterpret in alternate history, because there are infinite ways to explain her power and courage. Whether it's a gift from God or a gift of alchemy, we're not done seeing newer, bolder versions of Jeanne in all different types of fiction.
Kara Dennison is responsible for multiple webcomics, and is half the creative team behind the OEL light novel series Owl's Flower. She blogs at karadennison.com and tweets @RubyCosmos. Her latest work can be seen in the charity anthology The Hybrid, which is currently available for preorder.