The Ballad of the White Horse
Posted by Nick Milne on June 23, 2008
In 1911 Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936), a worthy gentleman, published his epic account of Alfred the Great’s hard-fought victory over the Danes at the Battle of Ethandune in 878. The Ballad of the White Horse, as it is called, is a stirring martial ballad of about 2700 lines (500 lines shorter than Heaney’s Beowulf and almost 200 longer than Borroff’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), touching on themes of kingship and humility, despair and endurance, the elder gods and Christ. It is candidly a legend; in his prefatory note to the Ballad, Chesterton cheerfully announces that:
This ballad needs no historical notes, for the simple reason that it does not profess to be historical. All of it that is not frankly fictitious, as in any prose romance about the past, is meant to emphasize tradition rather than history. King Alfred is not a legend in the sense that King Arthur may be a legend; that is, in the sense that he may possibily be a lie. But King Alfred is a legend in this broader and more human sense, that the legends are the most important things about him.
Thus untethered from the debates over the historicity of the best stories concerning Alfred (the playing of the harp, the burning of the cakes, the vision of the Blessed Virgin, and so on), Chesterton weaves a luminous pre-medieval romance in which hopeless battles are joined, bold stands are taken and many lives are lost. It is not a happy story, as Alfred’s early interview with the Mother of God makes clear. When Alfred asks in Book I if there is any hope for victory, she will not say so, offering instead these sobering words:
“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,
Yea, faith without a hope?”
But Alfred does not despair, and he and his outnumbered Christian army fight on against the pagan Danes regardless. Though victory over the relentless hordes of Guthrum is achieved, it will not last, and the Ballad ends with fresh battle joined and the promise – the curse – of more to come, forever and ever. Along the way many ideas are explored in a philosophical sense, and about such things I will have more to say at a later date. For now, though, this summary will suffice.
Now, some account of why I’m writing about this would be worthwhile.
For the longest time, even as I grew to like Chesterton and his works more and more, I avoided the Ballad on the grounds that it looked very long and possibly not very interesting. A fool I was, but there’s no going back on it now. As I became more interested in working on Chesterton in an academic sense, maybe even extensively, it became less and less tenable an option to be ignorant of the work many have called his masterpiece. Needless to say, having now read it I recognize its merits without reservation. My affection for it grew to such an extent that it became the natural choice as a focus for my research for the large written component of the MA degree towards which I am currently striving. I’ll be finished this research and the attendant document in the next few weeks, but for the time being, while I’m still heavily involved in it and reading all of this primary and secondary material so assiduously, it’s only natural that it should become blog fodder as well. Several of my readers, being inclined in this Chestertonian direction as well, will likely be pleased with this development. Others may not be so lucky.
The first of these posts (the second if you count this one) will come on Tuesday; thereafter it will strike as the mood takes me.