"May I come in, St. George?" said the Boy politely, as he paused at the door. "I want to talk to you about this little matter of the dragon, if you're not too tired of it by this time." — Kenneth Grahame, The Reluctant Dragon
April 23 is Saint George’s Day in England, where he has long been regarded as England’s chivalric patron, synonymous not only with dragon-slaying but chivalry as well.
How did an ancient martyr of the Church (who never saw a dragon in his life) become the most recognized symbol of chivalry and knighthood in England and nearly anywhere? I tracked that question in my art history doctoral dissertation years back, when I studied the images and iconography of the hero in English medieval art — St. George being the best known of an interesting collection of military saints and dragon-slayers. Images and mementoes of knights and dragons still decorate my home and office, and the research for that project taught me a lot about the nature of the hero, which came in handy once I started writing novels.
The original George was a 4th century Christian martyr in central Turkey, most probably a soldier who served under Emperor Diocletian. George defended his religion and suffered the consequences, for he was arrested, dragged by horses and beheaded (among other gruesome tortures); documents in the Vatican apparently referring to his death are dated 23 April, 303; that became his feast day. There were other military saints, like Julian and Mercurius (and the Archangel Michael, in a class by himself), but St. George rose to fame after he supposedly appeared in the sky over a crusading French army and saved the day.
The story spread and grew, and before long his legend was conflated with other myths, such as Perseus and Andromeda, and other slayers of monsters/rescuers of damsels. In England his feats became connected with pagan rites of the cycle of birth, growth and resurrection—and the dragon-slayer so venerated in medieval England was born.
His image is well known even to us today, and he is depicted in countless examples of medieval art. His cult grew by leaps and bounds as chivalry gained deep footing in medieval society. He was declared patron saint of the famed Order of the Garter in 1348, and his red cross on a white ground was
included in countless heraldic emblems; later it was incorporated into the British Union Jack. By the time St. George appeared in the wildly popular Golden Legend, a collection of saints’ tales, his fame was assured.
As knighthood and chivalry flourished, George—being a saint, after all—served as the pinnacle of those ideals. He exhibited all the best qualities of chivalric behavior, especially toward women — he was polite, considerate, and romantic yet chaste (our ideas of chivalric heroes have changed some by now, ahem). Partnered with the Virgin Mary in art and or with the princess saved from the dragon in literature, George was the perfect medieval knight, revered, prayed to, emulated.
“St. George the English knight/Over your ffomen geve you myghte” went a popular English prayer, and “St. George!” was a common war cry; the French response, particularly during the Hundred Years War, went something like “It would stick in my throat if I cried ‘St. George,’ because I’m a good Frenchman.” So fans of St. George took political sides, too.
As for dragon-slaying and chivalric behaviors, George was not the first, but he was the best known—the mythic type of the dragon-slayer so familiar to us today owes a great deal to the storytellers who embellished his story over the years. In parts of England every April 23, while the holiday isn’t a big deal anymore, there are mock dragon-fights by reenactors and kids line up to take a whack at paper dragons with a lance to rescue the princess.
Chivalry isn’t dead by a long shot, not in stories at least, and St. George and his myths helped foster and keep that alive for a very long time – until romance writers mustered forces to carry on the tradition of great romantic, chivalric heroes!
What heroes do you particularly love who are dragon-slayers, real and figurative, in myths, books and movies?