Here is an excerpt from an old post “Damsels in Distress,” in which I mention St. George whose feast we celebrate today:
That brings me more directly to the question of the “damsel in distress.” It is a chivalric image of vulnerability and innocence. Of course, such an image is not complete without the “knight in shining armor,” who conveys the sense of courage and heroism. The image, completed with the damsel in distress being saved by the knight in shining armor, is the picture of courtesy and contains as happy an ending as anyone could hope for. Perhaps the word that best describes it is one coined by Tolkien: eucatastrophe, meaning the complete reversal of catastrophe, idealized as the triumph of the Cross made available to all of us in the Eucharist.
Historically one of the earliest and most important examples of the image as it entered the West is the legend of St. George and the Dragon. The story is by no means an exclusively Western treasure (I think of Russia and Lebanon, for example), but it is particularly important for an understanding of Western chivalry (especially in England).
As the legend goes, or at least one version of it, a dragon took up its abode at the spring from which the locals drew their water. The dragon thus took custody of the spring and demanded a price for its use. The only way the townsfolk could draw their water was by the offering of someone to the dragon as a human sacrifice. Each day a new victim was selected by common agreement through the drawing of lots. One fateful day, the lot fell to the princess of the kingdom, and even the intervention of her father, the king, was not enough to save her from the dragon; the people insisted that the arrangement be respected. At this point, St. George providentially ride up on his steed and volunteered his services to face the dragon, which he did to great effect, the dragon being slain and the damsel rescued. The awestruck townspeople as a result abandoned the ways of paganism and became Christians.
Crusaders, it is said, brought the story back from the East, and retold it as a courtly romance. In a way typical of the Middle Ages, Christian tradition and hagiography was transformed into quasi-secular romance. Certainly, for courtiers who heard this story the “art of courtly love,” could easily serve as the hermeneutic for the understanding of the story, in which case, it would not be any different from the story of the rescue of a damsel in the Arthurian cycle. However, the Christian symbolism, even in the most embellished version of the legend, is unmistakable: the Christ figure enters into combat with the Demon and rescues the Virgin Church from his clutches. This is paradise regained. In some versions of the legend, there is even a tree (Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil) to which the maiden is tied and from which she is rescued.
The damsel in distress is the bride of Ephesians 5. This passage of St. Paul on marriage is a holy incantation and exorcism that scatters the feminist demons to their dark and gloomy pits. St. Paul, the “misogynist,” is actually the guardian of feminine weakness and the promoter of chivalry. He admonishes the coward Adam and kneels at the feet of the hero Christ. Both men and women are better for it, if by casting off the modern prejudice they can just for a moment wave away the wafting mist of the Ms. Rambo deception and see the Bridegroom and Bride for who they truly are.