Sunday, January 3, 2010


Civilizations can be judged by how their illustrators portray the story of St. George and the Dragon.

The basic facts of the eternal triangle between man, woman and dragon are well known. But while the facts don't change, the artist's interpretation changes dramatically through the ages. Contrast these four wonderful pictures of St. George and the dragon:

First is a breathtakingly beautiful painting created circa 1438 by the Catalan master Bernardo Martorell:

This painting was created in an age of unshakeable faith in right and wrong, a world of absolutes-- the virginal purity of the damsel, the evil of the dragon and the virtue of the knight. You will also note that the picture doesn't contain a whole lot of perspective (both literally and metaphorically):

I ask you: what dragon-- or knight-- could possibly resist such an esculent little tea cake?

500 years later, when the days of religious certainty and absolute principles had subsided a bit, Al Williamson offered a very different perspective in the classic EC Weird Fantasy story, By George!!

Here, we learn that the "dragon" is merely a lost and confused alien child who is tricked and slaughtered by the ruthless St. George. We now have to ask ourselves, "who is the real monster?"

A few decades later, William Steig offered yet another perspective on the relationship. Here, the damsel is frightened more by the martial clanking of the knight than by the dragon.

In both form and content, Steig's approach is light yet insightful.

Later, Jeff Jones offers us a completely different (and hotter) perspective on the triangle:

Martorell would not have recognized his damsel.

It is fun to play with how these interpretations have changed through the years. Life obviously got harder for St. George as the world became more complex. He evolves from saint to villain to resentful cuckold. The damsel changes from a decorative ornament passively awaiting her rescuer to an active participant, and then ultimately to the wanton master of the situation. Even the dragon fits in roles as a villain, a helpless victim and a hero.

Look at how much richness we gain as these four different artists use standard characters to triangulate the complexity of love. Has our loyalty shifted away from knights and towards dragons? Do we know more today about what lurks in the hearts of damsels?

The difference between an illustrator and a geometry teacher is that the geometry teacher believes there are only three angles in a triangle. As we look ahead on the shiny new year of 2010, it seems rich with potential for those who embrace the complexities of the world and put them together in fresh combinations.

"It's a magical world, Hobbes ol' buddy. Let's go exploring."