The Ballad of the White Horse

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The Ballad of the White Horse is a poem by G. K. Chesterton about the idealised exploits of the Saxon King Alfred the Great, published in 1911. Written in ballad form, the work is usually considered one of the last great traditional epic poems ever written in the English language. The poem narrates how Alfred was able to defeat the invading Danes at the Battle of Ethandun under the auspices of God working through the agency of the Virgin Mary. In addition to being a narration of Alfred's military and political accomplishments, it is also considered a Catholic allegory. Chesterton incorporates a significant amount of philosophy into the basic structure of the story.

Poetic structure[edit]

The poem consists of 2,684 lines of English verse. They are divided into stanzas, typically consisting of 4 to 6 lines each. The poem is based on the ballad stanza form, although the poem often departs significantly from it. Types of metrical feet are used more or less freely, although there is often basic repetition in a line. The rhyme scheme varies, often being ABCB or ABCCCB.


Prefatory Note

G. K. Chesterton, the poem's author.

Chesterton begins his work with a note (in prose) declaring that the poem is not historical. He says that he has chosen to place the site of the Battle of Ethandune in the Vale of the White Horse, despite the lack of concrete evidence for this placement (many scholars now believe it was probably fought at Edington, Wiltshire). He says that he has chosen to include legends about Alfred, even if they are historically unlikely.


The poem opens with a verse dedication to Chesterton's wife. He begins by commenting on Alfred and his legacy. Chesterton asks his wife to remember their travels together to research the poem, and closes with verse that seems meant for her personally.

Book I : The Vision of the King

The story begins with description of the White Horse of the White Horse Vale and how it has seen untold ages pass by. Among these periods was the fall of the Roman Empire and the barbarian invasions that followed. The Danes have invaded and nearly conquered England, and now drive the Wessex King Alfred into hiding on the river island of Athelney. While there, the Virgin Mary appears to Alfred and gives him words of consolation. She does not promise him earthly victory, but reminds him of the promise of salvation.

Book II : The Gathering of the Chiefs

Greatly encouraged by Mary's words, Alfred sets out to try to muster the remaining Catholic chieftains and their followers. Alfred first convinces Eldred (a Saxon) to join his cause. He is then able to obtain the support of Mark (a Roman) and Colan (a Gael). He tells them to bring their troops to the river-hut by Egbert's stone.

Book III : The Harp of Alfred

Before travelling to the hut himself, Alfred decides to disguise himself as a minstrel to meet the Danish chieftains. Shouldering a harp, he is captured by the Danes near their camp and taken to their leader Guthrum, who asks him to sing. Around Guthrum are three Danish earls, Harold, Elf, and Ogier. None of the Danes realise the identity of the apparent peasant. After singing tales from the history of Wessex, Guthrum and his earls all take a turn playing the harp. Each man expresses his own view of life and the world. Finally Alfred takes the harp himself and sings his own Catholic view of life. Alfred departs the camp amid the laughter of the Danes.

Book IV : The Woman in the Forest

Alfred travels to the river-hut and finds that the chieftains have not yet arrived. While waiting, an old woman offers to give Alfred one of the cakes she has been cooking if Alfred will watch the fire for a time. While doing so, he pities the old woman and admires her for her persistence in a life of hardship. Alfred is jolted out of his daydreaming when the cakes fall and burn. The woman returns and strikes him on the cheek with a burned cake, leaving a scar. Astonished at first, Alfred laughs at his own foolishness and gives a speech about the dangers of pride to his now-gathered army. The army then begins marching toward the split road where the battle will be fought.

Book V : Ethandune  : The First Stroke

The Saxon army causes many woodland animals to flee in panic, alerting Guthrum to the presence of the Saxon troops. Alfred and his army begin to fear the coming engagement. Alfred admits to several grave sins, including sacrilege and adultery. He asks the soldiers to pray for his soul. The three chieftains each declare the way in which they wish to be buried. They then reach the battlefield and deploy. Alfred and his chieftains are in front of the Saxon army, and the Danish earls are in front of the Danes. Guthrum rides on horseback towards the back of his army. Before the engagements begins, Harold shoots an arrow at Colan. Colan escapes it, and hurls his sword at Harold. The sword hits its mark, and Harold drops down dead. Alfred then gives his own sword to Colan, praising him for his heroism. Alfred takes a battle-axe for himself. The two sides then crash together and the battle begins.

