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The Golden Legend of St. George

The Golden Legend of St. George
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Blame Miguel de Cervantes’ epic poem Don QuixoteJ. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, DreamWorks Animation’s How to Train Your Dragon, myriad fairy tales, and an entire sub-genre of paranormal romance: dragons are here to stay. Mystical, magical, mythic, dragons capture our imagination. The titan of dragon lore throughout Western civilization, however, is St. George, a Roman soldier of Greek heritage who died a martyr for the Christian faith under Emperor Diocletian and was then christened as Great Britain’s patron saint. Like many Christian saints, St. George comes with a fantastic story, such as related in Saints’ Legends by Gordon Hall Gerould (1916).

The perennial fame and allure of St. George, however, rests not upon his faith, but upon his fabled  slaying of the dragon Ascalon. Legends of St. George the Dragon Slayer proliferated during the Middle Ages. Statues, tapestries, and paintings memorializing him are found in England, Georgia, Malta and Gozo, Portugal, Romania, Aragon (Spain), Catalonia (Spain), and Sweden. His recognition extends from the Middle East and Egypt to Asia Minor, where his name inspired fear in Muslims during the Crusades.
But back to the dragon.

The earliest known depictions of St. George battling the dragon come from 10th or 11th century Cappadocia and 11th century Georgia. The 10th century “Golden Legend” that launched centuries’ worth of pageantry and fame began in the town of Silene in Libya. As the story goes, a dragon plagued the town. Townsfolk fed the dragon two sheep every day and, when supplies of sheep had been depleted, they fed their children to the dragon. Townsfolk held lotteries to determine which child the town used for dragon fodder that day. When the king’s daughter’s name was drawn in the lottery, the king did what peasants could not: he offered huge sums of gold and silver to the warrior to kill the dragon and spare his daughter a gruesome fate.

Why he hadn’t thought to make such an offer before the townsfolk were reduced to feeding their children to the dragon is anybody’s guess. In any case, the townsfolk, having lost so much, had no sympathy to spare for the king or his daughter and refused the bribe. Thus, the princess found herself dressed as a bride and abandoned by the lake where the dragon dwelt.
There came our caped crusader, St. George, riding by the lake and unknowing of his destiny. Fearful for the good knight’s life, the princess attempted to shoo him away; however, he declined to leave the fair maiden in her predicament. During their conversation, the dragon attacked. St. George retaliated and wounded it with his lance. He then used the princess’ girdle to leash the mighty beast and lead it into town.

Even on a leash and meekly following its captor, the dragon terrified the townsfolk. Ever the devout Christian, St. George did not let a prime opportunity go to waste. He offered to kill the dragon if the townsfolk converted to Christianity and were baptized. The entire town, including the king of Silene, agreed. St. George held up his end of the bargain. The newly converted Christians hauled the dragon’s carcass from the city. The king built a church to the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. George on the site where the dragon was slaughtered, and a spring flowed from the altar. The water was said to cure all disease.

Children, especially, love books that plunge into the realms of fantasy:

By Karen M. Smith

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