Skip to main content

St George of Merrie England: History, Myth and Fairy Tale

Today - 23rd April - is St George's Day. Most of us are aware of St George's Mediterranean and Middle Eastern origins; Google says he was born to Greek parents but in fact his mother was from Syria and his father from what is now Anatolia, right in the middle of modern-day Turkey. Not much else is known about him other than that he was a soldier in the Roman army who was martyred for being Christian.  He is also venerated in the traditions of different cultures and faiths, including in some Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries.

The idea of patron saints is an interesting one to me - I've always thought that the fact that these saints hail from different parts of the world to the countries they are patron saints of, is a bit of a paradox. On the one hand their cultural and ethnic differences are overlooked in favour of the unifying aspect of their faith and values - but on the other hand, patron saints are a symbol of nationhood - and often co-opted by nationalists. A St George's flag in someone's Twitter profile is frequently seen as a shorthand for a certain type of politics, and indeed many of the tweets today are invoking St George's Day in a kind of (self-perceived) defiant English patriotism - a response to the supposedly 'woke' England-hating multicultural 'reverse-racists'. But it's worth  remembering that taking St George as a symbol of English superiority is by no means a new thing.

I have been reading a collection of fairy-tales by Flora Annie Steel, a late Victorian children's author who spent twenty-two years in India as the wife of a civil servant. She published various collections of stories, including both Indian and English fairy tales. In one of her collections, named 'English Fairy Tales,' she gathers together well-known and more obscure folk tales, from The Three Bears and Little Red Riding Hood to Catskin and Cap O'Rushes. But the really interesting thing about this collection is that it is headed by the story of St George, called "St George of Merrie England." 

It's a highly embellished version of the legend - the only 'original' part of it is the slaying of the beast. The archaic spelling of "Merrie", and the language of the story, call to mind a romantic, 'olde worlde' vision of England. And when we look at the content of the tale itself, it's clear that there was an imperialist mission at work here. Firstly, in the story St George is not descended from Middle Eastern parents, but is the son of the "Earl of Coventry, who long long years ago was Lord High Steward of England." He has "amber-coloured hair" and is one of the seven "champions of Christendom". He sets off on an adventure to Egypt where he rescues a beautiful princess from being devoured by a monster. As a reward, he wins the hand of the Egyptian princess, who converts to Christianity. But before they can be together, he has to defeat "Almidor, the black King of Morocco", who has been wooing the princess for years, and whose blackness is linked to his cowardly underhandedness - in contrast to the brave English knight. 

As St George travels further on his journey, he encounters a "mighty giant, a follower of Mahomed, who hath sworn to destroy all Christians." But this "Christian Knight" defeats the giant. The rest of the story is more of the same: the rest of the Christian saintly knights - from France, Italy, Spain, Wales, Scotland and Ireland - defend Christendom against heathen armies, and take over the administration of "Paynim" (non-Christian) lands. You can't get a more obvious endorsement of European, Christian supremacy and the British Empire; and this was put into the hands of children.

It feels to me like today's devotees (for want of a better word) of St George are trying to resurrect that sense of British superiority and white dominance, but what Steel's story does not show is the context in which she wrote it. From the Indian Mutiny in 1857, to the Afghan wars of the 1880s, British rule in India was far from unchallenged, and it was certainly not comparable to the romanticized deeds of knights of old. 

Steel's book was published in 1898, at a time when Indian politics and independence movements were becoming more organised. Indian National Congress was formed in 1885, and the early 1900s would see more strident activism for independence. British ascendancy in the world was further under threat from increasing German imperialism in the years before WW1 - a war which saw 1.5 million Indians serve as soldiers and labourers. This led to British authorities being compelled to take notice of Indian public opinion regarding Home Rule. Then there were various examples of nationalist activism in the years leading up to 1947, like the gathering at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919 - which ended in a massacre of unarmed men and women; or the failed Chittagong uprising of 1930.

And in that refusal to be controlled by imperial masters, perhaps those children of the Empire had more in common with the St George of legend, than the xenophobic ethnonationalists of today who lay claim to him. Because against this backdrop of anxiety about threats to British rule in India - the jewel in the imperial crown -  it seems like not only has the legend of St George been turned into a fairy tale, but the very idea of a time when white, Christian, British rule over the Empire was simply the accepted order of things, is little more than a myth. 

You can read the full story here.


Follow me on TwitterInstagram and Facebook.

Join the conversation at The Brown Brontë's Book Club .



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

50 Years of Bangladesh

 Today is the 50th anniversary of the independence of Bangladesh. Growing up, my sisters and I would hear stories from parents and relatives about the War of Independence of 1971. We would go to community events commemorating Bangladesh Independence Day, Victory Day, Language Martyrs Day, and listen to veterans and members of the community who lived through that period, talking about their experiences. As they stood in front of rows of nodding elders and bored schoolchildren, the pain and pride in their voices rumbled through the microphone in their hands and filled the small community hall, along with the aroma of biryani stacked in boxes at the back, waiting to be handed round later.     Although we often had mixed feelings about sitting through those three-hour programmes, I've begun to realise that those parents who dragged their children along to those events knew that one day there would be nobody left alive who had witnessed that history.     As second or third generation di

Chatting with Kate Morrison, Author: A Book of Secrets

Something special on the blog today, readers: I'm thrilled to be chatting to Kate Morrison, author of stunning debut A Book of Secrets, as part of its Random Things Tour. Join us as we talk about historical research, women's independence and racism in Elizabethan England. "A Book of Secrets is the story of a woman named Susan Charlewood living in Elizabethan England. Born in what is now Ghana, Susan is enslaved by the Portuguese but later rescued by British sailors, who bring her to England. Once in England, she is raised in an English Cathoic household. When Susan comes of age, the family marry her off to an older Catholic man, John Charlewood. Charlewood runs a printing press and uses it to supply the Papist nobility with illegal Catholic texts and foment rebellion amongst the Catholic underclass. When Charlewood, Susan takes over the business and uses her new position to find out more about her origins.  A look at racial relationships at the beginning of the eve of the

Why Helen Graham is the Best Brontë Heroine

This month was Anne Bront ë ’s 200 th birthday, so I couldn’t let it go without writing a post in honour of it.  Anne Bronte, Project Gutenberg I don't think I'm alone in thinking that Anne was the boldest of her sisters. Her novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall certainly is the bravest in rebelling against social expectations of women, and Helen Graham is by far my favourite heroine. Here’s why: 1.  She’s an adult, independent woman who has lived a full(er) life in society. Rather than living in the margins of society, in a state of arrested development, like Jane, Lucy, Agnes or even Cathy who never wanted to leave the moors, Helen’s previous life means she seems more like a well-rounded person. This might have made her story all the more shocking to Victorian audiences, as Helen’s social standing combined with her radical ideas would have been more likely to influence other people than those of a governess. She can’t be dismissed as just a naïve or unrelia