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The Ballad of the White Horse: An Introduction and Analysis

The Ballad of the White Horse: An Introduction and Analysis

22 minutes

G. K. Chesterton’s epic The Ballad of the White Horse is certainly his greatest poetic work, standing with his marvelous novel The Man Who Was Thursday and his masterful apologetic work The Everlasting Man as a triple crown of literary achievement. Still, some are a bit put off by poetry in general, especially poetry which runs to great length.

This is a shame, for the Ballad is eminently worthy not only of a good read-through, but even of rather intense study. There are literary riches to be harvested on many levels here; indeed, in my humble opinion, the Ballad is worthy to be considered a fruitful source for prayerful meditation. That being said, it is true that reading a long stretch of poetry may be a bit difficult for many. Thus was born my essay on the work, serving both as introduction and beginner’s analysis.

This poem need not be limited in readership to those enrolled in English 11. Rather, I am tempted to the extravagant claim that The Ballad of the White Horse should be compulsory literature for all adult Catholics! The sweep of Chesterton’s prophetic vision as pronounced in rhythm and rhyme is nothing less than magisterial. His analysis of paganism’s rise in modern times has, I think, never been equaled even in prose. No one has ever captured the character and spirit of the Irish better than Chesterton manages in a scant four line stanza in this work. Furthermore, the very structure of the poetry ensures a rollicking good time when read aloud and accompanied with some good Catholic refreshment!

This analytical essay has been available as a help to those 11th grade students struggling to understand the work. However, the editors of the Seton Magazine blog posts have graciously consented to allow for a somewhat wider readership. Thus, a link is herewith provided to the essay for any interested party.

As always, comments, criticisms and even the occasional accolade are very welcome!

In this Analysis, the characters are ordered according to opposing world-views:

  • Introduction: Paganism and  a Prophet
  • The Church Militant: The Theme of the Ballad
  • Characters from a Greater Canvas
  • Colan: A Mystic and a Paradox
  • Harold: Winner, Winer and Womanizer
  • Eldred: The Simple Soul
  • Elf: The Superstitious Pagan Mystic
  • Mark: The Christian Intellectual
  • Ogier: A Fury and Despair
  • Alfred: A Conquered King
  • Guthrum: The Noble Pagan
  • A Clash of Theologies
  • Comes the Miracle

Paganism and A Prophet

One hundred years after the publication of G.K. Chesterton’s great epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse, any appraisal of the work must find that it is more relevant now than upon first printing. As pervasive as the “New Paganism” was in the early twentieth century, the twenty-first century finds the ungodly in positions of power throughout most of traditional Christendom. Christian believers are beset on all sides by disdain at the very least, but increasingly even by active persecution. Dark Powers and Principalities during the last century have gained ascendancy throughout Europe and the Americas, crushing Christian culture beneath increasingly onerous laws and attitudes.

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In the light of history, Chesterton appears as something of a prophet in all his literary work. At a time when Christianity still seemed strongly in control of hearts and minds in Western cultures, Chesterton began to sound the alarm to all who would listen. Alas, far too few heard; hence the sorry state of the modern world. Reading Chesterton today is a rewarding enterprise; his analyses of social trends still ring true and his proposals for solution remain valid and largely untried. The paganism of his time is very recognizable in modern times, differing mostly in the blatancy of hatred for religion and tradition.

The Ballad of the White Horse is one of the most rewarding of Chesterton reads. Besides the beauty and power of his thought, the work is thoroughly enjoyable in an aesthetic sense. One cannot help but think of other works in the heroic mold: Beowulf, The Song of Roland and The Iliad come to mind. The thundering martial rhythm of the poetry sweeps the reader along on an exhilarating romp through sociology and theology.

The Church Militant: The Theme of the Ballad

In his Prefatory Note, Chesterton explains that The Ballad of the White Horse is not intended to be strictly historical. Indeed Chesterton states that his purpose is to emphasize tradition rather than history; he will explore the legendary aspects of King Alfred, not the mere facts surrounding him. His approach is explained as a type of Crusade; that is, the never-ending earthly struggle of Christianity to survive the assault of powers inimical to God and to His Church.

