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The Ballad of the White Horse by G. K.…

The Ballad of the White Horse (1911)

by G. K. Chesterton

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The Ballad of the White Horse tells the story of Alfred the Great's shock victory over the invading Norsemen at the Battle of Ethandun near the White Horse of Uffington (a famous figure carved into chalk hill at some point in mists of England's prehistoric past). Written in ballad meter, we watch Alfred travel from the depths of despair, as his kingdom is lost to him, to the joy of victory over his enemies as many brave men die heroic (and bloody) deaths on the battlefield. Chesterton being Chesterton, there are many lessons to be imparted and learned here, but as always he makes the process enjoyable for himself and for his readers.

A poem for those who don't think they like poetry, it may be metered but its meaning is easy to pick out and the plotting is strong. My edition is a facsimile of an edition from the 1920s and is filled with fabulous period art nouveau illustrations. Highly recommended for fans of Chesterton and those with an interest in Alfred the Great or English history. ( )
  inge87 | May 31, 2017 |
Epic poetry is hard, especially for those of us who don't come from a strong oral storytelling tradition. The opening and closing chapters were strong, but in the middle I kind of struggled to keep going with it. I read this on my kindle at night and was also intermittently listening to the Illiad as an audio book in the car. The Ballad of the White Horse didn't compare well -- the timing was just slightly off, and it didn't have the polish of so many, many centuries of re-telling. Still, it was a good effort, and I might try re-reading it in the future.
( )
  Amelia_Smith | May 2, 2015 |
The story of the battle of King Alfred the Great, who unified the English.
  StJulian | Dec 29, 2008 |
Includes copious synopses and notes (pages 175-231)

This is a very interesting and famous work of historical literature. It is an epic poem - the sort of story that would have been performed aloud to an audience in days gone by. The style is beautiful and moving. It is the story of King Alfred the Great, the 9th century Christian king of Wessex who re-conquered England from the Danes (Vikings). It's an interesting mix (by Chesterton's own admission) of history, legend and allegory - always understanding what is essential to the story for many reasons. This is a beautiful text with an ancient-looking typeface and wood-cut style illustrations, appropriate to its lofty and epic nature.

The first time reading this, I was especially struck by its beautiful language and nuggets of wisdom. Here are a few favorite samples:

"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 would rather fall with Adam
Than rise with all your gods." (Book 3, 305-310)

"Our monks go robed in rain and snow,
But the heart of flame therein,
But you go clothed in feasts and flames,
When all is ice within;

Nor shall all iron dooms make dumb
Men wondering ceaselessly,
If it be not better to fast for joy
Than feast for misery." (Book 3, 350-355)

Even some of my fairly young children (grades three and six) really enjoyed listening to the beauty of the language and picking up bits of truth - like the contrast between fasting for joy and feasting for misery - that rings of truth about the shallow and temporary happiness of the pleasures of this world.

It is an amazing story of the development of virtue in this Christian king, with many glimpses into core Christian beliefs (with a lovely Marian theme). It is heroic, patriotic and a classic in every way. What a great thing it would be if every high schooler studied it and learned to appreciate it on some level. And as a note - it might be very helpful to read this aloud - to any age or even to yourself! ( )
2 vote alivanmom | Nov 21, 2008 |
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Book description
The Ballad of the White Horse is one of the last great epic poems in the English language. On the one hand it describes King Alfred’s battle against the Danes in 878. On the other hand it is a timeless allegory about the ongoing battle between Christianity and the forces of nihilistic heathenism. Filled with colorful characters, thrilling battles and mystical visions, it is as lively as it is profound.

Chesterton incorporates brilliant imagination, atmosphere, moral concern, chronological continuity, wisdom and fancy. He makes his stanzas reverberate with sound, and hurries his readers into the heart of the battle.

This deluxe volume is the definitive edition of the poem. It exactly reproduces the 1928 edition with Robert Austin’s beautiful woodcuts, and includes a thorough introduction and wonderful endnotes by Sister Bernadette Sheridan, from her 60 years researching the poem. Illustrated.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0898708907, Hardcover)

This ballad needs no historical notes, for the simple reason that it does not profess to be historical. All of it that is not frankly fictitious, as in any prose romance about the past, is meant to emphasize tradition rather than history. King Alfred is not a legend in the sense that King Arthur may be a legend; that is, in the sense that he may possibly be a lie. But King Alfred is a legend in this broader and more human sense, that the legends are the most important things about him.The cult of Alfred was a popular cult, from the darkness of the ninth century to the deepening twilight of the twentieth. It is wholly as a popular legend that I deal with him here. I write as one ignorant of every-thing, except that I have found the legend of a King of Wessex still alive in the land. I will give three curt cases of what I mean. A tradition connects the ultimate victory of Alfred with the valley in Berkshire called the Vale of the White Horse, I have seen doubts of the tradition, which may be valid doubts. I do not know when or where the story started; it is enough that it started somewhere and ended with me; for I only seek to write upon a hearsay, as the old balladists did...

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:28 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Alfred the Great was the seventh-century Saxon King of Wessex who—with the aid of God and the Virgin Mary—defended his land against the Vikings. Incorporating fact and legend, Chesterton's epic 1911 poem narrates Alfred's exploits on the battlefield. It may have provided inspiration for J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.… (more)

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