Symbolism expert Jonathan Pageau recently put out a video addressing a viewer’s question about the movie The Green Knight. A few months back, Pageau had made another video discussing the symbolism of the original Green Knight (a 14th-century Arthurian poem), and the viewer, enthusiastic about the film adaptation, wanted to hear Jonathan’s take on it. “I’m gonna disappoint you, man,” he answers, before warning that he’s about to have to spoil the ending in order to give his assessment (which consequently I’m going to have to do now as I retell it—so be forewarned!). This ending, he explains, actually captures the thrust of the whole movie: namely, the deconstruction of masculine archetypes through symbolic inversion. Pageau indicates that he sees this device as a cheap move, and sadly an increasingly pervasive one in contemporary narratives. So not exactly the symbolic tour de force his viewer was hoping for Jonathan to unpack. 1
In the opening of The Green Knight, a crown descends from heaven and lands on the head of the protagonist Sir Gawain, who is depicted in archetypal kingly fashion, holding a scepter and globe. Gawain then promptly bursts into flames. This, Pageau says, sets the stage for the type of symbolic subversion and reversal that will characterize the film’s general tenor throughout and culminate in a final reversal. “After the credits, there’s a post-credits scene which cinches the whole symbolism of the movie, which is that there’s the crown of Gawain on the ground—remember, the crown that came down from Heaven to land on Gawain’s head, as he was sitting there on the throne in the guise of an emperor. The crown is on the floor, and a little girl walks in. She takes the crown, and she puts it on her head. If you want to understand the symbolism of that movie, that’s what it is.” 2
A king bursting into flames, the kingly crown transferred to a girl—these images subvert the established archetypal order, the one embedded deep in our consciousness as an a priori sense-making structure. 3 And that’s really about all they do.
Moving beyond inversion
In this essay, I’ll argue why I agree with Pageau that this kind of treatment is shallow and hopelessly inadequate to solve the problem it identifies. 4 I’ll then go on to provide an alternative to the inversion tactic as it applies to gendered archetypes, one that I believe can be found in a preexisting archetype, namely the one symbolized by Joan of Arc. But before I do this, allow me to take a slight detour into some important background on the genealogy of contemporary symbolic inversion.
I see this phenomenon as part of a broader, deeper pattern in culture tying back to the deconstructive forces set in motion by the French post-structuralists in the 1960s. Figures like Derrida and Foucault sought to disabuse the West of its notion that our mythologies are metaphysically grounded, that the linguistic signifiers we use to describe reality point to something beyond the interplay of the signifiers themselves, to some realm of the signified. 5
With this new perspective, they set to work dismantling the a priori foundational assumptions of Western culture (like binary oppositions such as gendered archetypes). 6 The problem with this type of activity, whether warranted or not, is that it essentially causes the ontological floor to fall out from under reality, leaving a giant vacuum in its place and a swarming, snowballing mass of floating signifiers that nevertheless continue to constitute the surface of our day-to-day existence. What are we to do when our words, our concepts, our stories no longer point to—no longer mean—anything? Nietzsche most famously first articulated this conundrum in his “God is dead” observation. 7
Today, we very often see the continuation of postmodern deconstruction in the form of what I’ll call “simple rejection.” An urgent revolutionary impulse, brought on by deconstruction, to reject traditional forms and structures now floats atop the Nietzschean vacuum, unpegged to any kind of metaphysical undergirding that would lend it true substance, form, or potency. The deconstructive impulse has seeped into the act of deconstruction itself, rendering itself impotent, nonproductive. The resulting endless exercise of repeated rejections and dismantlings generally carries with it then no replacement for what it brings down. Slavoj Žižek is fond of pointing out this dilemma, often citing the 2005 film V for Vendetta to illustrate. In one talk, he gives the following breakdown:
“I hope our viewers have seen a movie; I think about ten years ago it was popular: V for Vendetta. I will not go into the story. The point is that in the end there is a revolution in England, some imagined England. The crowd breaks through the police barrier, penetrates the British parliament, the people take over, and…end of the film. My idea is that—sorry for this vulgar expression, but it expresses precisely how I feel—I would like to see, I would sell my mother into slavery, to see a movie called V for Vendetta Part Two.” 8
Žižek is of course expressing the futility of revolution without a plan, of ripping the band-aid off without the means to heal and regenerate. What happens the day after the revolution? If anything good is to amount from it, a new vision for the future must be ready to go. But this is rarely the case in the mini cultural revolutions of today.
