The Ballad of the White Horse

Book cover: 'The Ballad of the White Horse'
Author(s): 
G.K. Chesterton
Copyright: 
1911
Publisher: 
Ignatius Press
Binding: 
Sewn Hardcover
Number of pages: 
231 pages
Grade / Age level: 
Review: 

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 http://www.fullbooks.com/The-Ballad-of-the-White-Horse.html or http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/1719
Lecture on the Ballad of the White Horse by Dale Alquist (American Chesterton Society)

Perspective: 
Catholic
Review Date: 
5-24-05
Reviewed by: