Classic Review – The Ballad of the White Horse (1911)

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Overview

Synopsis A 9th century Catholic King leads a hopeless war against Viking invaders, seeking hope without cause from the Mother of God.

Author G.K. Chesterton
Publisher St. Jerome Library (2018 Edition)
Genre Poetry

Length 155 Pages (St. Jerome Library Edition)

Release Date 1911

I am a member of the Nashville branch of the Society of G.K. Chesterton and earlier this year I proposed that the group ought to read the author’s seminal work of epic poetry — which at the time I’d never read. I have the distinction of being one of the lone non-Catholics in the group which puts me in an interesting place. I enjoy the discussion of sorting through some of the best Catholic writing of the early 20th century while also having to filter these ideas through my own schismatic worldview.

Since convincing the group to read the book together, I have independently read the poem three times cover-to-cover, and in doing so it’s rapidly become not only one of my favorite works of Chesterton but also one of my favorite works of modern poetry.

Content Guide

Spiritual Content: The book depicts an apparition of the Virgin Mary and explores Christian themes of joy and humility in the face of death.
Violence: Characters go to war and die brutal deaths; many of them have their bloody deaths described in detail.
Language/Crude Humor: None
Sexual Content: A character confesses his sexual sins of youthful lust and adultery.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Characters drink ale and wine.
Other Negative Themes: None.
Positive Content: Themes of humility and joy.

King Alfred sits on his horse in the English countryside

Review

Though largely forgotten today, Chesterton’s literary masterpiece was once among the premiere works of poetry in the English language of the early 20th century. The author published the work just before WWI, and it immediately became a poem that was highly read in the trenches, in addition to remaining a cornerstone of popular poetry in the English media for decades.

G.K. Chesterton’s Catholicism has definitely turned the modern intellectual world against him, though. For decades after he joined the Catholic Church, his books have mostly been out of print with notable exceptions like his enduring Father Brown stories and The Man Who Was Thursday. It’s only been in the last few decades that smaller traditionalist Catholic publishers have taken his public domain works and published them, as interest drew for books like Orthodoxy and Everlasting Man, which hasn’t renewed their reputation among the secular elite and academia.

As The New Yorker writes:

He is a difficult writer to defend. Those of us who are used to pressing his writing on friends have the hard job of protecting him from his detractors, who think he was a nasty anti-Semite and medievalizing reactionary, and the still harder one of protecting him from his admirers, who pretend that he was not. His Catholic devotees are legion and fanatic.

Chesterton is certainly even challenging for Protestants. It’s clear his vision of the church does not encompass my own and its presuppositions can be awkward as a reader. As an example, part of the challenge for me as an Evangelical-turned-Anglican reading this book is how much of it is rooted in Chesterton’s very specific vision of Christianity, even as a fellow Christian. The book is at least partially written in veneration of the Blessed Mother Mary and two its key story moments only make sense when the reader is familiar with that traditional line of thought — and I myself remain still fairly uncomfortable with it at times despite understanding thematically what he’s expressing.

The deeply Christian heart of The Ballad of the White Horse draws me to it repeatedly. The poem stands alone not only as (arguably) the last great successful work of epic narrative poetry in the English language but also as a singularly powerful meditation on the end of the world — exploring the ways our relationship to eternity and Christ guide us and renew us in the face of death and decay.

As Chesterton Society President Dale Ahlquist writes, “Chesterton may have considered The Ballad of the White Horse his greatest literary accomplishment … it is a masterpiece. It was the only one of his works that he felt worthy enough to dedicate to his wife.”

A Joy Without a Cause 

The poem begins juxtaposing two potent images: the eternal white horse and the death of Christian civilization — as seen at the fall of the Roman Empire. The opening lines contrast the eternal nature of a metaphorical white horse with the temporal nature of the Pagan gods and slowly unfurl the setting of this world. For this is a story about the end of the world in some sense, a coming climatic final battle with the forces of evil washing up on English shores. 

The shores of Britain have fallen under siege by hoards of Danish Vikings. The poem is set in the aftermath of a siege of King Alfred’s capital in Wessex in 878 AD, with him having been chased out and hiding with a garrison. Without the support of the Roman Empire, the British Isles are nearly defenseless. At this moment, King Alfred feels like a hopeless failure with no hope for the future. He is witnessing the end of Christendom in England — the end of the world.

“There was not English armour left, / Nor any English thing, / When Alfred came to Athelney / To be an English king.”

Book I, Line 112

Alfred is tearfully lamenting his failures when suddenly before him appears the Virgin Mary. Faced with the mother of God, Alfred asks her not for some secret theological knowledge but only if there is hope for the besieged and forsaken lands of the kingdom. She chides the questions, stating that the gates of heaven are locked lightly and that the blessing of Christians is that they can go happily and songfully into death. He must gather “faith without a hope” and March against the rising darkness. 

“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.”

Book I, Line 231

Alfred gathers his newfound “hope without a cause” and calls forth the remaining chieftains to his side. He laments his failures but encourages them to come to his aid against the Danish foes. They agree to follow him into battle.

