Friday, March 10, 2006

Some Thoughts on Dragons, Beowulf, and St. George

There's something very appropriate about the fact that the birthplace of fantasy literature, the homeland of JRR Tolkien and the author of Beowulf, has as its patron saint a dragon-slayer, according to legend.

This icon is one of my favorite Christmas gifts from this past season (together with the digital camera I took it with, and the Introduction to Sanskrit from gaetanus). It got me to thinking about what the St. George of the legend had in common with England's other non-native, adopted dragon-slayer, Beowulf.

There seems to be a certain veneration of the heroic ideal that the St. George legend has in common with pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon culture (or more specifically, with how the newly converted Anglo-Saxons viewed their recent pagan ancestors).

Obviously the dragon in the icon is Satan. I love the blood dripping almost into a vapor from the dragon's mouth: rather realistic for an icon. Also, his tail is wrapped around the heel of St. George's horse like the prophecy of about the devil in Genesis: "He will strike at your head, you will strike at his heel" (Gen. 3:15), "He" being taken to refer to Christ, the offspring of the Woman in the prophecy. In perhaps a mockery of the Woman and her Offspring, Grendel and his mother must be defeated by Beowulf before his own dragonfight. And while Beowulf defeats his dragon, he dies in the process. It's almost like Beowulf had the power to go to the very limits of what a pre-Christian warrior could do (Grendel's kin is traced to Cain, making Beowulf a kind of Old Testament warrior) but no more, while St. George had the power to fight the Dragon himself and live.

Killing dragons / defeating evil seems to be the kind of thing one does in public, if we are to judge by the tower crammed with royalty and soldiers like a phonebooth full of college students. And this public doesn't at first glance seem anymore helpful than Beowulf's cowardly comrades.

Yet Beowulf did at least have Wiglaf, and St. George has someone with him, too. The women (I think both are women) accompanying both St. George and the dragon brought to my mind the personified Wisdom and Folly from the Book of Proverbs, and obviously in the Christian tradition, St. George is victorious over evil only because Christ is with him. Beowulf represents a somewhat more lonely Germanic heroism, all the more impressive since it is so solitary.

So anyway, I haven't figured out all the symbolism of the icon yet (that's part of the fun of icons). To wit: What's with the urns carried by the women accompanying George and the dragon? And why is the one holding the dragon's leash walking back the other way? St. George and horse are facing uphill ... working their way to heaven? Is that what the tower of people represents? I wonder if the markings on the tower mean anything.

Finally (well, not finally really, but I have to end this post some time) I wonder if there's a reason the dragon is twisted in its wrath like an evil wreath. Another happy coincidence between the traditions of St. George and the English language.

1 comment:

Arianna Deligianni said...

The "little man" probably symbolizes a posthumous miracle reputedly performed by St. George:

During their invasion of Paphlagonia the Agarenes (Moslems) took many people into captivity, among them a young boy who was a servant in the church of St. George in Phatris. Some of the prisoners were killed, the rest turned into slaves. The boy was of such beauty that he was chosen as a servant for the Arabian ruler. As he rejected the offer to become a Muslim, he was sent to work in the kitchen. In his misfortune the poor boy prayed to Saint George. Once at evening, when he was lying in bed, he heard a voice coming from the yard and calling his name. The boy opened the door and saw a rider who caught him and placed behind himself on the horse. Then the steed rushed forward and started to gallop. The rider brought the boy to a certain building, and then disappeared. The exhausted youth fell asleep and next morning was awakened by the people, who were dismayed because his Arabian clothes suggested the presence of enemies. The boy recognized those people as monks. As it transpired, he had been brought to Monastery of St. George. All of them went to a church to offer a thanksgiving prayer to God for saving the youth.