For years, friends urged me to read The Ballad of the White Horse by G.K. Chesterton, which I proceeded to put on the back burner for far too long. It was the poem said to have been a major inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien when he wrote The Lord of the Rings, and heralded as one of the last epic poems to be written in the English language. But all this had little effect on me. I knew Chesterton was one of those literary names that loomed large on any stage, and was the subject of posh intellectual conversations and scintillating sound-bite quotations. But having already read through some of his prose, I found it hard to relate to his writing style and felt detached from him as an historical figure. His poetry, I feared, would do little good for me.
I don’t mean to be dismissive here. There is no doubt that Chesterton was among the Greatest Christian Thinkers of his Age, and some would say in the history of Christendom, for his ability to bring freshness and flare to theological deliberation. He was one of those rare and wonderful Catholic converts who sprang up in England in the wake of the Oxford Movement of John Henry Newman, and was marvelously unafraid to proclaim it to the world. Among his distinguished round-about contemporaries were C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald, just to name a few, all of whom shared similar beliefs and styles of expression.
But all this having been said, Chesterton proved to be the hardest nut of the bunch for me to crack in a personal reader-to-writer-relationship context. It was difficult for me to warm up to him and take him into my heart, as much of his prose felt rather heady and academic, long-winded and disorienting, and even a bit cynical and grouchy at times. Some might say these are just the down-sides of “British style”, and yet C.S. Lewis, who had the same penchant for paradox and dry witticism, comes off more fluid and readability, meant to reach out with warmth to the public at large, and not just an exclusive circle of Super-Nerds at Oxford U.
I have spoken to others who feel similar about Chesterton’s prose style, especially in his biographical works, but they tend to be intimidated to say it outright, less they be shunned by scholastic literary circles for lacking intelligence. Perhaps it is just a matter of taste and preference, as opposed to any sort of mental keenness or lack thereof. I have heard that one can better adapt to Chesterton over time, and perhaps I will be one of them. But for now, C.S. Lewis is still my main man from the “classic” group, and while I may relish a spangling of Chesterton snippet quotations, I am not quite ready to wade through actual volumes of his musings and meanderings.
But in spite of misgivings about a Chestertonian plunge, when I found myself with nothing better to do but finally read The Ballad of the White Horse by the light of a battery-operated lantern during the great black-out of February 2014, I was immersed by the epic scale and deeply Catholic resonance of the piece. While Chesterton failed to win me with his prosaic ramblings, he was winning me now with his delicious unraveling of poetic romance. Those who have identified The Ballad as one of the last great epic poems to be written in English. Indeed, it does seem to draw the same breath of life as Beowulf, with a panoramic scope for the historical blended with the mythological. It breathes new life into both.
The main character is Alfred, the King of Wessex, who must battle the invading Pagan Vikings in order to save his kingdom and preserve Christianity in the land. But while Alfred may fit the stereotypical larger-than-life hero from mythology, he also has all the human complexity of real history, with a less-than-admirable past. Indeed, his youthful rowdiness and debauchery is reflected on in the poem, even as Alfred comes to terms with the fact that he must put himself right with God if he wants to truly embrace the sacramental understanding of Christian kingship.
At the gathering of the chiefs, he shows true sorrow for his past sins and laments:
I wronged a man to his slaying
And a woman to her shame
And once I looked on a sworn maid
That was wed to the Holy Name
…People, if you have any prayers,
Say prayers for me
And lay me under a Christian’s tone
In that lost land I thought my own
To wait till the holy horn is blown
And all poor men are free.
Indeed, like King David, it is this heart-felt repentance that makes Alfred the leader he is, for he learns to humble himself before God and seek his guidance and grace when rising to a challenge that is far beyond his own strength and abilities to accomplish. He must be transformed to become “the Great.”
Through Alfred’s experiences as a hunted vagrant in the marshes, disguised sometimes as a shepherd, sometimes as a minstrel, he is brought up close and personal with friends and enemies alike, and learns about his subjects from all walks of life and cultural backgrounds. Famously, in one peasant woman’s cottage, he is asked to watch cakes baking on the hearth. When he forgets his task and lets the cakes burn, she promptly strikes him in the forehead with her brand! Although initially infuriated by this assault, he soon realizes it was well-deserved, and uses his “mark” to rally his men and illustrate the vital importance of humility:
Pride juggles with her toppling towers
They strike the sun and cease
But the firm feet of humility
They grip the ground like trees
….He that hath failed in a little thing
Hath a sign upon the brow
And the Earls of the Great Army
Have no such seal to show.
Hence, it is Alfred’s own flaws, and realization of those flaws, that are embodied in the “red star” on his forehead…and yet also make him a man worth following, in the fullness of his humanity and humility. He has his feet on the ground, and is not blinded by pride. In fact, he bears the mark of a peasant woman’s wrath as a badge of honor, vows that as that “if the red star burn”, he will strike back against the haughty foes that come against him, for the sake of that blow which he did not return. He then urges his men to follow him:
I call the muster of Wessex men
From grassy hamlet or ditch or den
To break and be broken, God knows when
But I have seen for whom…For I go gathering Christian men
From sunken paving and ford and fen
To die in a battle, God knows when
By God, but I know why.
