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'The Wedding of St George and Princess Sabra,' 1857 (Print Collector/Getty Images)

Damsels undistressed

Essay | 20 minute read
Novelist Samantha Shannon writes about old stories, new readings and how the legend of Saint George and the Dragon led her to a feminist retelling

New takes on familiar narratives seem to be enjoying a renaissance in recent years – the flood of them shows no sign of abating – but they are part of a tradition as old as storytelling itself. From the small variations in oral lore to the never-ending conveyor belt of film reboots, human beings have longed to both revive and modify the stories of the past.

Retellings have, in fact, been ubiquitous in the literature of the last decade. Beauty and the Beast alone has inspired Heart’s Blood (2009) by Juliet Marillier, Of Beast and Beauty (2013) by Stacey Jay, Cruel Beauty (2014) by Rosamund Hodge, A Court of Thorns and Roses (2015) by Sarah J. Maas, Barefoot on the Wind (2016) by Zoë Marriott, In the Vanishers’ Palace (2018) by Aliette de Bodard, A Curse So Dark and Lonely (2019) by Brigid Kemmerer, and more – the story has been reworked on an almost annual basis for several years.

The Little Mermaid has also sparked its own mini-genre, including The Seafarer’s Kiss (2017) by Julia Ember, To Kill a Kingdom (2018) by Alexandra Christo, The Surface Breaks (2018) by Louise O’Neill and Sea Witch (2018) by Sarah Henning.

Famous Western fairy tales – particularly those that have received the Disney treatment – remain popular sources, but more and more, as publishing diversifies and broadens its horizons, authors have branched out into lesser-known folk tales from Europe, and into myths and legends from the rest of the world. Beowulf gets an all-female reboot in The Boneless Mercies (2018) by April Genevieve Tucholke; Scheherazade weaves her stories again in The Wrath and the Dawn (2015) by Renée Ahdieh; and the ancient Indian epic, the Mahābhārata, is played out as a space opera in A Spark of White Fire (2018) by Sangu Mandanna. There are numerous retellings of authored historical works that have passed into the public domain, and others that revise history itself. Blood and Sand (2018) by C. V. Wyk imagines the Thracian warrior Spartacus as a young woman; And I Darken (2016) by Kiersten White gives Vlad the Impaler the same treatment.

Mahabharata (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

We thrive on the timeless and familiar tales that speak across decades, centuries and millennia. At the same time, we like to have our expectations thwarted, and to see these stories defamiliarised. The joy of tropes lies not just in recognition, after all, but in subversion – and destruction. Within a single retelling, an author usually remains faithful to the original and breaks away from it. The number and nature of the changes depend on the author, and give clues as to their motive in re-approaching a story.

Sometimes that motive is to create a homage, sometimes to entertain or inform a new generation. Often, however, it is a need to respond to the source material – to wrestle with it, to correct it, to flesh out its gaps, and to otherwise interrogate it. Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys is perhaps the most famous example of this category of retelling, directly intervening in and re-framing Jane Eyre in a postcolonial and intersectional feminist context. ‘When I read Jane Eyre as a child, I thought, why should [Charlotte Brontë] think Creole women are lunatics and all that?’ Rhys recalled. ‘What a shame to make Rochester’s first wife, Bertha, the awful mad woman, and I immediately thought I’d write the story as it might really have been. She seemed such a poor ghost. I thought I’d try to write her a life.’ More recently, The Silence of the Girls (2018) by Pat Barker gives us the female perspective that Homer failed to provide in the Iliad. ‘[Briseis] has no opinion, she has no power, she has no voice,’ Barker points out. ‘It was the urge to fill that vacuum that made me go back and start retelling the myth yet again.’

Feminist retellings have been on the rise, and for good reason. We are recovering and reclaiming the women of history and literature, giving them the voices they have long been denied. We are breaking their silences, gifting them control of their own fates, and leading them into narratives that were once closed to them. For me, the desire to write such a retelling first stemmed from frustration, then anger, with a legend and a figure that have loomed over my country for almost a thousand years.