I’ve mentioned how deconstruction leads to floating signifiers. In the absence of a viable replacement for dismantled conceptual structures, what then is to be done with the symbols left floating above the rubble? Turn them upside-down of course. In the simple rejection mentality of contemporary culture, reversal, subversion, and inversion are the only semiotic techniques available. Fed up with the hypocrisies of Christianity? Turn a cross upside-down. Uneasy about the character flaws and misdeeds of prominent historical figures? Turn them into villains. Ready to move beyond the patriarchy? Make the hero a girl. This is the non-solution proffered by the methods of deconstruction.
The last example has been one of the most popular reversals for a while now and is my primary subject of exploration here. It seems to me that symbolic inversions actually tend to have the opposite of the intended effect, inadvertently serving to strengthen and reinforce the structures they seek to subvert. The act of inversion provides a means to air grievances against the system while allowing it to hum along untouched, as it all the while grows larger and more powerful through lack of an effective counterforce. I’ve written about this before in my essay The Anamnesis of Sophia. 9 Simply shoving a female protagonist into the archetypal masculine role actually amounts to the tacit acceptance of the hegemony of the masculine.The female character is shown to be inherently bereft of her own virtues and must embody the male hero archetype in order to be worthy of our attention. In this way, the patriarchy is perpetuated.
To be fair, clearly the intention behind this barrage of inverted depictions we’re experiencing today is to bring about positive change in society. Something in our cultural spirit has stiffened, dried up, hardened. The pattern of reality has lost its vitality. The king has become cruel and impotent. This fact is deeply felt and has become represented in the cultural imagination as worn-out masculine archetypes. The wholesale rejection of masculine archetypes altogether (or at least the gendering of their instantiation) can then be understood as a kind of reflexive reaction against something palpably real for many people. A deep yearning for change and transformation is afoot. But symbolic inversion simply isn’t a viable way forward. Intended as a means of leveling the playing field, it does so to the extent that it equally drags down all parties involved.
So clearly this “simple rejection” that I’ve described is far from sufficient in bringing about the actual change desired. Real change won’t come about through turning existing symbols upside-down but will rather involve the adoption of alternative ones. And I’ll take care to mention here that by alternative I don’t necessarily mean new. The ad hoc creation of new symbols is unlikely to bear the kind of potency inherent in a true symbol. 10 A true symbol is an organic upwelling from the collective psyche, and for this reason is a representation of a real phenomenon, a real component of human experience (despite the post-structuralist contention that symbols don’t point to anything metaphysically real). 11 This isn’t likely to be the case with a made-up symbol.
Joan of Arc
What seems to be called for is a replacement feminine symbol that satisfies the following criteria: 1) It isn’t a mere inversion; 2) It elevates the feminine to equal status as the masculine through its own distinct qualities and virtues; and 3) It isn’t made-up, i.e., it’s a pre-existing archetype. Is there some pre-existing symbol in the culture that fits this description? Yes, in fact, I believe there is. This is the symbol of Joan of Arc.
“But wait,” you might be flagging. Isn’t Joan of Arc, the armor-clad teenage girl who leads the French in military victory against the English, simply the female hero archetype again—the same symbolic inversion we’re attempting to replace? It might seem that way at first, but the Joan of Arc symbol is much deeper, much more multidimensional. Most importantly, as we’ll see, it’s also quintessentially feminine. Joan of Arc doesn’t just preside over a battle. That on its own would of course be mere symbolic inversion. Rather, she correctly predicts the extremely unlikely outcome, against all odds, of a French victory. Moreover, she does this through the aid of ecstatic visions. Thus we see that Joan of Arc possesses the uniquely feminine ability of clairvoyance. It’s her supernatural intuition, her ability to reveal the future and open the door to it, that is the primary source of her symbolic potency. Joan of Arc, as a symbol, is a medieval development (more relevant today than ever) of the ancient idea of the divine feminine as deliverer of the Logos, the virginal being who through her purity serves as a window onto the telos of the divine plan. What made her symbol a development was that she must disguise herself as a man and attain to equal status in order to fulfill her feminine purpose. Again, this is a different thing entirely from the simple stepping into a masculine role we see so often playing out in contemporary reversal narratives.
