Sword and Serpent
© 2014 Taylor R. Marshall
A phoenix from the fire will rise
Unchain her and free the world
In Britannia will rise the eagle whose sign is the Cross
In Britannia will rise the chief dragon whose sign is the Sword
Take [Excalibur] to Britannia so from stone to be freed
Years ago I learned of a retelling of the St. George and the dragon myth, which attracted me because while I knew St. George is the patron saint of England (happy Feast of St. George, btw — it’s April 23rd, and the reason Read of England happens this particular month), I had no idea what the story really was or why it was connected to England. The Sword and the Serpent is a quasi-historical story stretching from Roman Libya to Anatolia, as the disparate lives of two young people, full of pain and suffering, drive them to Rome and to their destiny. Although the principal legend is that of St. George and the dragon, savvy readers may recognize St. Christopher and others. An engaging semi-fantastic adventure in its own right, the subtle mix of real-world legends and real-world historical detail is the first in a promising trilogy.
The Sword and the Serpent follows a young lad named Jurian, or Georgios, who with his sister has fled their home in Anatolia after an anti-Christian mob burned their house and murdered their mother. Jurian is taking his sister to Rome, hoping to join the Legion and work for his future. Across the Roman lake, in Libya, a tortured young priestess is summoning the will to sacrifice yet another of her village’s children to the Old God who lives in a mountainous cave, hating herself for what she does, but believing she must if the Old God’s rage is not to be kindled against them. Fate brings both to Rome, where Jurian — having been literally guided and guarded by saints along way — learns of his destiny. His path will take him to Libya, there to confront the dragon.
As an adventure story mixing historical detail and legend, this is a fun premise, especially when the Arthur myth is presaged. The problem with some Christian fiction, though, the likes of Lewis and Tolkien excepting, is that there’s a heavy use of semi-miraculous or outright miraculous events that drains away some of the challenge and makes the resolution a foregone conclusion. Marshall does not do this nearly to the same novel-sapping degree of Rosenberg’s Twelfth Imam or the Left Behind series, but it’s done enough to be noticeable. Jurian’s road to Rome is practically paved by coincidence, and his fight against the dragon is…er, anticlimactic, let’s say. Arguably, that’s scripturally appropriate, and the book even ends with an allusion to Revelation, but it’s not a particularly compelling end to a novel.