In April 2015, I started a novel, The Priory of the Orange Tree. One of my aims in writing it was to contest and rework the story of Saint George and the Dragon – a story I first encountered at my Anglican primary school. The ultimate illustration of the ‘damsel in distress’ trope; most people will know it only for its three key ingredients, which have endured for centuries. There is a brave knight, a princess in need of rescue, and a dragon bent on destroying them both. In a selfless act of courage and gallantry, the knight slays the dragon, either with a lance or a sword. It’s the story told by the 1931 hymn, When a Knight Won His Spurs, which I often sang at school. This is the morality tale we tell again and again, easy for both children and adults to understand and absorb. The knight is the good guy, the dragon is the bad guy, and the princess … well, she’s the not-guy, the trophy in the middle. Tale as old as time.

‘St. George was typical of what a Scout should be,’ wrote Robert Baden-Powell in Scouting for Boys (1908). ‘When he was faced by a difficulty or danger, however great it appeared, even in the shape of a dragon – he did not avoid it or fear it but went at it with all the power he could […] That is exactly the way a Scout should face a difficulty or danger no matter how great or how terrifying it may appear.’

Baden-Powell sums up what many people like about Saint George, and why his legend endures. At its heart, after all, his story seems to be about overcoming adversity. About good and evil. Surely there is no more ancient or relatable tale. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and you will find that its roots are infested with rot.

The story had never sat right with me. As a child, I remember stubbornly remaining silent as other pupils sang the lyric ‘and the dragons are dead’ in When A Knight Won His Spurs, such was my love of all things draconic. I resented the knight for destroying what was magical and thrilling. As I grew older and discovered feminism, the seed of rebellion against Saint George began to blossom. Now it was the passivity of the princess that troubled me. I knew I wanted to give this story a much-needed feminist update – to give the damsel a voice and a story – but to best decide how to approach my retelling, I first had to go back to its beginnings.

There are many variants of the legend of Saint George. The historical figure, if he existed, is thought to have been a Christian soldier from Cappadocia – a part of what is now modern-day Turkey – who was executed by the Roman emperor Diocletian in 303 AD. Various sources tell us of his acts, his suffering at the hands of his persecutors, and his martyrdom. In 1098, Frankish crusaders at the Siege of Antioch claimed Saint George had appeared to them in white armour, leading a heavenly host. In 1348, Edward III made George a patron of the Order of the Garter alongside Edward the Confessor. He displaced Edmund the Martyr and today remains the patron saint of several countries, including England.

The confrontation with the dragon is thought to have been an eleventh-century addition to the narrative that originated in Georgia. In Christian symbolism, the dragon – like the serpent – is associated with Satanic evil; we see this in the seven-headed dragon of the Book of Revelation. One can see how a military saint ended up with such an enemy. The famous deed was introduced to Europe in The Golden Legend; or, the Lives of the Saints (1265) by Jacobus da Voragine.

The Golden Legend tells us that in Libya, in the city of Silene, a dragon is poisoning the water and the air. The people send it sheep to appease it, and when their supply of sheep is exhausted, they start to sacrifice their children by lottery. Eventually, the king’s daughter is chosen. Her father dresses her as a bride before he sends her to her doom. Saint George, who is passing on his way back to Cappadocia, grievously wounds the dragon and tells the princess to tie her belt around its neck, which tames it. (This event can be seen in a 1470 oil painting by Paolo Uccello, which has the dragon already on a leash by the time George strikes it with a lance). So far, so relatively familiar – until George has the princess lead the dragon back to Silene and declares to its people, ‘Doubt not. Believe in God and Jesus Christ, and be baptised, and I shall slay the dragon.’

Saint George has a reputation as a courageous gallant. Here, his gallantry comes with conditions. Only after the people agree to accept Christianity does George behead the dragon. In their pain lies opportunity.

