Human history contains plenty of dragons. It was the serpent, the most cunning of all the animals (Gen 3:1) who frightened Adam from the side of Eve: she who was taken from his side, and thus should have been inseparable from her protector. The serpent then frightened Eve away from her God, and has turned creature away from creator ever since. His appearances are like bookends for the Bible, attacking the woman of Revelation 12 before the unveiling of the heavenly city. The dragon is the constant adversary of the offspring of Israel (God’s chosen) and the offspring of Mary (God’s Son).
The good news is that history likewise features those who are dedicated to fighting the dragon, in the spirit and power of Christ. John gives us assurance that Michael and his angels battle the dragon, but also warns that the dragon continues to wage war against the offspring of the woman: those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus (Rev 12:17). The implication is that this war is not likely to end soon. Dragonslayers will always be in demand.
One such warrior is St. George, whose feast we celebrate on April 23. Little is known of his life, at least in a documented, scientific sense. However, much of his life is known and appreciated by those who make use of their spiritual imagination. Skeptics might say he never existed. They would certainly say he never slayed a dragon. Believers, on the other hand, know that St. George is real, and so are dragons, in his day as in ours.
The story of St. George is known to us most notably through the Legenda Aurea. This work of medieval hagiography recounts the tale of an unfortunate kingdom which is terrorized by a loathsome dragon, who demands a monthly tribute of a couple of goats to keep him at bay. Unfortunately, for him and for the entire kingdom, on one occasion a certain poor messenger evidently didn’t back away from the sacrificial lambs quickly enough and was swallowed up by the dragon along with them. The human sacrifice, unwilling though it was, was so pleasing to the dragon’s appetite that his monthly demand would from that day forward include the offering of a child. Selected by lottery, twelve children a year were sent to the dragon; innocent victims to appease the dragon’s wrath for the sake of the community.
The heroic intervention of St. George occurred, as the story goes, when the name of the King’s daughter was drawn, and the King, himself obedient to the law and powerless against the evil beast, felt no choice but to send his own flesh and blood to her death. Legend holds that St. George happened upon the scene and rescued the maiden by wounding the dragon and subduing it to the point that it could be led about using the maiden’s garter as a leash (St. George would later become the patron of the English “Order of the Garter” in remembrance of this legendary event). The heroism of St. George resulted in the baptism of the entire Kingdom. One version of the legend says that the dragon himself was tamed, and would live out the rest of his days as something like a pet of the kingdom. In another version, George lops off the head of the dragon after George is assured that the kingdom has been converted from its paganism. I like the latter version best.
St. George and His Dragon: A Contemporary Re-Telling
Michael Lotti tells a new story of St. George in his 2014 book, Saint George and the Dragon. In his tale, the dragon is not only feared and given tribute for protection, he is worshipped. Marcellus, the name of the Roman tribune who would later be given the Christian name of George (meaning “farmer,” “tiller,” or “keeper of the soil”), uncovers a cult devoted to the dragon, and himself is to some degree seduced by the ancient serpent. Lotti depicts the dragon as not only fearsome and odious, but also deceptive and strangely attractive. He is a friend of the Empire, he says, and convinces people that his desires are really the same as their desires. When Marcellus finally determines that he wants nothing to do with the dragon, the dragon begins to lash out, attacking Marcellus’s estate, ultimately taking the life of his father. During this period of trial and tribulation, Marcellus comes to realize that Christianity, exemplified and introduced to him by one of his slaves, offered something stronger than the dragon. His conversion finally came after witnessing the ritual of Christian burial, performed with reverence and faithful hope. Marcellus realized that Christians valued something above even their lives, and were not afraid to lay them down if necessary, because of their hope for heaven. Renamed “George” at his baptism, he realizes what he must do.
As the sun half-appeared on the horizon, the Christians of the estate gathered in the courtyard. Agathon chanted prayers while the others from neighboring estates sang responses and hymns at the appropriate times … an onlooker would have been puzzled, for most of the people were crying, and it was clearly not a funeral service. It was the day that George and six other Christian men would leave the estate to fight the dragon. And everyone expected that there would be no happy endings. If the men did not get killed by the dragon, they would be Christian outlaws in the Empire (p. 121).
George did not expect to be able to slay the dragon, but he knew he had to try. In the Christian spirit, he knew the main thing was not to win the fight, but to know what is worth fighting for and to stake his life upon it. George did slay the dragon, but was in turn slain by the Emperor. (St. George died in the early fourth century during the persecutions of Diocletian.)
