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St George, Dragons, And The English
Locating a contemporary relevance of the soldier Saint to the English people.
‘England with all thy faults, I love thee still-- my country! And, while yet a nook is left where English minds and manners may be found, shall be constrained to love thee.’1
The legend of St George is a story with clear meaning and many allegorical resonances. Helping the weak and the propagation of Christianity are praiseworthy. A message of enduring in the cause of the Christian faith is a central message. So is the rejection of material interests when set against spiritual matters. St George’s dissemination of his faith, and his treatment of Roman religion, may see him greeted ambivalently by some. The English community entails Christians, pagans, agnostics, and those of no faith. However, the St George legend may contain meaning for those who are not Christian and offer something for pagans. This meaning does not efface what many may see as less assimilable features of the St George story; this considered, there is value in a less rigid interpretation of his deeds. His legend, and associated themes, provide us with contemporary relevance; this is demonstrated in St George fulfilling a traditional male gender role and his chivalric resonances.
Bulgaria, Genoa, Venice, Georgia, Portugal, Romania, Ethiopia, Caceres, Alcoy, Aragon, and Catalonia, claim St George as a patron. The fact that St George is not English has led some to deride the idea of a connection between him and England. Such views have gone beyond the making of observations and descended into bouts of vitriol. Abuse has come from sections of the political and cultural left. They revel in heaping pejoration on people of English descent. Their invective aside, St George occupies a place in an English matrix. He has had a position in English culture for more than a millennium. St George’s Day allows English patriotism to thrive outside leftist, globalist and neoliberal interests.
A Roman officer of Greek descent from Cappadocia won a victory in battle and the heart of a princess before being martyred for his Christian faith. So goes the legend of St George. Pope Gelasius canonised him in 494, stating he is one of those, “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose actions are known only to God”.2
Greek and Latin versions of the story date from the fifth and sixth centuries. Church dedications to the saint are said to have begun in the fourth, and a dragon entered the legend in the eleventh. The story of St George slaying the beast is synonymous with St George’s Day held annually on the 23rd of April.
An English version of the life of St George existed as early as the tenth century, or at the latest, the early eleventh. It is called Aelfric's Lives of Saints’. Between 1260-70 Jacobus de Vorgaine, Archbishop of Genoa composed the Legend de Aurea. William Caxton wrote a translation of this work influenced by prior interpretations in 1487. It is probably the most famous English source for the legend of St George and the dragon. In Caxton's rendition of the tale, a dragon confronts the people of Silene, Lybia. It breathes venomous vapors into the city from outside its walls. The people appease the beast by providing it regularly with two sheep under the threat of the monster destroying the city. Then a man and a sheep make up the food offering. Later the king orders children and young people to be sacrificed to the dragon by a system of lots. The king falls into despair when his daughter, the princess, is drafted to be eaten. The people threaten to burn the king and his house if he defies the edict.3
The princess, prepared to be condemned to the dragon, seems consigned to a gruesome end. Then St George rides by on horseback. He pledges to help her in the name of Jesus Christ. The dragon runs towards St George. The soldier rides heartily against the dragon and stabs it with a spear. The dragon falls to the ground. The princess is saved. St George then has the princess bind the neck of the dragon with her girdle. The once formidable beast is now meek and subdued. St George then reassures the inhabitants of Silene. He implores them to believe in Jesus Christ and receive baptism.4 The king became one of fifteen thousand people anointed. The dragon is beheaded. The king has a church and a fountain built. Waters in the fountain heal the sick. The king offers St George money but he refuses it and commands that it should be given to the poor.5
Caxton described the great persecution of Christians enacted by Diocletian and Maximian, claiming twenty-two thousand Christians died in a month. In that context, many decided to forsake the Christian God; and offer sacrifices to the idols. After St George became aware of this, he left his knightly ways and sold all he had.6
