I first got interested in King Alfred the Great from reading vol. 1 of Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples. Like Jesus, King Arthur, and Aragorn, Alfred spends his youth mostly hiding his royalty from the world: Churchill writes of him working as a kitchen boy for many years. But when the time comes, the kitchen boy becomes a strong, good, and wise monarch, praying when it’s time to pray and fighting when it’s time to fight. After defeating the Danes who have invaded England, instead of killing or enslaving the survivors, he has them baptized so everyone can get along. Among the projects I’ll never get to in my life is an opera based on these dramatic tableaus.
When I learned recently that Chesterton had written a poem about Alfred, I had to add it to my list for this year. I shouldn’t have been surprised that Chesterton would have nothing to say about scrubbing pots or baptizing berserkers; the points he has to make are more Chestertonian. A little disappointed and quite confused at first, I ended up deeply moved by “The Ballad of the White Horse.”
As the epiclet opens (is there such a thing as a small epic?), Alfred is already King of Angle-land and has already been dealing with marauding Danes. One day in the forest, he sees the Virgin Mary, and says that though knowledge of Heaven is closed to him, he would like to know what's going to happen with the Danes in the near future. The Mother of Christ replies that Alfred has it backwards: the simplest school girl can have knowledge of heavenly things, but what will happen tomorrow must remain a mystery to all who live on earth. We just have to do what is right, she says, even if that means dangerous fighting, and we have to keep doing the right thing under the knowledge that the world may only get worse in spite of our valiant efforts.
Alfred then calls on some allies to help in the coming war but warns them that Mary herself has told him that “the sky grows darker yet / And the sea rises higher.” Now, Mary has told him no such thing. In fact, she has told Alfred that he cannot know what will happen tomorrow: the sky may indeed grow darker, but it might instead grow lighter. In any case, Alfred passes along his hopeless interpretation of the message: It’s better to die fighting, he says, than to live as a slave, and if we fight we will certainly die. It seems that the dour prognosis is just what it takes to convince his neighbors to take a stand with him. Ironically, this willingness to stand up courageously in the face of certain doom I associate more with Alfred’s enemies than with either the Christians or the Celts. All through this part of the poem, I thought of Lewis's admiration for Norse legend and the heroes who fight knowing that Ragnarök is coming. (See for instance "First and Second Things" in God in the Dock: "The point about Norse religion was that it alone of all mythologies told men to serve gods who were admittedly fighting with their backs to the wall and would certainly be defeated in the end.")
In the end, in spite of the hopeless odds, Alfred wins: he takes London from the Danes. After he brings peace to the island of Britannia, though, Chesterton doesn’t have Alfred baptize anyone. Instead, the king ponders a Chertertonian paradox: Alfred says he wishes he could just rule Athelney, but he must admit that he is only wise enough to rule a large island, not wise enough to rule a small one.
The White Horse, a chalk outline supposedly first scraped on an English hillside in prehistoric times, silently looks on while all this commotion stirs. But he is a work of man, and works of man must be kept up; each generation must preserve his outline, or else he disappears as the green growth of the hillside stealthily reclaims its lost ground. All human deeds require constant preservation; even great battles will eventually be forgotten and their effects wiped out by forgetfulness and nature, Chesterton points out near the end of the poem. So I’m left wondering what lesson Chesterton wanted me to take from “The Ballad of the White Horse,” what lesson I should take, and whether the two are the same. If all the works of man fade to green, is the taking of London significant after all? Is it actually better to die fighting?