Book VI : Ethandune : The Slaying of the Chiefs

Eldred quickly proves skilled at battle, and cuts down countless Danes. His sword suddenly breaks, and he is stabbed with seven spears. Elf recovers his spear, which proves to be a magic weapon he obtained from the water-maids of the English Channel. The Christian soldiers under Mark are filled with fear and begin to fall back. Mark rallies his men and charges at Elf, who dies by Mark's sword. The Christian troops are filled with confidence and begin the attack once more. Ogier encounters Mark, but the Dane is easily repulsed by the Roman. Ogier lifts his shield over himself, but Mark jumps on top, pinning Ogier down. Ogier manages to get an arm free and stabs Mark, who dies as he falls off the shield. Ogier leaps up, hurls his shield away and gives a raging battle speech to the Danes. The Danes manage to push the Christian army back against the split in the road. The army is split in two down each fork of the road, with Alfred and Colan separated. Colan is then killed.

Book VII : Ethandune : The Last Charge

Chesterton takes us away from the battle, and brings us to the White Horse Down. There a small child piles up stones over and over as they fall down each time. Chesterton draws a comparison between the child and Alfred. Back at the battle, the king gives a rousing battle-speech to restore the confidence of his men. Much to the shock of the Danes the enfeebled Christian line once again reforms and charges. They are quickly cut down, but the Christians continue to fight.

Suddenly, the Virgin Mary appears to Alfred when his army is on the brink of complete defeat. This vision encourages Alfred, and his line charges once again. This charge is quickly broken up, and Alfred is separated and surrounded by Danes. Ogier is among the Danes around Alfred, and Ogier hurls his spear at Alfred. The spear lodges in a tree, and Alfred brings down his axe upon Ogier, killing him. Alfred then leaps over Ogier's dead body and blows the battle sign with his horn.

This strikes fear into the Danes, who begin to fall back. Alfred leads the Christians in a mighty surge against the Danes. At this point the separated portion of his army returns, eager for victory. The Danes begin to retreat and flee. Amid his defeat, Guthrum undergoes a genuine conversion to Alfred's faith, and is baptised after the battle.

Book VIII : The Scouring of the Horse

After the battle, a period of peace comes to Wessex and its king. Alfred encourages learning and culture, and gives to the needy. He sends explorers out to other lands. He refrains from conquering other lands, because he feels that he is not worthy to govern anything beyond Wessex. The Saxon people scour the White Horse free of weeds, keeping it white and visible. After many years of this peace Alfred is told that the Danes, under a different leader, have invaded again. He simply prepares to fight once more, and summons his army. Alfred reveals that it is not so much the violent pagans that he fears, but rather the cultured, subversive pagans. As he says:

"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."

Alfred and his army march to London, and attack the Danes once again.

The poem opens with a salute to Chesterton's wife and her Christian faith that she gave him:

"Lady, by one light only
We look from Alfred's eyes,
We know he saw athwart the wreck
The sign that hangs about your neck
Where One more than Melchizedek
Is dead and never dies.

Therefore I bring these rhymes to you,
Who brought the cross to me,
Since on you flaming without flaw
I saw the sign that Guthrum saw
When he let break his ships of awe,
And laid peace upon the sea."

Book I : The Vision of the King
The first book begins by focusing on the White Horse. Created in prehistoric times, it now represents civilisation itself. Just like civilisation, the Horse needs constant scouring and attention for it to continue to survive. This constant battle to keep the Horse from fading into oblivion imitates the Paschal mystery of Christ.

On Athelney, Alfred is visited by Mary:

“She stood and stroked the tall live grass
As a man strokes his steed.

Her face was like an open word
When brave men speak and choose,
The very colours of her coat
Were better than good news.”

Alfred throws at her feet an ancient jewel of his, and Mary reveals the essence of Christian life, part of which is the necessity of fighting against tremendous odds.

“The gates of heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gain,
The heaviest hind may easily
Come silently and suddenly
Upon me in a lane,

And any little maid that walks
In good thoughts apart,
May break the guard of the Three Kings
And see the dear and dreadful things
I hid within my heart.

