Sylvester and Beowulf a Note on the Alignment of Dragons

For those of you who did not get enough Christmas at Christmas Day, let me remind you that today, 31 December, is the Sixth Day of Christmas, when it is tradition to give your true love six geese a-laying. It is also the day called Leave-Taking, and the feast of Saint Sylvester.

Sylvester was the Pope during the days when Constantine converted, and, with him, the Empire, and the Christian faith, which had been illegal throughout the civilized world for a period longer than the lifespan of the American republic, and had been the target of inhuman persecutions, became not only legal, but celebrated. This was before the first Nicene Council, before the schism of the Coptics and Nestorians, and long before the schism of the Eastern Church. At that time, we were all one.

It was also a time of legend. Here is the Medieval account from the Golden Legends or Lives of the Saints, of the tale of St Sylvester and the Dragon.

In this time it happed that there was at Rome a dragon in a pit, which every day slew with his breath more than three hundred men. Then came the bishops of the idols unto the emperor and said unto him: O thou most holy emperor, sith the time that thou hast received christian faith the dragon which is in yonder fosse or pit slayeth every day with his breath more than three hundred men. Then sent the emperor for Saint Silvester and asked counsel of him of this matter.

Saint Silvester answered that by the might of God he promised to make him cease of his hurt and blessure of this people. Then S Silvester put himself to prayer, and Saint Peter appeared to him and said: Go surely to the dragon and the two priests that be with thee take in thy company, and when thou shalt come to him thou shalt say to him in this manner: Our Lord Jesu Christ which was born of the Virgin Mary, crucified, buried and arose, and now sitteth on the right side of the Father, this is he that shall come to deem and judge the living and the dead, I commend thee Sathanas that thou abide him in this place till he come. Then thou shalt bind his mouth with a thread, and seal it with thy seal , wherein is the imprint of the cross. Then thou and the two priests shall come to me whole and safe, and such bread as I shall make ready for you ye shall eat. Thus as Saint Peter had said, Saint Silvester did.

And when he came to the pit, he descended down one hundred and fifty steps, bearing with him two lanterns, and found the dragon, and said the words that Saint Peter had said to him, and bound his mouth with the thread, and sealed it, and after returned, and as he came upward again he met with two enchanters which followed him for to see if he descended, which were almost dead of the stench of the dragon, whom he brought with him whole and sound, which anon were baptized, with a great multitude of people with them. Thus was the city of Rome delivered from double death, that was from the culture and worshiping of false idols, and from the venom of the dragon.

For those of you lacking an archaic vocabulary, “Blessure” means “wound.” “Hap” means “It so happened.” “Sith” means “while” and also refers to evil Jedi with red lightsabers.

Pope St Silvester joins St George, St Michael, St Mercurialis (the first bishop of Forni), St Theodore of Tyro (the first patron saint of Venice), St Margaret of Antioch as dragon-slayers. Never let is be said that Christian lore lacks for local color and that strange touch of the supernatural which fantasy stories can only fantasize about.

For those of you who only read modern fantasy, it will come as a shock to you that, before Anne McCaffrey and Ursula K LeGuin, in Western literature and song, dragons were bad guys. There were no lawful, good dragons, no friendly dragons, any more than there were friendly monsters.

Dragons in those far off days were the hellish creatures described in BEOWULF, who sit watchfully on the horded and piled gold robbed from dead and forgotten kings, and, what is more offensive to the ancient Norse mind, never gave a groat of the wealth away as a reward for valor.

Here is a snippet from Seamus Heaney’s masterful translation:

Then an old harrower of the dark
Happened to find the hoard open,
The burning one who hunts out barrows,
The slick-skinned dragon, threatening the night sky
With streamers of fire.  People on the farms
Are in dread of him.  He is driven to hunt out
Hoards under ground, to guard heathen gold
Through age-long vigils, though to little avail.
For three centuries, this scourge of the people
Had stood guard on that stoutly protected
Underground treasury, until the intruder
Unleashed its fury  …

The rage of the dragon is caused because one man stole into the barrow while he slept, and stole a single golden cup, a minuscule loss in the midst of the wealth. Those of you who have read Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT will recognize the deadly worm immediately, and recognize the towering rage which sent the monster out on a fiery rampage.

Pouring forth
In a hot battle-fume, the breath of the monster
Burst from the rock.  There was a rumble underground.
Down there in the barrow, Beowulf the warrior
Lifted his shield: the outlandish thing
Writhed and convulsed and viciously
Turned on the king, whose keen-edged-sword,
And heirloom inherited by ancient right,
Was already in his hand.  Roused to a fury,
Each antagonist struck terror in the other.
Unyielding, the lord of his people loomed
By his tall shield, sure of his ground,
While the serpent looped and unleashed itself.
Swaddled in flames, it came gliding and flexing
And racing toward its fate.Yet his shield defended
The renowned leader’s life and limb
For a shorter time than he meant it to:
That final day was the first time
When Beowulf fought and fate denied him
Glory in battle.So the king of the Geats
Raised his hand and struck hard
At the enameled scales, but hardly cut through:
The blade flashed and slashed yet the blow
Was far less powerful than the hard-pressed king
Had need of at the moment.The hoard-keeper
Went into a spasm and spouted deadly flames:
When he felt the stroke, battle-fire
Billowed and spewed.  Beowulf was foiled
Of a glorious victory.The glittering sword,
Infallible before that day,
Failed when he unsheathed it, as it never should have.
For the son of Ecgtheow, it was no easy thing
To have to give ground like that and go
Unwillingly to inhabit another home
In a place beyond; so every man must yield
The leasehold of his days.

Not to spoil the surprise ending, but Beowulf does not survive the fight.

For those of you would saw the computer-animated movie written by Neil Gaiman, I am sad to report that in the original poem there is no scene where Beowulf throws an ax connected to a harpoon line into the dragon, and does a Spiderman-leap onto its back, riding it through the air like Slim Pickens riding an A-bomb into a Russian base at Kodlosk, nor is there a scene where the hero plunges his hand to the dragon’s open chest wound in a vain attempt to reach its pulsating heart with a knife. Nor does the hero have an extramarital affair with Grendel’s Mother, nor does he usurp the throne of his host Hrothgar, nor is he a liar and a fool.

You see, in older poems, written before the Politically Correct Tyranny-of-Relativism Culture of Death (also called the Culture of Excruciating Tedium) sucked all the oxygen out of the intellectual atmosphere of our civilization, not only were dragons bad guys, but heroes, by and large, were good guys.

Some of them were good enough to be saints, and were able to do with a thread what warlords could not do with a sword.

Farewell, 2012! Happy Leave-Taking!

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