The Alfredian Odyssey: An Examination of G. K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse

IN 1911, when G. K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse was first published, there existed a loyal and devoted following centred around the semi-mythical life and times of the famous Anglo-Saxon king, Alfred the Great (849-99 CE). Chesterton’s poetic masterpiece successfully exploits the indomitable wave of national and cultural pride that surrounds this popular ninth-century figure, helping to reinforce his own religious outlook and thus present the case – as he saw it – for the defence of Christian England against an increasingly hostile onslaught that was being waged on several fronts by a determined Heathen invader.

Chesterton’s poem, despite never having been set to music, is composed in a musical verse style that originated among the chanson balladée (dancing songs) of Medieval France. Modern ballads are usually associated with songs of love, but prior to the nineteenth century they were used in conjunction with the popular folk tales of the British Isles. It is in this more traditional spirit that Chesterton wrote The Ballad of the White Horse. The ballad may also be regarded as a Catholic allegory, particularly as Chesterton sets out to attribute Alfred’s hard-won victory against the Danes to the direct intervention of the Virgin Mary.

The Ballad of the White Horse is comprised of 2,684 lines and its stanzas are grouped together in either four or six lines. Various rhyming schemes are employed throughout the work, most notably the ABCB and ABCCCB formulae. The epic is preceded by a ‘Prefatory Note’, in which the author helpfully sets out the historical context of his work:

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 is emphasize tradition rather than history.[1]

Unlike King Arthur, who has been left with a rather dubious, speculative and embroidered historical legacy, Alfred the Great is a considerably more tangible and approachable figure who retains an indisputable place in the hallowed annals of English history. Curiously, however, Chesterton is more concerned with the actual mythology that surrounds Alfred and, by locating his military campaign against Guthrum in the Vale of the White Horse, in Berkshire, has allowed himself more than a fair degree of artistic licence. There is an old legend that insists that Alfred and Guthrum did indeed settle their differences in the heart of the Berkshire countryside, but as Chesterton himself explains:

I have seen doubts of the tradition, which may be valid doubts. I do not know when or where the story started; it is enough that it started somewhere and ended with me; for I only seek to write upon a hearsay, as the old balladists did. For the second case, there is a popular tale that Alfred played the harp and sang in the Danish camp; I select it because it is a popular tale, at whatever time it arose.[2]

The reference to King Alfred infiltrating the ranks of his Danish adversaries and entertaining them without their knowledge has been encapsulated in an appealing 1852 painting by Daniel Maclise, entitled Alfred, the Saxon King, disguised as a Minstrel, in the Tent of Guthrum the Dane, but the theme does seem rather far-fetched. Similarly, Chesterton admits that the famous story about Alfred burning the cakes after seeking refuge with a woman living in a forest is disputed by many historians:

The two chief charges against the story are, that it was recorded long after Alfred’s death, and that (as Mr. Oman urges) Alfred never really wandered all alone without any thanes or soldiers.[3]

Nevertheless, Chesterton’s intention was always to present a mythological account of his hero and he never felt that it was necessary to prove conclusively that such episodes actually took place at all. As a devout Catholic, on the other hand, Chesterton was keen to use his ballad as a means of positing the Christian overthrow of Paganism:

But since this work was really done by generation after generation, by the Romans before they withdrew, and by the Britons while they remained, I have summarised this first crusade in a triple symbol, and given to a fictitious Roman, Celt, and Saxon, a part in the glory of Ethandune. I fancy that in fact Alfred’s Wessex was of very mixed bloods: but in any case, 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.[4]

Chesterton’s use of the term ‘Ethandune’ is a reference to the Battle of Edington, which took place in neighbouring Wiltshire during the Spring of 878 CE. By this time, the Vikings had been attacking the shores of Anglo-Saxon England for between seventy-five and one hundred years, but when Alfred finally confronted the Great Heathen Army in his native Wessex the course of English history was hanging in the balance. The Danish leader, Guthrum (d. 890 CE), had been attacking and occupying a series of fortified towns across the south-east of the country for some time, demanding financial tribute and then moving on to pastures new. By this time, Alfred’s men had been shadowing Guthrum’s army across Wessex, trying to minimise the damage and waiting for a good opportunity to rid his kingdom of the Viking scourge once and for all.

