Friday, November 3, 2017

The Ballad of the White Horse by GK Chesterton

Of great limbs gone to chaos,
A great face turned to night--
Why bend above a shapeless shroud
Seeking in such archaic cloud
Sight of strong lords and light? 
Where seven sunken Englands
Lie buried one by one,
Why should one idle spade, I wonder,
Shake up the dust of thanes like thunder
To smoke and choke the sun?
So begins The Ballad of the White Horse, which has never failed to give me chills.

By 1911 when GK Chesterton first published the poem, Alfred the Great was surely long overdue to have an epic poem written about him. The story of his war against the Danes at the dawn of English history is one of those rare legends that is actually as true as it is stirring. And Alfred is one of the few men in history to deserve every bit of his heroic reputation. Still, most other English epics had focused on King Arthur, Queen Elizabeth I, or taken the Danes themselves as the heroes (I refer to Beowulf), and until GK Chesterton took him in hand, Alfred himself had little poetic remembrance.

The poem begins at Alfred's darkest hour, when the Danish king Guthrum had succeeded in conquering Wessex itself and Alfred was forced into hiding on the swamp island of Athelney. At that moment, it may have seemed clear that Alfred's reign was to be short and inglorious, and that England would be thoroughly conquered by the Danes. But Alfred turned the tide. Scraping together a small army, he came back to face Guthrum at the battle of Ethandune and managed to win a victory that regained Wessex, captured and converted Guthrum, and poised him as the leader of Saxon England. Alfred then used this time of peace to prepare for the next war. Not only did he carry out military reforms, he also recognised the importance of God's covenant blessings in peace and victory. He passed scripture-based laws and promoted education and biblical literacy. Years later, when Wessex was invaded again, this time from multiple directions simultaneously, Alfred was ready.

That's roughly what GK Chesterton covers in this epic. The poem is somewhat on the short side for an epic, though the subject matter and treatment are definitely in the right style. It's divided into several "books" that deal (appropriately) with some of the legends of Alfred's life, including the burnt cakes (Book IV, "The Woman in the Forest") and the infiltration of the Danish camp which Alfred is said to have carried out in disguise as a minstrel (Book III, "The Harp of Alfred").

This, Book III, contains some of the most fascinating material in the whole epic. Chesterton deals with a number of his usual themes in this story. Book VIII, "The Scouring of the Horse", is about the endless struggle between right and wrong, and the role that tradition plays in keeping this fight going. Book IV has Alfred meditating on the nobility and importance of ordinary people, a lesson that comes back when it's the common soldiers that ultimately provide the turn of the tide at the battle of Ethandune. All this is fairly typical for Chesterton.

Book III is the one that, in the lead-up to the battle, confronts Alfred and Alfred's vision against Guthrum and Guthrum's vision. In Book II, "The Gathering of the Chiefs", Alfred calls three leaders to his banner - Eldred the Saxon, Mark the Roman, and Colan the Irishman (sing it with me now: "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"). Each of these men is a specific "type" - Colan the imaginative artist, Eldred the simple farmer and Mark the rational believer ("And his faith grew in a hard ground/Of doubt and reason and falsehood found/Where no faith else could grow"). When Alfred meets Guthrum in the Danish camp disguised as a minstrel, we find that Guthrum also has three chiefs, and just as the Saxon king and the Danish king are foils to each other, so the Saxon chiefs and the Danish chiefs mirror each other. The differences are underlined in the ensuing sing-off. There is Harold, Guthrum's nephew, with a simple and mindless love of glory, wine, and women. There is Elf, Guthrum's minstrel, the singer of a hopeless and beautiful paganism. There is Ogier, Guthrum's earl, a disillusioned old pagan who knows the demonic "wrath of the gods behind the gods/Who would rend all gods and men." And finally there is Guthrum himself, who evidently is no longer sure if he believes in the gods at all, and kills mainly to know that he himself is alive.

