St George and the Legend of the Great Martyr

St. George might not be as popular as, say, St. Patrick or St. Nicholas, but on April 23 plenty of people will be drinking to his health in the bars and pubs of England and, well, I guess Georgia. Meanwhile, in Catalonia people will exchange precious books with their loved ones – because these days the feast of St. Jordi (George in Catalan) is synonymous with an invasion of book sellers who take over every corner of the city and organize a spontaneous book fair. Not that St. George and books are that closely related by anything other than chance, given that UNESCO decided to make April 23 the World Book Day, commemorating the date of the death of Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare.

Now, it might seem like two of the greatest writers known to the Western world passing away on the same day (April 23, 1616) is as tragic as it can possibly get, but the fact is that things will get a whole lot worse once we look into the story of St. George. Because he might not have been a particularly talented man of letters – after all, he was a soldier – but he certainly was a literary figure, whose legend, kept for the ages in medieval manuscripts, will provide us with the link between the Great Martyr and the International Day of the Book.

The most popular tradition, fostered for centuries and still very much alive in our common consciousness, has George featuring as a chosen figure who faces superlative danger and who, through the grace of God, overcomes it. Like David, George encounters in the dragon a creature of superior strength that terrorizes the inhabitants of a nearby township. Unlike David, George needs not recur to craftiness to surmount the evil he faces in the shape of the dragon but, rather, to his own courage which, aided by the delicacy of the princess he is set to save and, of course, by the favour of the Lord, allows him to defeat the devilish powers he confronts.

Nevertheless, there is an older, more deeply rooted legend relating to St. George, which, in all its complexity and unlikelihood, hides a richer legacy than the somewhat exhausted myth of the sequestered lady and the abducting dragon. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, George features as a Cappadocian soldier whose devotion to Christianity leads him to the most gruesome of punishments: persecuted for his faith by Dacian, king of the Persians (or, depending on the version, Diocletian, Emperor of the Romans), George is imprisoned for seven years. In their efforts to force George to admit to the falsehood of the Christian religion he is submitted to the cruellest forms of torture, which include stretching him on a rack; flogging him with hooks that, quite literally, shred him to pieces; inserting him in a coffin fixed with strategically positioned nails; impaling him; and, finally, boiling him.

retablo-san-jorge

Inexplicably, George survives this ordeal and is comforted by Christ who reassures him with the news that he will die three times before he is admitted to Heaven. Subsequently George outlives poisoning, withstands lacerations under a wheel of swords, suffers dismemberment and is thrown into a well. God proceeds to resurrect George, who is then tied to a bed while lead is poured into his mouth, followed by the hammering of nails into his head before the hanging of his body, upside down and with a stone tied to his neck, over a live fire. Despite all this, George will not die, so he is cut in two halves from head to toe, boiled to his bones and buried at last. But five days later George defeats death one more time, triggering the amazement of Dacian/Diocletian, who invites him to sojourn in his palace as a guest and to engage in conversation.

Following an extended debate, George looks persuaded to acknowledge the pagan faith but this is just a trick to convert Dacian’s/Diocletian’s wife, who is therefore instantly executed. George is again sentenced to death, this time simply by decapitation, which he duly suffers, surrendering his life for good.

If this legend appears unnecessarily bloodthirsty and, indeed, implausible, it also renders us with a George whose character is as helpless as it is obstinate. Equipped with little more than the confidence provided by his faith, his obliviousness to common sense becomes akin to Abraham’s irrational obedience. Nevertheless, given the invincibility of such faith, George is as effective in his ultimate goal (to spread the word of God) as he would be were he empowered with, say, lethal weaponry. Indeed, at every turn (miracle) of this tale, handfuls of heathens convert to Christianity thanks to the example of George; and if the outcome of such conversion is fatal (each group of self-proclaimed believers in Christ is faced with summary execution), the hope for eternal salvation is accompanied by the comfort that in this early depiction of the Christian martyr cruelty is reserved to the pagans.

However, what remains the most extraordinary aspect of this myth is the wealth of narrative elements it displays – elements that, if you can forgive the nature of its cyclical structure (repeated thrice) and you can ignore the naivety of its factual disregard, allow the audience to dive into an ocean of meanings and contexts that make the reading experience infinitely more exciting. As it turns out, there might be more to George and books than a mere coincidence!

PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON SATURDAY, APRIL 23, 2011.

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