Humanity has known or at least suspected tales of dragons for most of its existence. To the north and east of the Mediterranean, the dragon has always been a chaos principle, a threat to the safety of individual citizens and their villages, impervious to city walls or castle defenses. The dragon is the enemy of Civilization.*
St. George is the most recognized dragon-slayer in the iconography of the Western world, commonly seen in paintings, statuary, plaques, and church icons. The odd thing is that I have had great difficulty finding anyone on the street that knows who St. George was or where he came from. He slew a dragon and saved a pretty maiden and that is about it.
In many of the countries I have visited, people simply believe he is a local hero. This is true in the movies as well. But the traditional story is that George was a soldier from Asia Minor who joined the Roman army and made the mistake of embracing Christianity only a short time before the Empire did the same (4th century CE). He was martyred for his faith and from that time forward, legends have grown up around him. The earliest of them were set in the back end of the Mediterranean and owed much to the Greek myth of Perseus and Andromeda. The best-known of the George stories has him being called to Libya to save a princess named Sabra from a hungry dragon (possibly a real-life crocodile) and accomplishing the extermination. Statues and churches dedicated to St. George are common throughout the Western world and the Near East. His statue sits outside of the cathedral in Prague, and he is the patron saint in many countries of the world.
George and the Dragon (2004)
This story has little to do with the legend of St. George & the Dragon, except for its broad outlines. The lead character must save a damsel from a digitally enhanced dragon. This is the George legend with a contemporary twist that drags it down to mere entertainment. It opens with young George returning from the First Crusade as a seasoned warrior. He wants to find a wife and start a farm. The King enlists him to rescue his daughter, Princess Lunna, who has been carried off by the dragon. If he succeeds he will get his farm. George finds the dragon, ramping and breathing fire. The battle goes on for a very long time and makes one think it is the whole reason for the movie. There are many more plot complications than I am divulging here. When all is resolved, George and Lunna marry at the castle. They get their farm and watch their garden grow – at least until Lunna remembers her life as a princess. There is no mention of sainthood for anyone. This is not really a terrible movie, but it has a paint-by-numbers quality that robs it of mythic substance. During the credits, there is a series of funny outtakes.
There is an earlier St. George film of equal or even less quality, called The Magic Sword (1962). Despite flagrant liberties with the legend, it does introduce The Seven Saints of Christendom, more familiar to post-medieval readers.
There is surprisingly little dragon slaying that goes on in The Arthurian Movies, perhaps because this form of archetypal myth is being left behind in favor of more complex human dramas. What I have been able to find will be included in the blog that follows this one.
Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (1924) – Fritz Lang
Rivaling St. George in the folklore of the West is Siegfried, the Germanic dragon-slayer. Early in the second decade of the new millennium, the Metropolitan opera premiered a new addition of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung. The third of the four operas in this cycle is Siegfried, which features the hero’s battle with a singing dragon named Fafner. This production was noted for its state-of-the-art special effects, which, depending on your taste, were either spectacular or ponderous and distracting. Bits and pieces of the opera are available on YouTube but for a full version of the story, it is necessary to find Fritz Lang’s 1924 movie Die Nibelungen at the same source. This movie offers the surprise of an undeniably lovable dragon.
A search for modern dragon lore yields many treasures. I found one site with Five Top Dragon Movies and another that held that the best of them all was Dragonslayer (1981). I will reserve judgment on these critical cultural issues for further research and later blogs. I think it is important to observe, however, that a dragon called Smaug figures significantly in The Hobbit (movies, 2012-14). He is one of many incarnations of the dragon-to-end-all–dragons. Killed at the end of The Hobbit, he does not appear in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which is set 60 years later. Tolkien proposed a time when the dragon in human nature would be quelled and average citizens would be left to rule their lives in peace. We may not be there yet, but we are better able to imagine such a world.
In the East, dragons are known to be far more benevolent than they are in the West. Perhaps it is for this reason that they appear to have a less powerful presence in the popular culture of the post-paradigm period (since 1972). I base this observation on my travels in China and to several countries in the surrounding area. Combing through my photo archives, I could find no picture of a dragon that I brought home from China and very little from the nearby Buddhist countries that venerate the Naga, a cobra-like protector of the Buddha at the time of his enlightenment. This is not to say that there are not representations of dragons in China, certainly they are plentiful. But they did not swoop down on me in a rush of wings and claws and somehow my camera missed them. Likewise, when I searched my movie archive for films from China and related cultures that featured dragons, I found very little. Under China, there was only the small parody of a dragon in Disney’s Mulan, voiced by Eddie Murphy. There was a little bit more from Japan, including some anime films and a fearsome dragon called King Ghidorah, that appears in the Godzilla franchise. My guess is that after World War II in Japan and the Cultural Revolution in China, evidence of superstition and religion in these places has been suppressed.
Going Deeper into the Dragon’s Lair
We are descended from reptiles and mammals both. In the daytime repression of the R-complex and in the nighttime stirring of the dream dragons, we may each of us be replaying the hundred-million-year-old warfare between reptiles and the mammals.
In 1977, Carl Sagan, the best known science popularizer of the late 20th century, wrote a provocative book called The Dragons of Eden. In it he proposed that our genetic kinship with the reptiles of the deep past is embedded in our mammal bodies. Our long spines, resembling snakes, reach from the seat of our being up to the interior regions of our brains. The innermost part of the human brain is called the “reptilian complex” or R-complex. The legend of St. George & the Dragon, according to Sagan, is a parable of nature at odds with itself. We are both the snake and the culture hero. Apparently this model of the human brain did not catch on with late 20th century neuroanatomists and it has fallen out of favor. That being said, it was an exciting contribution to the contemporary discourse in its day, winning the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1978, and I must admit that the idea of it has stayed with me more than most of the passing theories of modern science.
The hostility between reptile and mammal is the deepest psychodrama I have been able to find in my movie record of the human experience on Earth. It begins many millions of years ago and comes into high relief about 65 million years ago with the decline of the dinosaurs and the rise of the mammals. Since that time it has been miniaturized to the point where we can turn on a nature channel and watch a mongoose kill a cobra, a python swallow a deer, or a man wrestle an anaconda in the Amazon.
The Medieval imagination provided a middle ground in this progression. It entertained stories of men fighting enormous reptiles while at the same time marking the end of belief in mythical beasts. It was not unheard of for an armored hero to go beyond slaying one dragon and rid the world of their kind forever.
Medieval Europe Related Posts:
*Go to FAQ for use of the term post-paradigm and capitalization of Civilization.