St George tells a Provost named Dacian that his gods are devils. Dacian tells him to explain who he is. St George replies with his name and declares himself a gentleman and a knight of Cappadocia. He says he has left all to serve the God of heaven. Dacian then tortures St George, beating him with staves and brooches of iron, breaking his body into pieces. Then hot irons are joined to the dragon slayer before Dacian sends him to prison. The Lord appears to him and comforts him. Dacian finds his captive is prepared to endure many sufferings. He calls an enchanter who meddles venom with wine. He gives it to St George, who consumes the drink after making the sign of the cross to it. Dacian gives a stronger dose to St George, and it grieves him nothing. The enchanter, shocked at the mercurial resolve of the Cappadocian, kneels at his feet and begs him to make him a Christian. Following the enchanter’s conversion, Dacian has him beheaded. He then set St George between two wheels that were full of swords. The Christian escaped unhurt before directing Dacian to put him in a cauldron of molten lead. St George appeared here as in a bath, well at ease.7
Dacian attempts to flatter St George and promises to raise him to great honour and worship if he takes fealty to his gods. St George agrees. Dacian orders all the people in the town to assemble and watch St George make a great sacrifice. When on his knees, St George prays to the Christian God instead of the gods of the townspeople. He asks God to destroy a temple, an idol, and their priests to make them convert. Then fire descends from heaven and burns the temple, idols, and priests. An exasperated Dacian tells his wife that he will die of anger if he cannot surmount St George.8
When confounded by his ethereal adversary Dacian's wife beseeches him to see the virtue of the Christians. She tells him not to do them any harm as it is clear that their God is fighting for them. She declares her intention to become a Christian. Dacian beats her cruelly. St George decrees that blood spilled by Dacian baptised his wife. After worshipping Christ, she goes to heaven. Dacian has St George beheaded; the year of the execution recorded by Caxton is 287. After this martyrdom, fire falls and burns Dacian and all his servants.9
The central message of this story is faith in the Christian God. The Bible is replete with references to helping the weak. St George sees the young princess helpless and on the cusp of death; he bravely rescues her from a ferocious foe. He saves the princess and all of Silene. The king and the townspeople receive baptism. St George brings thousands of people to purifying waters. He redeems a population whose fate appeared sealed by the dragon ominously arrayed against them. St George beheads the beast after the people convert to Christianity. Redemption through Christ and the valour of St George save the people. The king then offers St George money, but he refuses it. He gives it to the poor. In the context of Christian persecution and martyrdom, St George sacrifices himself further by selling all he has after leaving Silene. Then he is tortured in the service of his faith after telling Provost Dacian of the sanctity of Christianity. St George is shown righteous by miraculously confounding Dacian and the enchanter through a gauntlet of violent contraptions. Just like Christ, St George endures for his faith. After St George dies, a strike from the heavens kills Dacian.
Valiantly helping the weak in the face of terror, bringing the light of Christianity through defeat over evil foes, and enduring for the true religion is the moral teaching of the St George legend. Even when extracted from an avowedly Christian context, many resonances emerge. St George's gallant rescuing of the princess upholds the traditional male gender role of courageously defending the weak. Through his literary and artistic portrayal, St George may serve as an antithesis to the hysteria of mass gender dysphoria. He was a man and understood befitting attributes, traits, and qualities. St George rejects material wealth in favour of what has meaning. He helps the poor. Chivalric qualities in heroically saving the princess, humility, and charity confer a moral strength on the legend that endures and can endure into the future. One does not have to be a devout Christian to appreciate this.
Routinely portrayed on horseback, clad in armour, with a spear in hand, and bravely coming to the rescue, the strong, virile, and athletic qualities St George embodies have a strikingly chivalric aura, although the feats of the soldier predate the age of chivalry. Chivalric values can be of use today. The mounted warrior on horseback, reflective of St George, needed training and exercise to prepare for battle and the tournament.10 Chivalric ideals demanded physical fitness and discipline. Such a focus speaks to the value of pursuing sporting endeavours.
Although the world of chivalry was primarily associated with an aristocratic milieu, the medieval sport of the tournament played by mounted men on horseback provided an opportunity for those from humbler origins to excel and enhance their status. Hence merit and reward through achievement were a feature of the culture. The Order of the Garter claims St George as its patron and purports to embody such meritocracy.11 Reward based on merit will resonate with those of us that see skill and hard work as the criterion for achievement and success, as opposed to contemporary equality dogmas that extol favoured groups and the assignment to them of status and material wealth.
