On the 21st of March, 1431, 550 years ago, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in Rouen. An unlettered peasant girl from Lorraine, guided, so she always asserted, by mysterious heavenly voices, she had for two years miraculously led the French army to a series of victories over the powerful English and had even succeeded in placing on the French throne the Dauphin and rightful ruler, who became Charles Vii. Captured by the enemy at the battle of Compiegne and imprisoned by the English, she had been subsequently tried by the Church Militant and condemned to die.

She was not more than 18 years old when, having called in vain on God and her supportive saints to intervene and save her, she was led weeping to the scaffold where the English had piled the fagots high, the better to display her torture to the large crowd of spectators. The construction of her funeral pyre also served to prolong Joan's hideous agony; she stood so high that the executioner could not reach her with the sword by which he was wont to dispatch burning human beings at the high point of their suffering.

Joan's chief crime was declared to be heresy, but she also been accused of blasphemy, witchcraft, falsehood, idolatry, apostasy, extravagance, overweeing pride, insistence on wearing male attire, refusal to deny the authenticity of her guiding voices, communication with Satan and his cunningly disguised minions, and many other sins as listed in the fearful books of the Holy Inquisition.

Only 20 years passed from the date of her death to a formal reconsideration of her well-documented trial and only a few more years before the infamous verdict was rescinded. Several centuries were to pass, however, before an illustrious archbishop of Orleans dared place the case for Joan's canonization before the Vatican. That was in 1869 and 40 more years went by before she was formally beatified. Finally, in 1920, she was at last declared a bona fide saint.

By what has been well described as a "reverberating irony," the two saints, Margaret and Catherine, so highly revered in medieval times, whose guidance was responsible, in Joan's view, for sending her forth from her humble home to successfully fight the English and crown a king, have been permanently stricken from the church calendar. Although both saints were directly involved in Joan's eventual beatification they have not survived churchly research because of "doubts that they ever really existed."

Joan's story abounds in just this kind of paradox, contradiciton and riddle which may in part account for the fact that it has remained an enduring favorite of so many kinds of people for so many hundreds of years. No other member of her sex in all history, with the exception of the Virgin Mary, has been the subject of as much interpretation, explanation, adulation and -- in Joan's case -- defamation on the part of social and religious historians, poets, dramatists and philosophers. This all-time favorite subject has appeared in a variety of literary forms. Shakespeare used her in Henry vi, Part I; George Bernard Shaw made a most appealing heroine of her in his distinguished Joan of Arc; she has been presented in various guises of Maurice Maeterlinck, Paul Claudel, Voltaire, Alexandre Dumas, Thomas de Quincy, Michelet, Anatole France, Charles Peguy, Nehru -- one could go on and on. To add just two more names to the notable list: one of Martha Graham's greatest dance creations, Seraphic Dialogue, is based on Joan's story, and Charles de Gaulle honored her inspired leadership by choosing the Cross of Lorraine as the symbol of the Free French and their gallant underground Resistance at the time of France's humiliation by the Germans in World War II.

Not surprisingly the anniversary of Joan's death has brought noteworthy additions to the rich store of literature already available on Joan the Maid. It is greatly to the credit of the two most recent chroniclers of the Joan saga in the English tongue -- Frances Gies, American, and Marina Warner, British -- that they are both able to offer even a reader familiar with the subject lively new material and fresh perceptions.

Of the two, Frances Gies in Joan of Arc: The Legend and the Reality has written the more direct and straightforward chronicle. She has handled her research with ease and clarity. Without impeding the flow of her narrative she conveys a vivid sense of the rich complexity of European life in the 14th and 15th centuries. This was the period of the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, the bloody dynastic disputes between France and England, the famous "papal schism," when, for some 60 years, popes resided at Avignon in a "Babylonian Captivity," the infamous Inquisition -- all of it a veritable hotbed for rival fealties and allegiances, heresies and insubordinations; in short, the perfect climate for producing a trial like Joan's.

Along with her broad historical canvas, Gies has not neglected certain very human stories about Joan that have always been specially dear to young readers; her girlhood visions, the finding of her magic sacred sword, the butterflies that fluttered around her standard, the triumphant role she played at the coronation of the once-hapless king who owed his crown to her. With a little thrill of recognition, one even comes on the touching story of of the rough English soldier who won for himself an "anonymous immortality" by answering Joan's piteous pleas for a cross to carry for comfort at her burning. Hastily constructing a small crude object out of stray bits of wood, the enemy-soldier managed to give it to her; she put it at once in her bodice next to her heart.

In the trial scenes, particularly, Gies presents a most appealing heroine, one whose honesty, bravery, forthrightness and simple dignity have the power to catch at one's heart. She tells us that Joan had an alert mind and an impressive memory and provides proof with many examples in Joan's own words. When her judges tried to trap her in contradictions or inaccuracies, she often replied briskly to their interrogations: "I have already answered that" or even quite specifically, "I was asked that eight days ago." When pushed beyond patience, she sometimes gave a terse response that may well have seemed arrogant to the distinguished men sitting in judgment on her: "Passez outre," she would say; in effect, "Go on to the next question." This simple suggestion was often uttered when she was being pestered with such ludicrous inquiries as the nature of an angel's garments; how could a Voice "see"? how did one embrace an angel, above or below? If the questions were all too cunningly specific, Joan was often ready with a quiet riposte. When asked about the occasions on which she had seen the Archangel Michael, had he been dressed or naked, she answered guilelessly, "Do you think God cannot afford to clothe him?" and as to whether the heavenly messenger wore his hair long or short, she merely inquired blandly, "Why should they have cut it?" She could at times even "stupefy" her tormentors by fielding trick questions in such a way that she effectively left no access for further attack. In replying, for instance, to the loaded interrogation as to whether she considered herself "in God's grace," she masterfully skirted the twin perils of presumption or admission of sin, by declaring, "If I am not, may God put me there; if I am, may God keep me there."

