Past Is Prologue
To Understand Our Scary World, Read About Fire-Breathing Dragons
What a princess, a knight, and an evil dragon can teach us about Covid-19
We have not even to risk the adventure alone for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly known. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path. And where we had thought to find an abomination we shall find God. And where we had thought to slay another we shall slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outwards we shall come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone we shall be with all the world.
— Joseph Campbell
I’ve lived in Catalonia, a semi-autonomous region of Spain, for the last three years. If we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic, I’d be selling you on living here in my best “travel blogger” tone — and I’d begin by telling you about the festivals. Everyone gets the day off work and gathers in the street. Civilians set off fireworks with no regard for fingers or eyeballs. Roaming drum lines and paper-mache giants and dragons spitting actual fire will lead you to where the party’s at.
I still can’t believe I went my whole life not knowing the sense of community, the life-affirming giddiness, of turning your whole city into a playground and a fire hazard.
Of course, this year’s going to be a bit different.
The streets are empty, the drums are silent, the curtains are drawn, and the stories behind those festivals — ancient stories of princesses and dragons and townspeople and valiant knights — are frozen in place.
With nowhere for them to go, maybe this is an opportunity to examine these stories to see if they have anything to tell us about the times we’re currently living in. I’m talking specifically about The Festival of St. George and the Dragon, one of the oldest, most beloved stories of human bravery and the triumph of good over evil. It’s the ultimate “hero’s journey.”
The Hero’s Journey is not an invention, but an observation. It is a recognition of a beautiful design, a set of principles that govern the conduct of life and the world of storytelling the way physics and chemistry govern the physical world.
— Christopher Vogler (The Writer’s Journey)
In Catalonia, St. George is St. Jordi, and he’s a patron saint of Barcelona. You’ll see his mark all over the city, from the design of the stunning Palau de la Música to one the world’s most cherished examples of architectural playfulness, Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Batlló.
But it’s not just a Catalonian thing. Similar depictions of a horseman (the god Horus) slaying a crocodile-like creature (the god Set) appeared as early as fourth-century Egypt. People celebrate St. George’s Day around the world, with reenactments and festivals in England, Canada, Croatia, Russia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Portugal, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Cyprus, Greece, Georgia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Republic of Macedonia. (Say all that in one breath, it’s a good Covid-19 test.) The story has since evolved into more modern depictions such as Sleeping Beauty, in which Prince Philip fights the great Maleficent in dragon form, and everyone’s favorite, Shrek, a parody of exactly that but with layers. Like an onion.
Here in Barcelona, the festival honoring Jordi has evolved into a day of romance and reading — essentially Catalonia’s Valentine’s Day. Here’s how it all began.
Once upon a time, there was a lovely little kingdom that was being terrorized by a vicious and eeeeevil dragon. Every week, the dragon demanded a human sacrifice in exchange for not decimating the entire kingdom. In most versions of the story, the sacrifices were young virgin girls. Because everybody knows dragons are notorious pervs.
This system of sacrifice was clearly pretty unfair, so the townspeople decided to come up with a better, more equitable system. They would put the name of every young female virgin into a hat — even the daughters of wealthy men. Whichever girl’s name was pulled would have to be sacrificed, regardless of social status.
At some point, the kingdom was running dangerously low on virgins. So when the princess’s name was pulled from the hat, the king couldn’t even pay the townspeople to spare her life. Accepting her fate, she wore a beautiful wedding gown and willingly went to sacrifice herself to the dragon. In some versions, she’s tied to a tree and left for dead. In other versions, she enters a dark and spooky cave. In all versions, she looks hella put-together.
But what’s this? Riding in on his faithful steed in the nick of time is a handsome knight in literal shining armor. The OG himself. Turns out, St. Jordi (then just Private Jordi; he was a soldier) had wandered into town in time to happen across the princess on her way to her dragon appointment. He thought she looked so beautiful in her wedding dress and fell so instantly in love that he simply couldn’t let her die.
You could say she slayed him before he ever slew the dragon.
In most of the versions I’ve read or seen, this is the part with the big action scene: Jordi versus the dragon. It’s a knock-down, drag-out scuffle. At one point, Jordi subdues the dragon enough that the princess is able to put her wedding garter around its neck and walk it around like a dog on a leash. That’s when Jordi deals the final blow.
Where the dragon’s blood runs into the earth, a red rose pops up like a token in a video game, and Jordi snatches it up for his lady love. She swoons, they get married, and the king gives Jordi the key to the city and all the gold and riches he could ever want. Jordi, good Christian that he is, gives it all away to the townspeople. Everybody thinks that’s pretty cool, converts to Christianity, and they all live happily ever after. The end.
Obviously, this story doesn’t follow the typical hero’s journey format that Joseph Campbell lays out in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Jordi doesn’t have a backstory. We don’t know anything about the “ordinary world” he left to come on this adventure. He doesn’t face guardians of the gate or preliminary trials. He doesn’t meet any allies. He doesn’t come to terms with some hidden part of himself that gives him the strength to fight the big villain. He just shows up and throws down, deus ex machina style.
Jordi’s an archetype, a collectively inherited unconscious idea, as are the virgins, the princess, the dragon, the townspeople, and the king. Archetypes are important elements of the hero’s journey, but they’re usually meant to shepherd the hero along. With no hero that fits the typical format, it would seem that the journey in this story is ours, the audience’s.
