According to Christian legend, Saint George was an officer in the Roman army who was tortured to death for his Christian faith in 303 AD. St. George has been venerated as a martyr since the 4th century especially by the Eastern Churches, but around the time of the Crusades he became even better known as the hero of a legend that depicted him as a dragonslayer. It is chiefly in his dragonslayer role that St. George was introduced to Western Europe and became the supreme patron saint of knights and soldiers, eventually making him one of the most popular saints ever. He is also the Patron Saint of England. The Cross of St. George (the famous "Crusader Cross" of a red cross on a white field) is today used as the flag of England, and is represented on the Union Jack along with the Crosses of St. Patrick and St. Andrew.
The history behind the legend is murky. While it is plausible enough that a Christian called George was executed in 303, all other details depend on the source: The widely accepted versions of the legend place George's martyrdom either in Lydda, Palestinenote , or Nicomedia in Bithynianote , and identify Emperor Diocletian as the responsible pagan ruler; but the earliest accounts actually place it in Persia, not the Roman Empire. To some, St. George is also known as 'St. George of Cappadocia' because he was supposedly a native of that region, but other traditions have him born and raised in Palestine. Historians have thus questioned whether he existed because of this, though most view it as plausible (even if the details are sketchy, as seen above).
St. George and the Dragon
The popular legend of Saint George's fight with the dragon is only as old as the 11th century, the oldest known written version coming from Georgia (Europe). The tale exists in a multitude of variants, but a synoptic plot goes like this:
A city is harassed by a dragon that lives in a nearby lake. At first, the townsfolk appease the monster by giving it their cattle but when their lifestock runs out, they end up feeding their own children to the beast. The offerings are determined by lot.
One day, the lot of the only daughter of the king of the place comes up. The princess is sent out to the dragon and waiting for her doom when a lone knight, Saint George, happens to ride by. Told about the situation, he promises to save the princess in the name of Jesus.
One exciting fight later, George ties up the dragon and drags it into the city. The townsfolk are terrified, but Saint George assures them the power of Christ has defeated the monster, and promises to finish it off if they will become Christians. The king and the citizens consent, and George sends the monster to dragon heaven.
Everybody celebrates and the king wants to reward Saint George. But George declines all worldly rewards and instead makes the king give the money to charity. After making the townspeople promise to be good Christians, George rides away, possibly into the sunset.
The localization of the legend varies: In the Georgian version the town saved by George is called 'Lasia', but in the Golden Legend it is 'Silene in Libya' (the identity of these places in uncertain). In the Middle East, the spot where George killed the dragon is traditionally identified as Saint George Bay near Beirut. The legend is also recognized among Muslims of the same region, some of whom postulate the dragonslayer was really the immortal Al-Khidr.
The legend of St. George, as told in The Golden Legend (13th century), can be read here.
- Angel Unaware: In some variants George kills the dragon after his martyrdom, having been sent back from Heaven for this purpose. In a Muslim interpretation, the knight who called himself George was actually Al-Khidr, an angelic immortal who travels the world in disguise and aids good people in need.
- But Now I Must Go: George refuses all offers of rewards and rides away right after the whole town has been baptized.
- Damsel in Distress: Downplayed — the princess is delivered to the dragon and saved by St. George, but she is not physically constrained, does not ask for help, and there is no romance between the princess and George, nor does the king offer her up in marriage.
- Dragons are Demonic: The dragon defeated by St. George, which was terrorizing towns eating people and livestock. George claims to have defeated the creature through the power of Christ, which implies the dragon is literally of demonic origin.
- Dragons Prefer Princesses: While the dragon is trying to eat the princess, it has no preference for royalty and eats humans or cattle indiscriminately. That the princess is chosen just the day George visits the town is sheer coincidence.
- Dragons Versus Knights: Saint George is one of the most archetypal examples of this. In the original myth, George of Lydda is a wandering Cappadocian soldier, but in medieval and later retellings and depictions of the story he's invariably depicted as a high medieval armored knight, typically slaying the dragon from horseback.
- Fed to the Beast: The victims determined by lot are sent out to the dragon's lake to be eaten by the creature.
- Knight Errant: There is no explanation on what business brought St. George to the town, making St. George the Trope Maker of a travelling knight that helps out people he meets by accident along the road.
- Knight in Shining Armor: St. George the Dragonslayer embodies the ideal knight, as he is both an undaunted warrior and a saint who dedicates his martial prowess to helping the helpless and the promotion of Christianity.
- Land of One City: The boss of the beset town goes by the title of king, yet he rules only this one city.
- Lottery of Doom: The inhabitants of the beset town cast lots to determine whose children are going to be fed to the dragon.
- Never Smile at a Crocodile: Some versions of the legend have a crocodile in place of the dragon, and the part about living in a lake certainly fits that.
- Our Dragons Are Different: St. George's dragon is an amphibious creature that lives in a lake and exudes a poisonous breath, with a healthy appetite for livestock and humans. It is often depicted as quite small, to the point that in many paintings (including the one at the top of this page) George does little more than finish it off after his horse tramples it.