Ben’s Picture Book Pick: St George and the Dragon

hodges-st-george-dragon

Saint George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges is really beloved by all of us, but Ben’s been asking for it quite a bit of late and that is a bit surprising since he’s had nightmares about dragons in the past. As I read it to him at bedtime last night it occurred to me that his desire to have it read to him was a perfect illustration of Chesterton’s adage:

Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.
from Tremendous Trifles (1909), XVII: “The Red Angel”

And I started to think how much I really love Margaret Hodges’s version of the St George story. It is delightful to read, the rhythm, the poetry of her prose, which I assume owes much of its magic to her source material, Spencer’s The Faerie Queen, which I confess I haven’t read. I especially love reading the battle scenes, they are so glorious, the words just sing, they feel good in my mouth, if you will.

And I love how it teaches not just that dragons can be defeated, but also the necessity of perseverance. George fights the dragon on three consecutive days. At the end of the first and second days he is defeated and falls down as if dead. Una falls to her knees and prays for him and a miraculous cure restores him. I love that though the dragon has almost killed him, George does not hesitate to immediately leap right back into the battle. I also love that he gives to the poor all the money the king gives him in gratitude for slaying the dragon and even admonishes the king never to forget the poor. I love that George further delays claiming his prize of the kingdom because he still owes service to the fairy queen. This book is rich in virtue as it is in language.

Finally, I really love the extended metaphor throughout the book of the sailor setting out, coming into harbor, and then setting forth again. This is not a book that talks down to children at all, rather it assumes that the poetry itself will speak to them, even if they don’t understand all the words. And it’s true. Ben and Anthony love it.

And then there are the absolutely gorgeous illustrations by Trina Schartt Hyman, who is hands down one of my favorite illustrators. They are so rich in detail, and really just perfect. This is one of the most terrifying dragons I’ve seen. So often I’m disappointed in artists attempts to portray dragons, but this one is lovely. And can I tell you how much I adore the beautiful illuminated borders. Yeah, I think this would be on my personal top ten most beautiful picture books list.

11 Responses to Ben’s Picture Book Pick: St George and the Dragon

  1. Enbrethiliel October 28, 2013 at 10:54 am #

    +JMJ+

    Melanie, our blogs must be circling the earth on the same orbit these days! I just finished rereading A Little Princess recently, and found myself comparing it to Hansel and Gretel–and in my post about it, a commenter mentioned St. George and the dragon!

    Something I’ve been chewing over recently is the idea of proper “fear management,” which I think is a skill that all children need to learn. I think that Hansel and Gretel is a great example of child-friendly Horror, while A Little Princess uses as plot points all the things a child might reasonably fear, without actually being a Horror novel itself.

    • Melanie Bettinelli October 28, 2013 at 4:12 pm #

      I have to go find your post about A Little Princess. I’m very curious about the Hansel and Gretel comparison, since we’ve been thinking about Hansel and Gretel recently.

      The fairy tale we were comparing it to today, though, was Cinderella. A natural comparison, but Bella brought it up. She was eating her lunch when she pondered out loud, “Cinderella is much worse.”

      “Worse that what?” I asked.

      She paused for a while–chewing maybe?– Then she explained that for Cinderella it was worse because she was in her own home where Sara was at school.

      I’m thinking we might have to read some Arabian Nights next since the secretary tells Ram Dass that it will be something like out of the Arabian Nights. I’m pretty sure Bella had no reference for that. It must be remedied.

      Fear management. That is a very good idea to ponder indeed. We can offer them stories that model it and offer some advice, but it really is an internal battle. I like categorizing Hansel and Gretel as child-friendly Horror. That’s it exactly.

      • Enbrethiliel October 28, 2013 at 5:31 pm #

        +JMJ+

        I’m sure that Bella noticed all the other elements that Sara’s story has in common with Cinderella’s! =) I love the way she makes all those connections in her mind.

  2. Jennifer G. Miller October 28, 2013 at 4:43 pm #

    I agree that this book is just beautiful! But I have found over time I don’t take it off the shelf because the “Saint” part is confusing. This is the story from the Fairie Queen, not the saint’s story. So I don’t choose to read it for St. George, but just a knight story, if that makes sense.