The meanest man in grey fields gone
Behind the set of sun,
Heareth between star and other star,
Through the door of the darkness fallen ajar,
The council, eldest of things that are,
The talk of the Three in One.”
(I: 209-24)

The great test in one’s hope and faith is accepting God’s providence over all aspects of the world and his personal efforts, “But if he fail or if he win / To no good man is told” (I: 229-30). Magic is false and the polar opposite of Christianity:

“The men of the East may search the scrolls
For sure fates and fame,
But the men that drink the blood of God
Go singing to their shame.”
(I: 235-38)

The struggle Alfred will have to endure will mimic the Paschal Mystery-as Mary says:

“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, not 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?
(I: 254-61)

After this Mary disappears, but Alfred is filled with joy and faith and sets out on his mission.

Book II : The Gathering of the Chiefs
As Alfred sets out on his quest, he enlists the help of three chieftains: a Saxon, a Roman, and a Celt. These three men represent the different aspects of the English culture of the time, one of the sources of the Christian European culture which Chesterton felt was fading away.

Eldred the Franklin (landlord) was a fairly large and good-natured man, quite fond of feasting:

"A mighty man was Eldred,
A bulk for casks to fill,
His face a dreaming furnace,
His body a walking hill.

Eldred had been engulfed in discouragement due to the many past defeats of the Saxons and refused to go to war once more. Alfred in reply says:

"Out of the mouth of the Mother of God
Like a little word come I;
For I go gathering Christian men
From sunken paving and ford and fen,
To die in battle, God knows when,
By God, but I know why."
(II: 74–79)

Eldred changes his mind upon hearing this and agrees to fight.

The Roman Mark represents a life based on order and reason. He refuses to fight as well. Alfred tells him of his vision of the Blessed Mother, and goes on his way.

Colan is a Gaelic warrior. He seems a paradoxical and conflicting blend on many levels: Christian and pagan, proud yet selfless and generous, a fearsome warrior and a singer of tales.

"His harp was carved and cunning,
As the Celtic craftsman makes,
Graven all over with twisting shapes
Like many headless snakes.

His harp was carved and cunning,
His sword was prompt and sharp,
And he was gay when he held the sword,
Sad when he held the harp.

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.

He kept the Roman order,
He made the Christian sign;
But his eyes grew often blind and bright,
And the sea that rose in the rocks at night
Rose to his head like wine.

He made the sign of the cross of God,
He knew the Roman prayer,
But he had unreason in his heart
Because of the gods that were."
(II: 216-32)

Unlike the other chieftains, Colan enthusiastically took up the challenge: "And if the sea and sky be foes, / We will tame the sea and sky" (II:266-67).

The three chieftains represent more than ethnic lines: they represent the empirical, rational, and emotive emphases. Eldred represents the empirical, or physical, focus. Mark represents the rational (based on reason) focus, and Colan represents the emotive (emotional) focus.

Book III : The Harp of Alfred
Chesterton uses Alfred's visit to the Danish camp in Book III to compare the character's views of life. As the Danish earls, Guthrum, and Alfred each sing their own song, they each use it to express their own particular interpretation of life and its meaning.

First to sing is Harold, who mocks the Christians as weaklings and loves conquest and pleasure. As he says:

"But we, but we shall enjoy the world,
The whole huge world a toy.

Next to sing is Elf, who is sad and pessimistic. He refers to Balder, who died as a result of the negligence of the Norse gods. As he says:

"There is always a thing forgotten
When all the world goes well ;
A thing forgotten, as long ago
When the gods forgot the mistletoe,
And soundless as an arrow of snow
The arrow of anguish fell.

The thing on the blind side of the heart,
On the wrong side of the door,
The green plant groweth, menacing
Almighty lovers in the spring ;
There is always a forgotten thing,
And love is not secure."

Next is Ogier, who is consumed with hate and violence. As he says:

"While there is one tall shrine to shake,
Or one live man to rend ;
For the wrath of the gods behind the gods
Who are weary to make an end.

There lives one moment for a man
When the door at his shoulder shakes,
When the taut rope parts under the pull,
And the barest branch is beautiful
One moment, while it breaks."

