We would do well to remember The Ballad of the White Horse, his inspiring poem set a thousand years ago.
While some scholars have begun meeting at Oxford to discuss the cause of his eventual sainthood, G. K. Chesterton is remembered largely today by the reading public as the creator of the Father Brown detective stories, in which a humble Catholic priest solves crimes largely because his experiences in the confessional makes him exceptionally informed about the real nature of good and evil.
But beyond Father Brown, Chesterton was an enormously versatile writer of poetry, history, novels, biographies and devotional works as well as literally countless articles (they have never been definitively collected). What is perhaps his greatest imaginative book, The Ballad of the White Horse, is available from Ignatius Press in San Francisco.
In its style, though not in its ultimate concerns, The Ballad of the White Horse is a rather different work from the adventures of Father Brown. It is not perfect as poetry but it is one of those works — there are not very many — that can actually change the reader’s life and is a perennial source of inspiration and hope.
Some say Chesterton wrote it in inspired haste over a few days, though the introduction to the present edition says it took ten years. It was published in 1911, and is a vast (173-page), sweeping, heroic account in ballad form of King Alfred the Great’s hopeless war, crushing defeat and final “eucastrophic” victory over the Great Army of the marauding Danes in “the Thornland of Ethandune” about a thousand years ago, a victory which saved English-speaking civilization from being murdered in its cradle, and saved us, as Chesterton put it earlier, “from being savages forever.” A book-length poem is not the most likely of publishing propositions, but for those in the know about it, The Ballad of the White Horse has enjoyed sales for nearly a hundred years. The present edition is embellished with wood-cut illustrations and notes, though the latter seem hardly necessary: the poem speaks for itself.
It is a poem that can be read by anyone in need of inspiration and encouragement in dark times. It begins with the king, defeated and hiding in the marshes of Athelney. The Christianized kingdom of Wessex (whose symbol was a golden dragon) has been shattered by Viking attacks, both open invasion and the treacherous betrayal of Chippenham:
There was not English armour left
Nor any English thing
When Alfred came to Athelney
To be an English king …
And the God of the Golden Dragon
Was dumb upon his throne,
And the lord of the golden Dragon
Ran in the woods alone …
Slowly the king, at first wandering alone, recruits a guerrilla army. The first leader he approaches, Eldred, an old battle-scarred Saxon Lord, tells Alfred over his drink they have lost too often and resistance is hopeless:
Come not to me, King Alfred,
Save always for the ale;
Why should me harmless hinds be slain,
Because the chiefs cry once again
As in all fights, that we shall gain,
And in all fights we fail?
Your skalds still thunder and prophesy
That crown that never comes;
Friend, I shall watch the certain things,
Swine, and slow moons like silver rings,
And the ripening of the plums.”
Alfred replies that this time he offers no hope or promise of success. However, there is no alternative but to fight. Otherwise nothing will survive:
“I bring you naught for your comfort,
Naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet,
And the sea rises higher.”
Then silence sank. And slowly
Arose the sea-land lord.
Like some vast beast for mystery,
He filled the room and porch and sky,
And from a cobwebbed nail on high
Unhooked his heavy sword.
With the same council he gathers a Christianized Roman magnate, Mark, and a Celtic chief, Colan — as in so many epics, up to The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, the forces called to resist evil are an ill-assorted lot.
As well as being a military-political story the ballad evokes, as only poetry can, what seems like the authentically strange, haunted atmosphere of that time when, beset by deadly attacks on every side, a new civilization had slowly and partly arisen from the shadow the Dark Ages and the cataclysmic fall of Rome:
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