Monday, October 13, 2014

FREEMAN NG: An Atheist's View and Writing of "Joan: A Novel of Joan Of Arc"

Christal Cooper

Freeman Ng:
An Atheist’s View and Writing
Joan:  A Novel of Joan of Arc

         When Freeman Ng read George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan (published in 1924) he became fascinated with Joan of Arc, and that fascination still continues to this day, resulting in his most recent book, Joan:  A Novel of Joan of Arc, published this past June 30, 2014.

         “She had the light, despite the darkness that surrounded her and the cruelties perpetrated upon her. Her buoyancy and boldness and intelligence, all of which come through so clearly in her preserved words. In a way, this book was my attempt to “save” her – to make sense of what happened to her – but in the end, I think I failed, which was probably a good thing, because it led to a better book, one which better reflects this world we live in where there often are no answers to questions like the problem of Joan.”

         Ng is different from Joan Of Arc in many ways, he is not French, but Asian, and was not raised catholic but reared in a conservative bible church, converting to Episcopalian as an adult, only to come to the conclusion that there is no God as of today’s date.

         “I have no religious beliefs at the moment, which is odd, because 90% of my writing over the past ten years has been on religious subjects!”
         Ng’s own life and finding the answers to the questions surrounding Joan are similar – in the end there are still only questions, and no answers, but the journey of trying to search for those answers does provide some form of peace and closure.

         The journey has included years of writing, years of believing in a God that he now believes never even existed.  The idea for the novel of Joan became ingrained in him when one of his earliest novels (still unpublished) was rejected for the fifth time.

         “It was retelling of the Quest for the Holy Grail that was not only written entirely in the second person like Joan, but also written from multiple points of view, so that each chapter had a different protagonist.  Every published author who ever critiqued it loved the writing, and so did most of the editors who read it, but no editor would publish it.”

         Ng realized that part of the reason the book was being rejected by editors and publishers was due to the second person writing of the book, and decided to write another second person book, but this time, the book would be more reader friendly.

         “When I thought about what the subject of that second book might be, Joan came instantly to mind.  I thought a book about her might do better because it would be a more personal story, and because I’d be telling it from Margaret’s point of view, which meant there would be long stretches where Margaret described Joan in the third person, and so that book would sound a little more normal.”

         Before Ng began writing the book, he researched the life of Joan and her times by reading three books:  Joan of Arc:  By Herself and Her Witnesses, which is a collection of first person accounts about Joan assembled by the well known French historical Regine Pernoud; the biography Joan by Donald Spoto; and Wikepedia.   During his research of these three texts Ng learned small surprises, the biggest concerning the death sentence of Joan of Arc.

         “The biggest surprise to me was how hard it was for Pierre Cauchon, the chief judge at her trial, to secure a death sentence. I had always assumed it was a kangaroo court (it was a court of the Holy Inquisition, after all) and that the trial was just a show trial, but in reality, the whole process was governed by legal protocols that Cauchon could not simply ignore, so that in the end, he was only able to achieve the desired result through trickery.”

         Joan: A Novel of Joan of Arc is an historical novel – containing bits of fiction along with historical accuracies.  However, Ng did make some changes in his book that are not historically accurate, in order to make the book a better read:  he presented the Voices Joan of Arc heard as real characters, and he also made bigger changes.

         “The biggest change I made was to keep the same cast of mortal characters around Joan through the entire book, rather than have them come and go as they did in history. For example, Jean de Metz and Bertrand de Poulengy, the two officers she befriends in Vaucouleurs, only escorted her as far as Chinon in real life and then returned to Vaucouleurs, and she went on to befriend and fight alongside other officers in other places, but I have them stay with her through the entire military campaign.

The second biggest change I made was to rearrange the order of some events so that each chapter could have a clear theme.  Most of the events I placed in Chinon, for example, actually occurred at other stages of Joan’s journey, but I wanted the Chinon chapter (“The Palace of Dreams”) to be about Joan being tested, and so all the tests people put her through at any point ended up there.”

When the company reaches the inn where they plan to stay, a royal delegation waists for them.
         “Are you the men from Vaucouleurs?”
         “We are,” says Poulengy.  “We have come by permission of Robert de Baudricourt with great news and help for the Dauphin.”
         “He sent us to meet you,” says their leader.  “Is this – is she –"
         Joan steps forward.
         “I am the Maid.”
         His men exchange hopeful glances.
         “You and your company are most welcome here!  If you will come with us, the Dauphin has granted you lodgings in the palace.”
Excerpt from Joan:  A Novel of Joan of Arc
         Page 81-82
         Copyright granted by Freeman Ng

The rest of the book is factual and historically accurate, all the memorable lines and speeches in the book; and all of the major events in the book, except for two.

