Boys, you might be shocked to hear, are different from girls. A few years ago one of our sons had a brand-new young teacher eager to help her nine-and ten-year-old charges discover the wonders of math, science, and literature. In the last category, while she started out all right with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, she then began a streak of books that ran from Heidi to The Secret Garden to Little House on the Prairie and on through several other fantastic books whose only problem was that they are—dare we say it?—girl books. The son in question, who is on the autism spectrum, was not shy about expressing his mounting disdain for these selections in ways that were, ahem, not conducive to classroom order. One of the classroom educational assistants admitted that Young Master Deavel was not the only one getting fed up. He further admitted he himself was flagging with all this literary pink.
Girls will, as a general rule, enjoy, or at least dutifully read, books that are more oriented toward male interests; the opposite is not, unfortunately, true. Thus it is always a distinct pleasure when I discover a book that I know will appeal not only to girls but to boys—most especially to my boys. The pleasure is all the more distinct when the book in question is written by a Christian author and tells a story involving Christian faith. Michael Lotti’s new novel, St. George and the Dragon, rides to the rescue. Like all truly good children’s or young adult fiction, it will be of interest to everyone. I know because I read it aloud to my three oldest boys. They, my wife (who was listening in), and I loved it.
Lotti, an Eastern Orthodox Christian with a Ph.D. in philosophy who writes professionally, states in his introduction that this is “a story and not the story, for no one knows much about Saint George.” He elaborates that we know when and where he lived (around 300 A.D. somewhere in what is modern-day Turkey), that he was a Roman soldier, and that he was a Christian martyr. “All the stories,” he adds, tell us he defeated a dragon. The book, then, is historical fiction with quite a bit of guesswork and imagination about the details of St. George’s life. But he definitely kills a dragon.
Lotti’s George begins the story as Marcellus, a Roman tribune in his early twenties fresh from battle, readying himself for a leave of absence to go home to his father’s estate in Galatia and marry Regina, a childhood sweetheart from a neighboring estate. Roman military officers were officially prohibited from marriage, a rule rarely enforced. Girls will immediately sense interest here. But boys are not left out. Marcellus, we are told, is already a veteran warrior, and a brave and honorable one at that. Debriefing from this latest, successful campaign against the Persian Sassanids, Marcellus is asked by Demetrios, his commanding officer, about his own behavior: “And you personally, Marcellus? I’ve heard reports that you went first into the enemy’s camp. Not every tribune would have done that.”
Marcellus’s response hits the perfect note to establish his character. Turning red, he responds, “I thought to lead as you lead, sir.” Marcellus is a soldier of honor, not of fortune. He believes in the “grandeur that was Rome” and worries about the fate of the Empire. He is not an intellectual, but like his retired military officer father, Titus, he is a man who thinks constantly of what the great Cicero would think. Yet he also realizes that there are new things abroad that Cicero didn’t encounter.
Two groups bother Marcellus. The first are Christians, of which his late mother, many of his father’s slaves, and indeed a growing number of his own soldiers are counted. The junior eastern co-emperor Galerius (under Diocletian) is campaigning to eradicate Christians, particularly from military life. Yet Marcellus thinks this unwise. In his experience, they are better soldiers, more honest and reliable, less likely to get in trouble with drink or gambling.
The other group, fictional but plausible, is a mysterious, new, and growing dragon cult. Marcellus has little knowledge of them, but he soon finds out when bandits attack the lone soldier as he rides home. Lotti’s narration of the scene is notable not only for its excitement (one against four!), but for putting the reader in the soldier’s head as he defeats them. From one of the survivors, Marcellus learns that they are under the command of Cephalus, another soldier involved in the dragon cult.
Upon Marcellus’s return home, he finds that his father is sympathetic to the Christians while his intended bride is part of the dragon cult. And she wants him to meet the dragon. While Lotti’s book appeals to my boys’ love of historical detail, it also appeals to their love of fantasy, especially fantasy rooted in the reality that there are supernatural beings. The dragon lives in a cave, but it speaks with a smooth voice and honeyed words. The creature is older than the hills, but made of flesh and scales. All it asks of Marcellus is a few sheep as sacrifice. It promises success and wealth. And it hates the Christians. “Did God create any other spiritual creatures, other than angels and demons—and humans?” asks my seven-year-old.
Torn between the desire to please his fiancée and his growing sense that the dragon is malevolent, Marcellus is simultaneously drawn to the strange band of Christians, whom his father has allowed to worship on the family estate. While the dragon has affirmed his own traditional belief that “Nothing is more important than the empire,” Marcellus is challenged to ask the question, “What is the empire for?” He sees that Christians serve the empire loyally even though they hold that their God-Man is indeed greater than the empire and all its gods.
When Marcellus fails to produce a sacrifice for the dragon, it raids the estate, taking sheep and wounding or killing some of the slaves. Titus himself falls comatose during the attack, leaving Marcellus to rely even more upon Pasikrates, a Christian slave who manages the estate. The symbolism is clear: Titus, representing the old pagan Rome, is impotent in the face of the new spiritual forces that challenge the empire. It is the Christians versus the dragon.
While the physical threat of the dragon drives the action, the choice of spiritual allegiance dominates Marcellus’s mind. While the dragon’s honeyed words conceal threats, the language of the Christians is unbelievable for a Roman, but has a promise of peace behind it. Christians are aware of the questions of social status, but largely indifferent to them. Marcellus is bewildered by the local bishop Agathon who treats slaves and free as one and equal, burying a slave named Synderikos with the kind of pomp befitting a nobleman.
Synderikos’s funeral is the hinge of Marcellus’s decision. Marcellus hears Agathon and the others speaking of “the Jewish peasant” whom they believed to be “alive and ruling the world” as “the Lord.” Not Julius Caesar. Not Diocletian. And despite Marcellus’s legal ownership, Agathon spoke of Synderikos as this Lord’s servant. While Marcellus has intellectual difficulties, his doubts are over. He knows his intended bride demands submission to the dragon as the price of marriage. He knows he cannot give it, and he knows his military career is over.
After another attack on the estate, Marcellus realizes that the only option is to bring the war to the dragon. Inspired by a dream in which he sees the Christians in ships and is told by a strange figure to protect them, Marcellus asks for baptism before he mounts his attack. Christened with a new name, George, he sets out with five slaves who are former soldiers.
Jennifer Soriano, an artist and art teacher whose capable drawings complement Lotti’s text, depicts the baptism and not the final battle in her penultimate illustration, a reminder that the ultimate battle is for the human soul. But Lotti’s description of the final combat with the dragon doesn’t disappoint. George is not a lone warrior, but a commander of troops again—this time for the Lord. He does, though, deliver the final thrust.
My boys were a little disappointed that the final chapters consist of a letter from Marcellus/George, who now moves from estate to estate with the surviving slaves who fought the dragon, and a brief chapter detailing how the slaves died and George was finally caught by the military and executed. I think they’re correct that the ending could have been more dramatic, but I see Lotti’s logic: the story is really about how Marcellus, named for the war god Mars, became George (“farmer”) the one who defended and sustained the Church of Christ. It’s that “becoming,” that real transformation and conversion in a culture that thinks Christian faith is weird and perhaps dangerous, that is the story for all boys and girls, men and women. In our culture today, it is this kind of imaginative engagement with the saints that I want not just girls but my boys to read or hear. The great thing is, I know they will because they did.
St. George and the Dragon
by Michael Lotti, illustrations by Jennifer Soriano
Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, 2014
Softcover, 149 pages; $9.95