Civilization is under attack. An army masses to destroy Christians and their hated book learning, to plunder their wealth and ravish their women. Unless these savages are stopped, the lights may go out for good… but the Christian forces are few and scattered. Hope for victory seems dim.
This plot sounds like it’s ripped from the headlines, and it could have been—twelve centuries ago. The rampaging enemy in this case is the Viking horde, and the story itself is The Ballad of the White Horse, G. K. Chesterton’s fictionalized account of the Battle of Ethandune (read here by Malcolm Guite). The title refers to the White Horse of Uffington, which now-discounted legend held to commemorate Alfred the Great’s victory at Ethandune. Published in 1911, this poetic mixture of fact, legend, and fantasy inspired English troops through two world wars and can still bring encouragement to those of us who feel our way of life is under assault.
Book I opens with the state of Alfred’s England, moving from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Danish onslaught against the Saxons. The barbarians beat back Alfred to Athelney, “and no help came at all” until Alfred receives a vision of the Virgin Mary. But she has no soothing platitudes for him:
“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?”
Our reaction would probably be, “Oh, THANKS!” But not only does Alfred understand what Mary’s saying, Book II declares he does have “the joy of giants, / The joy without a cause.” His three allies also respond favorably to Mary’s message, agreeing to fight a battle that they seem certain to lose. Even the White Horse, grey and overgrown from neglect, presents a discouraging sight at the beginning of Book III. Yet Alfred dares to walk unarmed toward the Danish king’s camp and, once captured, to play his harp and sing of English victory. The Danish earls mock him and praise destruction and nihilism, since even their gods will die, but Alfred answers, “You are more tired of victory, / Than we are tired of shame…. / We have more lust again to lose / Than you to win again.” The Danes can only laugh.
This exchange of taunts doubles as a scouting mission, however, and Alfred studies the Danish camp’s layout as he leaves at the beginning of Book IV. After an interlude where Alfred agrees to watch a peasant woman’s fire, muses too long on the plight of the poor, and gets slapped for accidentally letting one of her cakes burn, his allies arrive to find him laughing at himself. “This blow that I return not,” he declares, “Ten times will I return / On kings and earls of all degree,” and with that, he leads his army into battle.
The fight that follows in the next three books showcases Chesterton’s love of paradox. First blood is struck by Colan the Celt, who throws his rusty sword to kill Earl Harold and to whom Alfred in turn offers his own sword. The English take their toll on the Danes, but the Danes drive them back, kill Alfred’s captains, and think the battle is over. At last, however, Alfred rallies the Saxons with a horn blast and a victory-or-death speech, has another vision of Mary, and leads the final charge against the Danes with the cry, “The high tide and the turn!” Between the Saxons’ sudden onslaught and a surprise rear attack from the Celts, the Danes are utterly defeated.
But the story doesn’t end there. In peacetime, Alfred still has to deal with courtiers who want him to drive the Danes out of Britain entirely rather than allowing them to keep the Danelaw, and the White Horse still has to be scoured regularly to keep it white and free of weeds. And when the Danes again raid the south of England, the aged Alfred warns that barbarians will always attack free peoples and the worst are the ones who come not with swords but with books. Chesterton closes Book VII with a juxtaposition of descriptions, weeds trying once more to overwhelm the White Horse while Alfred retakes London.
Freedom isn’t free. Do we have “the joy without a cause” to defend it even when all seems lost?