Hardy and St George's Day

Tracy Hayes

Stained glass window at Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum depicting Saint George defeating the Dragon

The 23rd of April is celebrated in England as St. George's Day, when Mummers perform the play of St George and the Dragon, and there is cider drinking and revelry.

George was a 4th century Christian soldier who famously rescued Princess Sabra from the clutches of a blood thirsty dragon that had been terrorizing the city of Silene in Libya. He slew the dragon, and in so doing converted all the heathens of Silene to the Christian faith. After destroying a shrine dedicated to the Roman god Bacchus while in Palestine, he was captured and tortured, but would not renounce his Christian faith. For this he was martyred by decapitation. He was buried in the Holy Land, and during the Crusades St. George's Chapel was erected over his tomb. However, his heart was brought to England by the Emperor Sigismund of Germany and presented to King Henry V. The Order of the Knights of St. George was founded at Windsor Castle, and George became the patron saint of England.

Since 1978 the ‘Frome Valley Morris’ have performed the Mummers Play wearing the costumes based on Hardy's descriptions

There are regional variations of the St. George Mummer's play, but the plot always involves a sword fight between George and a dragon, or George and a Turkish Knight. The Symondsbury version of the play is regarded by folklorists as the most authentic and is still performed in West Dorset to this day, both on St. George's day, and at Christmas. The Mummers are usually men wearing costumes of tatters and masks, and may have blackened faces to disguise their identities. Hardy was an avid collector of folklore, and often used folk tales, songs and tunes in his stories and poetry. His most famous use of the play is during a scene in his novel The Return of the Native (1878), which sees Eustacia Vye bribe young Charley into taking his place in the Mummer's performance at Blooms End, to where Clym Yeobright has just returned from Paris to live temporarily with his mother. She dresses as the Turkish Knight in the hope of catching a glimpse of Clym, whom she believes 'might possibly have the power to deliver her soul from a most deadly oppression' – the ennui of living among peasants in Egdon.

The play of St George by Thomas Hardy. Translated by, Roger Sherman Loomis. Publisher, Samuel French, 1928

In 1918 Hardy asked the folklorist John Symonds Udal for a copy of his Symondsbury version of the St George play (dated 1880 and titled 'Christmas Mummers in Dorsetshire') to revise the version used in The Return of the Native in order to be adapted into a stage production by the Hardy Players. The Players performed it on Christmas night 1920 at Max Gate. The Life comments that the 'carol singers and mummers came to Max Gate as they had promised, the latter performing the play just as he [Hardy] had seen it performed in his childhood'. It was later performed as a production in a triple bill with Hardy's The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall, and O Jan! O Jan! O Jan! In 1921 Florence Hardy arranged for the play to be published by Cambridge University Press in a private limited edition of twenty-five copies, the typescript of which is held in the Dorset County Museum. The typescript is entitled 'The Play ['Masque' on the title page] of Saint George as aforetime acted by the Dorsetshire Christmas Mummers (based on the version in “The Return of the Native”, and completed from other versions, and from local tradition)'. The play is interesting for its representations of 'Englishness', its concerns with concepts of masculinity, its critique of medical practitioners prioritising money over humanitarian concerns, and the use of Father Christmas as both commentator and framing device

The St George Tympanum, St. George Church, Fordington

The Church of St. George on Fordington High Street in the parish of Dorchester, begun in the 11th century and officially listed in 1950, boasts a carved tympanum of Caen stone representing a mounted St. George with praying soldiers to his left, and dead or dying soldiers to his right. It allegedly represents his miraculous intervention in the Battle of Antioch (1093).

Hardy lived within this parish and visited the church many times in his capacity as a member of the Restoration Committee. He was puzzled over the 15th century font, believing it to be too small for a font, but too large for a holy water stoup, leading him to include it in his reports for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

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