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.
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 readable, 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 apprehensive about saying it forthrightly, 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.
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 the challenge that is far beyond his own strength and abilities to accomplish. He must be transformed to become “the Great.”
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.”
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 code, 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.
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/Yea, 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.
And that, I believe, is a very heartening conviction.
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