An outline of the history is necessary here in order to elaborate on this picture. But before that, a quick aside. Joan of Arc can be understood as one of those rare occasions in time when an archetype bursts forth into history, manifesting as an actual person. That’s why it can be difficult when speaking of her to disentangle the symbol from the person. Detailing the events of her life is often synonymous with describing the dynamics of the spiritual principles she represents. I say this simply as something to keep in mind while contemplating her history.
Joan of Arc was born around 1412 in Domremy, France, into a family of poor tenant farmers. 12 13 She spent her childhood taking care of animals and developing domestic skills. 14 1337 had marked the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, which was essentially an inheritance dispute over control of the French throne. 15 Shortly thereafter, The Black Death of the mid-14th century weakened France’s defenses and trampled its spirit to the point where it could just barely hold off the English advance. 16 When Joan of Arc began her public career in 1429 at age 17, northern France, which had been seized by the English, was a lawless tract of marauding armies. Hope was at a low for the French people, and the fate of the kingdom lay in the city of Orléans, the last remaining stronghold, which had been under continual siege by the English since the previous year. 17 But prophecies had been stirring for generations that the nation would be saved by a miracle-working virgin. 18
In 1425, at the age of 13, Joan experienced a vision. Three figures which she identified as Saint Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret, appeared to her and informed her it would be her destiny to drive the English out of France and facilitate the coronation of Dauphin Charles VII. She’s noted to have cried at the beauty of this vision. 19 Three years later, holding steadfast to her revealed mission, Joan persuaded a military official to take her to the French Royal Court at Chinon. 20 There she delivered her message to a group of courtly soldiers whose support she gained after correctly predicting the outcome of a battle near Orléans. Convincing these men that her predictive abilities came from divine grace, she was granted an audience with the dauphin. 21 She informed him of her mission and predictions. In doing so, she made a strong impression on him, so strong in fact that he astonishingly granted her request to be placed at the head of the French army, wearing armor and carrying the banner of France. Historian Stephen W. Richey notes that trusting Joan must have been a last-ditch effort for Charles, who had become demoralized and discredited after years of crippling defeats. 22 It was at this time that Joan began disguising herself as a male soldier in order to gain safe passage through hostile war territory, an act that would later get her burned at the stake for heresy. 23
At this point a commission of inquiry was ordered to examine Joan’s piety and establish beyond doubt that she wasn’t a sorceress. The commission eventually cleared her of suspicion, pronouncing her a good Christian and pure of heart. 24 Meanwhile, her presence at the head of the French army began drumming up a frenzy of renewed optimism. Tides began to turn as upper-level military officials, increasingly believing Joan to be divinely inspired, gained back a significant foothold against the English through heeding the advice of her precognitions. 25 When she succeeded at driving off the siege at Orléans, effectively saving the nation, her childhood revelation became reality. 26 And her presence at the side of King Charles during his coronation shortly thereafter then fulfilled the generations-old prophecy that a virgin would come to set the fate of France back on course. 27
Emboldened after the miraculous victory at Orléans, Joan and the king’s forces devised plans for further offensive action. Joan led the royal army in a series of initiatives to recapture nearby bridges and return several surrounding cities to French allegiance. 26 However, this streak of inspired victories came to a halt after about a year. Joan was captured by a faction of English loyalists, put to trial for heresy, and put to death on May 30, 1431 (which, coincidentally, is my birthday). 27 Though this dampened the momentum of the French rebound, it was widely agreed (and still is to this day) that Joan of Arc’s influence was decisive in the continuation of France as a nation. 28
A deeper symbol
The Maid of Orléans, as she began to be called, quickly became both a national heroine and martyr for Catholic France. 27 Centuries later, in 1920, she was canonized as a saint by Pope Benedict XV. 29 To this day she remains a beloved figure in France and across the Christian world. She holds a special place in culture more broadly as well; but from what I can tell, the common perception of her is that of the simple female hero archetype—the symbolic inversion I’ve been discussing in this essay. Hopefully from this brief outline of her history, you can begin to see that this characterization is misguidedly shallow and inadequate. The archetype she represents is clearly much deeper, much more complex.
