Saturday, July 16, 2011

Witch or Saint: A Story Seed

This morning, for no good reason, I have been thinking of an idea for a story which I am very unlikely to ever write, and it occurred to me that someone else might. 

The setting is the trial of Joan of Arc. The protagonist is one of the English prosecutors, an intelligent, deeply believing catholic clergyman who has the job of proving that Joan is a witch in order that she can be burned at the stake. The problem is that he has concluded that not only is she not a witch, she is a saint, whom God, for his own mysterious reasons, has provided to the wrong side. It follows that if he goes on to carry out his assignment he will be committing a sin for which he will deserve, and get, an eternity in hell. He is a loyal Englishman but the price of loyalty is in this case rather high.

I do not know where the story goes from there. Suicide is a mortal sin, so not a very attractive solution to his problem. The best solution I have thought of so far is for him to report the problem to a superior who takes his secular obligations more seriously and his religious obligations less, make it plain that he intends to go public with his conclusions, go from there to a priest to whom he can make confession, then go home and wait for the assassin to show up.

But there are surely other, and possibly better, ways the plot could go.


Gary Y. said...

Given that the priest's theological convictions are unshaken and solid and that his belief that Joan is a Saint has become a conviction, then surely the priest is actually obligated to help Joan.

Then, if the novel is to be historical, somehow all the action must adhere to or account for deviations from the historical 'record.' Perhaps a 'happy ending' is achieved by 'faking' Joan's death. Seems lame.

If the novel is "alternate history," then perhaps:

"God" is real, kinda, but self-limited (or limited by another/others) to very minor interventions. Perhaps there's an energy budget never to be exceeded and, at this time, the only 'energy' left to be used can, just barely, cause Joan to wink or lift an eyebrow -- thus causing the priest to walk a different path.

The justification is that God has been disgruntled at the course of events the last several years and believes the Joan of Arc 'disaster' the turning point where all began to go awry. God intends to remedy this with one, slight, intervention.

Which opens up the whole "what if Joan of Arc survived" question. Would the world have been better off, worse, or much the same?


David Friedman said...

To Gary:

I don't think he is obligated to help her. Saints, after all, quite often get martyred, so that could easily enough be the divine plan.

My wife suggests that the superior, instead of having the protagonist assassinated, would simply remove him from the investigation and assign him to be a parish priest in some rural village instead. More plausible than my idea, but I don't think it makes as good a story. One could, however, combine them--have the protagonist expect the assassin, get the transfer, tell the whole story thirty years later.

Anonymous said...

If I were that priest, I would make my way to Orléans and ask for political asylum from Charles VII.

Brad said...

I was going to suggest that the prosecutor deliberately throw the case...

...but then I realized that I was adding in my own cognitive bias and assuming that it was ever intended to be a fair trial -- I'm sure considering it's quite literally a "witch hunt", it really doesn't matter how well he tries to prove [or lose] his case.

Koby said...

From my understanding, most of the 'judges' at Joan's trial knew they were in the wrong, but obviously had no problem lying to see her burned. Meaning, actually, most of them were placing loyalty to the crown ahead of their faith in God.

Assuming there was a clergyman among them who took his faith seriously, his going to a higher, more objective authority would have most definitely vindicated Joan of Arc. Perhaps the suspense of the story would be in whether the clergyman could get the Vatican to intervene in time. If it's historically accurate, though, the reader would already know how that turns out...

From Mark Twain's Personal Recollection of Joan of Arc, after Joan had made a passing appeal for the Pope himself to judge her actions (copied and pasted from

She had made many master-strokes, but this was the master-stroke. It was an appeal to Rome. It was her clear right; and if she had persisted in it Cauchon's plot would have tumbled about his ears like a house of cards, and he would have gone from that place the worst-beaten man of the century. He was daring, but he was not daring enough to stand up against that demand if Joan had urged it. But no, she was ignorant, poor thing, and did not know what a blow she had struck for life and liberty.

France was not the Church. Rome had no interest in the destruction of this messenger of God. Rome would have given her a fair trial, and that was all that her cause needed. From that trial she would have gone forth free, and honored, and blessed.

But it was not so fated. Cauchon at once diverted the questions to other matters and hurried the trial quickly to an end.

Charlie O said...

I think an interesting ending would be for the superior to point out that if Joan is a saint it might be in God's plan for her to die - leaving it to the protagonist to decide her fate.

49erDweet said...

Interesting concept. My suggestion is since prosecutors in "fixed" trials like this have much more flexibility questioning accuseds, your protagonist could construct a series of questions that on the surface would seem to doom Mlle. d'Arc, but in reality would allow her to answer in such a manner as to tug at the heart-strings and consciences of the remaining judges. They would then dramatically signify their intention to acquit her, but in a sudden turn of events she would reveal her latest message from God confirmed she would serve Him best by being found guilty, and burned at the stake. Pandemonium breaks loose but the judges reluctantly accept her plea of guilt but their lives are forever changed. After that the assassins go after all the judges. Or something along that line.

ben said...

Does sin allow him to throw out the hypothesis that she is a saint? If so, he could attempt to disprove her saintliness by tempting her (presumably by arrangement, rather than directly). Although directly would be neat - if he seduces her, this may introduce a second conundrum, whether to allow the woman he now loves to burn. Presumably any solution would depend on whether history (she burns) is respected or not. A twist on that is that she does not burn but her escape plan requires everybody thinks she does. Ooh, and her lineage exists today, cue Dan Brown.

$9,000,000,000 Write Off said...

How does one "go public" in the 15th century? The threat seems hollow and anachronistic.

What he would do is assist the saint in accomplishing her Sainthood. It would never occur to him to save her life and prevent her holy martyrdom.

Instead, he would collect and protect her remains and belongings so that, when God and the Church reveal her sanctity, the Saint can be properly venerated. "Properly" means interred at a church that can accommodate and be accessible to many pilgrims who seek her beneficence. In arranging this, he fulfils his duties to the saint as her impresario, attends to his soul, and not unimportantly, collects some coin for his family.

For earlier examples of thsi process see, Peter Brown, The Cult of Saints).

Francis said...

It's a variation on the "Caine Mutinity". The priest could struggle all along but, frail as he is, falls at the end out of fear. He becomes depressed, hates himself, and ends up dying of sorrow.

(BTW, as someone pointed out, Joan's accusers in the trial were French, Cauchon being the main one, as far as I know.)

David Tomlin said...

This is a good example of the bogus history discussed in the previous post.

It is widely believed that the main charge against 'Joan of Arc' was witchcraft, and that she was railroaded for political reasons. Actually the main charge was heresy, and under the prevailing rules she was clearly guilty. She obligingly repeated the offense at her trial.