On the twenty-third of this month of April, we keep the feast-day of our Patron Saint — St. George for Merry England. Some of us are inclined to grumble about St. George. In the most respectable Church quarters the opinion has been expressed that it is a pity that the Patron of England is at the best misty, and at the worst mythological. Putting on one side Gibbon’s slander, that the St. George of fact was a profiteering if not a swindling contractor to the Roman army — and really there seems every reason to suppose that this was only Gibbon’s mischief — nothing remains about St. George but the Dragon. And when it comes to dragons, you know — to put the matter in the manner of Mr. George Sampson — really, you know, upon your life you mustn’t. Dragons won’t do. And you take away the dragon-killing, really there is nothing left. The compilers of the Roman Breviary did not live in what is called a critical age. They were certainly not men to scan the acts and legends of the saints with a glance of sour incredulity and suspicion; but they can make nothing, or next to nothing, of St. George. The Collect speaks of him as a Martyr without any specific detail, the verses and responses are from the ‘Common of Martyrs’— such as are used for all martyrs. There is no legend; no hint that there was a dragon in the case.
Well, that being so, the Roman Breviary evidently knowing nothing whatever about St. George, we may conclude that there is nothing to be known. Our Patron Saint is a shadowy figure. And yet he is vitally interesting — to me at all events. For though the martyr of the third century did not kill any dragons, somebody did kill dragons at that vaguer date known as once upon a time. We know nothing about St. George; but the popular tradition that he was a dragon-killer proves that a very long time ago there were dragons and that there were men who encountered them and killed them. For tradition is always true. It rather understates than exaggerates. In this specific case, for example; go to your cabinet of rarities and curiosities, press the hidden pin, cause the secret drawers in which the rarest things lie to fly open; and take out a golden sovereign. Look at the figure of the dragon which the Saint is riding down and destroying. A horrid-looking brute, certainly; but a pet lamb, a positive kitten compared with the dragon as it really was. As it really was? Certainly; only the scientific people call dragons pterodactyls. As Kingsley observes, very pleasantly, in The Water Babies, the learned men had been scoffing at the mere notion of dragons for long years. Then they found their bones, and instead of owning up like decent fellows, and acknowledging that the simple old tale was a true tale, that there really had been dragons on the earth, they made up a Greek word and spoke of pterodactyls, or ‘winged fingers’— a stupid term and not nearly so expressive as dragons. And, what is more, we know exactly what these terrific beasts — fifty feet long or more — looked like; not by the learned reconstructions of their frames, but in a much more vivid way. There remains to this day an exact model, on a huge scale, of the dragon of the slime. Not as he appeared in the soaring of his awful flight, beating the air with his ‘winged fingers,’ but as he lay torpid, reposing on the earth. This model is to be seen in Wales. The Peninsula of Gower, Glamorgan, runs out into the Bristol Channel. I have often looked at it, across the water, from the south Pembrokeshire coast. Carrying the eye from the horrid factory chimneys of Llanelly and Burry Port, you see an undulating range of hills running out south by west. The skyline of these hills swells upwards into a kind of gentle hump at about the middle of the range, and then curving down, ends in an insignificant point, low on the water. A singular shape this point; to the eye it seems curiously flattened: and its name is The Worm’s Head. It is not a bit like the head of the worm that the gardener slices with his spade; but ‘worm’ was old English for dragon; and these swelling hills, ending in a small promontory, must form an exact picture of the horrible pterodactyl, half reptile, half bird, huge in body, ridiculous in head, as it lay at length on the ground. Here, in hill and rock, you have a picture — it is rather an awful thought — of the image in the mind and eye of a prehistoric ancestor who may have lived 400,000 years ago. He had looked into the place of dragons, and had noted the likeness of the monsters to that line of hills running out into the sea; and, somehow, his thought has come down through the tremendous ages; even to our day.
