23 April is St George’s Feast Day. This year the bank holiday is on Monday, 25 April.
To honor the day, here is a version of the story of St George and the Dragon, which itself is a version of a much older tale of annual agricultural sacrifice.
I am Andromeda, the mindful one, the sacrifice. They’ve told my tale time and again throughout the ages. I am variously a vain queen’s daughter, the only heir to a nameless king, a common villager, a woodland nymph. I am always lovely and young, but dull and weak, utterly lacking in agency or resourcefulness, in need of rescuing and prone to doe-eyed fawning upon my rescuer. I am always threatened by the forces of evil in the shape of a beast, one of those beyond the ken of average mortals, one neither easily bribed nor slain. The epilogue to this tale is always wretched. Though I dote on my savior, I am soon abandoned and forgotten. In not a few tales, after all the effort to save my life, I am slain.
And in that denouement is the hint that the preserved tale is at odds with the true story.
Let me tell you one version. My tale was ancient by the time St George was inserted into the role of champion. Today, George is honored each spring as the liberator of the realm as well as preserver of a life, my life. Today, the names of the young victim, the victim’s family, the victim’s city, even the name of the dragon, are all forgotten. But there was a realm. And there was a dragon. And it is said that the dragon demanded an annual victim in the form of the willing flesh of a young person, else the beast would lay waste over all the fields and gardens. Today, only George is remembered. But there once was a whole realm. And there was an Andromeda, though not known by that name in that time.
It is said the kingdom bore the dragon’s wrath as well as might be expected — that is, not very well. There was so little food and so much hunger. Few women lived long after nursing an infant. Few old men lived through the cold winters. Few children survived the hungry springs. Still, the people were unwilling to meet the dragon’s terms, to give up even one of their children to the dragon.
But the rich landowners began to fret over labor lost.
The wealthy men convened to confer with the young king and quickly convinced him that one death by dragon each year — even if it were a young person with a whole life to live — was much better than many deaths by hunger. One willing victim could save the lives of aging parents and younger siblings. One willing sacrifice would die so that the realm might live. After many tears, the dragon-ravaged people agreed. Not that they had any choice but obey the king’s rule.
The king initiated a drawing of lots to determine the sacrifice. A name would be drawn in the early spring for a late autumn meeting with the dragon. For one summer season, the chosen one would be feted and lauded. On the eve of the appointed day, the chosen would be brought to the city and made drunk in a grand festival. Then in the cold darkness before dawn, the city people would lead the young victim to a waste place far from human society to await the dragon.
I was the daughter of the king, a princess, heir to his throne, born several years after the lottery was begun. There was not supposed to be a chit with my name upon it. No wealthy man’s child was supposed to be chosen, never mind one of royal blood. Nevertheless, in my sixteenth year, in the twentieth year of the dragon lottery, chosen I was. Of course, this caused my father much consternation. Fine it was for a woodcutter’s daughter to be slain for the greater good. Better yet the sixth useless son of a village slattern. But his own flesh and blood, his own name, his heir and bargaining chip for future profitable alliance? This was unacceptable.
But he must abide by his own rule or surely face angry mobs.
Thus in the moons between my vernal selection and my allotted autumnal appointment, my father sent out word that much gold would be paid to the slayer of the dragon. And many knights answered that call, following the alluring scent of riches. Many knights came kneeling before my father, vowing to rid the land of this scourge. Many knights entered the dragon wood. And no knights returned. The dragon became irritable at these knightly incursions and let that irritation be known by scorching my father’s best wheat fields. So what with that and a dwindling number of willing dragon hunters as the apparent death toll mounted, my father resigned himself to losing his only daughter. He put away my aging mother in a high tower and married a young woman who could bear him another heir. Perhaps a son this time.
I was not as easily resigned to my fate, but my wishes went unheeded.
Nevertheless, I cooperated. I knew that were the dragon not appeased, there would be starvation again. Not in my father’s towers, of course; he had stores aplenty. But most of the commoners lived from harvest to harvest with nought to offset a bad year. Many would die if I did not go willingly to my own death. I could not live with that. And in any case, dying for such a noble cause in the full bloom of health and beauty seemed a better end than what befell most women, including my poor mother, the queen.
