Wednesday 23 April 2014

The Saint George rant

Today is going to be trying. You see, its Saint George's Day: George the Dragonslayer, patron saint of England and so there's going to be a lot of pictures of the guy about and in every one I'll bet you he'll be white. He'll be white and dressed in the armour and tabard of a Crusades-era knight and I think that, symbolically, this is a bit problematic.

I can't help but think that it might help, in just the tiniest way, if we took this day that's all about our national identity and acknowledged that our patron saint was Greek (or of mixed Greek and Palestinian descent as seems equally likely given his mother is described both as Greek and as a local of Palestine where his father was stationed with the Roman Legions). George (probably originally Georgius) was a Roman officer in the late third century, the legend was brought home by soldiers and knights who had fought in the Crusades about a thousand years later and he was adopted as England's patron saint because the legend spoke to the national identity of “never say die”, “damn the odds”, “do the right thing no matter what”. You know, the stuff from every Second World War film ever.

One guy against a dragon, it's an image that we've used in wartime propaganda and as a fable about standing up to bullies. It's a great story but the most faithful retelling of it I've ever encountered was a Fred Van Lente comic in Dark Horse Presents (and even that felt the need to have a real dragon in it, not that anyone's sure who the dragon represents, probably just the heraldry of some warlord whose name is lost to history).

Instead of a man from another culture who represents the best qualities we strive for in our own culture (can you see why this appeals to me?) the national myth presents him as “one of us” and that necessarily places the dragon in the place of the “Other”, the outsider.

And so St. George's Flag and St. George himself have been taken up by nationalist, isolationist and racist causes as a representation of a white man fighting to save a maiden from an aggressive Other. The fact that the dragon is overtly represented by the legend as a Satanic figure (again, probably a Crusade-era embellishment) there's a subtext of rape and thus the nationalist (as George) becomes a heroic defender of maidenhood / purity / sanctity: personal invasion equated to national invasion.

And this is ridiculous. Saint George was not white, he wasn't English and very likely spent his entire life in the Middle East. Even his status as an English icon is shoddy: he's a known figure in Islamic culture, especially in Egypt where he is also a major figure (“The Prince of Martyrs”) in the Coptic Orthodox Church, and the Russian Orthodox dedicates two feast days to him.

I just want the nationalists who wave their flags and the thugs who get St. George's Cross tattoos to know their symbol isn't like them, that the ideal they think they're representing was a figure from another culture, of another race and not even their exclusive property. 


SallyP said...

I did not know this at all, and I feel quite foolish. Also I like dragons.

So thanks for enlightening my ignorance, and for an excellent essay.

James Ashelford said...

Thank you, Sally, very kind of you to say. I shouldn't worry about not knowing it, this is the English national saint and most people here don't know half of that.