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Literature / The Ballad of the White Horse

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Woodcuts by Robert Austin
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
Opening Lines

The Ballad of the White Horse is a 1911 epic poem by G. K. Chesterton that follows King Alfred the Great as he rallies chieftains from all around England to defeat the invading army of Guthrum the Dane. It’s generally considered to be one of the last traditional epic poems written in the English language.

The title refers to the Uffington White Horse, a figure carved into a hill over 3000 years ago depicting a rearing horse. Throughout the book, the Uffington Horse is metaphorical of civilized England. Under the rule of the pagan vikings, it became overrun with weeds and grass, whereas under Alfred's rule, it is tended to and kept clear. This is also used to illustrate how constant work and vigilance must be maintained to keep anarchy at bay.

This work provides examples of:

  • Artistic License – History: Chesterton openly claims this in the introduction to the poem, saying that he intends it to capture ideas rather than a factual account of what actually happened.
  • A Storm Is Coming: The Virgin Mary, and by extension Alfred, doesn't actually say the assembled forces of Christanity will win, just that waiting will solve nothing and is only going to make things worse.
    I tell you naught for your comfort,
    Yea, naught for your desire,
    Save that the sky grows darker yet,
    And the sea rises higher.
  • The Berserker: Ogier and the Danes he leads to drive Colan and Alfred apart.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Eldred, known as "the Good", is a hospitable man who wants only to live in peace on his farm, and thinks of that even while in battle. He is also a giant of a man who "moves like a massacre", kills faster than anyone can count, and takes seven spears to put down.
  • Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie: Before the battle, each of Alfred's Chieftains says where they would like to be buried. Eldred wants to be buried on his farm, and Colan in the forest where he can hear the voices of the ancient celtic trees. Mark subverts this by requesting them to bury him wherever he falls as "All the earth is Roman earth, and I shall die in Rome".
  • The Dragon: Ogier, Guthrum's eldest chieftain and mightiest warrior.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Eldred has gone through this, having seen all his friends die fruitlessly in battle against the Danes, before Alfred rouses him to fight.
  • Do Not Go Gentle: Alfred's speech before the last charge.
  • Evil Counterpart: Each of Alfred's chiefs represents an aspect of Christianity and faith, and each one has a foil in the Danes' camp. The foil of the hardworking farmer, Eldred, is Harold, the hedonist, who wishes to enjoy all the world has to offer, but not to make anything of his own. Mark, the Roman, represents reason and rationality, and is matched by Elf, the mystical bard who searches the Earth for wisdom without finding it. Finally, the Irish Colan, who represents the passionate, emotional aspect of faith, is reflected by Ogier, who has nothing left in life but his hatred. And, of course, Alfred, the Christian king who is all too aware of his own flaws and sins, is contrasted with Guthrum, the noble and wise pagan who is all too aware of the emptiness and nihilism at the heart of his and his companions' philosophies.
  • Evil Redhead: Ogier in particular is called out as being red-haired, and is the most maliciously nihilistic of the Danes.
  • Evil Weapon: Elf's enchanted spear, a magical weapon forged "by the monstrous water maids".
  • Fighting Irish: Colan, a Celtic remnant and Christian convert.
    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
  • God Is Dead: Guthrum’s song is about his atheism, and about how it has left him hopeless and miserable.
  • The Hedonist: Harold, who sings of all the great plunder in the world, and how he and his people will enjoy it rather than trying to build something like the Romans.
  • Heel–Faith Turn: Guthrum after the Battle of Ethandune.
  • Historical Domain Character: Alfred and Guthrum were both real historical figures, though Chesterton outright says the poem is not meant to be truly historical.
  • Horny Vikings: The Danes, and not necessarily a sympathetic version. Some, like Guthrum, are able of becoming more, but at the start of the poem, they are the "foes of settles house and creed" destroying all civilization in their wake.
  • Human Pincushion: Eldred is impaled on seven spears before he dies. He shrugs off six, but Elf's magic weapon puts him down for the count.
  • King Incognito: Alfred meets with the Danish leaders in disguise as a wandering minstrel. There's also the woman in the forest.
  • Living Relic: Mark is one of the last Romans still in England, stubbornly still growing grapes and drinking wine, even as the climate of Britain is making it more and more difficult.
  • Long List: In book 7, one is provided of the Danish warlords Alfred kills in battle.
  • The Low Middle Ages: Takes place in the 9th century, not too terribly long after the fall of Rome.
  • Mission from God: Alfred's quest to defeat the Danes comes from the Virgin Mary.
  • Nietzsche Wannabe: Guthrum's sings about how, finding that there is no God or great meaning in life, all he has left is to lay waste to whole nations, because battle is the only time when he can forget the emptiness of existence.
  • The Old Gods: When Ogier, one of Guthrum's earls, takes up Alfred's harp, he sings of "gods behind the gods" who seek to destroy all that exists, god and man alike.
  • Omnicidal Maniac: Ogier and his "gods behind the gods". All pleasures in Ogier's life have faded, save for his hatred and the base pleasure of breaking things.
  • Our Mermaids Are Different: The Rhine-maidens mentioned in the description of Elf's spear.
  • Patrick Stewart Speech: After Guthrum and his three chiefs have sung their songs, Alfred (in diguise) takes up the harp again. His response can be paraphrased as "You have asked why we follow the Christian God? It is because we Christians have more joy, even though we are losing the war, than you have while winning it. We can be happy even in defeat, while you have just sung of how you cannot find joy even in victory."
  • The Pessimist: Elf, Guthrum's bard, who sings about how humans, in their ignorance, cannot secure anything, even the things they value most.
  • The Power of Hate: Ogier sings about how the only thing left that fuels him is his hatred for all things.
    And you that sit by the fire are young
    And true love waits for you,
    But the king and I grow old, grow old,
    And hate alone is true.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Colan's part of the army, which is so poor and badly-equipped Harold compares them to scarecrows and says he'll shoot them like carrion, as they're not worth fighting like real men. Then Colan throws a sword into his face.
  • Rule of Symbolism:
    • The titular White Horse represents the state of England — as the Danes ravage the country, it is overrun with lichen and weeds, and after Alfred wins, he bids the people preserve it. In addition, keeping the Horse clean from weeds to preserve it is equated with defending society from the threats facing it.
    • Each of Alfred's chiefs represents one of the cultural influences that created England (Saxon, Roman, and Celt) as well as different strata of Christian life (everyday working class, intellectual, and mystic), while each of Guthrum's faction represents various contrasting types of what Chesterton dubs "pagan nihilism" (The Hedonist, The Pessimist, an Omnicidal Maniac, and a Nietzsche Wannabe).
  • Sad Clown: A strange villainous example: Ogier is full of sardonic jests, but since the only thing he enjoys is battle, he's pretty miserable when not fighting.
  • Throwing Your Sword Always Works: In spite of it being the only sword he or his men had available, Colan starts the battle off by swinging it in a circle over his head and hurling it into the oncoming army. It hits Guthrum’s nephew Harold right smack in the head, killing him.
  • Wandering Minstrel: Alfred meets with the chiefs disguised as one.
  • Warrior Poet: All of the principle characters, particularly the main antagonists, Harold, Elf, Ogier, and Guthrum, who each take turns singing about what motivates them, ultimately showing how hollow and meaningless their lives are.
  • War God: When they’re not being presented as impotent, the Danish gods are shown this way.