The Sword and the Girdle

Pilgrim's badge of St George, from Fettered Cock Pewters

Pilgrim’s badge of St George, from Fettered Cock Pewters

It is common knowledge, at least in the English speaking world, that George is the patron saint of England. I have long assumed that the English expression “By George!” related to the saint. People also know that George on some occasion vanquished a dragon, but as playwright Greg Giovanni observes, they “don’t know why, when, how.”

Among the most important literary sources for the tale is The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, which was the most often printed book in Europe from 1470 to 1530 (according to The Medieval Sourcebook).  It was also one of the first books printed in English, by William Caxton.

Pages from The Golden Legend, Caxton, from the website of Christie's auction house

Pages from The Golden Legend, Caxton, from the website of Christie’s auction house

The Golden Legend relates the story of a dragon that lived near the town of Silena, at the bottom of a lake, and that emerged regularly to terrorize the residents of the town by prowling around the city walls, “poisoning all who came within reach of his breath.”  To appease the beast, the burgesses of the town began by offering him two sheep per day, but eventually the population of sheep was decimated and the offering modified to consist of one sheep and one young person, drawn by lot.  When George appeared on the scene, the lot had fallen on the king’s daughter.  George promised to save her, but she urged him to flee, so that she alone might die.  And then:

St. George and the Dragon, by Paolo Uccello

St. George and the Dragon, by Paolo Uccello

While they were in speech, the dragon reared his head out of the lake.  All atremble, the maiden cried: ‘Away, sweet lord, away with all speed!’ But George, mounting his horse and arming himself with the sign of the cross, set bravely upon the dragon as he came toward him; and with a prayer to God, he brandished his sword, and dealt the monster a hurt that threw him to the ground.  And the saint said to the damsel: ‘Fear naught, my child, and throw thy girdle about the dragon’s neck!’ Thus she did, and the dragon, setting himself erect, followed her like a little dog on a leash. (from The Golden Legend)

Despite having been pacified, the dragon is slain at the behest of a terrified populace. Poor scaly thing.

St. George Overcoming the Dragon, by G F Watts

St. George Overcoming the Dragon, by G F Watts

Near the end of the sixteenth century, Edmund Spenser rewrote the story of Saint George in his opus The Faerie Queene (which I admit I was able to finish only because I happened to find myself in a hospital bed during one crucial week).  In Spenser, the Redcrosse Knight—later identified with Saint George—accompanies his lady Una to her home, where her parents are hostage to a dragon.  George and the dragon fight for three days, but the saint finally prevails.  This version of the tale is represented in a fresco by George Frederick Watts in the Palace of Westminster in London.

Greg Giovanni, of course, has his own ideas about Saint George.  I asked him how he became acquainted with the story as a child:

Another magician, from a 16th century alchemical manuscript

Greg’s Ilk, from a 16th century alchemical manuscript

The strongest memory I have is seeing the holy card in a St. Jude Shop.  ‘Mammu’ liked to take me there (she was convinced I would turn out a priest) and I liked the pretty vestments.  We would always look at the holy cards for people we knew… I was very attached to Michael the archangel and George.  I think it was the muscly violence … I also grew up with a 60’s version of The Children’s Hour, which had stories of knights in Volume 12.

In fact, one of Greg’s first plays—written when he was eight years old–was about Saint George.

In George, Agnes, and the Dragon, the demon play within A Minor Cycle, Greg pairs Saint George not with a young noblewoman but with the redoubtable Agnes of Rome, who was martyred at the age of twelve or thirteen for refusing to render her virginity.  The 4th century Latin poet Prudentius associates Agnes with a dragon—at least with a metaphorical one—in this excerpt from his “Passion of Agnes”:

Painted sculpture of St. Agnes at Burgos Cathedral

Painted sculpture of St. Agnes at Burgos Cathedral

She sees the raging whirlwind of human life 
And all the vanities of the fickle world:
Despots and kings, imperial power and rank,
The pageantry of honor and foolish pride,
The thirst for gold and silver, which all men seek
And gain by every species of wickedness,
The stately palaces with their gilded walls,
The vain display of richly embroidered robes,
The hatreds, fears, desires and impending woes,
The long enduring griefs and the fleeting joys,
Black envy with its smoking firebrands that blight
The hopes of men and tarnish all human fame,
And last, but worse than every other ill,
The sordid clouds and darkness of pagan rites.

All these things Agnes tramples beneath her feet,
And with her heel she crushes the dragon’s head,
That monster vile who poisons all things of time
And plunges them into the infernal pit.
But vanquished now and under the virgin’s foot
He lies crestfallen, prone in the dust of earth,
His fiery head not daring to lift again. 

George, Agnes, and the Dragon differs from all the other plays in A Minor Cycle in that, while each of the other plays is informed by a different Japanese theatrical style,  GAD is performed in a mixture of Noh, Kyogen, Kabuki, and Bunraku styling, with each actor performing in a different style.  In addition, whereas each of the other plays features one character type typical of Noh, GAD features several: a godlike figure (George), a soldier (Guard), a woman (Agnes), and a demon (Dragon).  As for madness, one might argue that the play itself, with four contrasting performance styles held in precarious tension, is an apt analog.

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