Here be Dragons

This is a highly symbolic week inviting Christians to reflect on the personal significance of riding on a donkey, sharing food, being scourged at the pillar, whipped and derided and finally crucified. Today, Saturday, is a limbo day, a pause in the story while everyone mourns Jesus before tomorrow and the resurrection, the springing back to life of the man, the story, the year.

Albrecht Durer, Paumgartner altarpiece

So I was surprised to hear from a friend who is a vicar that St George’s Day, traditionally 23rd April, has been ‘displaced’ by Holy Saturday. Displaced? To where? Or when? ‘But it’s still Shakespeare’s birthday,’ he tells me cheerfully. And by my reckoning it’s still St George’s Day.
Don’t worry. I’m not going to get into the flag of England stuff, and the pubs filled with those to whom being English means being white, thick and violent. I want to get at the archetypal George – and his Dragon.
The historical saint was a Roman soldier of the 3rd century AD during the time of Diocletian. When the emperor issued an edict ordering the arrest of every Christian in the Roman army, he tried to save his favourite, George, by persuading him to pay lip service to the pagan gods, but George refused. He was lacerated by the wheel of swords and revived three times before being decapitated. This early Christian martyr was a great inspiration to other Christians living under the Romans.
But there are no dragons in his story. Our St George came to us from the Near East, carried west by returning Crusaders, and is more symbolic than real, tied up with Templar Knights, chivalry, the Order of the Garter.
As the story goes, in a village a dragon built its nest near a spring and the villagers, needing to distract it to be able to draw water, gave it a sheep every day. When they ran out of sheep, they offered it a maiden. Enter the knight on his horse.
Arnold Bocklin, Roger and Angelica

The archetype of dragon-slayer is ancient, surviving in the myth of Perseus, and in the figure of the Archangel Michael. The story of Ruggiero and Angelica in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso retells the Perseus myth.
According to G K Chesterton, ‘Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell them that dragons may be killed.’
There is an enduring debate as to whether we should include ‘dark stuff’ in the literature we give children, such as Grimm’s Tales. I’m of the opinion that we should, otherwise children grow up not knowing dragons may be killed, and get completely overawed when they meet one.
Steven Pressfield has a new book out this week called Do the Work. It’s a follow-up to his War of Art. As before, he’s dragon-bashing. Steve calls the dragon ‘Resistance’. It has curled itself round our creative spring and snarls and snaps its jaws when we wish to draw water. ‘Call yourself a writer? How presumptuous! What’s the point of writing anyway? You’ll never be published (again). It’s just self-indulgence. Get yourself a proper job. Dragon massage, for instance. Or cosmetic de-scaling. Pamper me, for I am your dragon!’
Over the past year or so I keep getting ideas for ‘the book after next’. Now that I’m finishing A Gift for the Magus (regular readers will know that I usually take longer finishing a book than it took to write it), the ideas keep coming. These are my sheep and each one has been devoured by the dragon. But recently I got another, and, coinciding as it did with the publication of Steve’s book, it could well turn out to be the maiden. I want this one to live. With Steve’s book by my side, I’m busy at least dodging the dragon. I have yet to rise up and pierce it through the throat.
(Perleeeeze – no ‘be kind to your dragon’ sentiments, no sieges by the Dragon Liberation people – dragon-slayers need dragons, and it’s only a story.)
So that’s my Easter message: slay the dragon of negativity and let at least one idea live.
Happy St George’s Day. And, oh yes, happy birthday, Shakespeare.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Didn’t Shakespeare also die on the 23rd April?
    England’s Patron Saint prior to St George was Edward the Confessor – he who died in January 1066 leaving no heir to follow him so the most able man in the land – Harold Godwinesson was elected King. Which led to Duke William of Normandy throwing a hissy fit because he claimed Ed had promised him the throne (he didn’t/couldn’t/wouldn’t promise it – all Norman propaganda) and invading England with his Norman/Mercenary army because that’s what tyrants do etc etc.
    St George – coming back from the crusades (in legend form!) displaced Edward for some reason.
    I’d like to know how Edward, who was a rather weak King came to be patron saint in the first place and why St George ( a far livelier character) booted him out…. I assume something to do with the Reformation? (wild guess that)
    One day I might find the time to find these answers… any offers of enlightenment anyone/

  2. If we could have a vote on the real patron saint of England, I’d vote for Cuthbert or Columba or Aidan. I think these real saints were relegated after the triumph of Roman over Celtic Christianity at the Synod of Whitby. After that patron ‘saints’ were appointed by popes and monarchs.
    The displacement of Edward by legendary George is a really interesting phenomenon. Apparently England shares its national flag with Ligura, Malta, Aragon, Genoa and Georgia. Weird, huh?
    The answer lies in St George’s chapel, Windsor, under the third misericordia under the banner of the Black Prince. Honest.

  3. The New Yorker had a fabulous article a couple of weeks ago about dragon-slaying for writers. It’s about a couple of unconventional therapists who work in Hollywood. I’ve been using one of the tips, which is to write the worst sentence ever written. I don’t know if I’ve succeeded in that yet, but it certainly gets me over the hump! The article is Hollywood Shadows: A Cure for Blocked Screenwriters.
    Curiously enough, a stained glass window featuring St. George and the Dragon was the first illustration I posted late last night on my website’s new Travel by Novel: Paris page. I had no idea whatsoever that today is St. George’s Day!

    1. That was a great article. Do you feel like sharing any of your ‘worst sentences’? I’m just about to have a go at this exercise. ‘Doing the work’ yesterday entailed my going to see a historian to get his help and advice on a new story. He was very supportive and encouraging, yet he breathed fire on my central idea and left me with ash. I caved in over night but a little voice has just told me to keep doing the work, no matter what, so a little prayer before my computer asking to be inspired with the worst sentence ever – well, that’s got to be fun!
      I wonder if there’s any connection with your practices and the intuitive choice of the St George picture? Synchronicity is a sure sign of work going on in the psyche. Let me know when you get nominated for that Academy Award!

      1. My “worst” sentences may not be any worse than any of my other sentences. In any case, I am a chronic reviser, so if I recognize a sentence I’ve written as less than ideal, it tends to get revised immediately, which means none of those “worst” sentences are still in existence. Probably my worst first-draft habit, sentencely-speaking (does that qualify?), is to write sentences that are overly long and convoluted. I have to make a point of not reading over my work, or I’d never get past the first chapter or two.
        I have been working with angels and spirit guides lately, so the St. George synchronicity very likely does have to do with that!

  4. It was Edward III who replaced Edward with George as the patron saint when he created the order of the knights of the garter.

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