    • Melanie Bettinelli October 28, 2013 at 4:47 pm #

      Yes, the Saint part is confusing. But yes it’s the perfect knight story for us. Fortunately the Saints Lives and Illuminations has a beautiful page-long bio of St George that works well for filling the gap. I’d love to find another stand-alone for him, though.

  3. Bearing October 28, 2013 at 7:48 pm #

    I don’t always notice children’s book illustrators, but I always notice Trina
    Schart Hyman. You are right, she is one of the best. Love her work.

  4. Jenny October 30, 2013 at 4:24 pm #

    My husband needed a little extra something to make an Amazon shipment free, so I decided to throw in this book for my three-year old son for Christmas. He loves knights and dragons.

  5. Mimi April 17, 2014 at 8:03 pm #

    St George and the Dragon, retold by Margaret Hodges and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman is, hands down, our FAMILY’S favorite picture book. The words of the story feel more like music than prose, and the flow and texture of the story is perfectly paired with the rich and passionate illustrations!

    I am somewhat puzzled by Jennifer G Miller’s comment. Personally, I don’t think that this is the story of the Faerie Queen, or St. George. It is the age-old story, passed down generation after generation, of GOOD vs EVIL. Furthermore, in this retelling of the legend, unlike the Disney version, EVIL is soundly defeated, NOT befriended!

    I am assuming that Jennifer is “confused”, or conflicted, by the words / symbols used, ie: Faerie, Witch, DRAGON? ALL are SYMBOLIC = EVIL. The word “dragon” IS FYI used in the Bible, and there has been plenty of debate about whether or not the words were even translated correctly. Some claim that the words for “wild animal” sounded like the word for “dragon”. The point is this, I might refer to a mass murderer as a “Monster”, but I don’t really imagine that he is some hideous, superhuman, Troll-like entity that crawled out from under a bridge. But then again, we might use “living under the bridge” symbolically, to describe a childhood darkened with abuse and neglect. Human languages are RICH with descriptive words and phrases that are oft times misinterpreted, or have a cultural connection that we cannot understand.

    “The PATH that they had to follow was STRAIGHT and NARROW, but NOT EASY TO SEE. Sometimes the Red Cross Knight rode too far ahead of Una and LOST HIS WAY. Then she had to FIND HIM and bring him BACK to the PATH.” She was riding a WHITE DONKEY (the bearer of Christ, the LIGHT of the World) and she was leading a WHITE LAMB…. we all know what the “LAMB” symbolizes, right? Her name IS UNA – which means ONE!
    I have to say that I find it incredulous that a Christian would hide away a beautiful picture book because the moral lessons contained within it, are delivered via “symbolism”, instead of a “what, when, where” Sesame Street approach. Remember, Jesus used parables in the same way, to convey, the importance of staying faithful to the LIGHT and defending the TRUTH against the DARKNESS, at any cost, in spite of personal suffering…. even death.

    St George is historically placed 1700 years ago. Literacy was NOT! Books and Bibles didn’t exist. There was only the oral tradition of passing stories on from one generation to the next. Each time the story was told and retold it changed. Sometimes embellishments, were gathered and added, sometimes certain details were forgotten and characters changed…. but the LESSONS remained! Jesus told HIS STORIES…revealed HIS TRUTH, in this same way!

    The catholic stories about Saint George are found in the “Golden Legend”, (saint stories), and in the “Seven Champions of Christendom”. In the “Golden Legend”, St George captures and agrees to kill a menacing “dragon”, if the townspeople will, in turn adopt Christianity.
    In the “Seven Champions of Christendom” St George seals his captor, the wicked “witch”|”Faerie Queen” in a cave (subdues evil), then releases 6 other saints held captive there, (reveals the LIGHT |GOODNESS), then he’s off to Egypt, and THIS is where OUR STORY BEGINS… when he rescues the princess from sacrifice to the “dragon”. Just how does this book betray the Catholic story of SAINT George, other than beginning mid-life?

    The St George of Catholic Legend was Good and kind, tolerant, understanding, ever hopeful that the morally weak would see the error of their ways and make the RIGHT choices to return to the path of virtue. He remained faithful to his beliefs and was beheaded because he would not renounce Christianity.

    “So they journeyed on. With Una by his side, fair and faithful, no monster or giant could stand, before the knight’s BRIGHT SWORD”.
    Do I need to point out that BRIGHT SWORD is a common Sacred Symbol, that it represents Wisdom, Illumination, Divine Truth and Honor? BRIGHT SWORD = the TRUTH= the WORD! What illuminates more brightly than THE TRUTH? What is the substance of wisdom… THE TRUTH? What exposes falsehoods and lies… THE TRUTH?

