The many faces of St. George

Today is Saint George’s day, and I am celebrating – although my celebrations are a bit confused, because I have come across St George in a lot of different places. He is one of those saints who has passed into fairy tales, and been adopted by lots of countries around the world. He is a slightly different person everywhere you go.

In England, he is a dragon-killer, but the holiday is more about red and white flags.

In Georgia, he is a holy saint and a folk hero for that intriguing strip of land between Europe and Asia. The most interesting part of all St Giorgi’s icons is his extremely colourful dragon; Giorgi himself is a vague sort of princely character.

A fifteenth century Georgian icon, depicting St George as a man with curly black hair riding a white horse. He is spearing a patchwork-coloured dragon.
Image from Icon Reader.

In Catalonia, he is Sant Jordi, surrounded by roses and books – because his saint’s day rather conveniently falls next to Cervantes’ death day, or Shakespeare’s (depending on the legend you prefer), and Catalans love literature. So he’s a very well-read hero who always brings flowers for the damsel in distress.

In my little book of patron saints for children, he is described as a Roman soldier posted to Cappadocia – and instead of killing a dragon, he sensibly gets rid of the local crocodile:

Photograph of a double page spread in a book. The left-hand page depicts a Roman soldier on a white horse, attacking a crocodile with a sword. The right-hand page reads "The story of St George".

I have to say that I like the Catalan version best. St Jordi was my favourite festival when I lived in Catalonia: everyone spends the day out on the streets, buying books and roses for one another. Everywhere that St George turns up, he seems to turn into a national saint, but the Catalan Sant Jordi is already a bit busy with his library. You can ignore the nationalist narrative if you choose.

I don’t like it when people start arguing about George’s real nationality – was he English? Turkish? Spanish? Roman? As best we can tell, the answer is that he lived in an area called Cappadocia, before nations and nationalism were even thought of. It seems silly for anyone to lay an exclusive claim to the saint.

Whether you prefer the religious allegory, the fairy tale or the bare history, the truth is that we know almost nothing about the original George. And the details of his life are not important: the important thing is what he does. He kills the dragon.

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

G.K. Chesterton

It feels rather cheap to draw the comparison with COVID-19. At the moment, it seems like everything in the world is being pressed into service as a metaphor for the disease or the quarantine. But I think that St George does indeed apply to this situation.

The point of George’s story – at least for me – is that he goes after the dragon when everyone else has given up. They are happy for the dragon to eat whoever it wants, so long as they can get back to normal and carry on with their lives. That wasn’t good enough for George, and it shouldn’t be good enough for the rest of us.

The best that most of us can do in terms of dragon-killing at the moment is to wash our hands, stay home and read books. It’s deceptively simple, but it might just work.

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