I’ve said already that a key factor in distinguishing the symbolism of Joan of Arc from the contemporary female hero archetype is her clairvoyance. I’ll take a moment now to examine this element more closely and begin to build a more complete picture of the entire symbolic milieu surrounding her.
One thing to notice about Joan’s future-predicting abilities (or flawless intuition, as it could also be regarded), is that it’s tied to her status as a virgin. It’s likely that Joan of Arc was indeed an actual virgin, but this detail isn’t particularly important. Virginhood is simply a symbol of purity. In order to see clearly into the future, the person who possesses this ability must be pure of heart—free from any baggage that might obscure or occlude the transmission of the future image. In this way, Joan of Arc is like the Virgin Mary, who receives the message from the angel Gabriel that she will give birth to Christ. It then becomes clear why Joan’s narrative first stresses her simple, pastoral upbringing and later the fact that she was brought before a piety-testing commission. These elements reinforce her purity and render her a divine vessel of true clairvoyant sight.
What of the cross-dressing then, the primary charge that got her burned as a heretic? This is probably the element of Joan of Arc’s symbolism most emphasized in our contemporary picture of her. But it’s also the most complex and difficult to unpack, and for that reason is largely misunderstood. The cross-dressing element is multivalent, operating at several levels of meaning simultaneously—a feature that tends to evade contemporary sensibilities. At the literal level, we can easily understand that Joan of Arc wore armor out of sheer practicality, to protect herself from physical harm while riding into battle carrying her banner. The symbolism is where it gets interesting.
At one level of symbolism, the armor represents the hardening or ossification of cultural structure. This is a situation, equally represented by the slippage of power in the royal leadership who can no longer hold the kingdom together, where the structuring principle of the Medieval world has entered its final stage of decay (as it seems ours has now). Reality-structuring principles are manifestations of the Logos, and so are archetypally masculine. 30 So the masculine principle, undergoing a state of decay, has dried up, hardened, and tiled the world (that is to say, western Europe) over with the dead artifacts of a bygone era. Underneath this inert surface, a virginal feminine spirit lies waiting to shine forth onto the world and usher in a new era. The rejuvenating feminine energy must first wear the masculine shell before bursting through it.
At another symbolic level, Joan’s armor and military acumen represent the necessity for the feminine to first achieve a sort of parity with the masculine before superseding it. The feminine figure must show that she is in fact capable of mastering the dying world of the masculine on its terms before revealing her uniquely feminine transformative power. In this way, the feminine attains to a level of equal potency as the masculine and then says, “I can do you one better.” This is similar to the contemporary female hero archetype, but slightly deeper.
The final symbolic layer, which is probably the most crucial and the one that we consistently seem to miss in contemporary narratives, has to do with the presence of Joan of Arc at the side of King Charles during his coronation. Through this image, we see that the arrival of the divine feminine has simultaneously broken through the masculine and transformed it back to glory. Through the intercession of the virgin, whose vision is clear and true, the Logos has descended back into the world and will bring about a new order, a new kingdom. Masculine and feminine stand side by side as a unified force, greater than the sum of its parts. This is the classic archetype of the holy marriage—the alchemical hieros gamos. 31 This symbol runs deep into the vast reaches of human history. I mentioned earlier that the Joan of Arc symbol is a medieval development of the ancient idea of the divine feminine who begets the Logos. But the masculine-feminine cosmic duality idea is much older than that still, present in the cosmologies of some of the earliest known civilizations. 32
From this depiction I’ve just laid out, I think it’s clear that the Joan of Arc symbol is more relevant today than ever. We do seem to find ourselves in the final stages of a decaying, ossifying, hypermasculine civilization. Unlike the upturned, empty husk of a symbol presented to us over and over in Hollywood portrayals of the feminine hero, Joan of Arc is a true symbol, a true archetype that permeates the depths of our collective consciousness. We can look to her as a model for solving the real problem of cultural hypermasculinity in a way that’s simultaneously deconstructive and constructive, both retributive to the feminine and transformative to the masculine. My intuition is that we’ll soon begin to see her symbolism reemerging.
