About a year ago, I wrote about a very bad children’s book, The Sunflower Sword. It was a remarkably anti-masculine story, written to take little boys’ natural desire to pick up pretend swords & battle pretend dragons and neuter it before it can cause women problems.
Now, one of my sons is at that very age where every pillow hides a monster in need of a sound thrashing. And so it was time to find books that embraced the archetypal myths rather than subverting them. Thankfully, someone had recommended a beautifully illustrated retelling of Saint George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges. And I have to say that it is marvelous in the way it takes that rough masculine desire to slay dragons and gives it a context which helps to shape that desire into virtue.
There are many points worthy of note, but it is the fight against the dragon which comprises most of the book and which my son (and I) naturally found the most compelling. As it details that battle, it also teaches lessons that go beyond myth and instead tell us about the struggles of our own lives.
It is clear from both the text and the illustrations alike that the dragon isn’t simply a dangerous foe, but an impossible one. It dwarfs St. George to the point that it’s more a part of the landscape than an opponent with which the knight shares the field of battle. What’s more, St. George’s weapons are simply not up to the task. Spear and sword alike simply glance off of the beast’s scales rather than striking true. How does a man fight such a foe?
He does not enter the battle because of some secret inner power waiting to be unlocked which will turn the tide. He does not enter the battle because he has a clever and intricate plan that is sure to lead to victory. He does not bear a magical dragon-slaying sword. Indeed, he brings absolutely nothing to the table that can overcome the Dragon’s power. But he does battle all the same. Why? Because fighting that dragon is his vocation. He was called to this task by Providence, and so he bravely engages in it with all of his might–even though such might is clearly not enough.
And that is ultimately why St. George prevails–because he fights and continues to fight with everything he has while Providence supplies what he cannot.
In the beginning, his blows neither injure the dragon nor put it in any peril. Nevertheless, George drives the dragon to both rage and fear simply because he strikes it harder than it expected and it doesn’t want to be struck again. For all its power and ferocity, the dragon doesn’t like to feel pain. It is, in effect, offended simply by the act of a mere human contending against it.
Now, that doesn’t stop George from being on the worst end of their clashes. On the first encounter, the only real injury the knight inflicts is to damage the dragon’s wing just enough that it cannot fly away. But George loses both spear and horse alike before falling to the ground scorched and near death.
But each time he falls down unable to fight any longer, it is Providence which picks up St. George’s slack–not by felling the dragon for him or passing the task to another, but by enabling him to fight and enter the impossible struggle once again. At one point, a spring of water bubbles up from the ground where he falls to cool his burning armor and flesh. Later, an apple tree drops healing dew which repels the dragon and helps George recover. Along the way, Una, the princess who has led him to this battle, prays on his behalf and her prayers are answered.
So each time George falls, he also gets back up and returns to battle with a dragon increasingly irritated by his perseverance. Victory, of course, arrives only when things are at their worst. In the end, the dragon opens its maw to finally simply swallow its tiny foe whole. But it is by that very act that George’s sword strikes true through the dragon’s palette where there were no scales to get in the way.
If this story were the latest blockbuster being reviewed by modern sci-fi fans, these kinds of plot details would be nit-picked to death as mere contrivance and convenience. The dragon should have known better than to try and eat a guy with a sword! Why didn’t it burn down the apple true with its breath? Besides, springs and trees simply don’t work that way, and any magic they might possess was never established by the author beforehand!
But such deus ex machina is part of the genius of fairy tales like these. These stories do not take place in a materialistic world bereft of destiny and providence. They take place in a world in which it is the nature of good to triumph over evil. It is only the timing, the mechanisms, and the struggle involved which are in any true doubt.
We call that “unrealistic” today. We prefer dark and gritty stories in which goodness only prevails if it can find a good enough excuse and perishes otherwise. But this preference says more about our nihilism than it does about our realism.
After all, the world in which we live really is blessed with God’s providence and directed by his sovereignty. It is a world in which the victory of good over evil is assured because Christ has won the final victory already–we are all simply awaiting its final revelation. In that respect, the fairy tale actually conforms better to the real world than contemporary “realistic” settings.
We don’t know the twists and turns our stories will take until that Last Day. We don’t know how we will suffer or how we will prevail. But destiny is real: For those who love God, all things cannot help but work together for their good. Our victory is sealed, and it is only the moment-to-moment details which are in any doubt.
In the meantime, every one of us has vocations from God. He has set us to a variety of tasks–some very broad, others very specific. We may have very little insight into how we could possibly accomplish those tasks, but we nevertheless are called to throw ourselves into them at God’s command.
I, for example, am a father. I know that God has called me to that because he has given me two wonderful sons. I know it’s my job to raise them; to train & teach them; to love, care, provide for, and protect them. I also have very little idea how I’m going to actually accomplish all of that over the next two decades. But the truth is, I don’t need to know that today. I only need to know the next step–how to love them today and how to prepare myself to love them tomorrow. And through all the ups and downs and ignorance, God has always provided what is needful.
What’s more, we are not unopposed in these vocations. We are all called by God to many different tasks, but the constant among every last one of them is struggle. Doing God’s will means being thrown into combat against impossible enemies which we are simply incapable of overcoming: the Devil, this world of which he is the prince, and our own fallen nature which makes us susceptible to him. These are constantly trying to kill us, destroy our families, and lure us away from Christ. We cannot overcome the demons, we cannot bring the world to heel, and we can hardly overpower ourselves.
But we win nonetheless. Our victory has already been provided, even if we don’t get to experience that victory moment-to-moment. And so no matter how many times we fall battered to the ground, we win simply because we continue to fight; and we continue to fight simply because that’s what God has called us to do. And like St. George’s dragon, Satan shrieks and rages over nothing more than the fact that we presumptuously take the field against him in faith. He cannot stand being opposed because of the One who has overcome him.
Most of us don’t wear swords, aren’t sent on quests by faerie queens, don’t have literal dragons to fight, and aren’t offered crowns and princesses for our troubles. Nevertheless, dragonslaying is still a relevant skill. For Christian men, conflict against evil is an inevitable part of our lives–and so is victory.
Because of that, Christian boys still need to hear stories like this. As Neil Gaiman (distilling Chesterton) put it, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”