The image of the Church Militant was particularly dear to Chesterton. His entire life may be described as the career of a warrior-knight constantly seeking out new dragons begging for slaughter by means of his pen. Military imagery appears often in Chesterton’s work (one other notable example is his other great epic poem Lepanto) and is clearly at the forefront of the Ballad. Elsewhere Chesterton describes an image of the Church as a knight much battered by enemies, reeling and staggering, beaten and bloody, but somehow still standing upright and still battling on against very long odds.

Very few Christians will be privileged to see the end of the fight; for most, the words of Tennyson regarding his brave six hundred in The Charge of the Light Brigade might apply: “Theirs but to do and die.” The Christian must remain faithful, stay in the fight until the end, but never expect to see lasting fruit for any labors on earth. Human mortality denies most of mankind any sight of final victory until after death. Indeed, near the beginning of the Ballad Chesterton affirms that there can be no expectation of earthly consolation when he has Our Lady speak these terrifying words:

I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught 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?

What a battle cry! For most, a call to throw oneself into what is to all appearances a lost cause and to have faith in ultimate victory no matter how hopeless the effort; and then to be told to be joyful even in the face of such foolishness: this, to the average worldly person, is nothing short of madness!

And yet, this is precisely the call of Christ to His followers. He promises torture, death, misunderstanding, suffering, trials, tribulations, betrayal, even to the point of martyrdom. He calls in the full expectation that some, at least, will understand and follow Him in spite of the unattractive prospects. The call has been remarkably consistent in all human history; the human response has often been, predictably, less than enthusiastic. Moses tried the excuse that he was not a good speaker, to no avail. Jonah tried to run the other direction, only to have an unusual encounter with a fish which set him back on the road to Nineveh. Others tried to explain that they were too young, or not holy enough, or needed to take care of other matters; finally, the difference between the saint and the sinner is putting aside the excuses and throwing oneself whole-heartedly into the hopeless and generally quite unpleasant task at hand.

Thus the theme of the Ballad is discovered. There is a history in the poem, but it is not a history of fact and date, but rather a history of the cosmic battle of which the story of humanity is only one part. This is a battle of no determined date, for it lies partially outside of time; there can be no human compilation of all the facts because a great deal of the battle takes place outside human experience. In short, The Ballad of the White Horse is an apocalyptic history, a history not of any particular battle between good and evil, but in fact the tale of all such warfare.

Conflict between good and evil will continue until the end of time. Each generation of Christians will face their own daunting set of circumstances. There are certain broad categories of evil into which each enemy may be placed: heresy, paganism, nihilism, intellectual pride, hedonism, heathenism, atheism and so forth. At various times and places in apocalyptic history any of these (or, perhaps, in this present age, all of them!) may be taking the field against Christ. As each new battle is joined, the Church must fashion precisely the correct weapons to engage the enemy. There are as well certain broad categories of goodness which might be identified as weapons in these battles, each one divinely crafted for effectiveness against the evil to be faced. Thus, Christians are given a St. Francis to combat the materialism of the early Renaissance or a St. Athanasius locked in battle with the Arian heresy. The weapons needed for any particular war will always be provided by the Divine Armorer.

Characters from a Greater Canvas

In studying The Ballad of the White Horse, then, one must realize that the characters in the tale are not simply individual human beings caught up in great events. Chesterton paints upon a greater canvas than that; it is a field as enormous as salvation history itself. The characters involved are actually larger than they appear insofar as they represent certain Christian and pagan types. The one group stands for the entire Church, the other those most fiercely opposed to Christianity. St. Paul tells us that there are many gifts in the Church: some are teachers, some prophets, others speak in tongues and still others exercise the gift of healing. No one type of Christian suffices to fill all the needs of the Church; each member contributes to the proper working of the whole body. In the Ballad Chesterton presents a scenario in which several types of Christian work together for the preservation of good. Likewise, the characters of the pagan chiefs broadly represent trends of worldliness in all their hideous forms.