Finally Guthrum sings. He is a cultured and experienced man, yet he feels unfulfilled and pessimistic. From his perspective, no matter what one is able to accomplish, all life ends in death. As he says:

"And the heart of the locked battle
Is the happiest place for men;
when shrieking souls as shafts go by
And many have died and all may die;
Though this be a mystery,
Death is most distant then.

Death blazes bright above the cup,
And clear above the crown;
But in that dream of battle
We seen to tread it down.

Wherefore I am a great king
And waste the world in vain,
Because man hath not other power,
Save that in dealing death for dower,
He may forget it for an hour
To remember it again."

At last Alfred takes the harp. He sings a song that is filled with joy and hope in God. He says that although man has sinned, he would rather "...fall with Adam / Than rise with all your gods" (III:313-14). Despite his power and glory, Guthrum "...sits on a hero's throne and asks if he is dead?" (III:318). The pagans ridicule the Christians as weaklings, yet "You are more tired of victory, / Than we are tired of shame" (III:333-34). Further, "If it be not better to fast for joy / Than feast for misery" (III:355-56). Since the pagans have seized control of Wessex, the White Horse fades into oblivion as grasses creep into it. Alfred ends his poem by saying:

"Therefore your end is on you,
Is on on you and all your kings,
Not for a fire in Ely fen,
Not that your gods are nine or ten,
But because it is only Christian men
Guard even heathen things.

For our god hath blessed creation,
Calling it good. I know
What spirit with whom you blindly band
Hath blessed destruction with his hand;
Yet by God's death the stars shall stand
And the small apples grow."

'And the King with harp on shoulder,
Stood up and ceased his song;
And the owls moaned from the mighty trees,
And the Danes laughed loud and long.'

Book IV : The Woman in the Forest
As Alfred waits for his forces to arrive, he comes across a poor woman cooking cakes over a fire. He agrees to help her, and watches the fire and cakes. He then begins to meditate on the poor and working class. He is reminded of Christ's identification with the poor. He thinks of "God like a good giant, / That, labouring, lifts the world" (IV: 122-23). God is his "armourer", "gardener", and "great grey servant."

"Did not a great grey servant
Of all my sires and me,
Build this pavilion of the pines,
And herd the fowles and fill the vines,
And labour and pass and leave no signs
Save mercy and mystery?"
(IV: 97–102)

As he weeps for the woman's class, a cake falls into the fire and is burnt. In anger the woman grabs it "And struck him suddenly on the face, / Leaving a scarlet scar" (IV: 163-64). At first Alfred thinks of revenge: "And torture stood and the evil things / That are in the childish hearts of kings / An instant in his eyes" (IV: 167-69). Christ however, gives the ultimate demonstration of humility: "Wherefore was God in Golgotha, / Slain as a serf is slain" (IV: 124-25). Alfred then laughs at himself and Chesterton comments on Christian laughter:

"Then Alfred laughed out suddenly,
Like thunder in the spring,
Till shook aloud the lintel-beams,
And the squirrels stirred in dusty dreams,
And the startled birds went up in streams,
For the laughter of the King.

And the beasts of the earth and the birds looked down,
In wild solemnity,
On a stranger sight than a sylph or elf,
On one man laughing at himself
Under the greenwood tree-

The giant laughter of Christian men
That roars through a thousand tales,
Where greed is an ape and pride is an ass,
And Jack's away with his master's lass,
And the miser is banged with all his brass,
The farmer with all his flails;

Tales that tumble and tales that trick,
Yet end not all in scorning-
Of kings and clowns in a merry plight,
And the clock gone wrong and the world right,
That the mummers sing upon Christmas night
And Christmas Day in the morning.
(IV: 225–247)

Book V : Ethandune : The First Stroke
Book VI : Ethandune : The Slaying of the Chiefs
Book VII : Ethandune : The Last Charge

The three books concerning the battle are grouped together in this analysis. Most of the values of the poem have already been expressed in the earlier books, and now they are put to the test in the battle. The Danish and Christian chieftains and earls fight to the death, as well as many of the common soldiers. Here the Paschal Mystery is explored, and the outcome, the resurrection, is the triumph of the Cross and its civilisation over the pagan invaders and the baptism of Guthrum.

Some aspects that can be considered are the warriors' boasts and speeches to one another, in full line with the epic tradition. They can be given a Christian perspective, as can be seen in Harold's and Colan's dialogue right before the battle begins.

