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Chasing the Dragon
Thoughts on St George's Day
Back in the day, I was rooting for the dragon. It was a thing that some of us did back in the prehistoric nineties. Among the young, crusty eco-activists of yore, the myth of St George, patron saint of England, was another old story that needed to be turned on its head. As we battled to stop yet another square mile of English soil being concreted over for a motorway extension, superstore, housing estate, airport runway or whatever other embodiment of Progress was ‘necessary’ this week, we would hold up the dragon, not the saint, as our guiding light. This armoured human dealing out death to this innocent, wild creature: wasn’t it so appropriate that he would be the patron saint of this most modern and destructive of nations? The dragon, on the other hand was the icon of wildness, of untamed nature resisting the onslaught. Why couldn’t he be our saint instead?
As it happens, the dragon was once the symbol of England, back when St George was nowhere to be found. On Senlac Hill in 1066, Harold Godwinson, the last English king, was said to have fought William the Bastard’s Norman invaders under two banners: the dragon of Wessex, and the ‘fighting man’. The latter is still a mystery, and an intriguing one (I’ve often idly wondered if it looked anything like this.) But the dragon - or wyrm, to use the Old English - still flies on the official flag of Wessex today.
The king was defeated that day, of course - a story I wrote once - and the England which once flew the banner of the dragon now flies the banner of its slayer. But it always seemed to me, even when I was writing books about the state of England, that the English don’t care much for their patron saint. Perhaps we don’t care for any saints, and maybe that’s what haunts us. We wrecked most of their shrines during the Reformation, after all, and what did our national church replace them with? Ah yes: Helter Skelters.
But St George, in recent decades at least, has never attracted much popular loyalty. His national day only recently became a Bank Holiday (holidays used to be named after saints or heroes: now they’re named for global finance houses), and St George’s Day events in England have always been a bit lacklustre. Mostly a man in a dodgy dragon costume will get knocked about a bit by a crusader with a Pound Shop plastic sword, before everyone goes to the pub. In the background, a chorus of Guardian journalists can be heard piously chanting that ‘St George was Turkish anyway’, thus proving that England never really existed, or something. The new ritual year in our culture of inversion requires that England’s patron saint must be routinely denigrated on this day by the country’s chattering classes, all of whom remain Normans at heart.
But I’ve always found this line of attack on our patron saint a curiously self-defeating one. After all, if you’re championing a lovely new multicultural Britain, rather than a parochial, past-it old England, then St George is a highly appropriate saint. Originally from the Middle East (not Turkey, which didn’t exist at the time), he became England’s patron after Richard the Lionheart - once a symbol of English martial valour but actually a French king who barely came near the place - had a vision of George during the crusades, and was led by him to victory.
George himself was a Roman soldier martyred by Emperor Diocletian for his Christian faith, and he is one of the most popular saints in the world. He even has a country named after him. I remember, many years ago, walking down the street in the Italian port city of Genoa and wondering why I kept seeing English flags everywhere. I found out later that St George was the city’s patron, which made me feel stupid. And George is not only significant for Christians. Being much more popular in the middle east than he is in England, many Muslims also consider him an important figure; some of them even seem to think he was a proto-Jihadi.
All of this symbolises not the sinister, Brexity English patriotism which causes New Statesman types to shake as they sip their almond-milk Americanos, but the very international nature of Christianity, which is, after all, the world’s most globalised and multicultural religion. George seems an appropriate saint for an age like this: even more appropriate, perhaps, than he did back in the middle ages.
Yet he remains unloved in England, and perhaps for the same reason: because he belongs to so many in general, he belongs to nobody in particular. There is nothing actually English about him, and so he doesn’t speak to the country or its history. Call me old-fashioned (I’d take it as a compliment), but I believe that a nation’s patron saint should come from the nation: England, after all, is a land which has generated many great saints of its own. Before the middle ages, the country had several native holy men as its patrons, one of whom, St Edmund the Martyr, has always been a favourite of mine. I’ll write more about him when his own day comes around, but I regard him as the true, unofficial patron saint of England, just as I regard Jerusalem as its true, unofficial anthem. If I had my way, Edmund would replace George as the patron saint of my homeland tomorrow, and we’d get his shrine rebuilt in his hometown as a matter of national priority. Who knows what might start to happen then?
But this kind of wistfulness, like most other kinds, is unproductively redundant these days. Maybe the days of patron saints are gone, at least in the West. Maybe the days of nations are gone too: certainly a lot of people would like that to be true. The vortex of globalisation, of modernity itself, is widening and deepening daily, and into it all distinctions and differences are sucked, to emerge bleached, efficient and unloved on the far shore. Can countries as we have known them survive this? Can there be such a thing as a ‘national identity’ in the age of smartphones, shipping containers, mass media and mass migration, and do many people even care? Is England real, or did the Machine eat it long ago? Is it, like George and Edmund and all of their kind, only something we can access now through icon and memory?
I don’t know. What I do know is that nostalgia won’t get you far these days, if it ever did. When I look forward I can’t see anything much that is fixed or holy or pegged down. All I can see, somehow, is that dragon. I think that we are entering a dragon time. I don’t know what that means: those words just appeared this moment, unplanned. I’m going to leave them here, and see what they become.
There have always been dragons: across cultures, across time. They haunt the human mind, they invade our stories, and what they tell us can be as distinct as the English legend of the Lambton Wyrm or the Chinese tale of the Four Dragons. Sometimes they defend the kingdom, sometimes they ravage it. Sometimes they eat maidens, sometimes they eat their own tails. I would like to offer some deep, Jungian wisdom about the meaning of slaying our internal dragons, but I can’t pretend to have slain mine, and who am I to give advice? I just have a feeling, today, that the dragon might have more to say to us than the saint.
If this is a dragon time, what is our age’s serpent saying? What has it come for? Perhaps our dragon is the beast rising from the sea. Perhaps it is the return of the wild nature we have crushed outside and inside of us for so long: what D. H. Lawrence called the ‘inward revolt of the native creatures of the soul.’ Is it the consuming passion of the Machine, which will end up consuming us all? Is it some rescuer from beyond our small understanding? Does it come to destroy us or to redeem us - or are they both the same thing?
Today is St George’s Day, but it is also the culmination of Lent in the Orthodox Church. Tonight is Pascha - Easter. Later, we will gather in a darkened church just before midnight. When the hour strikes, a single light - a candle - will emerge from behind the iconostasis, and all of us, each holding an unlit candle, will light our own wick from its flame. Light will flood the darkness. Everything will look different. Everything will be changed. It will happen quickly, though we have been waiting so long.
This is how it works, it seems, always and everywhere. This is the cycle. Destruction leads to resurrection, for nations, people, ages, families, hearts. Dragons are needed as much as saints. Don’t ask me to explain any of it. Perhaps just light a candle tonight, and see what is revealed.