The impression of Saint George as a heroic figure was forged, in part, by The Golden Legend. Of course, nowadays we neglect to mention that in this famous origin story, our patron saint expected a city of frightened and traumatised people to convert to his religion before he had the decency to rid them of a child-eating monster. We also neglect to mention the active role of the princess. In the earliest surviving version of the legend, which is set in the fictional city of Lasia, the king is identified as Selbios, while his daughter is referred to only as kórē (‘girl, maiden’). Da Voragine chooses not to give her or her father a name in his retelling. However, in both versions, what took me by surprise was that the maiden speaks – in fact, she advises George to leave her and save his own skin – and that she has the mettle to lead the wounded dragon back to the city. George invites her to participate in its downfall. He also, notably, does not claim her as his bride, even though her father has dressed her up like one.

The princess seems to have received the name Cleodolinda, later Cleolinda, at some point in the fourteenth century. While the reasons this name was chosen are unclear, it suited the new story I wanted to write for my update on the character – Cleo presumably derives from the Greek kleos (‘glory, enduring renown’), while Linda could refer to the Germanic lind (‘soft, mild, gentle’). It speaks of two natures. I decided to adapt this as a character name, Cleolind, for the courageous princess who refuses to marry my George-figure, Sir Galian Berethnet, in The Priory of the Orange Tree – even though most of the world believes she was his bride, and a meek damsel.

‘St. George and the Dragon’, c15th century (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

The princess in the legend of Saint George sometimes appears under another name – Sabra. Chasing the origin of this name led me to a second distinct tradition of George and the Dragon stories, shaped by the chivalric romances of the Middle Ages, which distanced it somewhat from the Greek original.

Saint George’s roots in modern-day Turkey often seem to be forgotten or ignored by his supporters, who vehemently defend his red cross and appear to view him as a divine defender of Europe and Christianity in much the same way the Frankish crusaders did in 1098. While this wilful blindness is clearly due to racism and xenophobia in the majority of cases, one local myth specifically links the saint to Caludon Castle in Coventry. This myth can be traced back to a dense, prolix, and deeply problematic text from 1596, The Most Famous History of the Seven Champions of Christendom – also known as The Renowned History of the Seven Champions of Christendom – by Richard Johnson. Although Johnson was prolific, little is known of his life. Obscure today, but a hit among Elizabethan readers, The Renowned History does away with the idea of George as a soldier in the Roman army and rewrites him as an Englishman.

Born in Coventry to noble parents, bearing symbolic birthmarks, the Renowned History incarnation of Saint George is abducted not long after his birth by a ‘fell enchantress’ named Kalyb – also known as ‘the wise lady of the woods’ and, in a later retelling, ‘the weïrd lady of the woods’ – who raises him. After fourteen years, Kalyb, who has by now fallen in love with her young ward, gifts him a trusty steed, fine armour, and a Cyclops-made sword, Ascalon. She also reveals to him that she’s been hoarding a collection of dead children in her cave and has imprisoned six men – the patron saints of France, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Scotland and Wales. Repulsed, George tricks Kalyb into surrendering her silver wand, traps her in the cave, and liberates the captive knights. The Seven Champions of Christendom then head into the world to forge their legacies. Kalyb, meanwhile, is left to be torn apart by evil spirits.

Kalyb – variously reincarnated under the names Kalyba, Calyb(a) or Calyt – is a ghostly footnote in the Saint George mythos. A powerful witch and oracle who gives George the tools he needs to survive the dragon, she becomes infatuated with him to the point that her happiness is dependent on his returning her love (‘she placed her whole felicity in him, and lusted after his beauty’). Her name is reminiscent of the Ancient Greek kalúbē (‘hut, wedding bower’), suggesting a domestic chokehold. George despises her from the start, apparently able to sense her wickedness despite the gifts she lavishes on him. This female magician who predates Prospero could have made for a deeply compelling villain, but instead, Johnson stuffs her into the proverbial refrigerator soon as her sole narrative purpose is fulfilled.

