Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Sparrow: the true story of Joan of Arc by Michael Morpurgo

Sparrow is Michael Morpurgo's superb retelling of Joan of Arc for young readers. Set in the early 1400's France, young Eloise Hardy experiences a beautiful dream that recounts Joan's heroic campaign that drove the English from her beloved France.

Seventeen year old Eloise Hardy lives with her mother and father in Montpellier, France. Ever since she can remember, Eloise has admired St. Joan of Arc for her bravery and her strength.  A large picture of St. Joan hangs at the top of the stairs in their home. Eloise's mother loves the picture but her father is not keen on it.

When Eloise was sixteen, her family moved. She was upset until she learned that they were moving to Orleans, the city Joan freed from the English over five hundred years ago. The Joan of Arc picture went with her family and was placed in Eloise's bedroom in Orleans. However, with the exception of one classmate, Marie Duval, who makes the effort to speak with her, Eloise feels alone in her new town. She takes to walking along the Loire and sitting near the Tourelles, the English fort Joan and her soldiers stormed hundreds of years ago. Eloise notices a brown sparrow also frequents the same area and she takes to feeding him breadcrumbs and naming him Jaquot.

Then Eloise learns that her school has been chosen to provide the girl who will ride through the streets of Orleans on a white horse as Joan of Arc. She will be dressed in silver armour and carry a replica of Joan's standard. The date for this ride will be May 8, the anniversary the siege of Orleans was broken and also Eloise's birthday. Girls wishing to win this privilege have to write an essay. The ten best essays will be chosen and the writers interviewed by the Headmaster and the Mayor of Orleans.

For two weeks Eloise works diligently on the essay, encouraged by her mother who is a journalist. Eloise's essay is one of the ten finalists, along with Marie Duval. The interview goes well but Eloise is not chosen as Joan, despite the fact that her essay was the best. Instead, Marie is chosen because she has lived in Orleans all her life. Angry and disappointed, Eloise takes down Joan's picture above her bed and puts it in the cupboard. As preparations continue for the big day, Eloise makes the decision to skip school on May 7th. Instead she heads down to the river to spend the day there. But as she's watching the river Eloise slips into the most remarkable dream ever. A dream about Joan and what really happened to her.


There aren't too many modern novels about St. Joan of Arc for young people. Michael Morpurgo has remedied that situation with Sparrow. The story of Joan is told in a dream the narrator has, leaving Morpurgo the ability to relate the events unencumbered.

The Hundred Years War between France and England occurred from 1337 to 1453. Its roots probably go back as far as1066 when William the Conqueror invaded Britain in 1066. William was Duke of Normandy, France at that time. His heirs still retained their royal titles in France. Eventually the British royalty would renounce its claim on certain French territories. However the two countries continued to be interconnected in many ways.

France sided with Scotland in her conflict with King Edward I and from this point on the two former allies were at odds. King Edward III of England laid claim to the French throne in 1337. Charles IV of France had died without a male heir. Instead of choosing fifteen year old Edward, Philip was chosen instead. King Philip decided to take back the region of Aquitaine from the English but King Edward chose to fight for it. However King Edward did not want to invade and take over France, instead he led raids into the country, burning and pillaging. In 1356 at the Battle of Poitiers, King Edward III's son, Edward the Black Prince, captured King John II of France. He was ransomed for three million crowns and parcels of land. After King Edward III's death, his grandson King Richard II became king at the age of ten. Peace reigned for a period of time between the two countries.

In 1413 Henry IV became King of England and asserted his claim to the throne of France. The French defeat in the battle of Agincourt led to the King Charles declaring Henry heir to the French throne. Some of the French people did not accept English rule and began to fight back. However the English laid seige to Orleans, a city that was loyal to the French king, in 1428. The dukes of Orleans supported the claim of the uncrowned king, the Dauphin, Charles VII to the French throne.

For many years a prophecy had been circulating throughout France of a maiden in armour who would drive the English out of France. The maid was predicted to come from an area of France called Lorraine, which is where Joan's village of Domremy is located. When Joan arrived in Orleans, for the first time the French had hope they would defeat the English and prevent the eventual occupation of their entire country. The capture of Orleans by the English would have opened up the entire southern part of France.

The Hundred Years War is divided into three periods; the Edwardian war from 1337 to 1360, the Caroline war from 1369 to 1389 and the Lancastrian war from 1415 to 1453. Joan of Arc lived and fought during the Lancastrian war. Joan's "voices" began when she was thirteen years old. These voices were those of St. Catherine of Alexandra and St. Margaret as well as the archangels Michael and Gabriel. You can read more about these holy saints and angels on the website, Joan of Arc: Her Voices. Unlike a person who is mentally ill, Joan's voices never interfered with her ability to live her life. Instead they instructed and trained her for the mission she would be undertaking in a few years.

Morpurgo succeeds in telling Joan of Arc's story in a compelling but straightforward manner. The novel's attractive cover beckons young readers in to learn more about this amazing young woman who was chosen to save her country. Morpurgo captures Joan's brave and determined character but also makes her realistic by including her flaws too. She's impatient and at times imperious. And despite her forbearance and perseverance, Joan in a moment of weakness, recants her testimony, when her fear of burning at the stake overwhelms her love of God and her desire to obey him. Strengthened once again by her voices, she withdraws her confession and is burnt at the stake.

Sparrow does not focus on the characters who are responsible for her trial nor does he get bogged down in the actual details of the trial, although there is a short section where the reader experiences Joan's questioning. The focus remains on Joan, her belief in her voices, her naivete at being sold by the soldiers to the English, her misplaced trust in a trial by the church and her trust that she will be freed.

The novel is titled Sparrow because of a little white sparrow Joan saves when she is younger. This sparrow, she calls Belami stays with her from the beginning of her mission until her death at the stake. Similarly Eloise also has a little brown sparrow who keeps her company as she dreams about her heroine, Joan of Arc.

The only disappointing aspect of this novel is the typographical errors in the book. Other than that, Morpurgo has a written a refreshing account of Joan of Arc to inspire a new generation of young readers. This novel was first published in the UK in 1998 as Joan of Arc.

Further Research:

Joan of Arc Biography 

History of the Hundred Years War 

Joan of Arc page from EWTN

Joan of Arc Trial - this website contains numerous interesting links 

Book Details:

Sparrow: the true story of Joan of Arc by Michael Morpurgo
HarperCollins Childrens Book    2012
253 pp.

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