Prior to embarking upon his poetic quest, Chesterton pre-empts his work with a touching dedication to his beloved wife, in which he provides a brief sketch of Alfred’s legacy and alludes to their travels through Wessex together:

Up through an empty house of stars,

Being what heart you are,

Up the inhuman steeps of space

As on a staircase go in grace,

Carrying the firelight on your face

Beyond the loneliest star.

Take these; in memory of the hour

We strayed a space from home

And saw the smoke-hued hamlets, quaint

With Westland king and Westland saint,

And watched the western glory faint

Along the road to Frome.[5]

The ballad is divided into eight books, beginning with The Vision of the King. In this section, Chesterton tells us about the Vale of the White Horse. Nestled between the Berkshire Downs and the River Thames, the Vale is home to a mammoth equestrian figure etched in chalk by our prehistoric ancestors and amounting to something in the region of 260 metres in length:

Before the gods that made the gods

Had seen their sunrise pass,

The White Horse of the White Horse Vale

Was cut out of the grass.

Before the gods that made the gods

Had drunk at dawn their fill,

The White Horse of the White Horse Vale

Was hoary on the hill.

Age beyond age on British land,

Aeons on aeons gone,

Was peace and war in western hills,

And the White Horse looked on.[6]

This figure, now known as the Uffington White Horse, is the scene for Chesterton’s dramatic tale of Anglo-Saxon heroism and is used by the author as a symbolic representation of Christian civilisation and its stand against the rampaging hordes of paganism. In certain respects, the fact that the chalk lines of the White Horse must be frequently scoured into the countryside in order to prevent it from fading away, loosely imitates the necessity for an annual recurrence of the Easter festival marking the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ. This Christian theme is reinforced early on in the poem, when Alfred is said to have been visited by the Virgin Mary:

He looked; and there Our Lady was,

She stood and stroked the tall live grass

As a man strokes his steed.

Her face was like an open word

When brave men speak and choose,

The very colours of her coat

Were better than good news.

She spoke not, nor turned not,

Nor any sign she cast,

Only she stood up straight and free.

Between the flowers in Athelney,

And the river running past.[7]

Alfred takes a precious jewel from his armour and throws it at Mary’s feet. She, in return, provides the King with a few semi-cryptic words about the indomitable nature of the Christian faith and the vitality of its message for mankind:

The gates of heaven are lightly locked,

We do not guard our gain,

The heaviest hind may easily

Come silently and suddenly

Upon me in a lane,

And any little maid that walks

In good thoughts apart,

May break the guard of the Three Kings

And see the dear and dreadful things

I hid within my heart.

The meanest man in grey fields gone

Behind the set of sun,

Heareth between star and other star,

Through the door of the darkness fallen ajar,

The council, eldest of things that are,

The talk of the Three in One.”[8]

Mary also tries to impress upon Alfred the great importance of continuing to struggle for a just cause, particularly when all seems lost. Not to mention the rewards that await those who fight on in God’s name:

But if he fail or if he win

To no good man is told

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.

The men of the East may search the scrolls

For sure fates and fame,

But the men that drink the blood of God

Go singing to their shame.”[9]

The Mother of Christ leaves Alfred in little doubt as to the perils that lie before him, something that echoes the great hardships already faced by her own Son:

I tell you naught for your comfort,

Yea, not 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?”[10]

As the Virgin disappears, meanwhile, Alfred’s thoughts return to the matter at hand:

He only heard the heathen men,

Whose eyes are blue and bleak,

Singing about some cruel thing

Done by a great and smiling king

In daylight on a deck.

He only heard the heathen men,

Whose eyes are blue and blind,

Singing what shameful things are done

Between the sunlit sea and the sun

When the land is left behind.[11]

In Book II, The Gathering of the Chiefs, Chesterton has Alfred enlist the help of three chieftains: a Saxon, a Roman and a Celt. The men are depicted as Christian allies and the multi-national character of these individuals faithfully reflects the universal nature of the Catholic religion. They also represent the diverse nature of the people living in England at the time, as well as acknowledging a wider connection with the European continent as a whole.