So, why is this legend, and even its contemporary re-telling, important? It is an example of the heroic imagination at work. For Christians, the imagination is a spiritual faculty through which we become attuned to reality. Imagination is not make-believe. “For this end I made your senses and for this end your imagination,” spoke the voice of God in Lewis’s A Pilgrims Regress, “that you might see My face and live.” Or you might prefer Tolkien, who similarly spoke of works of the imagination, even “magical” ones, as tales that tapped into “primordial human desires,” which are “not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability,” and which, in this sense, are always “true” (On Fairy Stories). The imagination orients us to a reality that transcends the limits of empiricism, if we have the eyes for it.
The heroic imagination, if we can find it, develop it, and keep it, may inspire us to pursue that reality in powerful and sacrificial ways. The keynote of St. George’s story is hope. It contains chivalry, courage, strength, and triumph, but even as virtuous as these are, they are not enough without a lingering taste of authentic hope, both bitter and sweet, which flavors all stories of Christians, as it does The Christian Story itself. Underdog stories have popular appeal, for many reasons. We can all be drawn to narratives about figures who defy all odds to achieve success, whether it be in the arena of sports, battle, or life in general. But the heroes of secular stories typically remain as heroes, up on their pedestal for everyone to see. The fortunate ones who went from rags to riches don’t typically go back to rags after the climactic scene. Cinderella stories don’t usually end with the princess being thrown out of the palace, back into the attic with the mice.
The stories of Christian heroes, on the other hand, end in a climax that is unseen by the audience. What is seen—the lasting image, in the eye of the world—is one of loss. It often contains a victory, as in the case of George rescuing the princess, slaying the dragon, and sparing the Kingdom. But George didn’t live happily ever after, at least in a secular sense. He was tracked down and killed, by someone more powerful than he. And it was in this defeat that he achieved the victory that remains hidden, occulta, from the world, but is clearly manifesta for believers. And so the heroism of George is that he triumphed over the dragon eternally because of his virtue (courage, chivalry, humility), which made the outcome of any particular battle irrelevant. St. George slayed the dragon, even though the dragon would take his life in the end. The reward George earned was life that could never be taken away—and thus the dragon wails in defeat.
G.K. Chesterton and the Christian Imagination
Few have captured the essence of Christian hope, through the medium of the Christian imagination, better than G.K. Chesterton, and he did it in perhaps no better place than his Ballad of the White Horse. His hero, King Alfred, prepared for battle with the Danes with the realism that befits a Christian king:
Out of the mouth of the Mother of God, More than the doors of doom, I call the muster of Wessex men, From grassy hamlet or ditch or den, To break and be broken, God knows when, But I have seen for whom.
Out of the mouth of the Mother of God, Like a little word come I; For I go gathering Christian men, From sunken paving and ford and fen, To die in a battle, God knows when, By God, but I know why.
And this is the word of Mary, The word of the world’s desire, “No more of comfort shall ye get, Save that the sky grows darker yet, And the sea rises higher.”
The Blessed Virgin gave Alfred no assurance of victory when he sought her counsel, nor did any observations or calculation on his own part. Against all odds, but evidently with God on his side, Alfred and his men emerged victorious. But instead of settling in for a well-deserved rest on his laurels, Alfred speaks to his men with humility and healthy wariness:
I know that weeds shall grow in it, Faster than men can burn; And though they scatter now and go, In some far century, sad and slow, I have a vision, and I know, The heathen shall return.
They shall not come with warships, They shall not waste with brands, But books be all their eating, And ink be on their hands.
Not with the humour of hunters, Or savage skill in war, But ordering all things with dead words, Strings shall they make of beasts and birds, And wheels of wind and star.
They shall come mild as monkish clerks, With many a scroll and pen; And backward shall ye turn and gaze, Desiring one of Alfred’s days, When pagans still were men.
Alfred knew that every victory, won by those who lack vigilance, contains the seeds of future defeat. The white horse may have been restored, but it would not remain pure without persistent cultivation and guardianship. Resistance is possible when life is viewed as a battle between good and evil. In the words of Chesterton, “The more truly we can see life as a fairy-tale, the more clearly the tale resolves itself into war with the dragon who is wasting fairyland.”
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail of “St. George Fighting the Dragon” sculpted by August Kiss (1853).