By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The tale of St George and the Dragon, or ‘St George of Merrie England’ as it’s also known in some versions, is a classic English fairy tale. And yet its origins aren’t English, and St George accomplished this feat not in England but in another land (usually either Libya or Egypt). How well do we know the legend of St George and the slaying of the dragon?
Not very well, it turns out. Let’s take a closer look at what the actual legend tells us. Afterwards, we’ll offer an analysis of the story’s meaning and significance, but first let’s recap the plot of the legend.
St George and the dragon: plot summary
There are many different versions of the St George story. However, the classic edition of English Fairy Tales (Wordsworth Children’s Classics) which includes this legend, ‘St George of Merrie England’, contains a number of the elements of the story which had developed over the centuries.
The story usually begins with St George as an infant, living in an enchanted forest where an enchantress named Kalyb lives. She was in the habit of carrying off newborn babies and putting them to death.
The infant son of the Earl of Coventry was due to be her next victim: the Earl was absent and the baby’s mother had died giving birth to him. But when Kalyb used her spells to steal the baby from his nurses, she found she couldn’t put him to death because, on his breast was the living image of a dragon, on his right hand the blood-red cross (now the symbol of England), and on his left leg was the golden garter (a reference to the Order of the Garter, the highest order of chivalry in England, established in 1348).
So instead, Kalyb let the baby live, doting on him and growing fonder of him by the day. When he was a young man, he wanted to leave her behind and take off on wonderful adventures, so she tried to bribe him with horses and swords in an attempt to persuade him to stay. Instead, when she offered him a magic wand that would give him power over everyone and everything in the world, he used it to open a giant rock and expose the crimes of the enchantress: all of the bodies of the newborn babies she had slaughtered. He then locked her up in the rock and left, taking sword and horse with him.
This young man, who was named George, travelled to northern Africa (sometimes named as Egypt, sometimes Libya) where he learned of a fearsome dragon which devoured a maiden every single day and sent a terrible plague through the land. The last maiden alive in the land, Sabia, was due to be the dragon’s next meal the following day. George mounted Bayard, his horse, and armed with Ascalon, his sword, rode off to the Valley of the Dragon to vanquish the beast.
There he met Sabia, the maiden whose life he was trying to save, and fell in love with her, and she with him. He then rode on to confront the dragon, which was a huge and ferocious beast. George tried his best to pierce the dragon with the spear he carried, but was thrown back under the shade of an orange tree when the dragon attacked him.
Thankfully, the orange tree provided some protection since it seemed to keep the dragon at bay. After praying to God to lend him the courage he needed to face the monster, George then leapt forwards out from under the orange tree and struck the dragon under one of its wings, piercing its heart. The dragon fell down dead.
St George was lauded as a hero throughout the land, with the King of Egypt, Ptolemy, promising his daughter – the maiden named Sabia – to George as his wife. Since Sabia had fallen in love with George, this seemed like a happy ending indeed.
And if we stop the narrative there, with the slaying of the dragon, the St George story does indeed have a happy ending. If we don’t – well, it still does, eventually, but only after George has been sent away to be put to death by the Persian king because an evil Moroccan prince has already laid claim to Sabia and wants his love rival out the way.
This prince then carried Sabia off with him as the latest addition to his harem, and George had to escape and overcome imprisonment, man-eating lions, and various other obstacles to return to Egypt (Libya?) to reclaim his beloved.
St George and the dragon: analysis
Although we tend to think of this story as being set in England – understandable given St George’s status as the patron saint of England – the earliest record of the tale (from Georgia in the eleventh century) has its action taking place in Cappadocia, in Turkey. The setting was then moved to Libya in the 13th-century Golden Legend.
What’s more, it wasn’t even originally St George who slew the dragon. Other saints were initially given the credit for this brave act of dragon-slaying, including St Theodore Tiro (another soldier saint) in the 9th and 10th centuries.
So, St George wasn’t the one who originally slew the dragon, and even when he did, he didn’t do so in England. Myths often take time to form and coalesce into their now-familiar shapes, much as David wasn’t the original slayer of Goliath, even though that act is now attributed to him so fully that we don’t remember the name of the original champion.
Of course, it makes sense that George should carry out his exploits, including his killing of the dragon, in foreign lands, despite being the patron saint of England. Because St George was not English at all. He is believed to have been a Greek soldier serving in the Roman army some time in the third century AD (he died in 303). But since George is thought to have been born in Cappadocia, it’s probable that he was what we’d now call Turkish, given the way national borders have shifted over the centuries.
But the version of the legend most familiar to English readers has St George born in England – he’s the son of the Earl of Coventry, in the Midlands – but such is the young George’s thirst for adventure that he’s soon riding off to other lands in search of adventure. And it wasn’t England he saved from the dragon, but somewhere in northern Africa.
What does the story mean? The dragon can represent any number of things, so it makes sense not to analyse the legend as an allegory (which has a clearly defined meaning, where ‘dragon = X’) but as a story rich in suggestive symbolism which can be interpreted in a variety of ways.
For Christian readers of the St George story, especially in Victorian England when the British Empire was at its height, the dragon might represent a threat to Britain’s dominion over the earth. It might represent anti-Christian forces (in the full version of the ‘St George of Merrie England’ tale, there’s no shortage of ‘Mahomedan’ villains) which George, with his red cross emblazoned on his right hand, fights back against.
The dragon has always been a powerful symbol of such monstrous, barbaric forces, relying on brute force and strength to terrorise and vanquish a populace. But, being a mythical creature, it also represents some alien power which poses a threat to the ‘in-group’. The same is true of another quintessentially English work of literature none of whose characters are in fact English: the epic poem Beowulf, which is about Scandinavians.
Although Grendel is the most famous monster Beowulf fights, he’s actually only the first of three, with the final showdown being between our ageing hero and a dragon, which Beowulf slays in battle only to die of his wounds shortly afterwards.