Why William Shakespeare shares the stage with St. George's dragon

Google celebrates Britain's most famous bard, William Shakespeare, with a host of his most beloved literary references, including St. George and his dragon.

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    An April 23 Google Doodle celebrates William Shakespeare and one of his most prolific literary allusions – Saint George the dragon-slayer.
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Google upped its literary punch on April 23 by putting on the search-engine doodle stage both William Shakespeare and a host of his most beloved literary references.

One of these allusions, perhaps a little less well-known to modern Americans than Hamlet or Juliet, is St. George, the dragon-slayer whose feast day coincides with Shakespeare's death 400 years ago, and who appears in the Bard's plays 18 times, reports the Independent. 

"Follow your spirit, and upon this charge Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'" the British troops cry before the battle of Harfleur in Henry V.

St. George and his dragon have influenced American culture by providing a prototypical portrait of a dragon that was hard-pressed rather than horrifying. The traditional story paints St. George, an early Christian martyr, as a hero for rescuing hapless villagers from a fiery doom, and England's national flag features St. George's symbol – the red cross on a white background, the BBC reports.

Kenneth Grahame, author of the children's classic "The Wind in the Willows," wrote a short story called "The Reluctant Dragon" in 1898 that starred a more demure dragon than most retellings. A child finds the dragon, who prefers writing poetry to breathing fire and is alarmed by the prospect of fighting any dragon-slaying saint.

"Just understand, once for all, that I can't fight and I won't fight," Grahame's dragon tells the boy. "I've never fought in my life, and I'm not going to begin now, just to give you a Roman holiday. In old days I always let the other fellows – the earnest fellows – do all the fighting, and no doubt that's why I have the pleasure of being here now."

With some effort on the boy's part, St. George agrees to merely stage a violent fight and then persuade the townsfolk that defeat in battle has reformed the beast. It was far cry from Thomas Percy's "Saint George and the Dragon."  

"St. George then looking round about, The fiery dragon soon espy'd, And like a knight of courage stout, Against him did most fiercely ride; And with such blows he did him greet, He fell beneath his horse's feet."

Such poetry probably better represents what Shakespeare had in mind when he penned the shouts of charging generals, "Saint George and victory! fight, soldiers, fight," but Graham's story helped make dragon-lovers of Brits and Americans alike. It inspired a 1941 Walt Disney film of the same name, an operetta for children, and multiple television works. 

"The Reluctant Dragon" provided the West with a prototype for ambivalent dragon-hood. The beast's poetry and pacifism made him a model for other works to follow, wrote Margaret Blount in the 1974 book "Animal Land: The Creatures of Children's Fiction." He was followed by Disney's 1977 film, "Pete's Dragon," or the 1963 song "Puff the Magic Dragon."

In the world of literature, German Michael Ende produced a helpful dragon in "The Neverending Story," as did Christopher Paolini in "Eragon," and numerous fantasy books for children and young adults feature communities of dragons that need not be slain. 

 
 
 

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