Separating from his new companions, George rides to Egypt, where a king named Ptolemy, like Selbios before him, is plagued by a flesh-eating dragon. This one is appeased only by the bodies of virgins – and the last virgin in Egypt happens to be Ptolemy’s own daughter, Sabra. Whomsoever slays the beast will have her hand in marriage. During the ensuing battle, George takes shelter under an orange tree, which is of such ‘rare virtue’ that it heals, protects and refreshes him. After he slays the beast, the lovesick Sabra tells George that she will ‘leave her parents, country, and inheritance, though that inheritance be the Crown of Egypt, and would follow thee as a pilgrim through the wide world’. George decides to test her patience. ‘Lady of Egypt,’ he baffles, ‘art thou not content that I have risked my own life to preserve yours, but you would also sacrifice my honour, give over the chase of dazzling glory; lay all my warlike trophies in a woman’s lap, and change my truncheon for a distaff.’

He suggests that she should accept the suit of the Moroccan king Almidor. When she chafes at the idea, George states that he could never marry a pagan (‘I honour God in heaven; you, shadows earthly of a vile imposter here below’). Sabra immediately agrees to ‘forsake [her] country’s gods and become a Christian’ if only they can wed. She is willing to throw away her entire life – everything that defines her, from her royal inheritance to her faith – to become his bride.

When it isn’t slipping into the realm of the ridiculous, The Renowned History paints an ugly and disturbing portrait of Saint George. He is not someone you would ever wish to meet. Throughout the nightmare he calls the ‘adventures’ of the saint, Johnson mimics the racial and religious Othering of medieval romances, often linking both Christianity and whiteness to integrity. (His knowledge of non-Christian religions, and the world in general, can only be described as deplorable. More than once he mentions Termagant, a violent deity erroneously ascribed to Islam by Christians in the Middle Ages). Whatever actions George takes, no matter how repugnant, Johnson continues to present him as a worthy national hero. Incredibly, he describes George as an ‘innocent lamb’ almost immediately before he commits a horrifying massacre of Persian knights.

Here ends another telling of the age-old confrontation between man and wyrm, with George languishing in prison for this crime. He is eventually reunited with Sabra, who bears him three sons. After many trials, including an attempted rape by the Earl of Coventry that almost sees her burned at the stake (George rescues her, naturally), Sabra dies by falling off her horse during a hunt, right into a bramble bush. Its thorns – ‘more sharp than spikes of iron’ – soon finish her off. Once again, a woman is fridged. Note that Johnson breaks away from The Golden Legend by turning the foreign princess into a trophy, a reward after the dragon fight – she might have a name, but unlike the princess in The Golden Legend, Sabra does not participate in quelling the dragon, or speak before or during the fight.

After Sabra dies, George becomes obsessed with a nun, Lucina. When she declines to yield her virginity to him, George musters his six companions and marches on the monastery, promising to kill everyone within if Lucina does not relent: ‘Except she would yield to St. George her unconquered love, they would bathe their weapons in her dearest blood.’ Johnson takes pains to remind us that George ‘intended not to prosecute such cruelty’ – but Lucina is so aggrieved by the threats that she takes her own life in protest. In her introduction to a scholarly edition of The Renowned History, published in 2003, Dr Jennifer Fellows points out, ‘Johnson seems to take a salacious delight in tales of rape and violence against women.’ The attempted rape of Sabra is graphic, reminding a reader horribly of the rape of Lavinia in Titus Andronicus: ‘I will ravish thee by force and violence, and triumph in the conquest of thy chastity; which being done, I will cut thy tongue out of thy mouth […] I will chop off both thy hands.’ It was erased from later retellings.

Johnson appears to have borrowed many elements of his story from earlier classical and medieval sources, including Sir Bevis of Hampton and possibly The Faerie Queene (1590) by Edmund Spenser, his contemporary. Both of these texts involve a knight, a battle with a dragon, a beautiful damsel, and a natural resource that provides succour. Yet The Renowned History was novel and popular enough to have endured in the English popular imagination for centuries. It inspired ballads, morality plays, chapbooks and abridged retellings by numerous authors. Churchill’s personal aircraft was christened LV633 Ascalon – a name that has since been used for swords in the Final Fantasy franchise and the American animation series Ben 10.