On the eve of my sacrifice, the city folk gathered for the accustomed celebration, tapping many barrels of spring ale. I eschewed all, eating nothing, drinking nothing, and avoiding all the awkward farewells from the grateful people. As was his own custom, my father rode out to the city center to offer a toast to the willing victim and then rode off home again with never an acknowledgement of his daughter, the princess who would die in the morning. This cast a somewhat gloomy pall on the festive mood. And, as I refused to be drunk and there was therefore no point to the celebration, most of the celebrants wandered off shortly after the king’s abrupt departure. I was left alone in the chapel to await the predawn procession.
But I did not wait. I consigned my soul to the spirit realm and took my body off to the trysting waste.
When I came to that weed-choked forest clearing, I sat on a large tabular rock and watched the skies. The morning stole into the eastern horizon in bands of green and pink and gold. The stars winked out in the east and the full harvest moon set in the west. It was chilly on the rock, but I did not fret. Soon I would have all I could bear and more of heat.
As I lay there, I heard the approach of a beast. But it was a hesitant step, much lighter than I expected from a great cumbersome worm. And then I noticed the faint clink of harness and mail. I sat up and came face to face with a mounted knight. His visor was up and framed a face neither young nor old, neither handsome nor homely, but certainly lit with zealous fervor. He bore the device of the new religion on his wide shield.
I sighed. And thought I heard my sigh echoed from under the trees behind my rock.
This time I turned to see an enormous maw, smoking and slavering, emerging from the trees. The beast’s implacably baleful stare was trained on the knight. I knew he had but moments to live if I did not send him away. But then his horse reared and threw the man to the ground, tearing off into the trees opposite the dragon. I did not see how he would make an escape on foot. But I didn’t want another man to die for me, nor did I particularly want to see how my own death would play out in watching this man fall to the dragon. For a brief moment I begged him to leave this place and leave me to my accepted fate. But he paid me no attention. Instead he drew himself up and drew his sword.
In panic I turned to the dragon. “Please, noble sir, I come here your willing victim. This man knows nothing of our bargain. Please, honor our compact and spare him his life,” I cried out to the beast.
The dragon turned to me and blinked slowly.
“I am no sir,” came a rumbling, but unmistakably feminine purr. “And I have no intention of killing either of you.”
I was confounded, not least because I never expected the beast to talk. Though I suppose I should have expected just that, else how would bargains have been made?
My would-be rescuer was temporarily overcome and collapsed to the ground again.
The dragon shook her head with obvious disdain and sat on her haunches to give me her full and rather disconcerting regard. As she did, there came from behind her numerous other creatures, some I could name, most I could not. Some with scales, some with horns, some with feathers, some with fur. Four feet and two, wings and hands and teeth and eyes. So many eyes. And to add to my shock, there were humans, or at least human-shaped creatures, though many of them were too strange to be akin to me. One of these latter gently led the knight’s horse out of the trees behind me.
Some there were of my people though, and two of them came toward my rock.
“Welcome, princess,” they addressed me, bowing deeply.
“How is it that you know me?”
“We were your father’s subjects. We have known you from birth. We have been awaiting your arrival since the spring.”
I saw that this was going to take some explaining, but the knight was beginning to stir and I could see his presence was spreading trepidation. When he rose to his feet, with much grunting and clanking, many of the smaller creatures simply vanished into the woods. By the time he had adjusted his visor, only a few of the two-legged beings were left. And the dragon, of course, who continued to watch with that fathomless stare — though I believe there was something like amusement in her features now.
The knight turned from me and my people to the dragon to the Fae gentling the skittish horse. Then, resolving something in his mind, he lifted his sword at the dragon, shouted a challenge, and charged. I screamed and my erstwhile subjects cringed, but the dragon merely blinked. When the knight crossed the clearing, the dragon delicately reached out a claw and picked up the hapless rescuer by the baldric, turning him to face me.
“Little princess, please require this man to drop his sword before he hurts himself,” said the dragon. And when I did not respond immediately, she continued, “Please. He does not understand me.”