The Saxon chieftain, a man of enormous stature, is known as Eldred the Franklin:

A mighty man was Eldred,

A bulk for casks to fill,

His face a dreaming furnace,

His body a walking hill.[12]

Eldred had been on the receiving end of several defeats and is reluctant to go to war again, but Alfred is keen to persuade him that God is on their side:

Out of the mouth of the Mother of God

Like a little word come I;

For I go gathering Christian men

From sunken paving and ford and fen,

To die in battle, God knows when,

By God, but I know why.”[13]

These words have a very positive and uplifting effect on Eldred and he decides to join Alfred in his quest to rid England of the Danes.

We are then introduced to the Roman chieftain, as Alfred meets his next friend and ally:

And the white dawn widened

Ere he came to the last pine,

Where Mark, the man from Italy,

Still made the Christian sign.[14.]

Mark is an equally disillusioned figure who is reluctant to join Alfred’s military campaign, so the English King revives his flagging spirits with a brief account of his own fortunes and the recent intervention of Mary:

I am that oft-defeated King

Whose failure fills the land

Who fled before the Danes of old,

Who chaffered with the Danes with gold,

Who now upon the Wessex wold

Hardly has feet to stand.

But out of the Mother of God

I have seen the truth like fire,

This – that the sky grows darker yet

And the sea rises higher.”[15]

Alfred then encounters Colan, a Gaelic warrior, a contradictory figure who is said to be both Christian and pagan at the same time:

His harp was carved and cunning,

As the Celtic craftsman makes,

Graven all over with twisting shapes

Like many headless snakes.

His harp was carved and cunning,

His sword was prompt and sharp,

And he was gay when he held the sword,

Sad when he held the harp.

For the great Gaels of Ireland

Are the men that God made mad,

For all their wars are merry,

And all their songs are sad.

He kept the Roman order,

He made the Christian sign;

But his eyes grew often blind and bright,

And the sea that rose in the rocks at night

Rose to his head like wine.

He made the sign of the cross of God,

He knew the Roman prayer,

But he had unreason in his heart

Because of the gods that were.[16]

Colan, unlike his Saxon and Roman counterparts, accepts Alfred’s invitation with great gusto:

Then Colan of the Sacred Tree

Tossed his black mane on high,

And cried, as rigidly he rose,

And if the sea and sky be foes,

We will tame the sea and sky.”[17]

Chesterton’s third book, The Harp of Alfred, sets out the Wessex monarch’s adventures behind enemy lines. His ballad follows Guthrum, Alfred and several Danish earls as they express themselves through song. The first individual to sing is Harold, who mocks the Christians for their military inferiority and betrays his love of material conquest:

Till Harold laughed and snatched the harp,

The kinsman of the King,

A big youth, beardless like a child,

Whom the new wine of war sent wild,

Smote, and began to sing –

And he cried of the ships as eagles

That circle fiercely and fly,

And sweep the seas and strike the towns

From Cyprus round to Skye.

How swiftly and with peril

They gather all good things,

The high horn of the forest beasts,

Or the secret stones of kings.

For Rome was given to rule the world,

And gat of it little joy –

But we, but we shall enjoy the world,

The whole huge world a toy.[18]

The next person to sing is a character known as Elf, who seems perpetually sad and melancholic. At one point, he makes references to the Norse god, Balder, who was killed by his blind sibling, Höðr, after Loki had tricked him into inadvertently firing a deadly mistletoe arrow at his unwitting brother:

There is always a thing forgotten

When all the world goes well ;

A thing forgotten, as long ago

When the gods forgot the mistletoe,

And soundless as an arrow of snow

The arrow of anguish fell.

The thing on the blind side of the heart,

On the wrong side of the door,

The green plant groweth, menacing

Almighty lovers in the spring ;

There is always a forgotten thing,

And love is not secure.”[19]

Ogier, the most violent of the Danes, is then permitted to express his own love of conflict through the medium of song:

And a man grows ugly for women,

And a man grows dull with ale,

Well if he find in his soul at last

Fury, that does not fail.[20]

Finally, Guthrum himself sings. Despite being an intelligent, well-educated and noble leader, the Danish chieftain seems frustrated that everything around him is centred on death and destruction:

And the heart of the locked battle

Is the happiest place for men;

When shrieking souls as shafts go by

And many have died and all may die;

Though this be a mystery,

Death is most distant then.

Death blazes bright above the cup,

And clear above the crown;

But in that dream of battle

We seen to tread it down.