Harold laughs at the poor and disorderly appearance of Colan, "What broken bits of earth / Are here? For what their clothes are worth / I would sell them for a song" (V:194-96). Colan replies:

"Oh, truly we be broken hearts,
For that cause, it is said,
We light our candles to that Lord
That broke Himself for bread.

"But though we hold but bitterly
What land the Saxon leaves,
Though Ireland be but a land of saints,
And Wales a land of thieves,

"I say you yet shall weary
Of the working of your word,
That stricken spirits never strike,
Nor lean hands hold a sword.

"And if ever ye ride in Ireland,
The jest may yet be said,
There is the land of broken hearts,
And the land of broken heads."

Additionally, there is an example of the Medieval practice of warriors confessing their sins to one another when there was no priest available to hear their Confession. This practice allows the soldiers to prepare for death by giving a last affirmation of their faith, and in the case of the story, it is a final acknowledgment of creation's gifts and their misuse. Alfred's will be used as an example:

"I wronged a man to his slaying,
And a woman to her shame,
And once I looked on a sworn maid
That was wed to the Holy Name.

"And once I took my neighbour's wife,
That was bound to an eastland man,
In the starkness of my evil youth,
Before my griefs began.

"People, if you have any prayers,
Say prayers for me :
And lay be under a Christian stone
In that lost land I thought my own,
To wait till the holy horn in blown,
And all poor men are free."

Book VIII : The Scouring of the Horse
The last book, as well as the poem in its entirety, declares that "eternal vigilance is the price of freedom" (Boyd). This is the meaning of the White Horse. Peace and civilisation are gained through the struggle, which is motivated by the desire for freedom. As the book opens Alfred is in a time of peace in Wessex: "And Wessex lay in a patch of peace, / Like a dog in a patch of sun--" (VIII: 27–28). The scouring of the horse represents the works of peace. Alfred accomplished many of these, like making just laws, compiling songs and translating books, receiving embassies and legates, giving help to the poor and broken, and ruling his people kindly. Yet he chose not to expand his empire, even when encouraged to.

"And Alfred in the orchard,
Among apples green and red,
With the little book in his bosom,
Looked at the green leaves and said :

When all philosophies shall fail,
This word alone shall fit;
That a sage feels too small for life,
And a fool too large for it.

"Asia and all imperial plains
Are too little for a fool ;
But for one man whose eyes can see,
The little island of Athelney
Is too large a land to rule."
(VIII: 90–102)

Alfred dedicates his land to Mary, "Though I give this land to Our Lady, / That helped me in Athelney" (VIII: 236-37). Alfred knows that the task of scouring the Horse of weeds will not end. Among others, the Danes still pose a threat. Alfred must plan for another battle, for this is the only way the White Horse can be kept clear. The poems ends with "And the King took London town." (VIII: 371)

Influence on other works[edit]

Christopher Clausen has argued that The Ballad of the White Horse was a significant influence on J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings fantasy novel.[1] He argues that the basic structure and themes of the Ballad were borrowed and incorporated into the Lord of the Rings.

American author, poet, and widely-know pulp magazine "fictioneer" Robert E. Howard was much impressed by Chesterton's "The Ballad of the White Horse." In a letter to his friend Tevis Clyde Smith, dated 6 August 1926 [when Howard was 20], he writes: "There is great poetry being written now. G.K. Chesterton, for instance." In another letter to Smith ca. September 1927, after a trip to San Antonio from his home in tiny Cross Plains, TX, he writes: "Several books I purchased on my trip, among them G. K. Chesterton's 'The Ballad of the White Horse.' Ever read it? It's great. Listen:…" which he follows by quoting several stanzas. Howard uses select excerpts from Chesterton's poem to serve as epigraphs for chapter headings in some of his stories. He frequently numbers Chesterton among his favourite poets.[2]


  1. ^ Clausen, C: ""The Lord of the Rings' and 'The Ballad of the White Horse,"", South Atlantic Bulletin, XXXIX(2):10–16 Online Accessed 4/7/07, Thomson Gale Literature Resource Center.
  2. ^ The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, (3 vols.), ed Rob Roehm: The Robert E. Howard Foundation.