Monday, November 14, 2016

Saint George and the Dragon

by Edmund Spenser,
adapted by Sandol Stoddard Warburg,
with illustrations by Pauline Baynes

134 pages / 1963

More than three years ago, my brother reviewed a beautiful picture book version of the tale of Saint George and the Dragon, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman (even though I read it to my kids first!). We agree that it is a great way to introduce kids to the grit and glory of resisting "this present darkness" (Ephesians 6:12); however, as Jon mentioned, "Saint George and the Dragon" is actually part of a much longer story, The Faerie Queene, an epic poem by Edmund Spenser. Any younger reader who has been introduced to George's exploits through the picture book may want to know more, and that's what this adaptation provides.

Spenser's The Fairie Queene is actually a poem of six books, and Saint George's quest to defeat the dragon fills only the first one. Each book has twelve sections called cantos (several hundred lines each in the original), and Sandol Stoddard Warburg has made each canto a chapter of her version.

The picture book focuses on the fight with the dragon, but Stoddard's adaptation is closer to a campaign than a single battle. In George's travels with the princess Una (who represents the one true united church), she is impersonated by a false princess (really a witch named Duessa, representing false doctrine and the false church), who becomes George's companion. Even though he is deceived by her, he's still smart enough to fight against evil in the person of such revealingly named knights as Sans Foi (faithless), Sans Joi (joyless), and San Loi (Lawless). He is almost trapped in the House of Pride, but also gains the help of Prince Arthur (before he becomes the legendary king). Exactly how he is reunited finally with the real princess, and the evil sorcerer Archimago meets his fate - all before the climactic battle with the dragon - is what makes this retelling so intriguing.

The people and places named in Warburg's fuller version of the famous tale more clearly shows the allegorical nature of Spenser's poem. Spenser's story thus demonstrates the obstacles that the Christian encounters in life, so it's a great way to start conversations about the "spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" that influence life here in earthly places.

There is one difference between Warburg's version and the picture book that seemingly works in favour of Trina Schart Hyman's version: Hyman's illustrations are definitely more intricate. Nonetheless, the artist for this version will bring back memories of favorite editions of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Pauline Baynes illustrated some of Tolkien's stories, as well as the whole Chronicles of Narnia. Her artwork here, in red ink, particularly the miniatures framing the covers, echoes the marginal illustrations of medieval manuscripts. As well as being a great read-aloud, this is a definite book-lover's treasure.

If you want your own step up into the world of the Faerie Queene, one that adults can enjoy on their own, as well as sharing with children, you can get a copy here.

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