You haven’t really lived until you’ve read The Ballad of the White Horse.
The Ballad of the White Horse is Chesterton’s magnificent retelling of King Alfred’s heroic stand against the Danish pirates. But it’s more than that. In beautiful rhythmic verse, this writing master presents us with profound ideas about mankind, life and eternity. Chesterton weaves truths into old legends and creates an unforgettable tale out of the two. He uses a powerful rhyming scheme that makes his readers think deeply about the words they read and not just gloss over them.
The book starts by introducing the White Horse (England):
“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.”
It then goes on to introduce the raiding Danes:
“The Northmen came about our land,
A Christless chivalry:
Who knew not of the arch or pen
Great, beautiful, half-witted men
From the sunrise and the sea.”
Alfred struggles against them but to no avail and the chiefs of his country are no longer interested in fighting the pirates. It is then that he sees a vision and sets out to rouse his warriors.
Alfred goes into the Danes camp with his harp as a stranger minstrel and listens to the conversation of the Danish King Guthrum and his chief. First Ogier, a soured, pessimistic old warrior delivers a speech of gloom and desolation and finishes by saying:
“ ‘And you that sit by the fire are young,
And true loves wait for you
But the king and I grow old, grow old,
And hate alone is true.’
And Guthrum shook his head and smiled,
For he was a mighty clerk,
And he had read lines in the Latin books
When all the north was dark.
He said, ‘I am older than you, Ogier;
Not all things would I rend,
For whether life be bad or good,
It is best to abide the end.’…
…‘It is good to sit where the good tales go,
To sit as our fathers sat;
But the hour shall come after his youth,
When a man shall know not tales but truth,
And his heart fail thereat…
…And a man hopes, being ignorant,
Till in white woods apart
He finds at last the lost bird dead:
And a man may still lift up his head
But never more his heart.’…
…And slowly his hands and thoughtfully
Fell from the lifted lyre
And the owls moaned from the mighty trees
Till Alfred caught it to his knees
And smote it as in ire…
…‘When God put man in a garden
He girt him with a sword,
And sent him forth a free knight
That might betray his lord;
He brake Him and betrayed Him,
And fast and far he fell,
Till you and I may stretch our necks
And burn our beards in hell.
But though I lie on the floor of the world,
With the seven sins for rods,
I’d rather fall with Adam
Than rise with all your gods.
What have the strong gods given?
Where have the glad gods led?
Till Guthrum sits on a hero’s throne
And asks if he is dead?…
…On you is fallen the shadow,
And not upon the Name;
That though we scatter and though we fly
And you hang over us like the sky,
You are more tired of victory,
Than we are tired of shame.
That though you hunt the Christian man
Like a hare on the hill-side,
The hare has still more heart to run
Than you have heart to ride.’”
My favorite part of the book is towards the end. Alfred’s army has been defeated, his chiefs have been killed and their men have fled. Alfred sees them running and calls them back, blowing his horn and saying:
“ ‘Brothers at arms,’ said Alfred,
‘On this side lies the foe;
Are slavery and starvation flowers,
That you should pluck them so?…
…Before the red cock crows
All we, a thousand strong,
Go down the dark road to God’s house,
Singing a Wessex song.
To sweat a slave to a race of slaves,
To drink up infamy?
No, brothers, by your leave,I think
Death is a better ale to drink,
And by all the stars of Christ that sink,
The Danes shall drink with me…
…And now I blow the hunting sign,
Charge some by rule and rod;
But when I blow the battle sign,
Charge all and go to God!’”
I cannot summarize any more of the story for fear I should give into the temptation to copy out the entire thing! I must close with this warning- you will miss out on life if you continue to live another day without reading this classic.