So I did as she requested. After he flailed ineffectively for some while and yet was not consumed in flame and teeth, he finally complied, the sword clanging on the dragon’s iron-hard scales as it dropped to her feet. As soon as it hit the ground, several of the smaller beings scurried out of cover, picked up the broadsword as though carrying a huge log between them, and vanished with it away into the woods. I think it was this that finally subdued the knight — at which the dragon gently placed him on the saddle of his now-placid horse.
“I believe some explanations are in order. And perhaps some refreshment?” purred the dragon. “Let us all gather in my woodland hall.”
And so we did.
Many hours and a full belly later, the knight and I came out of the woods at the edge of my father’s city. Behind us came the dragon on a golden halter. She bowed her great head in apparent submission. There were screams from doorways and shouts from the tower walls. A few arrows were loosed. But the tumult died quickly when the people saw that it was me, thier princess, alive and well and leading the beast.
“See, good people, here is your princess, returned safe to you,” I cried out in as commanding a voice as I could muster. “And here is the dragon that once rained fury on this land. Behold! She will do so no more! Bring out my father, the king.”
Behind me, I could hear the knight muttering. He had only agreed to the dragon’s plan on the condition that his sword be returned to him and the dragon submit to a halter. As she could snap it with merely a yawn, this halter was hardly a restraint; but it pained me to see such a noble creature wearing it. Still, she agreed — with only a slight hint of laughter in her eyes.
After some time, my father appeared in the midst of his guard with many of the richest men of the city trailing in the king’s wake. All were shocked and dismayed by the dragon’s presence though she clearly presented no threat. None, not even my father, seemed overjoyed at my returning to the city unharmed. I was not much surprised by this.
The knight now stepped forward to deliver his prearranged speech.
But he betrayed us.
“Good king,” he began, all full of pomp and bluster once more, “I am Sir George. As you can see, I have rescued your daughter, the royal princess, and have subdued the beast. Here is the dragon before you, a willing subject to my will. Here I stand before you, the fulfillment of your request. But I do not do this for riches or reward. I come to you as an emissary of my god with whose help I have vanquished your enemy. See how I have been favored! And now my only wish is to see you win such favor as well. Give your souls to my god and you will gain the kingdom of heaven, leaving all such beasts as this to the hell that awaits them.”
So saying, he drew his sword again and brought it down on the dragon’s neck just where her ears pushed through her impenetrable hide, drawing blood and severing sinew. The dragon screamed and reared up, spreading her enormous wings out over the gathered crowd, spraying all those nearby in a mist of her hot black blood. All the horses of the rich men shied and bolted, some with riders, some not. My father’s horse carried him far into the city. There were more arrows loosed. A few killed city folk; one embedded its point in my thigh. Any that hit the dragon bounced harmlessly away with a soft clink. The knight, Sir George, lifted his shield overhead and ran for the tower walls. I never saw him again.
But dragons are hard to kill.
She picked me up and rose into the air, great drops of blood falling to scorch the earth below. She flew over the woods to the clearing where we met. By the time we landed, her flesh wound was healed — but the wound to her heart bled out of her sad eyes. All she had wanted was health and freedom for the forest denizens. She had tried force. She had tried bargaining. She had tried submission. All her efforts met with failure.
My people were relentlessly driving hers to extinction. She should have destroyed me. But she never killed in anger. None of the supposed victims had died, nor the knights of the past summer. They all lived. She offered them all the choice to live with the forest folk or return to the human realm. And none returned. Not one. And so that day she bade me choose as well — to return to my father or to remain with her. I asked only that my mother be rescued from her prison tower. I did not think twice about returning to my father.
But that is not the story you have heard. In that story, the princess leads the dragon to the happy king. The knight, the sainted George, slays the dragon on the castle steps and converts a kingdom to the new religion. The king rewards George lavishly, making him heir to the kingdom. And the ancient dragon does not rise again.
The princess in these tales does not grieve this act. She does not fall to the earth in shock and heartache. She does not cry out and writhe in the mud. The princess sometimes happily marries George and is a devoted queen to the dragon-slaying saint. More often, the princess merely drops out of the story after leading the dragon from the wood. The sacrificial princess rarely gets a name in these hagiographic histories. Her sacrifice is a forgotten footnote to a man’s story.
She is never remembered. Never minded. Never me. She is never Andromeda.
And the dragon of the wood never speaks at all.
©Elizabeth Anker 2021