The Nihilist King

The waiting King Alfred finds himself in the Danish camp one night. As he is playing his lyre, the drunken soldiers capture him and whisk him away to their camp. He is brought to the presence of his Conqueror King Guthrum and ordered to play music, not knowing he is the Christian king. 

The soldiers sing wearily about death and conquest, knowing their encroaching doom. Death haunts these men who realize there is no escape but the momentary joys of battle and pleasure. Pretending to be a nameless man, Alfred responds by singing of the joy of Christianity. He then makes his escape from the Danes as they laugh at his proclamation that the Christians actually have a reason for hope. 

“Therefore your end is on you / Is on you and 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.”

Book III, Line 368

Before he leads his army, though, he has one last lesson to learn. While traveling, he’s stopped by a poor peasant woman seeing him in minstrel rags and asking him to help her cook a meal in exchange for dinner. While he ponders God, he burns the food, and the woman strikes the king for being foolish. He returns to his army, humbled one last time by the importance of humility and the value of being a good servant. 

“Pride juggles with her toppling towers, / They strike the sun and cease, / But the firm feet of humility / They grip the ground like trees.”

Book IV, Line 264
King Alfred leads soldiers in battle against Vikings
The Battle of Ethandune 

The armies of King Alfred march against the heathen armies, but as they come in sight of the enemy the Christian soldiers grow weary and despair. Desperate to maintain command, Alfred stands before them and offers a confession of his sins — of lust and adultery in his early life — and asks for his soldiers’ prayers for forgiveness. 

The lengthy battle proves violent and nearly fruitless, with the Heathens standing athwart their attackers and bragging about the glorious defeat of the worshippers of the “hidden sun”, laying many good Christian warriors and chieftains to waste.

“The blind gods roar for Rome fallen, / And forum and garland gone, / For the ice of the north is broken, / And the sea of the north comes on.”

Book VI, Line 231

The Christians suffer great casualties and death, but they charge into battle with the simple bravery of a child, ready to die. One last time the army of King Alfred breaks against the enemy Danes. As they do, the visage of the Virgin Mary appears to them once more over the battle, as a queen overlooking her people. The Danes lose so badly that the enemy Norse King Guthram becomes convinced to convert and is baptized as a Christian.

“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.”

Book VII, Line 247
A Vision of the Future

Years later, Wessex has attained great peace in the land. King Alfred rules his meager kingdom as a humble common king, allowing lands north to go unplundered. For he is a wise king and seeks simpler, more humble things than the men of the north’s conquest. The old king is only called out of his peace when the Danes make a move again to raid England.

As he prepares his response, he recounts a vision of the next great Heathen invasion in the distant future— the possible spectrum of a renewed pagan spirit in the form of atheist materialism. After which, the king rides off to his last battle. 

“They shall come mild as a monkish clerk, / With many a scroll and pen; / And backward shall yet turn and gaze, / Desiring one of Alfred’s days / When pagans still were men … / What though they come with scroll and pen, / And grave as a shaven clerk, / By this sign you shall know them, / That they ruin and make dark; / By all men bound to Nothing, / Being slaves without a lord, / By one blind idiot world obeyed, / To blind to be abhorred; / By terror and the cruel tales, / Of curse in bone and kin, / By weird and weakness winning, accursed from the beginning, / By detail of the sinning / And denial of the sin…”

Book VIII, Lines 257 + 281
King Alfred leads soldiers in battle against Vikings
Onward Christian Soldiers

War is the present setting and central theme of Ballad of the White Horse, but it is a different sort of theme because the book is overtly Catholic as it is. It is drenched with the same sense of moralism and totalism that we see in Song of Roland and Beowulf, that the Christian life manifests in all areas of one’s existence and extends out from their being through their thoughts and words, changing the world through the grace of God. War is very much an extension of that reality — but merely a more direct confrontation with death and the temptation to run away from God’s will.

At times this comes off as naïve. The book was released just three years prior to WWI, and it’s clear that it played a major influence in young English men being sent into the trenches. There’s almost a darkly tragic image that one can conjure by imagining some poor young English boy reading this book and running across no man’s land in the name of God and Country only to be obliterated, like so many people in that war. This is, after all, a story about marching into battle to die secure in your salvation and rightness with Christ. 

One shouldn’t let the evolving nature of modern militarized combat change the core essence of this moral philosophy, though. Just because technology has diminished the concept of nobility and bravery in modern war doesn’t mean they have little to teach us. If anything, this book has more to teach us now than it did in 1911.

Christianity and Paganism

Pagan religions are actually among the fastest-growing religions in the world. Wicca and other popular new-age spiritual religions have become a massive fascination to the younger generation yearning for spiritual benefits without the icky parts of organized religion. And certainly, it isn’t hard to figure out why. Rituals and the occult are probably quite fun when moral responsibility and reason are taken out of the equation. Talking to the dead and cursing your enemies with hexes and spells must feel quite gratifying.