    And, so we all journey together along life’s highway. If we walk with the “ONE”, if we stay faithful to his “WORD”, if we strive to do what is RIGHT, and we learn from our mistakes and come back into the LIGHT, EVIL cannot triumph in our HEARTS!

    Isn’t this the TRUE ESSENCE, at the CENTER of ALL Saint STORIES? Shouldn’t you SHARE the TREASURES and LESSONS of this beautiful Christian story book with your CHILDREN? It’s message is this: Light prevails over Darkness! Goodness Prevails Over Evil… Rejoice! LOVE Remains!

    • Melanie Bettinelli April 18, 2014 at 12:07 am #

      Hi Mimi,

      Thanks for the comment. I love your enthusiasm for this beautiful book, which is one of our family’s favorite treasures.

      However, you misunderstand Jennifer Miller’s comment. What she means is that Hodge’s telling of St George and the dragon is based on an unfinished epic poem called The Faerie Queen by the Sixteenth century English poet Edmund Spencer. Look at the Summary on the copyright page of St George and the dragon, it says quite clearly that it “retells the segment from Spencer’s The Faerie Queen in which George, the Red Cross Knight, slays the dreadful dragon…” (See the Wikipedia article on The Faerie Queen here.)

      Spencer’s poem is a complicated allegory. In English Literature for Boys and Girls H.E. Marshall describes it thus: “SPENSER’S plan for the Faery Queen was a very great one. He meant to write a poem in twelve books, each book containing the adventures of a knight who was to show forth one virtue. And if these were well received he purposed to write twelve more. . . .

      The first three books tell the adventures of the Red Cross Knight St. George, or Holiness; of Sir Guyon, or Temperance; and of the Lady Britomartis, or Chastity. The whole poem is an allegory. Everywhere we are meant to see a hidden meaning. But sometimes the allegory is very confused and hard to follow.”

      So you are very right to see that the story is about Good and Evil, your reading of Spencer’s allegory is a good one. Jennifer’s objection is not to the moral content of the story at all, but to it’s historical accuracy. Spencer’s character The Red Cross Knight, who is letter in the poem identified as St George, is only very loosely based on even the legends based on the life of the historical saint. He isn’t meant to be the historical saint, but an allegory of Holiness. (And by the way in Spencer’s allegory Una is meant to represent the “True Church” by which Spencer meant The Church of England, not the Church of Rome.)

      So if you want your kids to have an exciting story of good and evil, this is indeed a great book that will inspire them and thrill them and teach them. And yes Jennifer acknowledges that it’s a beautiful knight story, but what she says is confusing is when you are trying to use the book to learn about St George as a saint in the Catholic Church. The poem/story book says that the Red Cross Knight was of English ancestry, having been stolen by a Fay and raised in Faerieland. But that makes him absolutely a different character than the historical George who was not a knight in Merrye England being sent on errands by the Faerie Queen, but a soldier in Roman Palestine. We know that the historical George was born in Lydda, Roman Palestine, was a soldier in the Roman army and was later venerated as a Christian martyr. His father was Gerontius, a Greek Christian from Cappadocia, and an official in the Roman army. His mother, Polychronia was a local Greek Christian of Palestine. Saint George became an officer in the Roman army in the Guard of Diocletian. So they aren’t really the same character at all, you see.

      Even the Golden Legend you cite says that George seals the evil witch, whom you identify with the Faerie Queen, in a cave. But in Spencer’s/Hodge’s version of the story the Redcross Knight/George doesn’t imprison the Faerie Queen but instead fulfills his vow to serve her. Don’t you see that those are pretty much opposite responses to the fairy character?

      Yes, there are similarities between the legends of St George and the character in Spencer’s story— as you say there are the legends of the dragon and the princess, but most historians agree those legends are symbolic and not historical. Spencer draws from those elements in Catholic tradition but he reshapes them for his own ends and his allegory is complicated and confusing, even in Hodge’d truncated redaction. And there are enough differences that it might be confusing to children— which was George English or Roman? That was the whole of Jennifer’s point. She doesn’t use this book when teaching about the life of the saint, but relegates it to the category of beautiful, fantastic adventure story.

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