On May 28th of 1943, Winston Churchill flew from Gibraltar to Algiers on board of one of his personal airplanes, ‘Ascalon’. The plane was named after the sword used by the patron saint of England, Saint George. That year would be a turning point in WWII, as the Soviets would advance on the Eastern Front and the rest of the Western Allies would disembark in Italy. Two years later, Germany surrendered, and ten years later Churchill received his Nobel Prize in Literature “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”.
One wonders how Winston Churchill would react to recent arguments related to the celebration of Saint George’s day in England. When faced with the dilemma of whether Saint George’s celebration is bound to be an ugly nationalist celebration, one should remember that England is not the only country that has Saint George as its patron saint: Catalonia, Romania and Portugal, among other countries and cities, also count with the ‘protection’ of this Roman soldier. Those that are not comfortable celebrating Christian traditions may find comfort in the fact that Saint George’s day coincides with the commemoration of Shakespeare’s death and with the international book day. In fact, Saint George is a recurrent motto in Shakespeare’s work, appearing over 18 times, and the story of Saint George’s killing of the dragon is mentioned in Richard III and King Lear.
The medieval legend of Saint George is a symbolic story that tells us about the importance of individual courage against totalitarianism and injustice. In the tale, a small Roman town is terrorized by a tyrannical and seemingly invincible dragon, which is only appeased when fed. Once the cattle are gone, the citizens of the helpless Roman town decide to feed him one person a day, chosen by lottery. One day, the princess of the town is chosen, and the king is forced to accept her certain death. When the city is about to lose to tyranny its most beautiful citizen, the young and beloved princess, a hero riding a horse appears: he has come to rescue her from her dreadful fate. Saint George bravely pierces the dragon’s scales with Ascalon and is cheered by the town’s people as their saviour.
The Catalan version of the legend of Saint George, Sant Jordi in Catalan, has a romantic dimension lacking in others: before leaving the village that he has just saved, Saint George makes a gift of a rose, sprung from the dragon’s blood, to the princess, as a token of love. Mimicking this gesture, Catalan men traditionally give a rose to their beloved on Saint George’s day.
But how did Saint George’s day become World Book Day? In the late 1920’s, Vicente Clavel, an editor living in Barcelona, noticed that the long-held tradition coincided with the commemoration of the death of two of the best writers that mankind has seen: Shakespeare and Cervantes. He then proposed to give books together with roses, binding love and literature in what would prove to be a very successful marketing move for the editorial sector. The addition of the celebration of the book day on the same date converted what was a unidirectional transaction into an exchange in which the woman receives a rose, and the man, a book (although in the present day, many couples exchange books, even if the woman receives a rose).
The link between spring, roses, and literature was not novel: in 1323, the Jocs Florals, ‘floral games’, also known as Jocs de la Gaia Ciència, ‘games of the light-hearted science’, were instituted for the first time in Toulouse, in the Languedoc. This literary contest gathered troubadours from the Occitan-speaking world and the Crown of Aragon, who contended for three blooming prizes: the golden wild rose, for the best patriotic or historical poem, the natural flower, for the best free-style poem, and the golden or silver violet, for the best poem on a religious subject. The history of this literary contest is turbulent and subject to political changes: in 1393 the games moved from Toulouse in the Languedoc to Barcelona, where they have remained, and where they still take place on an annual basis, albeit with a different format. The date of the celebration of the Jocs Florals was traditionally the 1st of May. The proximity with Saint George’s day, as well as the new literary connotation of April 23rd, has blurred the boundaries between both events. Hence, many schools, for instance, celebrate small-scale Jocs Florals on Saint George’s day (as will do Catalans UK, on April 23rd in London).
We don’t know if Winston Churchill named his plane ‘Ascalon’ himself, but in a way, he was a modern-day Saint George. When Europe was terrorised by its worst dragon, and England was tempted to accept a humiliating compromise, Churchill guided us to the most important fight of modern history: the combat of the people against tyranny. Nor do we know if he knew of Catalan Saint George’s traditions, but it is certain that as a man with a mastery of words like few others, he would have cherished the bond between love, courage, and literature.