- Pageau, Jonathan. “Sorry to Disappoint You but This Is What The Green Knight Movie Is All About,” at 0:00. Youtube, October 2021.
- Pageau, “Sorry to Disappoint You,” at 0:58.
- See Kastrup, Bernardo. Decoding Jung’s Metaphysics, at 33. IFF Books, February 2021.
- See Pageau, “Sorry to Disappoint You.”
- Ebert, John David. “Derrida’s Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences by John David Ebert 1/1,” at 2:08. Youtube, July 2012.
- See Derrida, Jacques. Positions, at 41-43. The University of Chicago Press, November 1982.
- Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, First Part, Prologue, at 2. Cambridge University Press, October 2011.
- Žižek, Slavoj. “Slavoj Žižek: Why There Are No Viable Political Alternatives to Unbridled Capitalism | Big Think,” at 9:20. Youtube, November 2016.
- Florence, Kenneth Michael. “A Language Purely Beheld: The Anamnesis of Sophia.” Kenneth Michael Florence Blog, March 2020.
- See Rev. Hoeller, Stephan A. “Michaelmas Sunday September 30, 2012,” at 11:48. Youtube, December 2020.
- See Kastrup, Decoding, at 30-45.
- Bouzy, Olivier. Jeanne d’Arc en Son Siècle, at 91-93. Fayard, 2013.
- Pernoud, Régine and Clin, Marie-Véronique. Joan of Arc: Her Story, at 221. St. Martin’s Griffin, October 1999.
- Biography.com Editors. “Joan of Arc Biography.” Biography.com, May 2021.
- Aberth, John. From the Brink of the Apocalypse, at 85. Routledge, November 2009.
- DeVries, Kelly. Joan of Arc: A Military Leader, at 27-28. Sutton Publishing Ltd, December 1999.
- Pernoud and Clin, Joan of Arc, at 10.
- Frailoli, Deborah. Joan of Arc and the Hundred Years’ War, at 59. Greenwood Press, March 2005.
- Barrett, W. P., Trans. “The Trial of Jeanne d’Arc Translated into English from the Original Latin and French Documents,” at 58-59. Internet Medieval Sourcebook, September 1999.
- DeVries, Joan of Arc, at 37-40.
- Wagner, John A. Encyclopedia of the Hundred Years War, at 348. Greenwood Press, 2006.
- Richey, Stephen W. “Joan of Arc: A Military Appreciation.” The Joan of Arc Center, 2000.
- Pernoud, Régine. Joan of Arc by Herself and Her Witnesses, at 30. Scarborough House, November 1990.
- Vale, M.G.A. Charles VII, at 55-56. University of California Press, October 1974.
- See Pernoud, Joan of Arc by Herself, at 63, 110, 113-114, 117.
- Pernoud, Joan of Arc by Herself, at 88-89.
- Biography.com Editors. “Joan of Arc Biography.”
- DeVries, Kelly in Fresh Verdicts on Joan of Arc, edited by Bonnie Wheeler, at 3. Routledge, March 2013.
- Pope Benedict XV. “Divina Disponente.” May 1920. Online transcript from Libreria Editrice Vaticana, accessed October 2021.
- See Pageau, Matthieu. The Language of Creation: Cosmic Symbolism in Genesis: A Commentary, at 236. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, May 2018. See also Jung, C.G. The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 9, Part II: Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, at 14. Princeton University Press, March 2014.
- See Jung, C.G. The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 12: Psychology and Alchemy, at 76. Princeton University Press, March 2014.
- See Eliade, Mircea. The Quest: History and Meaning in Religion, at ch.8. University of Chicago Press, May 1984.