By G. K. Chesterton, Methuen Press Illustrated 10th Edition by Robert Austin (1928), Marygrove College Press Annotated Edition by Bernadette Sheridan, IHM (1993), Reprinted Ignatius Press (2011)
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.
(Book 1, Lines 1-4)
|The White Horse near Uffington,|
So begins something I should have read long before now, for many different reasons. As hinted in the rather complex edition history delineated above, it is an Important Work of Literature. It is, indeed, usually regarded as the last great heroic epic poem in English. Although I frankly have always found reading poetry to be tough slogging, there is a certain charm in the narrative poems that are the foundation of so many national literatures – The Iliad and The Odyssey, Beowulf, and so forth. Typically products of a culture's pre-literate “heroic age,” a critical formative period in which the basic ethos of a people is being established, oral cycles of songs and poems – a distinction they did not necessarily make – eventually put into the written forms which come down to us, usually express most purely the fundamental characteristics that subsequent generations looked back to and strove to emulate. Sure, they are inevitably idealizations, but they nonetheless provide critical insight into what the bard and the audience considered of utmost importance. They are valuable historical resources – not to mention generally great stories if you can get into them. They're not called “epic” for nothing!
Of course, early on there were literary counterparts, i.e., heroic epic poems newly composed in written form to fill a void where authentic tradition was lacking for whatever reason. Vergil's Aeneid was just such an effort during the first generation of the Roman Empire, giving the ascendant Romans a poetic epic to stand alongside the Greeks'. The works of J. R. R. Tolkien were explicitly born in his effort to create a faux mythology for England and found early expression in a host of extended narrative poems that lurk behind The Silmarillion and were eventually edited and published in Christopher Tolkien's monumental collection of The History of Middle Earth – e.g. vol. 3, The Lays of Beleriand containing The Lay of Leithian telling the story of Beren and Lúthien. Tolkien's effort to “create a mythology for England” seems at first an odd aspiration given the traditions of Arthurian legend that gave birth to Le Morte d'Arthur as well as the great wealth of Old English poetry besides Beowulf that is almost unique to Anglo-Saxon England among all of the early medieval Germanic kingdoms. As for the former, Tolkien rightly considered it fundamentally British (born in the Roman British resistance against the Anglo-Saxon invasions) filtered through high-medieval French rather than properly English; as for the latter, although Beowulf is indeed the foundational monument of English literature it comes out of a wider Germanic background and a continental setting, and most of the epic poetry native to the Anglo-Saxons was born in the Christian period and has explicit religious subjects and sensibilities, albeit with a fascinating overlay of the heroic ethos [LINK] – e.g. Genesis, Judith, and so forth. The poem on The Battle of Maldon and other such literary fragments are rudimentary (only for their extent, by no means for their quality) examples of something more truly “English.” Tolkien's ambition was to (re)create, inspired by a single line in the Crist I poem [LINK], a pre-Christian – prehistoric – mythology for England. There are many ironies in what eventually grew from that effort, perhaps nothing more so than the heavily Celtic ambiance that suffuses Tolkien's legendarium. But that's not the point of this post.
|G. K. Chesterton|
Tolkien is, today, known best for his tales of Middle-Earth, despite the lack of popular recognition of their genesis as I just described it, as a “poetic mythology” for England. Before Tolkien ever conceived his great work, however, another Englishman known for a hugely prodigious literary output within which poetry was only a small fraction, G. K. Chesterton, anticipated his effort in a certain sense, and also filled a void which has always puzzled me in the corpus of later Anglo-Saxon heroic poems based on historical events, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 937, written in alliterative verse about King Athelstan's victory at The Battle of Brunanburh [LINK]. Even more monumental than Brunanburh – and truly formative in the very survival and consolidation of a kingdom of England – was the miraculous victory won by Athelstan's grandfather Alfred the Great against the pagan Vikings at Ethandune in 878. Yet no such poem on King Alfred has survived, if ever one existed before 1911.
And so, for a more specific reason I should have read The Ballad of the White Horse a full two decades ago, when I was in graduate school studying Anglo-Saxon history and forming the thesis that would eventually become my dissertation on Christian Heroism and Holy War in Anglo-Saxon England (LSU 1997) [LINK]. Of course, Alfred's victory was indeed a centerpiece in my thesis, but I nevertheless never went so far as reading Chesterton's treatment of it . There are several reasons I can posit. I remember giving it some thought on occasion, but at the time could find no readily available copy for purchase. It was the early 1990s, after all, at the very beginning of the Internet age, before the huge explosion of on-line sales (I remember first being really aware of Amazon.com in the late 1990s). Why I never sought out a copy in the LSU library I do not know. Considering that I was aware of Chesterton as the great, ebullient apologist for Catholicism ever since my own conversion in the 1980s, I am doubly puzzled … until I remember trying to actually read Chesterton sometime around then, specifically The Everlasting Man. Let's just say I didn't get far into it. Actually, that latter book is on my reading list again. My Lenten reading this year began as Chesterton's Orthodoxy, which is what brought The Ballad of the White Horse to mind in the first place. Near thirty years older than when I first attempted to get my mind around Chesterton, I'm finding it somewhat easier going, but my impression remains almost a stream-of-consciousness barrage of near-impenetrable brilliance, including some lines I've known but not in context, such as “Tradition is the democracy of the dead.” My reaction is much like blogger Leah Libresco at Unequally Yoked (10 October 2013: “Christianity in Three Books”): “If [C. S. Lewis'] Mere Christianity helps make Christianity comprehensible, [Chesterton's] Orthodoxy makes it weird again. The first time I read it, I felt like Chesterton was some kind of philosophical Br'er Rabbit, who delighted in paradox and embraced the end of your reduct[i]o ad absurdum” [LINK]. In any case, I hope to press on from Orthodoxy to The Everlasting Man. Perhaps figuring a poem by Chesterton, even on Alfred, almost certainly to be similarly if not more obscurantist, and moreover neither an authentic medieval source nor a proper scholarly examination of the events, but rather an example of antiquarian medievalism of limited historical value, I made no effort to acquire The Ballad of the White Horse. How foolish I now consider that to have been....