Wherefore I am a great king

And waste the world in vain,

Because man hath not other power,

Save that in dealing death for dower,

He may forget it for an hour

To remember it again.”[21]

It is then time for Alfred, complete with harp and disguised as a minstrel, to surreptitiously entertain the Danish camp and his lyrics allude to what he considers to be the ultimate superiority of the Christian religion over its pagan rival:

When God put man in a garden

He girt him with a sword,

And sent him forth a free knight

That might betray his lord;

He brake Him and betrayed Him.

And fast and far he fell,

Till you and I may stretch our necks

And burn our beards in hell.

But though I lie on the floor of the world,

With the seven sins for rods,

I would rather fall with Adam

Than rise with all your gods.

What have the strong gods given?

Where have the glad gods led?

When Guthrum sits on a hero’s throne

And asks if he is dead?

Sir, I am but a nameless man,

A rhymester without home,

Yet since I come of the Wessex clay

And carry the cross of Rome.”[22]

Meanwhile, Chesterton’s historical fantasy allows the chalk of the White Horse to slowly fade into the grass as a result of the Danish threat. This, again, is a means of highlighting the fact that Christian civilisation is under threat. Alfred then says:

Therefore your end is on you,

Is on on you and all your kings,

Not for a fire in Ely fen,

Not that your gods are nine or ten,

But because it is only Christian men

Guard even heathen things.

For our god hath blessed creation,

Calling it good. I know

What spirit with whom you blindly band

Hath blessed destruction with his hand;

Yet by God’s death the stars shall stand

And the small apples grow.”

And the King with harp on shoulder,

Stood up and ceased his song;

And the owls moaned from the mighty trees,

And the Danes laughed loud and long.[23]

Book IV, The Woman in the Forest, deals with the famous incident involving Alfred and the burning of the cakes. Forced to become a fugitive, the Anglo-Saxon leader agrees to keep an eye on an old woman’s cakes in return for warming himself beside the hearth. At this point, Alfred’s wretched condition leads him to reflect on the plight of the poor and downtrodden, those whom he compares with the characteristic humility of Christ:

Did not a great grey servant

Of all my sires and me,

Build this pavilion of the pines,

And herd the fowles and fill the vines,

And labour and pass and leave no signs

Save mercy and mystery?

For God is a great servant,

And rose before the day,

From some primordial slumber torn;

But all we living later born

Sleep on, and rise after the morn,

And the Lord has gone away.”[24]

But as the King sheds tears of sadness for the woman and her class, he fails in his duty and the cakes burn and fall into the ashes of the fire. The woman reacts angrily:

Screaming, the woman caught a cake

Yet burning from the bar,

And struck him suddenly on the face,

Leaving a scarlet scar.

King Alfred stood up wordless,

A man dead with surprise,

And torture stood and the evil things

That are in the childish hearts of kings

An instant in his eyes.[25]

The poem then describes the determined rise of Alfred’s allies elsewhere and their commitment to fight on behalf of Christendom. Alfred then appreciates the ludicrous nature of his own predicament, an incident that Chesterton compares with the great humour and merriment displayed by Christians themselves:

Then Alfred laughed out suddenly,

Like thunder in the spring,

Till shook aloud the lintel-beams,

And the squirrels stirred in dusty dreams,

And the startled birds went up in streams,

For the laughter of the King.

And the beasts of the earth and the birds looked down,

In wild solemnity,

On a stranger sight than a sylph or elf,

On one man laughing at himself

Under the greenwood tree –

The giant laughter of Christian men

That roars through a thousand tales,

Where greed is an ape and pride is an ass,

And Jack’s away with his master’s lass,

And the miser is banged with all his brass,

The farmer with all his flails;

Tales that tumble and tales that trick,

Yet end not all in scorning-

Of kings and clowns in a merry plight,

And the clock gone wrong and the world right,

That the mummers sing upon Christmas night

And Christmas Day in the morning.[26]

By the time we reach Book V, Ethandune: The First Stroke, Chesterton’s holy warriors have all been assembled. However, by disturbing various woodland animals on their march through the forest, the men of Wessex and their Roman and Celtic allies have inadvertently alerted Guthrum to their presence:

The live wood came at Guthrum,

On foot and claw and wing,

The nests were noisy overhead,

For Alfred and the star of red,

All life went forth, and the forest fled

Before the face of the King.[27]

Alfred and his men soon become nervous with the approach of battle, almost to the point of despair. Eldred thinks about his friends and loved ones, Colan laments the fact that he still has so much to achieve, and the laughter departs from Mark’s eyes. Alfred, however, undeterred, admits to his own shortcomings and makes an attempt to rally his troops. The other chieftains, expecting the worst, tell one another about their proposed funeral arrangements. Suddenly, Harold – the kinsman of Guthrum himself – fires an arrow at Colan but his plan backfires:

To his great gold earring Harold

Tugged back the feathered tail,

And swift had sprung the arrow,

But swifter sprung the Gael.