Scary times often call for simpler stories, and it’s thought that this story may have first gained popularity during plague times. Perhaps the dragon was a metaphor for the plague — or death, chaos, war, famine, entropy, or fear: Take your pick.
Catalonians celebrate St. Jordi’s Day with books and roses, two symbols that represent the Jordi archetype and the princess archetype. The rose is obvious, but the book might seem a little out of left field. When does Jordi ever read? Is it because he’s the original storybook hero? Maybe, but the holiday also happens to fall on April 23, the same day that both Shakespeare and Cervantes passed away in 1616, so the concepts have merged. Picture Valentine’s Day mixed with a renaissance festival mixed with National Book Day.
During the festival, all the streets are lined with independent booksellers, and all the buildings are covered in roses. It’s magical. But there’s something about it that’s always bothered me: Traditionally, women are gifted with a rose, and men are gifted a book.
These ideas of masculine versus feminine equate to other outdated societal ideas: hero versus damsel, action versus reaction, growth versus receptivity, force versus gentleness, experience versus innocence, logic versus intuitiveness, individualism versus community, and knowledge versus beauty. Society needs to grow out of these binaries, and wouldn’t it be nice if a global shake-up such as this pandemic helped speed the process along?
Just look at how well women leaders are handling the coronavirus. And a team of economists is predicting that this pandemic will be a game changer for men’s roles in traditionally heteronormative households. As noted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
Women hold 4 million or 78% of all hospital jobs. They also hold 70% of pharmacy jobs and 51% of grocery store roles, another area that has been crucial in the pandemic. In many of these families, men will inevitably turn into the main childcare providers, either because they lost their own jobs or are able to work from home.
We’ve spent the last 10 centuries misinterpreting the “sacred marriage” between Jordi and the princess. The fact that women are still getting a rose and men are still getting a book is a problem.
The book and the rose may be key to our pandemic response.
Christopher Vogler defines a “sacred marriage” as “a mystic marriage within a person, a balancing of opposing inner forces.” In other words, we each contain both masculine and feminine, action and reaction, force and gentleness — and it takes a true act of heroism to find the balance.
I want a book and a rose, goddammit.
What’s more, I think the book and the rose may be key to our pandemic response. In order to survive this thing, we need both.
An educated populace and a willingness to change the paradigm is the book. When we openly share and agree on facts and research, we have a common purpose, a vision, and can make calculated, sweeping plans of action.
The rose is the populace that holds the heart front and center. We recognize our common humanity and the rights we all have to live in peace, safety, and harmony. When we have empathy for the most vulnerable and love and compassion for our communities, we know we’re taking action for all the right reasons.
One without the other doesn’t work.
Action without compassion is basically Trump, which would explain why he thinks he’s Jordi but is actually some version of the king without any clothes on (sorry for that visual but shoutout to the part of the story where Jordi redistributes the king’s wealth). Trump would totally throw his daughter to the dragon if it meant saving his own life. He’s already sacrificed his followers.
Compassion without action is all the townspeople thanking those who’ve gone off to heroically sacrifice themselves for the safety of their community. Those pure-of-heart first responders are the true heroes of this story, sure, but without any plans to improve their situation or ensure the long-term safety of their families, calling them heroes is a fairly empty gesture. We’re just going to keep pulling their names out of a hat and asking them to sacrifice.
And then there’s the dragon.
A couple of years ago, I had just moved to Spain with my family, and I had a lot of anxiety about starting a freelance writing career. My mom was my date to the festivities on that first St. Jordi’s Day. As we walked along the packed streets checking out the booths selling St. Jordi and the Dragon paraphernalia, she asked me to keep an eye out for the “perfect” dragon.
I spent the whole day pointing out dragons. There were plushies, keychains, sculptures, paintings, T-shirts, plates, glass art — she hated all of it. I finally got so frustrated that I pointed to the ugliest dragon I’d seen all day, a handmade little clay monstrosity, and cheekily said, “That one. It’s perfect.”
She unironically agreed.
She bought it, let the vendor carefully wrap it, thanked her, turned to me, and presented it with a giant grin. “For you.”
I cringed at first but softened at what she said next: “I want you to put this on your writing desk and look at it every time you feel scared. Remember that this guy is the embodiment of all your fears.”
Covid-19 is no joke. The pain and suffering people are going through right now doesn’t feel funny or cute. Over the past two months, I’ve had a lot of time to contemplate my mortality and what I’d do if I lost a loved one. My mom and I have both been sick. And the uncertainty, along with this intense pressure in my head and pain in my ribs, is uncomfortable, to say the least.
We can make friends with our fear.
You’d think I’d want to smack that ugly dragon off the desk, but as much as I try to see some sign of mockery in his face, all I see is a lighthearted act of love from my mom. My nervous system calms right down.
We can make friends with our fear. I think that’s the meaning of that strange moment in the story when the princess walks the dragon on a leash. Befriending fear isn’t easy. It takes tapping into your compassionate, gentle, receptive, heartfelt side to get there. It’s a practice that requires strength and endurance. But this is the heroic act of the princess.
The story’s not quite over when the dragon is slain. The hero, strengthened by the actions taken and the compassion learned, must now return to the ordinary world and get to work on changing it for the better.
We’re not even close to this part of the story. We’ve still got plenty of journey to go and trials to face. But if we take along a book and a rose and our fear on a leash as reminders of how our ancestors made it through, I think they’ll forgive us our lack of a festival in their honor, and they’ll guide us as far as they can to a higher version of ourselves.