Literature Early Middle Ages

The Ballad of the White Horse

Book cover: 'The Ballad of the White Horse'
G.K. Chesterton
Ignatius Press
Sewn Hardcover
Number of pages: 
231 pages
Grade / Age level: 

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!

My commentary seems terribly insufficient as I'm just beginning to appreciate this great work. Here are some online sources for further reading.

The entire text is available online at either or
Lecture on the Ballad of the White Horse by Dale Alquist (American Chesterton Society)

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The White Stag

Book cover: 'The White Stag'
Kate Seredy
Puffin Newbery Library
Number of pages: 
95 pages
Grade / Age level: 

The White Stag by Kate Seredy is the telling of the legend of the migration of the Huns and Magyars out of Asia to the great Hungarian plains. It begins with Nimrod, an ancient leader of a wandering people who are always moving west, seeking a land that had been promised to them by their gods. At a moment of despair, his people sick and starving, Nimrod receives a message from his god, Hadur, which gives him hope and brings on his death. He is told that his two sons, Hunor and Magyar, will lead his people across the mountains and that another leader will rise up in their places when they are gone. Finally he is told that a great warrior leader, Attila the Scourge, will lead the people in the final phase of their migration.

The two sons do in fact lead the people west following a mysterious white stag which seems to be leading them along. They find a good land and stay there many years but it is not the land that was foretold. While in this land, Hunor and Magyar capture and marry fairy "moonmaidens." Hunor and his wife have a son named Bendeguz, The White Eagle. Among the people a slight rift appears and some become more attached to fierce Hunor and his son and others to the more gentle Magyar. The entire tribe moves on, however, and as they leave Asia and move into Europe, they become more fierce. The are in constant battle with the people of the lands they pass and end up a plundering, warring tribe. Finally they find a place to build a stronghold between the Volga and Don Rivers. Here Bendeguz marries a woman from the peoples they have conquered and Attila is born. The tribe then splits and Bendeguz, with Attila and his followers, move further west while Magyar and his followers stay. The Huns fight on and on with Attila as their leader and become the most feared people in the west. The story ends with the fulfillment of the prophecy, the finding of the promised land, and Attila leading a festival in thanksgiving to the great god Hadur.

This story could not be considered a history of the Huns, but might be read as a supplement to a study of the times. It is as the Greek myths are to the history of the Greeks and sheds light on the religion and traditions of the ancient Huns. It is poetically and lovingly written and full of beautiful illustrations. Since it is somewhat short in length, ( 95 pages of which 39 are full page illustrations), it can be read fairly quickly.

Recommended for grade 4+

Additional notes: 

Newbery Medal Winner

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