Atheism and agnosticism are also growing rapidly. While only 5% of Americans identify as atheists, 35% say they believe in nothing in particular. In the modern world, it appears that apathy towards old-time religion is more popular than antipathy.

Chesterton identifies both of these trends in King Alfred’s final soliloquy against the future pagans. These two groups obviously aren’t raging hoards of barbarians scouring the English countryside. They’re gentle, intelligent, and friendly modern people who make perfectly polite neighbors and friends. What Chesterton seems to identify in them though is a kind of laxness that allows the forces of entropy to slip past them and grow over the world like weeds.

“Sin is a weed. It starts out small and subtle. But left unattended it becomes an infestation, and covers everything.” 

Dale Ahlquist, President of the Chesterton Society
White Horse Vale in England
White Horse Vale in England
The Eternal White Horse

This is contrasted in the significance of the White Horse, which is represented in the book by the real-life location of the White Horse Vale in Berkshire, England. This prehistoric spot has been pruned and protected by the locals from the creeping weeds of time.

“And all the while on White Horse Hill, / The horse lay long and wan, / The turf crawled and the fungus crept / And the little sorrel, while all men slept, / Unwrought the work of man.”

Book VIII, Line 351

Chesterton’s fear is that the death of Christianity foreshadows the very real undoing of civilization, that society is something that has to be delicately preserved and nurtured over time by common men and common kings alike in their humility and bravery. For Chesterton, the White Horse is a symbol of eternity and that which is eternal. Before it, the Pagan worshippers are merely exhausted and wicked men who rely on power and violence to serve their ends. They have no hope. 

The old Pagans were of course very different than Chesterton’s future Pagans. Chesterton seems to find them sad and lamentable, as men who live depraved lives of violence with the hanging reality of death over their heads. As the Norse King Guthram sings, “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; through this word be a mystery, death is most distant then.” In other words, life is only worth living when alcohol and distraction dull the reality of death.

In our very vice-driven culture of alcoholism and pornography, this is a trait the modern Pagans share with the old ones. While they aren’t raging violently against England, they do tend to undo, deconstruct, desecrate, and tear down old traditions with weed-like ease and gleeful laughter.

The Valuable Mythology of King Alfred 

One of the book’s most curious critics was actually the fellow Catholic fiction writer J.R.R. Tolkien, who writes in his letters that “the brilliant smash and glitter of the words and phrase cannot disguise the fact that G.K.C. knew nothing whatever about the North, heathen or Christian” (Letter 80).

Chesterton does not defend the poem on grounds of factual accuracy, though. In fact, he does the opposite. In the book’s introduction, he speaks to his desire to mythologize the life of King Alfred—who he notes is already a mythical figure in English culture but, unlike King Arthur, provably existed and left behind clear evidence of his life. He purposely chose several fictional moments to shy away from that real-life man’s life, focusing on legends such as playing the harp in the Danish camp and being smacked by the woman and threads them into a larger narrative about humility.

“Alfred has come down to us in the best way, that is by national legends, soley for the same reason as Arthur and Roland and the other giants of that darkness, because he fought for the Christian civilization against the heathan nihilism. That is the use of tradition: it telescopes history.”

Instead of leaning into the verifiable truth of King Alfred, Chesterton leaned into the cultural truth of King Alfred and fictionalized a story about him being inspired by the Virgin Mary to march joyfully until his death as a Christian.

A painting of King Alfred
King Alfred
Joyfulness Against the Dying Of the Light

In doing this, Chesterton not only crafted a new national myth and a story about wartime anxiety, but a beautiful work of Christian moralism. He finds old truths in the fictionalization and builds up the Christian faith much like the men who prune White Horse Vale care for their prehistoric monument. The poem in its fullness is a masterpiece about the perfect, objective, and eternal light that must be preserved by civilization from the slow creeping weeds of darkness ever looming and threatening to overtake the light. 

“Our parents have taught us certain truths, certain commandments; we in turn teach them to our children. If we do not teach them, soon comes ‘the detail of the sinning and the denial of the sin.’ The moral tradition of the human race is never secure. It is active, hard work. We can never take it for granted.”

– Dale Ahlquist

Our task as Christians often feels lowly and hopeless as we stare into a world full of sickness and death seemingly without end. We lie on the vale like Alfred, awaiting a sign of what to do. But the answer may always just be as simple as finding that hope without a cause. As Chesterton would likely say, what set the old Catholic Saints apart from us is just how happy they would go to their painful deaths knowing they had confidence in their salvation. Most of our modern challenges are nowhere near as deadly. We can afford a little joy if we are willing to trust without a reason.

Positives

+ Beautiful Poetry
+ Powerful and Relevant Themes
+ Reflective of Chesterton's Philosophy

Negatives

- Reaction May Very Depending On Your Worldview

The Bottom Line

The Ballad of the White Horse is Chesterton's literary masterpiece and remains a beautiful expression of his reactionary worldview and desire to protect the light of Christ.

 

Story/Plot 10

Writing 10

Editing 9

9.6

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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