“I only left out a couple of major events from Joan’s history. The biggest omission was the fact that she actually suffered a number of military defeats, including a failed attempt to liberate Paris, before finally being captured, while in the book, I had her get captured almost immediately after the Dauphin was crowned because I didn’t feel I had time to tell the story of all the defeats.”

There is a twist to Ng’s novel, the main character is not Joan of Arc, but Saint Margaret, the one assigned by Michael, God’s Arch Angel, to watch over Joan.

“The story is really about her coming to terms with her own martyrdom. I think it worked out well this way, but to be honest, I doubt I could have written directly from Joan’s point of view if I had tried. It simply would have been too daunting. Margaret was as close as I could get!”

The one character that seems to be missing from this historical novel is the Trinity God Himself.  We hear from the angels, from the saints of Margaret, and Catherine, and we are made aware of the conversations both Margaret and Catherine have with the Trinity God, but the Trinity God Himself is absent, which was a deliberate move on Ng’s part.

One of the dangers of a story like this is that if you get too close to the divine point of view, then you lose all the tension and suspense. You lose the Mystery. Michael was about as close to the Godhead as I was willing to get, and even then, we see him entirely from Margaret’s limited point of view.

         Joan also never reported speaking directly to God. It was always Michael, Catherine, or Margaret. I did alter the history a bit by making Margaret her main contact, while the real Joan reported that Michael’s was the first voice to speak to her and he seemed to continue as her main guide even after Catherine and Margaret entered the picture, but I wanted to establish a friendship between the two girls, so Margaret ended up getting a bigger part in my version.”

         Ng created the atheism within Jean d Metz, but not the flirtation between Jean de Metz and Joan:  Jean seems to have a sincere affection for Joan, despite their spiritual differences. 

“History does in fact record that he flirted with her when he first met her, calling her “my love” just as I have him do in the book, and though there’s no record of her flirting back, it’s very clear that she wasn’t fazed by this attempt to rattle her at all.

In history, they didn’t really become friends, as the real de Metz only went as far as Chinon with her, but since they were going to be together all the way to Rheims in my version of things, I thought it might be nice to have Joan give back as good as she got, and to have them become close friends.

In a way, this was part of my effort to “save” Joan. I couldn’t save her from the Fire, but through Margaret, I was at least able to give her a friend to be with at the end.”

At dusk, when all the preparations are in place, Joan takes a final walk through the streets of Chinon with Jean de Metz.
“Tell me,” he says.  “What was the Dauphin so fearful of, and what did you tell him to dispel it?”
“Why do you ask, my love?”
“All anyone can speak of is how you recognized him in the hall, but you said that was not the thing that persuaded him.”
“That’s true.”
“So, I am curious.  What persuaded him?”
“She stops, a thoughtful look on her face.
“I do not think I can tell you.  Maybe I received the words from my Voices, after all, because I fell certain now that I was also commanded to never reveal them.”
“The mysterious ways of God!”  laughs de Metz, and turns to continue their walk, but Joan reaches out a hand to stop him.
“I am truly sorry!  I see now that this is more important to you than you are saying.  I am more sorry than I can say.  I would tell you if I could.  I would tell you if I could tell no one else!”
He looks at her in wonder.
         “Perhaps you are simply a mind reader!”  he says.
He gestures toward a stone bench, and they sit.

Excerpt from Joan:  A Novel of Joan of Arc
Page 105
Copyright granted by Freeman Ng.

         Another of Ng’s creations is the pagan female figure rising from the pile of rocks that Margaret sees throughout the book. 

         “Although this was a story about a Christian saint, I wanted to treat it in a way that would be universally appealing.”

You sit with Catherine in one of the pagan temples of Antioch.  Before you, a female figure rises from a pile of rocks, as if stone were being transformed into a living soul.  Even after you became a Christian, you often came here to gaze upon this sculpture, which you came to think of as a symbol of salvation.

Excerpt from Joan:  A Novel of Joan of Arc
Page 91
Copyright granted by Freeman Ng

Ng’s sense of humor can be seen in the scene where Joan has a private conversation with King Charles that no one could hear or be a witness too because it has been decreed by God that no one should learn of what Joan tells King Charles.