Chesterton uses this opportunity to introduce a trio of leading characters who stand as symbols of the Saxon, Roman, and Celtic races: Eldred, Mark, and Colan, respectively. All three of them will fight under Alfred at Ethandune, and all three of them die for the cause. It is a fact that by the 9th century when Alfred fought for the throne, these racial differences would not have been as clear cut as depicted in the poem, but Chesterton summed up this period compression in his prologue: “It is the chief value of legend to mix up the centuries while preserving the sentiment; to see all ages in a sort of splendid foreshortening. That is the use of tradition: it telescopes history.”
Some of the characterizations may seem rather prejudice…especially with regards to the Colan the Celt, who is imbibed with all the wild-eyed anger and broken-hearted cynicism that the English attributed to the ever-restless Irish. One famous line runs:
For the great Gales of Ireland
Are the Men that God made mad
For all their wars are merry
And all their songs are sad.
This summary may be seen as profound or stereotypical, depending on the perspective. But still, the combination of Roman, Celt, and Saxon is meant as a symbolic device, demonstrating the complexity of the British identity, and Alfred’s ability to bring together all factions under a common banner.
The Vikings, too, become symbolic of the enemies of Christianity throughout history, even though at the end of the poem, Alfred makes a prophecy that the Vikings, who at least fought like men, will be replaced by scholarly atheists who will say that life is meaningless, and turn the world upside-down through their teachings:
They shall come mild as monkish clerks
With many a scroll and pen
And backward shall ye turn and gaze
Desiring one of Alfred’s days
When pagans still were men…
By this sign you know them
That they ruin and make dark…
By all men bond to Nothing
Being slaves without a lord…
But still, in spite of all this, the Christian virtues of hope and perseverance, even when all seems lost, are celebrated. One stanza runs:
But you and all the kind of Christ
Are ignorant and brave
And you have wars you hardly win
And souls you hardly save.”
Christians are able to live by this seemingly absurd, loving the unlovable, having faith in the unseen, and hoping through the darkest night. They may laugh in the face of evil, for they know that, in the end, death has already been conquered by the Victorious King.
Perhaps Christian gutsiness comes particularly natural to the British, made manifest through their holy gallows humor. This sense of paradox and defiance is epitomized by the lines Alfred speaks to his Viking foes, disguised as a minstrel in their camp:
For our God hath blessed creation
Calling it good; I know
What spirit with you blindly band
Hath blessed destruction with his hand
Yet by God’s death the stars shall stand
And small apples grow.
Feminine intuition and spiritual power also play an important role in this poem. Even though all the main characters are male, the Blessed Virgin Mary makes several appearances in the poem, bringing a sense of reassurance to the combatants, and serving as a beacon in the darkness. Like Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, she steels Alfred for the battle to come, even though she does not hide the dire nature of the situation:
I tell you naught for your comfort
Yea, naught for your desire
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher…
Night shall be thrice night over you
And heaven an iron cope
Do you have joy without a cause
Yeah, faith without a hope?
Though terror hangs heavy as the day of reckoning draws near, Mary does not abandon Alfred to his fears, but reappears to him in the midst of battle, with seven swords in her heart and on in her hand:
One instant in a still light
He saw Our Lady then
Her dress was soft as the western sky
And she was a queen most womanly
But she was a queen of men.
Her presence galvanizes Alfred to launch a final, desperate charge that turns the tide at Ethandune.
The White Horse on the hill is the main motif, a chalk etching against a grassy backdrop of Wiltshire, continually scoured by the English people so that it would not fade. It lends The Ballad a sense of place and rollicking rhythm, and is also a symbol of the vortex of the human experience both Pagan and Christian, and yet emphasizes the reason why Christianity is bound to outlive Paganism: “Ere the sad gods that made your gods
Saw their sad sunrise pass
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
That you have left to darken and fail
Was cut out of the grass
….Therefore your end is on you
Is on you and your kings
Not for the fire in Ely fen
Not that your gods are nine or ten
But because it is only Christian men
Guard even heathen things.”
It also brings the themes of perseverance and vigilance to the fore. It is a sign of continuity for the people fighting for their freedom and religion, and it must be maintained by each passing generation if it is to be preserved. It is also the sign of some intangible sense of identity that can never be blotted out, come time and tide. This is immortalized in the famous lines:
And though skies alter and empires melt
This word shall still be true
If we would have the horse of old
Scour ye the horse anew.
This, perhaps, is one of Chesterton’s most profound and timeless messages to the Christian world: Fight on, even though the days grow darker yet, and know that the Great Battle has already been won by Christ the King. Furthermore, for the Christian, there is no such thing as fickle fate, but something with much more rhyme and reason, the stuff that both history and mythology is made of. To quote the real King Alfred, in his addition to Boethius: “I say as do all Christian men, that it is a divine purpose that rules, and not fate.”
And that, I believe, is a very heartening conviction.