The Ballad of the White Horse is absolutely wonderful, and I foresee rereading it many times in the future. Yes, it was indeed “tough slogging,” but well worth the effort. As mentioned above, it was brought to mind by way of Orthodoxy, specifically by way of an inexpensive Kindle e-book compilation, The G. K. Chesterton Collection: 34 Books from Catholic Way Publishing where the Ballad is included as the single work of poetry. As I was reading Orthodoxy, I would occasionally flip over to the Ballad. Although for the latter I found that format unappealing, I was intrigued enough within just a few stanzas that I hit the Internet in search of a hard copy. I found several available, both new and used, paperback and hardcover. I resisted the temptation to go cheap and decided to go for the Ignatius Press hardcover. I am so glad that I did, because when I received it I found that besides being virtually a facsimile reprint of the 10th edition of 1928 complete with the first illustrations, woodcuts by Robert Austin, it has an excellent introductory essay and extensive notes and commentary by Sr. Bernadette Sheridan based on a lifetime's study of the poem, published in 1991. I also had another brainstorm – I've sometimes found that, inexplicably, I seem to follow narrative poetry better when hearing it read than when reading it for myself (even reading it aloud), so I searched and found a free audio version download from Librivox. And I quickly settled into something of a rhythm. After reading through the introduction and Chesterton's own “Prefatory Note,” something of a historical-folkloric introduction that begins with typical Chestertonian paradox, “This ballad needs no historical notes...,” I went book by book – the Ballad is divided into eight books varying between 275 and 385 lines, after a ninety-odd line dedication to Chesterton's wife – reading Sr. Bernadette's excellent notes, followed by listening to the audio, finally reading through the verses myself. I believe that approach made me appreciate the beauty of the poem more than I have any other ever. Drawing from a wide variety of sources, Sr. Bernadette provides superb historical grounding for the events recounted here, discussing at length – sometimes with substantial quotations from medieval sources – those places where Chesterton followed, or conversely did not follow, English tradition regarding King Alfred the Great. (I do wish she didn't give such primacy to Garry Wills' study of Chesterton, not that I have read it nor perceive anything objectionable in what she draws from it here – I just have a visceral dislike for that so-called “Catholic” wolf in the fold [LINK]). Man!, I wish I had looked at this 'way back when!
In The Ballad of the White Horse, Chesterton masterfully blends history, tradition, folklore, and his own sentiments into a thing of beauty. I cannot speak authoritatively on my own as to the quality of the verse, only echo “the chorus of admirers” whom Sr. Bernadette quotes or cites in the concluding paragraphs of her introduction, among them C. S. Lewis and Christopher Hollis, as well as others she does not, such as the creator of Conan the Barbarian, Robert E. Howard whose praise is quoted on Wikipedia s.v. The Ballad of the White Horse [LINK]. Wikipedia indeed offers an excellent precis of the parts of the poem followed by more extensive summarization interspersed with considerable selections in full quotation. Although Chesterton departs from historians' consensus as to the location of the 878 battle as taking place near the modern town of Edington by placing it within local folklore's sight of the far more ancient chalk hill-figure known as the Uffington White Horse, and similarly departs from medieval hagiographic tradition which had Alfred receiving heavenly assurance from St. Cuthbert or St. Neot (depending in which saint's Life you read of the apparition) by giving that role to Our Lady herself – and even bringing her into the middle of the fray when all seems lost–
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.
“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.”
(Book 7, Lines 189-204 and 247-258)
– he succeeds in creating a modern epic of medieval Christian heroism, viewing Alfred's victory against the Danes from a vantage point a thousand years removed while retaining a thoroughly authentic Old English flavor. And as might be expected of the great social commentator that he was, Chesterton has the great king speak prophetically as he oversees the scouring of the Horse, which must be done periodically lest it be overgrown and fade – which he connects with the very life and salvation of the land …
… The still-eyed King sat pondering,
As one that watches a live thing,
The soured chalk; and he said,
“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.
“They shall not come with warships,
They shall not waste with brands,
But books be all their eating,
And ink be on their hands.
“By God and man dishonoured,
By death and life made vain,
Know ye the old barbarian,
The barbarian come again –
“In what wise men shall smite him,
Or the Cross stand up again,
Or charity or chivalry,
My vision saith not; and I see
No more ….”
(Book 8, Lines 233-251, 299-302, and 307-311a)
The victory of “Christian civilization against the heathen nihilism” that Chesterton proclaims as the basis for Alfred's renown (“Prefatory note,” Lines 72-73) is one that must be won again and again, world without end. And so it becomes a timeless allegory of Christian heroism.
As mentioned above, I know I will be returning to this volume time and again – and I cannot help but lament how much consideration of how Alfred's victory against the Danes was represented in English tradition, legend, and folklore would have been a valuable addition to my dissertation. 20/20 hindsight....
Cheers!, and Thanks for reading.