Whirling the one sword round his head,

A great wheel in the sun,

He sent it splendid through the sky,

Flying before the shaft could fly –

It smote Earl Harold over the eye,

And blood began to run.[28]

Harold dies in a crimson puddle of his own blood and Alfred presents Colan with his sword as a mark of respect for the Gael’s bravery. He then takes hold of a battle-axe and prepares to meet the Danish foe head-on.

Book VI, Ethandune: The Slaying of the Chiefs, begins with Eldred cutting down his enemies with ferocious abandon. His thoughts, on the other hand, are comparatively more peaceful and idyllic:

But while he moved like a massacre,

He murmured as in sleep,

And his words were all of low hedges

And little fields and sheep.[29]

Tragically, however, Eldred’s blade is accidentally shattered and he is brutally attacked. One of the weapons used against him has been crafted by a supernatural agency:

Till on the helm of a high chieftains

Fell shatteringly his brand,

And the helm broke and the bone broke

And the sword broke in his hand.

Then from the yelling Northmen

Driven splintering on him ran

Full seven spears, and the seventh

Was never made by man.

Seven spears, and the seventh

Was wrought as the faerie blades,

And given to Elf the minstrel

By the monstrous water-maids.[30]

Eldred laughs off the first six spears, but the seventh proves to be his undoing and this giant of a man is finally toppled:

Seven spears went about Eldred

Like stays about a mast;

But there was sorrow by the sea

For the driving of the last.

Six spears thrust upon Eldred

Were splintered while he laughed;

One spear thrust into Eldred,

Three feet of blade and shaft.

And from the great heart grievously

Came forth the shaft and blade,

And he stood with the face of a dead man,

Stood a little, and swayed –

Then fell, as falls a battle-tower,

On smashed and struggling spears,

Cast down from some unconquered town

That, rushing earthward, carries down

Loads of live men of all renown –

Archers and engineers.

And a great clamour or Christian men

Went up in agony,

Crying, “Fallen is the tower of Wessex

That stood beside the sea.”[31]

The death of Eldred strikes fear into the ranks of the Christian army and they are pushed back. Crucially, Mark launches a sudden counter-attack and severs Elf in two. The Christian leaders rally their troops, but Mark the Italian attempts to repel an attack from Ogier and is fatally stabbed in the side after a frenetic struggle. The incident leads to a rush of bravado and the Danish victor delivers a battle-speech to his men:

And Ogier, leaping up alive,

Hurled his huge shield away

Flying, as when a juggler flings

A whizzing plate in play.

And held two arms up rigidly,

And roared to all the Danes:

Fallen is Rome, yea, fallen

The city of the plains.”[32]

The Danes surge forward and the Christian army is pushed backwards along a woodland pass, dividing them into two halves at a fork in the trees. Alfred and Colan are separated from one another and the Gaelic chieftain is then killed:

And when they came to the parting ways

Doom’s heaviest hammer fell,

For the King was beaten, blind, at bay,

Down the right lane with his array,

But Colan swept the other way,

Where he smote great strokes and fell.[33]

And as the cataclysmic events of Book VI come to an ignoble end, Chesterton’s thrilling adventure continues with Book VII, Ethandune: The Last Charge. Initially, thoughts of conflict are set to one side as the author reminds us about the Vale of the White Horse:

Away in the waste of White Horse Down

An idle child alone

Played some small game through hours that pass,

And patiently would pluck the grass,

Patiently push the stone.

On the lean, green edge for ever,

Where the blank chalk touched the turf,

The child played on, alone, divine,

As a child plays on the last line

That sunders sand and surf.

For he dwelleth in high divisions

Too simple to understand,

Seeing on what morn of mystery

The Uncreated rent the sea

With roarings, from the land.

