Excerpted, by permission, from Dragons and Unicorns: A Natural History, by Paul ’55 and Karin Johnsgard.
One of the earliest known dragon slayers was the warrior Siegfried (in the Teutonic version), or Sigurd (Scandinavian version), who lived so long ago that the facts of his dragon-battle are greatly muddled. Some people believe that he slew the dragon Fafnir to rescue a captive maiden; in other accounts he was simply looking for treasure. Some centuries earlier, in England, Beowulf took on a similar dragon but was fatally wounded in the resulting battle. Clearly, the weapons and methods used by these early warriors were not always equal to the task.
The first really epic battle between man and dragon that comes down to us in any detail is that of Saint George. He lived before the time of Constantine and was probably born in Palestine. During one of his travels, he came to the city of Silene (or Sisena) in Libya. There he learned of a dragon, living in a nearby lake, that was reputedly raiding neighboring pastures and eating the sheep. After all the sheep had disappeared, the townspeople found it necessary to offer up all their children to the dragon, until only the daughter of the king remained. By the time George arrived on the scene, even the king’s daughter had been bound up and was about to be offered to the creature. Without delay the good knight attacked the surprised dragon with his lance. He quickly bound the dragon up with the princess’s girdle (although never adequately explaining to the king how that item of clothing had come off). He led the cowering beast back to the city, where he killed it by slicing off its head in a single blow, in view of the entire populace. In spite of this good deed, George eventually came to an unhappy end. According to some accounts, he tore down and impulsively stamped on an edict that had been issued by the Roman emperor Diocletian. For this foolhardy act he was arrested and eventually put to death. Others said that he was decapitated by the emperor of Persia for trying to convert the emperor’s wife to Christianity. Clearly he didn’t have the good sense to stay away from the wives and daughters of royalty, and he was probably not greatly missed until he was made a saint some centuries later. In 1349 he was even made the patron saint of England. He was also given honorary if posthumous citizenship there, since it had by then been decided that he had actually been born in Coventry. In the sixteenth century, Pope Clement VII decreed that George had not been completely truthful about his dragon-killing stories, and the pope decided to eliminate all mention of dragons from St. George’s official biography. More recently, poor George was even decanonized, and the arguments over which cathedral actually possesses his head and other bodily parts have gradually diminished.
Not nearly so well known as George was another dragon killer of the Dark Ages by the name of Gerolde. He acquired during his lifetime a large and faithful following of people eager to hear of his dragon-slaying exploits. For many years he roamed the countryside seeking dragons and other evil creatures, speaking out against them, and burning any books that mentioned dragons or their kin. He was eventually made a knight and was dubbed Gerolde-the-Good, because of his obvious piety. His minions formed what was probably the first fan club in history and referred to themselves as the pious multitude, whose major goal was to seek out and destroy sin in all of its many forms.
The first dragon that Gerolde slew was a relatively small one (evidently only about twenty feet long) that he managed to surprise one day while dressed in his shiniest suit of armor and riding his charger. Without a thought for his own safety, he attacked the beast. The reflections of the sun off shiny armor dazzled the dragon, and before it could retaliate, it found itself fatally impaled on Gerolde’s long lance. Gerolde was immediately hailed as the greatest of all dragon killers, and he was swamped with requests to speak before civic groups and to clear dragons out of various strongholds. He traveled about the land with his entourage and was offered rich presents and rewards for his good deeds. Among these were numerous brightly colored silk garlands and ribbons, which well-wishers begged he would attach to his lance or his helmet for good fortune. Finally, Gerolde had the clever idea of making an entire multicolored jacket of these ribbons, which he could slip over his armored suit. He was immediately transformed into a flaglike vision of blue, white, red, and green. Shortly thereafter, clad in his colorful garment, he encountered a large dragon and attacked it with full confidence in his invulnerability. This time the reflective armor was effectively hidden by the jacket, and the sun was hidden by clouds. The dragon, upon being attacked, released a vast amount of fire, incinerating Gerolde on the spot. His followers were badly shaken by this turn of events but nevertheless recovered his charred remains and returned to town. He was buried in a nearby cathedral, with all possible honors. On his grave a simple epitaph was engraved in Latin*, which in translation read: “Never wrap yourself in a flag when you go forth to slay dragons.”
*Numquam gerite signum ubi draconem petitis.