Friday, June 12, 2009

The stars still stand

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.

The Ballad of the White Horse is remembered and recommended by Hal G.P. Colebatch at The American Spectator:
.... It was published in 1911, and is a vast (173-page), sweeping, heroic account in ballad form of King Alfred the Great's hopeless war, crushing defeat and final "eucastrophic" victory over the Great Army of the marauding Danes in "the Thornland of Ethandune" about a thousand years ago, a victory which saved English-speaking civilization from being murdered in its cradle, and saved us, as Chesterton put it earlier, "from being savages forever." ....

It is a poem that can be read by anyone in need of inspiration and encouragement in dark times. It begins with the king, defeated and hiding in the marshes of Athelney. The Christianized kingdom of Wessex...has been shattered by Viking attacks, both open invasion and the treacherous betrayal of Chippenham:
There was not English armour left
Nor any English thing
When Alfred came to Athelney
To be an English king …
....However, there is no alternative but to fight. Otherwise nothing will survive:
"I bring you naught for your comfort,
Naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet,
And the sea rises higher."

Then silence sank. And slowly
Arose the sea-land lord.
Like some vast beast for mystery,
He filled the room and porch and sky,
And from a cobwebbed nail on high
Unhooked his heavy sword.
With the same council he gathers a Christianized Roman magnate, Mark, and a Celtic chief, Colan — as in so many epics, up to The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, the forces called to resist evil are an ill-assorted lot. ....

Having arranged for the chiefs to meet him as soon as they can gather their forces, Alfred wanders on alone in thought over the "shrill sea-downs", through the ruined landscape towards the meeting-place, playing his harp in the dusk ("The rook croaked homeward heavily, the West was clear and wan …"). He is captured by a party of relatively good-humored, drunken Danes, who, admiring his harp-playing, bring him before their chief, Guthrum of the Northern Sea, the Emperor of the Great Army, and three of his principal Earls. Each, after listening to Alfred's playing, takes the harp and makes a song on it, and Alfred learns that despite their power and terror they are actually despairing and terrified of death. ....

The dreadful Earl Ogier's consolation in the face of death is destruction ("The barest branch is beautiful, one moment, as it breaks"), but beyond them is Guthrum, who has passed even through that and is staring into a universe of despair too absolute even for Nihilism: and
"When a man shall read what is written
So plain in clouds and clods;
When he shall hunger without hope
Even for evil gods …"
The nameless, shabby "rhymester without a home" who is Alfred replies to this Pagan hopelessness:
"Our God hath blessed creation,
Calling it good. I know
The spirit with which you blindly band
Hath blessed destruction with his hand;
Yet by God's death the stars still stand
And the small apples grow …" ....
.... C.S. Lewis has said that The Ballad of the White Horse is "permanent and dateless…does not the central theme of the ballad…embody the feeling, and the only possible feeling, with which in any age almost defeated men take up such arms as are left them and win?"

It is good to read The Ballad of the White Horse, and also to reflect that it is basically true. There really was a climatic battle at Ethandune (possibly modern Edington, where a white horse is carved on the chalk hillside, possibly originally in memory of the battle), and where, against all odds, the nascent Anglic civilization and its noble and undaunted king, after years of defeats and betrayals, really won the day, and where the barbarians really were not only defeated but Christianized: Guthrum, with Alfred as his Godfather, took the Baptismal name Athelstan and kept the peace for the rest of his life. In England learning, culture, and civilization were revived under Alfred's rule, and we really were saved from being savages forever. Thank you, G. K. Chesterton. [more]
The American Spectator : Epic Chesterton

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