The young Queen Victoria watched a Christmas performance based on The Renowned History, which so captured her imagination that she painted some of her favourite scenes in watercolour. Dante Gabriel Rossetti depicted Saint George and Princess Sabra twice, using the name Johnson bestowed on the damsel. The Renowned History is even thought to be the story that helped Dr Samuel Johnson learn to read – certainly he owned a copy of it. Its influence can be seen as late as 2011, when artists Christian de Vietri and Marcus Canning created a sculpture of a lance for Cathedral Square in Perth and named it Ascalon. All of this can be traced back to the Johnsonian tradition of Saint George – but for more than four hundred years, it appears to have gone unchallenged.

In 2009, the editor of This England – a quarterly magazine aimed at people who are ‘unashamedly proud to be English’ – was troubled by the idea that many young people knew very little about their patron saint, or were embarrassed by him. ‘St George stands for everything that makes this country great – freedom of expression, helping those less fortunate, tolerance of other people’s beliefs, kindness and standing up for what you believe to be right,’ he said. He is certainly not the only person to hold this belief.

I have personally found little material evidence that Saint George merits any special association with kindness, tolerance or freedom of expression. Not now, not in The Renowned History or The Golden Legend, and not in our very earliest account of the battle, where George expects a mass conversion before he will help the people of Lasia. It is intolerance of other beliefs that has played a key role in his story. A ballad in Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) begins by announcing that George has been fighting ‘against the Sarazens so rude’ – a constant of the legend is his persistent dislike of non-Christians. This is not a peculiar addition by one or two authors.

‘Come on,’ I hear you say. ‘You’re getting worked up over nothing. No one knows any of this stuff. Is this not just a fairy tale for kids about a man killing a dragon?’

I hope I have demonstrated that the answer is a resounding no.

You might want to argue that the legend of Saint George has transformed into a simpler one over the centuries, and that his problematic incarnations in history are now so little-known as to be almost meaningless. You might want to argue that nowadays, we honour the idea of the saint, and that nothing else is relevant – but I believe you would be wrong. The idea is not the whole story, and the whole story matters. Saint George, after all, is most famous for a fight with a mythical beast. It is the fiction of him, not what little fact we have, that has driven his popularity and established him as a cultural icon. It is the fiction, therefore, that must be challenged, and worked through, if there is to be any serious reconsideration of his legacy. Dragons – regrettably – exist only in the realm of imagination, and it is in the realm of imagination that the idea of Saint George has grown. We must ask ourselves if we have been imagining him in the right way, and how he might look if we imagine him differently.

He has never been a more significant or dangerous figure than he is now, as right-wing nationalism rises once more across Europe and America and Brexit emboldens those whose patriotism does not embrace the diverse reality of modern Britain. There should be no misunderstanding: anyone who invokes Saint George in the name of intolerance is building on a long-established tradition. Now is the time to expose and confront that tradition.

Neil Gaiman once said, ‘We have the right, and the obligation, to tell old stories in our own ways, because they are our stories.’ There are those in England who continue to believe the story of Saint George is integral to our collective national story. In writing The Priory of the Orange Tree, I was driven by that sense of obligation – a desire to answer the story that created the ripples I first encountered in a song as a little girl. A desire to re-assemble and expand on it in a way that made sense to me as a woman and a human being. I wanted to resurrect and shine a light on its lost women, whose names have all but disappeared. I wanted to make them a gift of the orange tree. I wanted to hit back at the George I met in the stories of old, and to wonder what the people of Lasia would have said about him, if only anyone had written his intervention from their perspective. And I wanted someone else to have a chance to slay the dragon.

The tales of the past have already been told. That does not mean they are set in stone. Storytellers now have a chance to decide what we love about old stories, and what we would prefer to change. We have a chance to say, at last, ‘This was wrong, and here is why.’ The transformative act of retelling allows us to shout back at the past. I mean to keep doing that.

Samantha Shannon’s novel, The Priory of the Orange Tree, is published by Bloomsbury. Buy here.

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