“Saint George and the Dragon” by Margaret Hodges and Trina Schart Hyman (Illustrator)
Of the many hundreds of children’s books at his disposal, this is one of my son’s most requested. That is just as well, because it’s certainly my favorite book to read to him (besides the Jesus Storybook Bible, of course)!
Based on Edmund Spenser’s classic epic poem The Faerie Queen, this book tells the story of the Red Cross Knight and his battle against a dragon that has been terrorizing the English countryside. While there are no surprises in the plot — boy meets girl, boy travels a long way to take care of girl’s dragon problem, boy slays dragon, boy marries girl and inherits her father’s kingdom — the real fun is in the telling! Oh, and the illustrations, of course.
Hyman’s depictions of people, fairies, dwarves, and landscapes are simply beautiful. Saint George and the Dragon is presented as an illuminated manuscript, with paintings surrounding the text on every page. It’s some of the best fantasy artwork I’ve seen!
Hodges’ adaptation retains enough of Spenser’s writing style to be recognizable, but her prose is easily accessible for modern readers. In reading aloud, I am particularly fond of her generous use of alliteration. This gives the reader lots of opportunities to really “get into the story”… phrases like “fairy folk” and “dreadful dragon” roll off the tongue and help build the drama.
There are several elements that make this much more (but no less) than a book for children. While it is obviously much shorter than Edmund Spenser’s masterpiece, Saint George and the Dragon is about as “epic” as a kids’ book can be. Long sections of narrative are interspersed with short similes reminiscent of Homer, in that they don’t necessarily seem to relate to the surrounding text. Still, they are beautiful, and manage to add a sense of depth to the tale, as if there’s a whole world to be explored in the further adventures of the Red Cross Knight.
One complaint I’ve seen about this book is its length. Many parents seem to think that this is simply too wordy for young children. I couldn’t disagree more!
It’s true that this book is longer than most children’s stories. It typically takes me about 10-12 minutes to read it to my kids, but my little boy — who is not yet 3 — nearly always stays entranced to the very end! A lot probably depends on how the story is read. We tend to have a lot of fun with our story time; inserting dramatic pauses in the reading, pointing out details in the artwork as things are described, using different accents and voices, etc. (Occasionally we do have to interrupt our reading to engage in a quick sword fight, but we always return to finish it!)
I see this book as a tremendous opportunity to teach my children. There is a lot of value in epic poetry and fairy stories, but appreciation of this type of literature must be learned. If investing some extra time now showing my toddlers how to listen to and love a story that takes a while to tell helps prepare them for enjoyment later of things like The Iliad and The Lord of the Rings, then that will be time well spent! I want to cultivate in my kids a love of learning, of reading, and of story-telling… not to mention an attention span longer than what is typical in today’s media-saturated culture. I can’t think of a better time to start than when they are very young, and there are few books better suited to aiding me in this pursuit than Saint George and the Dragon.
I hope you’ll get a copy for your kids (or for yourself!). You can buy it here.