Central chivalric qualities include loyalty, honesty, dedication, courtesy, and courage. Rites of passage are a hallmark of the chivalric world. In twelfth-century Europe, before becoming a knight, a youth might undergo two seven year trials, from the age of seven to fourteen, and then from the age of fourteen to twenty one. During this time he would have to prove his loyalty, faithfulness, and bravery.
After emerging from this challenge, an ordination would take place on a date coinciding with Easter or Pentecost. This strongly suggests an idea of resurrection or at least renewal. A period of fasting and penance would ensue, followed by a symbolic purification through a bath which heralded a new life and a new way. The initiate would then put on a white robe as a symbol of his renewed and purified nature.12
Such an initiation has not been explained here as advocacy of its specific adoption in our own time. Although its commendable features may be worthy of embrace. The moral characteristics of loyalty, honesty, dedication, courtesy, and courage transcend time. These traits provide value in sustaining a collective, be it a team, or a people. The two seven year periods mentioned are relatable to endeavours that require commitment and dedication.
Through challenges, we improve, grow and achieve, often attaining a sense of renewal. In the above example, this is realised when the white robe is donned by the successful initiate after his ability and worthiness have been evinced. Within the chivalric tradition, a lesson is told of accomplishment and attainment through fortitude, persistence, and skill. This chivalric custom of becoming might impress on us the urge to reach our acme.
It is to our avail that chivalric culture is replete with beautiful motifs. It is bound to a literary tradition. This rich textual history presents the chance to discover a magical world of errant knights and gallant battles. In this literature, the reader will encounter the chivalric values described above; this may enrich and inspire in the present day.
The legend of St George does not lend itself to the encouragement of undiscriminating pluralism; this might be a good thing. Under a system of “liberal democracy” it is often difficult to question, without receiving criticism from certain quarters, a range of issues relating to mass immigration, multiculturalism, and gender, to note a few examples. St George and Dacian show willingness to respond independently to ideas placed before them. They both uphold their respective values. This message is an important one. Cultural relativism does not exist for St George, there is a right and a wrong, and his notions of this are Christian.
A purely irreligious interest might see St George's condemnation of Dacian's gods, the path of torture adopted by Dacian, and St George's subsequent recourse to divine wrath, to be needless and meaningless.
The moral ramifications of the story are significant to St George's place as the Patron Saint of England, and his relation to a people now agnostic, pagan, of no faith, and Christian. If St George as a cultural figure is the preserve of ardent Christians, his status today as a national figure is somewhat confined. As pointed out above, the story may resonate with those not committed to the Christian faith. People firmly Christian in belief and thought can more easily embrace the legend. Although some followers of Christ might demur at certain elements, particularly if posited in a twenty-first-century context.
Some Christians might say the story of St George is about a Christian saint and is therefore uniquely Christian. They may claim that any meaning that eschews a Christian message is invalid. Such a stance would be undue; St George's foe was a feature of myths, legends, and traditions that long predate Christianity. When St George fights the dragon, the worlds before and after Christ meet. The legend of St George is not just a Christian story. It is one that those not committed to faith may find meaningful. Pagans might take something from St George's triumph over the dragon. So might those of several spiritual and atavistic tendencies.
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The second and final part of this series on St George, Dragons, And The English will follow in the coming days and will cover what was touched on in the introduction but not fully addressed here owing to a want to maintain at least a semblance of brevity. On May 1st I will publish a piece on St George’s Day itself. I’m not sure exactly what will be published on June 1st but I can say we will re-join the Franklins in July.
William Cowper, The Task, Book II, The Timepiece, Line 206, 1786
William Caxton, The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints, Volume Three, 1900, 126-127
Nigel Saul, For Honour and Fame, Chivalry in England, 1066-1500, 2012, 14-15
Julius Evola, Revolt Against the Modern World, 1969, 83-84