The unifying purpose of the poem seems mainly to compare and contrast these four pagan types with the four Christian types, and to dramatise their struggle through the ages in the context of one battle long ago in England. In GKC's own words, "Alfred has come down to us in the best way (that is, by national legends) solely for the same reason as Arthur and Roland and the other giants of that darkness, because he fought for the Christian civilization against the heathen nihilism." In that sense, The Ballad of the White Horse is firmly twentieth-century in flavour. Chesterton is writing one of those "historical" pieces which is only ostensibly about the history. In fact, it's about his own day, and I can't help finding this a little bit disappointing. A more sincere attempt to communicate Alfred in his own world, and his enemies as they were, might have rung a little more true, and felt more meaningful in its celebration of Alfred's life. Of course, I will never try to pretend that authors of historical fiction can separate their interpretation of the history from the needs and intentions of their own day. We see everything through a lens of applicability; that's an inescapable part of existence. Writers of epic, in particular, have always exulted in anachronism. But I think there's a way to find application in the history by listening to what it has to say, and there's a way to force application by shouting over it. The Ballad of the White Horse strikes me as being a trifle shouty.

I feel bad saying this, because Chesterton is one of my favourite authors. And this poem (although this is the first time I've read it right the whole way through) contains some of my very favourite Chesterton quotes--hair-raising, chill-causing, wonderful quotes that beg to be declaimed aloud. But I have to say that after reading the entire thing, I have to agree with JRR Tolkien's legendarily grumpy assessment of this poem:
P[riscilla]....has been wading through The Ballad of the White Horse for the last many nights; and my efforts to explain the obscure parts to her convince me that it is not as good as I thought. The ending is absurd. The brilliant smash and glitter of the words and phrases (when they come off, and are not mere loud colours) cannot disguise the fact that G.K.C. knew nothing whatever about the 'North', heathen or Christian.
I was mildly offended the first time I found this in Tolkien's Letters, but actually? He's right. Much of the "brilliant smash and glitter" Tolkien talks about does fall flat, being simply there for show. Not all of it, of course, and there's enough that does "come off" to raise your hair on your scalp multiple times over. But the ending is abrupt and clumsy. And most of all, you get the impression that the characters are modern-day philosophical constructs, not genuine Saxon and Danish battlechiefs.

I have to further admit that not everything Chesterton was trying to say resounded with me. As a Protestant, it was a little difficult to take Saint Mary's role in this poem, even as a Protestant who thinks Protestants ought to give Mary more credit. Her message to Alfred, which is basically, "So, I'm not going to tell you if things are going to get better, have fun finding out" is not something that I find compelling, and I actually don't think Alfred would have found it compelling either: God's actions in the world are not incomprehensible, and Alfred staked his kingdom on the comprehensibility of God's actions when he invested, not just in military strength, but in religious reformation.

All this said, I still loved this poem and will definitely be revisiting it in future.

A sea-folk blinder than the sea
Broke all about his land,
But Alfred up against them bare
And gripped the ground and grasped the air,
Staggered, and strove to stand. 
He bent them back with spear and spade,
With desperate dyke and wall,
With foemen leaning on his shield
And roaring on him when he reeled;
And no help came at all. 
He broke them with a broken sword
A little towards the sea,
And for one hour of panting peace,
Ringed with a roar that would not cease,
With golden crown and girded fleece
Made laws under a tree.

Find The Ballad of the White Horse on Amazon, the Book Depository, and Project Gutenberg.

If you're in the market for a wonderful biography of Alfred, I can highly recommend Ben Merkle's The White Horse King, which is every bit as stirring and thrilling as this poem!


Sophia White said...

Chesterton's note to the poem does say he's going to take advantage of the freedom that comes with telling legends, and tell legends instead of sticking to approved facts. And the legends of the woman with the cakes, and the battle on the hill, and his song in the Danish camp, do "come off" quite well. But sometimes the people do have anachronistic views of things, like you said, and that makes it thinner, somehow --- the kind of historical story that has to come with the caveat that it's as much about the authour's time as the hero's.

But I memorized Alfred's song in response to the Danes to recite for a class once, and it works just fine as a challenge to modern thinkers, so he must have done something right. (From "When God put man in a garden" to "But by God's death the stars shall stand / And the small apples grow")

H.P. @ Hillbilly Highways said...

I quote that line on the Gaels way too often.

Suzannah said...

Sophia, Alfred's song in Book III is one of my very favourite parts! My copy of the COLLECTED POEMS didn't have Chesterton's note to the poem in it, so I haven't read that.

HP, this poem is FULL of quotable lines! Definitely worth reading for that alone :)

Christina Porter said...

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