In the second of these two books, Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism, Marina Warner has deliberately set out to present Joan in the widest possible context as a transcedant, transpersonal heroine of a thousand faces whose story has passed into the collectively of our culture under a diversity of interpretations. Merely to read the rather sensational chapter headings indicates something of this author's bold imaginative inquiry and emphasis: "Harlot of the Armagnacs," "Ideal Androgyne," "Amazon," "Child of Nature," "Saint or Patriot?"

Warner's stated aim of "decoding" the Joan story allows her a latitude of which she makes the greatest possible use, often with brilliance but occasionally with the effect of muting the impact of the narrative or even bringing it temporarily to a halt. She finds Joan's story peculiarly relevant to certain viewpoints of contemporary feminism and, indeed, one cannot help sensing connective links between this book on Joan and an earlier one by the same author: Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary. Warner asserts that the issues of feminism were alive in the 15th century as they were not to be again until the late 18th century or the present day. The "compelling and dangerous myth" of the Amazon enlists her keenest interest and is effectively woven into the familiar story of Joan, whom she describes as "a figurehead for the women's side in one phase of the lasting struggle, the continuing duel, between Queen Penthesilea [an Amazon heroine] and Hero Achilles." In her view it is the Amazon myth which underlies the development of Joan's whole personality and her gradual rise to prominence as the "most modern and the most famous of European heroines" even though Joan, she also asserts, is "anomalous to our culture, a woman renowned for doing something on her own not by birthright."

Warner's research has been unusually extensive in scope. In these packed pages one finds the most unlikely but often enlightening relationships jostling one another: Deuteronomy, Rene Char, Sylvia Plath, transvestite saints, the Dreyfus case, Diana Trillings' analysis of Little Woman. For the most part the author succeeds in making this singularly rich, diverse background material relevant to the central story. As an example of the artfulness with which she weaves into the main theme what might seem mere arbitrary digressions, one would cite her detailed descriptions of the extravagance and folly of courtly fashions from the mid-14th century onward when "apparel signified social position" and a "good tailor [was] as valuable . . . as an armourer." She reminds us of the religious paintings of the period in which the Virgin Mary and all attendant saints appeared decked out in the gorgeous costumes of the aristocracy; she describes "fierce, battleworn" captains wearing scarlet cloaks sewn all over with silver bells and others and decked out their horses in a similarly frivolous fashion. She tells us that on the eve of the decisive battle of Agincourt, Charles the Duke of Orleans "bought a robe embroidered all over with 960 fine pearls; on the sleeves the words of his song, 'Madam, I am the most joyous of men' were spelt out with 568 more pearls, of which 142 provided the notation for the tune." These delightful vignettes are not mere embellishments of the familiar Joan story; they relate directly to one of the fatal charges made against Joan at her trial by the Church Militant; that she loved finery all too much. They also serve to highlight a dramatic personal detail -- not often told -- that Joan was taken prisoner at Compiegne because "the trailing panels of her golden surcoat" dragged her from her horse and thus made possible her capture, a tragic fact which the author dares suggest must have inspired "a sanctimonious sniff from her accusers."

The author is at her liveliest and most provocative (perhaps also at her most vulnerable) in dealing with Joan's "transvestism." She discusses a number of saints whom she places firmly in the "transvestite group" and in this particular branch of secular hagiography delights us with the -- to me unfamiliar -- tale of Saint Uncumber (and old English word now changed into "disencumber") the holy personage who helps free women from unwanted lovers or husbands. In the original story Saint Uncumber, then known as Wilgefortis, the "strong virgin," was a princess whose pagan father offered her as a bride to another pagan ruler, the King of Sicily. Wilgefortis who had become a Christian convert prayed to Christ to help her keep her vow of chastity. Immediately she grew a long silky mustache and beard. She she was thus disfigured, the pagan king declined to take her as his bride and her enraged father, following the patriarchal pattern of the day, did away with her, in her case by crucifixion.

Warner's book demands of her readers many startling and stimulating leaps of the mind. This is nowhere more aptly illustrated than in her concluding chapter where she presents, all too briefly, certain non-Western views of the nature of time, of aesthetics and the possible moral structure of the universe. She suggests that there is more than one way to construct a moral tale in which "the hero must die before his time," as in our "necrophiliac culture's ideal of heroism"; as example, she cites the quiet, "normal" death of the Buddha "that does not detract from his witness to the truth." Pursuing the Eastern comparison still more subtly she turns to notes made in 1979 by Roland Barthes on an exhibition of Japanese arts in which Barthes offers the Japanese word Utsuroi for Western consideration: "It implies an acceptance of flux and transition, for it means that it is not the beauty of the cherry blossom that gives the highest pleasure, but the knowledge of its evanescence. It [Utsuroi] depends on an understanding that time is not linear, not one event after another in a chain, but an over-lapping sequence of the same shapes, as in a shaken kaleidoscope." In the author's view Utsuroi expresses the very opposite of the qualities embodied in the Joan legend which stand for "the yearning in the West for stasis and constancy and comprehensibleness."

It could be argued that Warner did not allow herself enough space for the most lucid presentation of such large, subtle East-West comparisons dealing with differing notions of redemption, salvation, infallibility, laws of narrative, aesthetics and theology, but her suggestive strokes, however brief, are bold and exhilarating as she seeks to break Joan free of the mold of a "stable monolith," to release her "into the splendour of the unaccountable, the particular and anarchical."