So much at stake

2nd October 1998 at 01:00
By Michael Morpurgo
Illustrated by Michael Foreman
Pavilion, #163;14.99

By Josephine Poole
Illustrated by Angela Barrett
Hutchinson, #163;9.99.

Joan of Arc was an illiterate peasant girl who heard voices, led the French army against the English and was burned as a witch and a heretic in 1431. Children's perceptions of history change subtly with each generation - so does the sensitive art of successful retelling.

Novelist Michael Morpurgo, no stranger to this art, opens his story of Joan of Arc in present-day France.

Eloise, an Orleans schoolgirl, becomes obsessed with the story of St Joan in the local pageant. Mooching about by the river, she too begins to hear a voice - a voice that takes over the narrative with a vivid account of Joan's life.

Unlike the characters in Morpurgo's retellings of the Robin Hood and King Arthur legends, St Joan is a well-documented figure, historical rather than legendary. The brevity of her life, and the grim inevitability of its trajectory, do not lend themselves to the kind of speculative, romantic embroidery that enriches the tales of Sherwood and Camelot.

Instead, against a vivid background of 15th-century France, Morpurgo explores Joan's character as she sets out on her quest to drive the English out of France. Joan emerges as an engagingly paradoxical figure - as down-to-earth as she is other-worldly, as humble as she is imperious, a fearsome warrier, but a worrier too, who weeps with compassion for the enemy. And although unable to read or write, she is astonishingly articulate and quick-witted.

Morpurgo makes bold use of the transcripts of her trial - and it's in these harrowing scenes that illustrator Michael Foreman's grainy, almost monochromatic use of watercolour is at its most poignant and powerful.

With its bloody mix of warmongering, religious conviction, nationalism, miraculous visit-ations and hideous cruelty, this is a complex, thought-provoking book. Morpurgo writes convincingly about Joan's faith and her uncompromising, unswerving love of God. At the same time he risks undermining her fierce, single-minded independence by inventing a companion for her in the shape of a tame sparrow. Although it is a little far-fetched, it's a cunning device which (importantly for the reader, for the cruelty in this story is hard to take) makes Joan's isolation bearable,provides a vital focus for her innermost thoughts and makes her believable as a real human being. And, at the appalling moment of her death, the little bird is an uplifting symbol of freedom.

Josephine Poole's picture-book re-telling is for younger children, but is no less powerful. Written with a lively fast-forward simplicity, perfect for reading out loud, it is distinguished above all by the magical,almost visionary intensity of Angela Barrett's illustrations. These draw their inspiration from many aspects of 15th-century Flemish and Italian art and mean that the book offers much to older readers.

The opening spread gives the historical context with the broad, easy-to-read narrative technique of a medieval tapestry. Later, a mesmerising profile portrait of Joan, framed by an open window, eloquently suggests her character and her destiny as, against a richly symbolic landscape, she chops off her hair (see left).

With richly caparisoned horses, battles, opulent court scenes and gloriously moody use of colour, Barrett's illustrations extend the story way beyond the skilful economy of the text. The final spread, which embraces the themes of mortality and eternity, is unforgettable.

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