Through the long infant hours like days

He built one tower in vain —

Piled up small stones to make a town,

And evermore the stones fell down,

And he piled them up again.

And crimson kings on battle-towers,

And saints on Gothic spires,

And hermits on their peaks of snow,

And heroes on their pyres,

And patriots riding royally,

That rush the rocking town,

Stretch hands, and hunger and aspire,

Seeking to mount where high and higher,

The child whom Time can never tire,

Sings over White Horse Down.

And this was the might of Alfred,

At the ending of the way;

That of such smiters, wise or wild,

He was least distant from the child,

Piling the stones all day.[34]

This unprecedented change of scenery is Chesterton’s way of drawing his readers’ attention to the simpler things in life and reminding us that Alfred, despite his role as both leader and warrior, still has a duty to protect his kingdom. Alfred, too, of course, was once as innocent and vulnerable as the child playing with the stones.

Back in the heat of battle, Alfred delivers a defiant speech to his men:

Brothers at arms,” said Alfred,

“On this side lies the foe;

Are slavery and starvation flowers,

That you should pluck them so?

For whether is it better

To be prodded with Danish poles,

Having hewn a chamber in a ditch,

And hounded like a howling witch,

Or smoked to death in holes?

Or that before the red cock crow

All we, a thousand strong,

Go down the dark road to God’s house,

Singing a Wessex song?

To sweat a slave to a race of slaves,

To drink up infamy?

No, brothers, by your leave, I think

Death is a better ale to drink,

And by all the stars of Christ that sink,

The Danes shall drink with me.

To grow old cowed in a conquered land,

With the sun itself discrowned,

To see trees crouch and cattle slink —

Death is a better ale to drink,

And by high Death on the fell brink

That flagon shall go round.

Though dead are all the paladins

Whom glory had in ken,

Though all your thunder-sworded thanes

With proud hearts died among the Danes,

While a man remains, great war remains:

Now is a war of men.

The men that tear the furrows,

The men that fell the trees,

When all their lords be lost and dead

The bondsmen of the earth shall tread

The tyrants of the seas.

The wheel of the roaring stillness

Of all labours under the sun,

Speed the wild work as well at least

As the whole world’s work is done.

Let Hildred hack the shield-wall

Clean as he hacks the hedge;

Let Gurth the fowler stand as cool

As he stands on the chasm’s edge;

Let Gorlias ride the sea-kings

As Gorlias rides the sea,

Then let all hell and Denmark drive,

Yelling to all its fiends alive,

And not a rag care we.”[35]

The Christians somehow manage to find the strength and courage to continue in their attempts to repel the Danes, but their efforts are in vain. At least until the Virgin Mary re-appears before King Alfred:

The King looked up, and what he saw

Was a great light like death,

For Our Lady stood on the standards rent,

As lonely and as innocent

As when between white walls she went

And the lilies of Nazareth.

One instant in a still light

He saw Our Lady then,

Her dress was soft as western sky,

And she was a queen most womanly —

But she was a queen of men.

Over the iron forest

He saw Our Lady stand,

Her eyes were sad withouten art,

And seven swords were in her heart —

But one was in her hand.[36]

The positive response from the assembled armies of English Christianity is remarkable and, as the tide finally turns in their favour, the forces of Wessex now begin to rout their Danish enemies:

The high tide!” King Alfred cried.

“The high tide and the turn!

As a tide turns on the tall grey seas,

See how they waver in the trees,

How stray their spears, how knock their knees,

How wild their watchfires burn!

The Mother of God goes over them,

Walking on wind and flame,

And the storm-cloud drifts from city and dale,

And the White Horse stamps in the White Horse Vale,

And we all shall yet drink Christian ale

In the village of our name.

The Mother of God goes over them,

On dreadful cherubs borne;

And the psalm is roaring above the rune,

And the Cross goes over the sun and moon,

Endeth the battle of Ethandune

With the blowing of a horn.”

For back indeed disorderly

The Danes went clamouring,

Too worn to take anew the tale,

Or dazed with insolence and ale,

Or stunned of heaven, or stricken pale

Before the face of the King.

