Here be Dragons!

Flag of England

St. George’s Cross, the Flag of England.

Today is the Feast of St. George, patron of England. It’s also World Book and Copyright Day, chosen in honor of two of the greatest figures of world literature: William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes. The coincidence of these dates is fortuitous for several reasons.

Little is known about the life of St. George, and what is best known about him is a legend. The real St. George didn’t slay a dragon, of course. This story can only be dated back to the Middle Ages, and was brought back to the West by crusaders. We only know two things about George: he was a soldier and a Christian who was martyred during the Diocletian persecution, and he most likely died on this date c. 304.

St George Slaying the Dragon

Woodcut frontispiece of Alexander Barclay’s Lyfe of Seynt George (1515).

But the dragon is what everyone remembers. It’s why he was a hero to the crusaders and why returning English princes and knights—at the height of the age of chivalry—made him the patron of England. It’s also what ties him to the next figure honored today.

Miguel de Cervantes did not die on this date: he died on April 22 and was buried on April 23, but close enough. Cervantes is widely considered the greatest writer in the Spanish language—he is to Spanish literature what Shakespeare is to English literature—and most famous work is, or course, Don Quixote.

Don Quijote and Sancho Panza

Gustave Doré: Don Quijote de La Mancha and Sancho Panza (1863).

Don Quixote was a knight born out of his time. He longed for the age of chivalry, but he stood instead at the dawn of the Modern Era. He tilted at windmills because he didn’t have any dragons to fight.  Progress took away his legends, but it couldn’t take away his imagination. That holds for all great writers: whether symbolized by Cervates’ imagined monsters, or Shakespeare’s fictitious ghosts.

Hamlet and his father's Ghost

Henry Fuseli: Hamlet and his father’s Ghost (1780-1785).

William Shakespeare did die on this date, and he may have been born on this date too. This coincidence: Cervantes and Shakespeare dying on the same day is the origin of World Book Day. If only it were true.

Shakespeare died on April 23: the same date that Cervantes was buried, but not the same day. At that time, Catholic Spain followed the new Gregorian calendar while Protestant England stayed on the old Julian calendar until the middle of the Eighteenth Century. April 23, Old Style (i.e. Julian) occurred ten days after April 23, New Style (i.e. Gregorian).

Shakespeare did die on the Feast of Saint George, though, and it is fitting that the patron of England and the patron of English Literature would share a common observance.

Cervantes was buried on the Feast of Saint George—observed by the Catholic Church on its Gregorian date—and it is fitting that the Mass of the saint most commonly associated with chivalry would be held on the very same day as the funeral Mass of the writer whose magnum opus mourned the death of the very same chivalry.

And what brings the three of them together on this date? Besides coincidences of  calendars? Dragons.

Winged dragon

A woodcut from Edward Topsell’s The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents  (1658).

Dragons are the symbol of the unknown: the monsters of the imagination. On medieval and renaissance maps—right up until the time of Cervantes and Shakespeare—unexplored waters bore the warning “Here be dragons!” In other words: we don’t know what’s here, but it could be dangerous so we’re going to let our imaginations run wild and put in the worst, most dangerous, most fantastic things we can dream up. Dragons!

And when those uncharted waters were explored and no dragons were found, it was a relief . . . and a disappointment.

Dragons no longer live on our maps, but they still live in our imaginations. In every story we tell, there is a hero and there is a dragon. St. George is the patron, not just of England (and many other countries), but of every writer, every storyteller, every yarn-spinner, and every teller-of-every-tall-tale.  He is the patron of imagination: the one place where the warning—and the invitation—still stands:

“Here be dragons!”

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One thought on “Here be Dragons!

  1. Michael P, Havens says:

    Thanks for the post. It was fun reading this. I am also reminded how cultures look at some of the same typology and how they are different. East and Far East Asian cultures have more of a favorable look at dragons, who do not, as in the cultures of the West, eat young virgin maidens, but are a symbol of auspiciousness (by the way, from what I understand, this is a speical year in the Chinese calendar, not only because it is the year of the dragon, but it is the year of the blue dragon!). Even in the West, some of the new myths created by talented writers of Fantasy are doing all vkinds of thigs with dragons, the most notible is Anna McCaffery, with her Pern series. As you say, in the times of exploration, there were the warnings of, “There be dragons!” , as an indicator of danger and adventure (or chivalry), it is interesting that as in the Pern stories, these mythical creatures which have been igniting the minds of young and old alike, are now sharing the adventure and danger with their human counterparts. The myth may have changed in its typography, but the same dangers, the same adventures, and the same invitation to engage the senses in word, art, music, and yes, in our pulpits, remain. The dangers are still out there, but we all are called to soar with chivalry in tact. We are, in the end, all sword bearers and knights of a heavenly court.

    Like

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