“This was a bit of a historical joke on my part. There’s a lot of speculation about what she could have said to him to change his mind not only about her, but about fighting back against the English, but there are no historical clues that give any strong indication about what it was, and so in that scene, I thought I’d purposely disappoint any historians that might get their hopes up as the moment approached!

However, at an earlier point in the book’s development, there was an epilogue in which I went ahead and had Charles describe what she told him, but I cut the whole thing just before the book went to press. I might turn it into a sequel some day, and then you (and the historians) can read what I thought she might have said!”

He’s dressed in ordinary clothing, neither a noble nor a soldier, but apparently just another servant or clerk of the palace.
“Be welcome to the court of the Dauphin, Joan of Domremy!”  cries a squire.  “You may approach his royal majesty.”
Joan takes three steps into the hall, pauses, and then turns and walks right up to your dreamer!  She knees before the man and says, “God keep you, gentle king!”
Shocked murmurs echo throughout the chamber.
“I am not the king!” protests the man.  At the other end of the hall, the Dauphin rises from this throne and clears his throat loudly.
Joan laughs!
“Did you think I would not recognize my sovereign?  You are Charles, heir to the throne of France, whom I have come to help and guide!”
The crowd bursts into exclamations of delight and wonder.  The man in the royal finery steps away from the throne and gestures for the Dauphin to take his place, but Charles shakes his head shortly.  He looks ruefully at Joan.
“Well done!” he says.  “Nevertheless, I did not lie.  I am not your king yet, not is it likely I will ever be.  And that might not prove so ill, might it not?  For it may be that I would not be a very good king, after all.”
No one reacts with any surprise or shock.  They all simply hang their heads.
         “They have grown accustomed to this!” mutters Catherine.
“For that which God wills to not be accomplished would be ill, indeed,” Joan tells the man.  “Come, noble prince, let us speak privately and then we will see.”
Charles points her to a curtained side chamber.  You make to follow them, but Catherine restrains you.
“It has been decreed by God that no one in Heaven or on Earth should learn what she is about to tell him.”
So you watch with the rest of the court while Charles and Joan withdraw behind the veil of thin gauze.  You can still make out his face, though you can’t hear anything that’s said.
Joan does most of the talking.  At first, Charles stands before her with his hands clasped behind his back and a patient smile on his face, but the smile is soon replaced by a frown, and then a look of genuine attention.  Joan speaks to him calmly, with her gaze fixed steadily upon his face, looking just like Catherine does when he imparts information and instruction.
Excerpt from Joan:  A Novel of Joan of Arc
Pages 102-103
Copyright granted by Freeman Ng.

         One of the great mysteries of Joan, besides that great big question of if she really heard the Voices or was mentally ill, was if she was sexually assaulted or not.  There is a scene that Ng alludes to this but there is enough room for both doubt and for affirmation of the rape, which was what Ng intended.

“This is another historical mystery, and the deepest chamber of darkness at the heart of Joan’s story. She may have been, but we don’t know for sure. And so that’s how I presented it in the book.”

“My God!” exclaims Machon, and bolts down the hall.  You limp along behind him.  He dashes down a flight of stairs and disappears from your sight, but when you reach the bottom yourself, you see the metal door that leads into the prison area just a few feet away.  (You must have run round and round the castle in your frantic search and come back near to where you started!)  You catch up with him in Joan’s cell, where two of the guards stand at attention before him. 
“If you try anything like that again,” he is telling them, “I promise you, as an officer of this facility, I will seek your dismissal from the army.  As a clerk of the court, I will have you arrested and put into prison yourselves.  And as a priest, I can assure you that your souls will burn in Hell.  Now go!”
They saunter out and he kneels before Joan, who lies curled on the floor in one corner of the cell.  Her face is bruised and tear stained, and her dress torn in places.

Excerpt from Joan:  A Novel of Joan of Arc
Page 231
Copyright granted by Freeman Ng

         Once the novel was complete, Ng sent Joan:  The Novel of Joan of Arc to editors only to receive the same response – that of rejection, and all due to the second person narrative.
         “The editors love the writing itself, and the authors who read it loved it unanimously and unreservedly.  Tim Wynne Jones wrote me a wonderful blurb for the back cover, and so I finally decided to self publish.”

