Once upon a time there was a king who ruled a small country. He was a good king who loved his people, his country, and God. But he was beset with enemies on every side. He fought and lost many battles against these enemies and was on the brink of absolute defeat. Then one day, as he walked through the woods, a vision appeared to him of a beautiful woman. She encouraged him to take heart and go into battle once more. She did not promise him victory, but her appearance filled him with hope, and he knew he must obey. Gathering his remaining friends around him, they engaged in one last, desperate battle. The king and his friends rose up and killed many of the enemy, but each of his friends fell, until he alone was left to lead the army. In his wrath, he took up his sword against the foe with such fury that they fell away before him, and the enemy king surrendered and became his prisoner. The good king brought peace to his kingdom, his people flourished, and they called him Great for the mighty deliverance he worked for them, and for the prosperity they enjoyed under his reign.
It sounds like a fairy tale, but it is the story of Alfred the Great, king of Wessex and the Anglo-Saxons in the ninth century. “The Ballad of the White Horse” is G.K. Chesterton’s magnificent epic poem based on King Alfred’s climactic victory over the Danish Vikings at the battle of Ethendun. Stirring and bold, it is one of Chesterton’s best works, showing him to be a master of verse as well as prose. It functions not only as the story of Alfred’s victory over the heathen Danes, but also as an allegory of the ongoing war between Christianity and paganism. Chesterton writes of the Danes with their Norse gods:
Their souls were drifting as the sea,
And all good towns and lands,
They only saw with heavy eyes,
And broke with heavy hands.
Their gods were sadder than the sea,
Gods of a wandering will,
Who cried for blood like beasts at night,
Sadly, from hill to hill
The Danes are the pagans of old with gods of death who, even in victory, give no hope or help:
They seemed as trees walking the earth,
As witless and as tall,
Yet they took hold upon the heavens
And no help came at all.
The White Horse of the title is the ancient White Horse of Uffington, a giant horse cut into the chalk of the hillside sometime during the bronze age. Chesterton sets Alfred’s battle in the White Horse vale, for the horse represents both England and the Church. At the beginning of the poem, the horse is grey, overgrown with weeds that threaten to cover and obscure it forever. It is his job to cleanse it, to expel the Danes from England, the pagans from the Church. He is to fight for the purity of both, whether he succeeds or not. Of course, that leaves the Saxons as representative of Christianity, perpetually fighting a terrifying enemy, always seeming on the brink of defeat, but always surviving to glorify God.
“The Ballad of the White Horse” is not just excellent literature. It is Chesterton’s call to the Church; an alarm and a rallying cry. The Church is to be ever on the watch for the invasion of paganism, ever ready to take up arms against its influence to keep it from corrupting and obscuring the beauty and glory it reflects as an image of God. He makes this abundantly clear in a striking passage where Chesterton describes the paganism of his own time directly. Alfred, near the end of his life, prophesies about the enemies that the Church will face in years to come:
They shall not come in war-ships,
They shall not waste with brands,
But books be all their eating,
And ink be on their hands.
Not with the humour of hunters,
Or savage skill in war,
But ordering all things with dead words,
Strings shall they make of beasts and birds,
And wheels of wind and star.
They shall come mild as a monkish clerk,
With many a scroll and pen,
And backward shall ye wonder and gaze,
Desiring one of Alfred’s days,
When pagans still were men.
These are the pagans that Chesterton fought, and that the Church still faces today. There is a distinct note of longing here. Chesterton is nostalgic for a past when one could meet the enemy openly, clearly in pitched battle. That same nostalgia resonates deeply with me. If it were only as simple as taking up a sword against a flesh and blood enemy, and not having to sift through twisted words and tortured reasoning to reach to the heart of the enemy. There is no guarantee of victory in either case, but on a physical battlefield, you know who the enemy is.
Filled with Chesterton’s trademark wit and wordplay, “The Ballad of the White Horse” is a thrilling read that tells the story of the ancient battle between God’s people and their enemy in the heroic rhythms to which a man’s heart beats. It is the type of poem that all boys should grow up reading until they are men as an example of what true manhood looks like. As men, they should keep reading it as a reminder that they have a responsibility to scour the horse, to keep it white and pure, to engage their enemy until they hear the words “well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter thou into the joy of thy lord.”