Tradition is always in the right, And, still occupying ourselves with the St. George legend, another proof can be gathered of the accuracy of the age-long memory of man. There is a picture of St. George and the Dragon, I think by a master of the Venetian school, in which the monster has quite a different aspect from the ‘worm’ or pterodactyl which gave its name to the Worm’s Head. In this picture, the dragon is a horrible bloated beast with a swollen, misshapen body. The painter could never have had a model; but he painted an excellent likeness of an iguanodon, another of those huge monsters that roamed the earth before the earth had boiled and flooded and dried and frozen into the shape that it now bears. Somehow, it seems clear, the word was passed on from age to age across all the gulfs and chasms of time. Where the seas are now, then was dry land; vast Atlantis, the island continent, had not sunken under the waves; there were terrors on the earth indeed — but not the terror of the Channel Passage, since men walked dryfoot from the points known to us as Dover and Calais. The earth heaved, as I say, and boiled; islands rose out of the sea, ships now sail over primæval mountain tops; Europe became a sheet of ice; yet the word was passed on, so that the Pembroke countryman and the Venetian painter knew what dragons were like; both the long breed and the thick breed.
By the way, I wonder whether the members of the Prehistoric Ladies’ Toy Dragon Club got on well together? But the consideration of this deep and obscure problem must be postponed for the present.
The memory of man, then, is boundless, reaching back to inconceivable antiquity. It is no marvel, therefore, if it has retained events and circumstances of historic and measurable times. A thousand years, two thousand years are trifling periods indeed when we compare them with the huge, unimaginable chaos of time; still, I remember being amazed when an Oxfordshire farm labourer, who had never been to school and could neither read nor write, said casually to me:
‘Ay, Chalgrove Field, that’s where they killed Muster Hampden. They do say it was down in oats at the time.’
Down in oats at the time! I could almost hear the brushing and rushing of the Cavaliers’ chargers, as they trampled down that field of oats in their hot onset.
‘And then,’ old Harmon went on, ‘Squire Scoop down at Wormsley there; he got hanged when it was all over.’
The name was not quite accurate. He was speaking of the Roundhead Colonel, Adrian Scrope, who was one of the few persons excepted by the merciful Charles II from the Act of Indemnity. To the old countryman it was all actual, gossip of the neighbouring countryside. To be sure, it was only two hundred and fifty years or so since it happened.
And then, I remember reading — I think in The Guardian— an interesting article on Tewkesbury and its Minster. The writer described a visit he had paid to the place thirty years before. He was shown over the church by a verger who ran over the associations of the place, after the manner of most vergers. But presently the visitor became aware that the old fellow was talking quite differently from most vergers. He was speaking of the battle of Tewkesbury; and he talked as if he had been there! He told of little things which do not get into the history books, he described the upper room in a house in the town where certain princes were murdered, and he ended up with a ghastly description of how the dead were brought from the battlefield and brought into the church, ‘till the bodies reached up to the top of those pillars.’ It was the vivid picture of an onlooker. The visitor made his inquiries, and found that the old man came of a family who had supplied sacristans, clerks, vergers to Tewkesbury Minster from the fifteenth century onward. The verger was telling the tale that his father had told him. And there are odd stories from Scotland and Ireland. In Scotland the simple country people had a silly tale of a knight all in silver armour who was buried under a certain mound on a hillside. Everybody laughed; till some one passing by the mound — eighty or perhaps a hundred years ago — noticed that the ground had been recently disturbed. The antiquaries took the matter in hand. But they were too late. A wisely credulous villager had been before them. Only the knight’s bones and one or two laminæ of the wonderful silver armour remained. It was all true; the armour was Danish, dating back to the year 900 or so; the Hamlet period. The tradition had lasted among the unlearned for nine hundred years. And in Ireland the tale was of a fairy rath or castle; a rounded hill from which, said the peasants, flames could be seen issuing of nights. Again tradition was right; flames could have been seen issuing at night from the top of that queer hill; could have been seen, that is, if you happened to have been strolling that way somewhere about A.D 850. Investigation showed that this place had been a retreat of the aboriginal inhabitants of Ireland, the dark ‘little people,’ and had been sacked by Danes sometime in the ninth century. And as to the flames; the flue to carry off the smoke from the fairy fire was duly discovered.
It is wonderful, all this; but it is all over. I doubt whether old Harmon’s children know anything about the culture of Chalgrove Field where Hampden fell; they went to school, the place where ignorance of everything that matters is so carefully imparted. And so with the story of Tewkesbury; the writer of the article visited the place a second time and found a strange verger. This man had never seen the stricken field of Tewkesbury, or the blood running in the upper room, or the dead men piled capital-high in the church. He told the story as it was printed in the Guide. The old folk-memory is dead; we have killed it with our silly schools and our rubbishy books.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53