We would do well to remember The Ballad of the White Horse, his inspiring poem set a thousand years ago.
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Still Alfred’s forces attack. Harald, Eldred, Elf, and Mark are all slain, and the Danes, inspired by Ogier, come charging on:
“Down from the dome of the world we come,
Rivers on rivers down!
Under us swirl the sects and hoardes,
And the high dooms we drown …
“It is not Alfred’s dwarfish sword
Nor Egbert’s pigmy crown,
Shall stay us now that descend in thunder
Rending the realms and the realms thereunder,
Down through the world and down!”
Alfred’s forces fight desperately but are swept away:
Vainly the sword of Colan,
And the axe of Alfred plied —
The Danes poured in like a brainless plague,
And knew not when they died.
Prince Colan slew a score of them,
And was stricken to his knee;
King Alfred slew a score and seven,
And was borne back on a tree …
Hopelessly beaten, Alfred points out to the fleeing remnant of his army that all the future has for them is slavery and starvation. It is better to die fighting on the right side. They launch a last hopeless counter-attack and sweep everything before them. Ogier dies under Alfred’s axe, the great Viking banner of the Raven of Odin falls, “And the eyes of Guthrum altered, for the first time since dawn.”
In the final part, describing the years of peace that follow, the king warns the fight will go on: barbarians will come in the future armed not only with warships and burning torches but also with books, with “the sign of the dying fire,” and: “By this sign shall you know them: that they ruin and make dark.”
C. S. Lewis has said that The Ballad of the White Horse is “permanent and dateless…does not the central theme of the ballad…embody the feeling, and the only possible feeling, with which in any age almost defeated men take up such arms as are left them and win?”
It is good to read The Ballad of the White Horse, and also to reflect that it is basically true. There really was a climatic battle at Ethandune (possibly modern Edington, where a white horse is carved on the chalk hillside, possibly originally in memory of the battle), and where, against all odds, the nascent Anglic civilization and its noble and undaunted king, after years of defeats and betrayals, really won the day, and where the barbarians really were not only defeated but Christianized: Guthrum, with Alfred as his Godfather, took the Baptismal name Athelstan and kept the peace for the rest of his life. In England learning, culture, and civilization were revived under Alfred’s rule, and we really were saved from being savages forever. Thank you, G. K. Chesterton.
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