For dire was Alfred in his hour

The pale scribe witnesseth,

More mighty in defeat was he

Than all men else in victory,

And behind, his men came murderously,

Dry-throated, drinking death.[37]

The separated half of Alfred’s army returns and the Viking invaders are completely overrun. As Guthrum’s men flee for their lives, the Danish leader undergoes a genuine conversion to the Catholic faith and is baptised:

King Guthrum was a great lord,

And higher than his gods —

He put the popes to laughter,

He chid the saints with rods,

He took this hollow world of ours

For a cup to hold his wine;

In the parting of the woodways

There came to him a sign.

In Wessex in the forest,

In the breaking of the spears,

We set a sign on Guthrum

To blaze a thousand years.

Where the high saddles jostle

And the horse-tails toss,

There rose to the birds flying

A roar of dead and dying;

In deafness and strong crying

We signed him with the cross.

Far out to the winding river

The blood ran down for days,

When we put the cross on Guthrum

In the parting of the ways.[38]

The eighth and final book, The Scouring of the Horse, presents us with a time of great peace in the Kingdom of Wessex and notes that Guthrum and his men were permitted to settle in the north of England under the Danelaw. Once again, the symbol of the White Horse is used to denote the all-pervasive triumph of civilisation and by scouring it into the countryside Alfred’s people are seen to preserve their Christian existence. Now approaching the twilight years of his life, Alfred himself also seems content with his kingdom and has no desire to expand his borders in the way that others have done before him:

And Alfred in the orchard,

Among apples green and red,

With the little book in his bosom,

Looked at the green leaves and said :

When all philosophies shall fail,

This word alone shall fit;

That a sage feels too small for life,

And a fool too large for it.

Asia and all imperial plains

Are too little for a fool ;

But for one man whose eyes can see,

The little island of Athelney

Is too large a land to rule.”[39]

Alfred dedicates his kingdom to Mary, recalling her key role in the holy war against the Danes, although he realises that there will always be hostile outsiders wishing to disrupt the peace and stability of Wessex:

Though I give this land to Our Lady,

That helped me in Athelney,

Though lordlier trees and lustier sod

And happier hills hath no flesh trod

Than the garden of the Mother of God

Between Thames side and the sea,

I know that weeds shall grow in it

Faster than men can burn;

And though they scatter now and go,

In some far century, sad and slow,

I have a vision, and I know

The heathen shall return.”[40]

The Ballad of the White Horse ends with the grass beginning to grow through the chalk once again, emphasising the constant struggle that Christians must wage in order to maintain their religious and cultural freedom. The ballad concludes with Alfred earning another victory over the Danes, this time in London Town.

Finally, Christopher Clausen has argued[41] that the popular novelist, J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973), used both the structure and some of the themes from Chesterton’s ballad in order to enhance his own epic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings (1954). This is hardly surprising, of course, given that both men had such an enormous impact on the literary and cultural heritage of twentieth-century England. Chesterton’s work remains one of the finest examples of the balladic tradition and is still much-loved today.

Notes:

1. G. K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse (House of Stratus, 2008), p.vii.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., p.viii.

5. Ibid., p.xv

6. Ibid., p.1.

7. Ibid., p.6.

8. Ibid., p.7.

9. Ibid., pp.7-8.

10. Ibid., p.8.

11. Ibid., p.9.

12. Ibid., p.12.

13. Ibid., p.13.

14. Ibid., p.14.

15. Ibid., p.15.

16. Ibid., p.17.

17. Ibid., p.18.

18. Ibid., p.24.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid., p.26.

21. Ibid., p.29.

22. Ibid., p.30.

23. Ibid., pp.31-2.

24. Ibid., p.36.

25. Ibid., pp.37-8.

26. Ibid., pp.39-40.

27. Ibid., p.44.

28. Ibid., p.50.

29. Ibid., p.54.

30. Ibid., pp.54-5.

31. Ibid., pp.55-6.

32. Ibid., p.59.

33. Ibid., p.61.

34. Ibid., pp.63-4.

35. Ibid., pp.66-7.

36. Ibid., pp.68-9.

37. Ibid., pp.70-1.

38. Ibid., p.73.

39. Ibid., pp.77-8.

40. Ibid., p.82.

41. Christopher Clausen, “’The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Ballad of the White Horse’” in South Atlantic Bulletin, XXXIX(2):10-16, accessed online, April 2013, via Thomson Gale Literature Resource Center.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *