There’s a scene at the beginning of The Matrix when Neo first meets Morpheus. They take a seat in a grey room and talk of truth. Morpheus offers Neo two pills, one blue and the other red. The blue pill would consolidate Neo’s preformed judgement of what he believes to be true of the world he’d experienced until that point. The red pill would lead to Neo finding out the truth of the world as it actually is, beneath the blanket social institutions used to hide reality from the masses. Neo chooses the red pill.
The red pill leads to his realization that everything he’d been fed by media and society as a whole had been a lie. All his life he’d been a slave to an illusion that was too clear to be recognized as fake, and a machine he couldn’t see that ran his life and perception of the world. It took courage for Neo to grab the red pill out of Morpheus’ hand and choose truth over safety, despite the fact that the cost of understanding would most likely be his life.
There is no doubt that a great man or woman will always choose the red pill. History has proven change necessitates a divergence from the norm (see any revolutionary since the history of time). And though not all change is progress, all progress necessitates change. The greatest danger of status quo is its safety. Safety in popular opinion is undoubtedly effective at bridling the mind and sedating the heart, stripping a person of any fear of standing out, at the price of their freedom. Art does not live in safety.
This is the story of the fire that swallowed Joan of Arc.
The Maid of Orléans they called her. Joan lived during the 100 Years’ War on her parents’ fifty acre estate. France, her country and her people, were notorious losers of almost every war they were involved. The English had ravaged her land and burned her village.
At thirteen years old, she saw the Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine of Alexandria in her father’s garden as she played. They told her to do things.
The triad of angels and saints called her to take back France from one of the most powerful armies and land hungry empires in history. As a thirteen year old and a female, she did not get much initial support from the French Monarchy.
At age 17, Joan, dressed as a male soldier, was escorted by a countryman to Chinon through enemy territory to meet the heir to the French throne, Charles VII. She told him of her ongoing visions she’d had since she was thirteen. She told him of her mission, to break the yoke of English bondage from the backs of her people.
Understandably, Charles VII thought she may have been a sorceress.
After many meetings with clergymen who concluded she probably wasn’t a sorceress, and at the deepest level of despair and loss with no other options, Charles VII allowed Joan to join the French army to fight against the occupiers of their land.
Joan received donated armour, a sword, a horse and a banner and joined the battle at Orléans. Joan raised the banner, never once taking the life of any man, though she instructed the noblemen within the army on what to do. Believing her to be divinely inspired, the men did as they were told.
An arrow shot from far pierced Joan between her shoulder and neck while she held the banner of France in the trenches. The pain didn’t hold the maiden away from the war for long. She returned within little time to encourage the final assault to take back a fortress in Orléans.
The British siege of Orléans broke and dismantled within nine days under Joan’s unofficial leadership.
Joan convinced the leaders of her troop to continue onwards North to Reims, deep in enemy territory, to take back French land, which they did, piece by piece, until she was ambushed by the enemy and pulled off her horse by an archer.
The British and those loyal to them put Joan on trial. The only charge they found that could convict her was the charge of crossdressing, considering she wore male army attire to battle and continued to wear male armour throughout her imprisonment to prevent being raped by her captors. At nineteen, she was convicted and condemned to burn at the stake.
The Maid of Orléans, who’d played a pivotal role in taking back France for her people, was strapped to a tall pillar at the Vieux-Marche in Rouen. A British soldier slipped a small cross in front of her dress.
Joan turned to the French clergy that stood before her.
“Hold the cross high so that I may see it through the flames,” she said before the executioner lit her on fire. His name was Geoffroy Therage. He went home alive, terrified that he would be damned for setting fire to the woman who gave her life to free his people.
Many intellectuals today think Joan was schizophrenic. People in her time thought she was crazy. Despite common perception, Joan believed in herself and her mission. The idea that she was too young to lead the French army, and above that, a woman, meant nothing to her in the face of her faith and her mission. She spoke truth despite the outcome, chose the red pill despite her life.
What did she gain?
Nothing. She lost her life to the thirsty flame that licked at her feet and spread through her skin and ate her body whole while she stood and screamed for Jesus until her lungs charred and wrought and her breath failed. It was her people that suffered under colonialist British rule since the beginning of the 100 Years’ War that benefited from the ruins of her life.
But more importantly, who in this situation was truly free? The executioner that lit the pride of Orléans aflame, who went home safe and burdened by the weight of his sin? The French bishop loyal to the British Crown that led the Inquisition on Joan’s life for his own personal gain? The unjust men used to push crooked law and build up British pride broken by a young virgin girl from the countryside?
Slaves, all of them, to a system they were a part of. A system much bigger than them.
It was the peasant girl, pierced by the arrow of the enemy, imprisoned and hidden behind men’s armour to protect her unstained body from flesh hungry men of a different blood. The girl who stood as a shackled saviour in front of France, burned at the stake for freeing her people from these same men’s spears. And as she burned, as her eyes melted within their sockets, she stared at the source of her hope held high on her orders in front of her.
As an artist, you choose fire. You write what shakes the system, because what shakes the system is truth. The banner of faith in your mission, if it is one for something greater than yourself, is a terrifying sight to a well oiled machine that operates on oppression by ignorance. The siege will fall.
If you act out of love for your people, love for your art, you choose the threat of the flame below your feet. You choose the possibility of destruction of your character by others who close their eyes and block their ears and label you whatever label the majority agreed upon, and you know that they are terrified.
And as you burn, remember to always keep the source of your hope, your purpose, your mission, in front of you, so that you may see it through the flames.