Saint George and the Dragon is a fairy tale, but Taylor Marshall begs to differ. His novel Sword and the Serpent claims to be a “historical retelling” of the St George legend. The problem is, whether historians like it or not, we don’t think of St George as a historical figure like St Augustine. Even though saints like St John the Baptist and St Paul preceded him, St George has been lost in the mists of time and become a legend whom we don’t really take all that seriously. After all, as my seven year old daughter often points out to her knightly younger brother: dragons aren’t real.
So I was intrigued by Marshall’s claim, but when I received my advance copy I must admit I hesitated to open it. Would it be yet another fantasy romp masquerading as historical fiction? Could Marshall fashion a character both historical and credible? Was I going to regret agreeing to read and review what would probably make me cringe the whole way through?
I turned to the first page and breathed a sigh of relief. Emperor Diocletian greeted me and there wasn’t a dragon in sight. Here was someone familiar, even if only from spending many memorable moments in his palace in Split, Croatia; and George – or Jurian as he is mostly called in the book – was most certainly not in possession of a white charger. Marshall has made the unknown Silene into Cyrene, with its apt connotations of Simon of Cyrene – a fair interpretation – and St Christopher has been given a Philistine ancestry to explain his great height and strength. Even St Nicholas (the precursor of Santa Claus) makes an appearance, and his story is faithful to what we know about the fourth century bishop of Myra.
The book doesn’t have the gravity or poise of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius, but that is perhaps the selling point of Sword and the Serpent – it is an easy and engrossing read.
By the end of my first day, despite the responsibilities of home schooling, writing a blog post, and the demands of four young children, I had almost finished the three hundred plus page book. It is written in a classic style and is appropriate for adults and teenagers alike. Crucially, it maintains a good pace throughout and draws you into the world of Jurian, Sabra, and co..
That world is largely credible, though as a historian I do wonder at Marshall’s decision to not use the name legend has given St George’s sword: Ascalon. Ascalon is the medieval name for the city of Ashkelon in Israel. Even in St George’s day it had a rich history upon which Marshall could have drawn for the sword’s background. I am, frankly, surprised that the author of The Crucified Rabbi would ignore such a ‘gold mine’ – especially as he has made the Canaanite/Philistine connection through the character of St Christopher – in favour of an anachronistic legend from the other end of the Roman Empire. It is the one aspect that diminished my enjoyment of what is essentially an excellent read.
The character of Sabra is also interesting. Marshall has cleverly explained how she was confused as a princess and instead made her a priestess who sacrifices children. Far from being an evil character, though, she comes across as motivated by love, dedicated to saving her people, and altogether desperate. She is quite the modern woman, and (whether intended or not) she is the archetype of the mother who sacrifices her own child through abortion. Marshall illuminates her character with brilliance. We are given a wonderfully realistic understanding of her thinking and feelings about child sacrifice. Ultimately, though, she learns that in her desperation she has ignored the only truly loving and right path, and that sacrifice can take many forms.
My only concern is that some may read Sabra’s desperation as an excuse and her willingness to sacrifice herself as exculpatory. Jurian is held to a higher standard. When he stabs a man in self-defence he is blamed for provoking the other man (even though that man had murdered someone in his presence only moments before). Though he has more than one justification for his action, he is held to account as if he had none. Sabra, on the other hand, is let off the hook seemingly on account of being desperate, weak, and helpless – even though she has the emotional strength and resilience to be able to prepare and escort children to their gruesome deaths. Now, I’m no feminist, but I do believe men and women have the same moral agency and responsibility for their actions, so it does bother me that the compelling Sabra is shown to be mentally robust while morally irresponsible whereas the saintly Jurian is portrayed as comparatively immature even though they are roughly the same age.
However, if this is the book’s main flaw it is a ‘good’ one. It reflects our society and how women are so often given a free ride. It reflects the way we criticise men and demand that they ‘man up’ while at the same time making excuses for women in advance of their bad behaviour. I hope that by seeing just one example placed outside of our own context we will gain enough perspective to question why this is so… and whether chivalry is just another form of feminism, albeit sanitised and of a more romantic ilk.
There isn’t much more I can say without giving away too much and spoiling the book, so I will end by way of a quote in the hope that it will inspire you to buy a copy and read it for yourself; because it is a captivating novel and deserves to be read. I’ll be buying a copy this Christmas!
To his surprise, the emperor looked nothing like the statues he had seen of him. They all showed a rugged, bearded face, strong and implacable, but the Diocletian standing before him was cold rather than strong, and dominating rather than implacable. He wore no beard, and his hair was cropped short, not curled over his forehead like the sculptors showed. His face wasn’t rugged but it had a strange kind of beauty to it, remote and dangerous. Jurian wasn’t surprised that most of Rome considered him a god.
Diocletian’s ice-blue eyes held his, measuring him steadily. At first Jurian thought he saw anger simmering behind his stare, but it shifted to curiosity, then, slowly, to something like respect.
“You dare to meet my gaze?” he asked quietly.
Jurian swallowed hard. The emperor’s voice was impressive even at a murmur, like calm waters veiling the rise of a maelstrom. His mind chased after something to say, but words slipped away, meaningless.
“Why should I not?” he heard himself ask.
Diocletian’s mouth twisted in a faint smile. “Because I am the divine Augustus, god and master of the known world.”
“But you came into the world from a woman just like every man,” Jurian said.
Sword and the Serpent is already available on Amazon as a Kindle edition. The paperback is due for release on December 1.