The Ballad of the White Horse by G.K. Chesterton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Chesterton brilliantly retells King Alfred’s 9th-century wars against the pagan Danish invaders of Britain. Using the format of an epic poem matches the form and sound of the words to the story he lays out. As a master of the English language I didn’t easily understand everything to which the author alludes. Thankfully I had the Ignatius Press 2001 reprint, which includes exhaustive explanatory endnotes.
Alfred fought the Danes not just militarily but in their pagan worldview. Chesterton includes the legends that portray this. One emphasizes the dignity of the servant and the need for a ruler to serve. In another Alfred sneaks into the Danish camp with his harp. Guthrum, the Danish chief, and his lords first sing songs of their gods that end in nihilistic despair and blind stoicism. Alfred sings back:
“That though you hunt the Christian man
Like a hare on the hill-side,
The hare has still more heart to run
Than you have heart to ride” (III.335-338).
Earlier we hear:
“The men of the East may spell the stars,
And times and triumphs mark,
But the men signed of the cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark” (I.231-234).
Alfred is a key source of the Christian happy warrior theme, found today in Tolkien's riders of Rohan, and on the pages of National Review. Gaiety abounds, even while observing and passing through dark times.
This one is best read aloud! The meter is really strong, so that you can sense the stern Danes and Alfred’s resolve. He often puts the climax in the last line, with a couple fewer syllables for emphasis. My boys ate up the battle scenes, of course.
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