         Even though Ng now describes himself as atheist, he finds Joan’s testimony of hearing Voices to be a possibility, but, as with most historians, is torn on the issue.  
The one conclusion he has come to about Joan of Arc is the same conclusion the scholars of the University of Poitiers came to after they interviewed Joan at the request of the Dauphin to determine if she was really sent from God: 

“After examining the girl Joan of Domrémy who is called the Maid, we find no evil in her, but only goodness, humility, honesty, and simplicity. Her claims we cannot judge with certainty. It may well be that she brings divine help to your Highness. It is also possible she could help deliver France by entirely natural means.”
Contact Freeman Ng at

Photo Description and Copyright Information

Freeman Ng
Copyright granted by Freeman Ng

George Bernard Shaw
Public Domain

Jacket cover of the play Saint Joan
Saint Joan: A Chronicle Play in 6 Scenes and an Epilogue. London: Constable & Co., Ltd.
Fair Use Under The United States Copyright Law

Jacket cover of Joan:  A Novel of Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc
Oil on parchment
From 1450 to 1500
Public Domain

Freeman Ng
Copyright granted by Freeman Ng

Freeman Ng
Copyright granted by Freeman Ng

Quest for the Holy Grail
The Attainment: The Vision of the Holy Grail to Sir Galahad, Sir Bors, and Sir Perceval (also known as The Achievement of the Grail or The Achievement of Sir Galahad, accompanied by Sir Bors, and Sir Perceval). , Number 6 of the Holy Grail tapestries woven by Morris & Co. 1891-94 for Stanmore Hall. This version woven by Morris & Co. for Lawrence Hodson of Compton Hall 1895-96. Wool and silk on cotton warp. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
Attributed to Sir Edward Burne-Jones overall design and figures; William Morris, overall design and execution; John Henry Dearle, flowers and decorative details.
Public Domain

Joan of Arc on horseback from a 1505 manuscript
Artist unknown
Public Domain

Statue of Joan of Arc on horseback, triumphantly raising her sword to the heavens and crepuscular at San Francisco's Palace of the Legion of Honor
Attributed to Brocken Inaglory

Painting of Saint Margaret the Novacella Abbey, Neustift, South Tyrol, Italy
Photograph of painting taken on July 20, 2008
Public Domain

Jacket cover of Joan of Arc:  By Herself and Her Witnesses

Jacket cover of Joan by Donold Spoto

Manuscript portrait of  Pierre Cauchon during the trial of Joan of Arc
Public Domain

Joan of Arc is interrogated by The Cardinal of Winchester in her prison.
Oil on Canvas
Attributed to Paul Delaroche
Public Domain

Jacket cover of Joan:  A Novel of Joan of Arc

Jean do Metz
Historical image
Public Domain

Vertrand de Poulengy
CCASA 3.0 Unported

Jacket cover of Joan:  A Novel of Joan of Arc

Military Joan of Arc
Public Domain

Miniature from Vigiles du roi Charles VII. The citizens of Troyes hand over city keys to the Dauphin and Jeanne (Joan).
15th Century
Public Domain

Mural of Joan captured by the Burgundians at Compiègne
Mural located in Pantheon, Paris.
Public Domain

Saint Margaret (St. Marina) the Great-Martyr. An illustration in her hagiography printed in Greece depicting her beating a demon with a hammer. Date on the picture: 1858.
Public Domain

Joan of Arc receiving a vision from the Archangel Michael
Attributed to Eugene Thirion
Public Domain

Saint Catherine
Oil on canvas
Attributed to Artemisia Gentileschi
Public Domain

350 A.D. Vatican Museum, Rome, Italy. Displaying the far end of the work with the earliest known depiction of the Trinity creating Eve (or resurrecting Lazarus).
Public Domain

Oil on panel of Saint Margaret
Second half of 16th Century
Attributed to Peter Candid
Public Domain

Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine approaching Joan of Arc
Public Domain

Jean do Metz
Historical image
Public Domain

Public Domain from wikipedia

The Military Joan of Arc
Public Domain

Jacket cover of Joan:  A Novel of Joan Of Arc

Saint Margaret and the dragon.
Saint Margaret, ca. 1475. French (Toulouse). Alabaster with traces of gilding in the hair.
Stored at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
GNU Free Documentation License

Jacket cover of Joan:  A Novel of Joan of Arc

Painting of King Charles
1445 to 1450
Attributed to Jean Fouquet
Public Domain

Miniature from Vigiles du roi Charles VII. Joan and the king
Public Domain

Jacket cover of Joan:  A Novel of Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc
Attributed to Dante Gabriel Rosetti
Public Domain

Jacket cover of Joan:  A Novel of Joan of Arc

Copies of Joan:  A Novel of Joan of Arc
Copyright granted by Freeman Ng

Joan of Arc at the stake
Oil on canvas
Attributed to Hermann Anton Stilke
Paining located at the Hermitage Museum

Public Domain

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