This is a highly symbolic week inviting Christians to reflect on the personal significance of riding on a donkey, sharing food, being scourged at the pillar, whipped and derided and finally crucified. Today, Saturday, is a limbo day, a pause in the story while everyone mourns Jesus before tomorrow and the resurrection, the springing back to life of the man, the story, the year.
So I was surprised to hear from a friend who is a vicar that St George’s Day, traditionally 23rd April, has been ‘displaced’ by Holy Saturday. Displaced? To where? Or when? ‘But it’s still Shakespeare’s birthday,’ he tells me cheerfully. And by my reckoning it’s still St George’s Day.
Don’t worry. I’m not going to get into the flag of England stuff, and the pubs filled with those to whom being English means being white, thick and violent. I want to get at the archetypal George – and his Dragon.
The historical saint was a Roman soldier of the 3rd century AD during the time of Diocletian. When the emperor issued an edict ordering the arrest of every Christian in the Roman army, he tried to save his favourite, George, by persuading him to pay lip service to the pagan gods, but George refused. He was lacerated by the wheel of swords and revived three times before being decapitated. This early Christian martyr was a great inspiration to other Christians living under the Romans.
But there are no dragons in his story. Our St George came to us from the Near East, carried west by returning Crusaders, and is more symbolic than real, tied up with Templar Knights, chivalry, the Order of the Garter.
As the story goes, in a village a dragon built its nest near a spring and the villagers, needing to distract it to be able to draw water, gave it a sheep every day. When they ran out of sheep, they offered it a maiden. Enter the knight on his horse.
The archetype of dragon-slayer is ancient, surviving in the myth of Perseus, and in the figure of the Archangel Michael. The story of Ruggiero and Angelica in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso retells the Perseus myth.
According to G K Chesterton, ‘Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell them that dragons may be killed.’
There is an enduring debate as to whether we should include ‘dark stuff’ in the literature we give children, such as Grimm’s Tales. I’m of the opinion that we should, otherwise children grow up not knowing dragons may be killed, and get completely overawed when they meet one.
Steven Pressfield has a new book out this week called Do the Work. It’s a follow-up to his War of Art. As before, he’s dragon-bashing. Steve calls the dragon ‘Resistance’. It has curled itself round our creative spring and snarls and snaps its jaws when we wish to draw water. ‘Call yourself a writer? How presumptuous! What’s the point of writing anyway? You’ll never be published (again). It’s just self-indulgence. Get yourself a proper job. Dragon massage, for instance. Or cosmetic de-scaling. Pamper me, for I am your dragon!’
Over the past year or so I keep getting ideas for ‘the book after next’. Now that I’m finishing A Gift for the Magus (regular readers will know that I usually take longer finishing a book than it took to write it), the ideas keep coming. These are my sheep and each one has been devoured by the dragon. But recently I got another, and, coinciding as it did with the publication of Steve’s book, it could well turn out to be the maiden. I want this one to live. With Steve’s book by my side, I’m busy at least dodging the dragon. I have yet to rise up and pierce it through the throat.
(Perleeeeze – no ‘be kind to your dragon’ sentiments, no sieges by the Dragon Liberation people – dragon-slayers need dragons, and it’s only a story.)
So that’s my Easter message: slay the dragon of negativity and let at least one idea live.
Happy St George’s Day. And, oh yes, happy birthday, Shakespeare.