Clearly, saints are not found to be entirely of one “type.” A Christian with a healthy spiritual life will actually possess characteristics reminiscent of all the saints. A believer should be partly a mystic, partly a doer of great charitable works and partly an intellectual, at least so far that the basic principles of the Faith are understood. In like fashion, an honest Christian must acknowledge various tendencies toward inappropriate goods in the soul. Everyone is at times tempted to avarice, gluttony, or lust, or any number of lesser pursuits. Thus the Ballad may also be read not only as a battle in cosmic dimensions, but also a battle within each individual. Each person wages a solo apocalyptic battle, the stakes being nothing less than the ultimate fate of an immortal soul.

The Ballad makes extensive use of the old Nordic pagan pantheon in describing the Danish chiefs. Interestingly, much of the history of the 20th century after the publication of the poem was influenced by this same set of mythological characters. The peculiar form of paganism termed National Socialism grew from a trend in Germanic Romanticism looking to the old Teutonic gods for poetic inspiration. One of the early manifestations of this interest is seen in the career and works of Richard Wagner, the great musician of the late 1800’s. Wagner’s epic opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen or The Ring of the Nibelungs (a Nibelung being a metal-working dwarf living underground) is a setting of old Nordic myth encompassing most of the pagan world-view; it is no coincidence that Adolph Hitler adopted Wagnerian opera as the artistic theme for his murderous regime.

Even more explicit in his embrace of old Norse paganism was Hitler’s chief henchman, Heinrich Himmler. Himmler’s Schutzstaffel or SS organization was deliberately set up as a new pagan “religious” order. The SS engaged in elaborate ritual and rigid training designed to remake members in the mold of the old amoral Teutonic tribes. In the more elevated levels of the SS, there were even rumors of human sacrifice and other explicitly satanic celebrations. Of course, it was the SS who were most directly responsible for the horrible Holocaust, the deliberate slaying of millions of innocent Jews, Poles, priests, gypsies and so many others who did not quite fit the Nazi conception of true humanity.

It is interesting too that J.R.R. Tolkien drew upon the same Nordic myths in forming his great Christian epic The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien looked upon Chesterton as one of his more important literary forebears; certainly Tolkien was familiar with The Ballad of the White Horse and it seems likely that the poem was somewhat influential in recasting Nordic mythology as a Christian literary Ring cycle.

So, as an aid to understanding the Ballad here are a few basic notes on how to view the characters as ‘types’ of Christians and corresponding ‘types’ of pagans. Each reader will bring a unique viewpoint to the study and should therefore form their own inner portrait of each type. It is the nature of poetry to evoke differing images and conclusions according to the thoughts of the reader. These thumbnail sketches are just that, sketches, and it is for the reader to fill in the broad strokes given here with their own individual detailing. With this background, the reader of the Ballad might begin to understand the interplay of characters Chesterton so adroitly presents.

Colan: A Mystic and a Paradox

Colan, the Celtic warrior, is possibly the most complex of the allies approached by Alfred. Colan’s character is derived primarily from Mystical Theology, that branch of spiritual theology least understood and most highly distrusted. Mysticism is the most difficult of the theological disciplines to codify and bring into systematic order. Colan is possessed of a peculiar mentality:

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.

Understanding the character of Colan requires an understanding of Christian paradox. A clear exposition of paradox as a Christian principle is found in the Beatitudes. In each of Christ’s sayings there are juxtaposed the earthly way of looking at things with the heavenly point of view. A helpful tip on understanding the Beatitudes: they are intended not as a statement of how things will be in the future, but as a description of how things stand in the here and now. Even as we hunger, or hear curses, or endure insults in our temporal earthly lives, in the eternal sphere exactly the opposite takes place. In some heavenly fashion, we are filled, or we are blessed, or we are hearing encouraging words from the Lord. A vital part of anyone’s spiritual growth is to recognize the workings of Christian paradox and to realize that the wisdom of this world is foolishness indeed and the wisdom of God looks very foolish to worldly people. The Beatitudes lead us to look at all the miserable things of this life in the light of eternity; these are occasions for grace and growth, not grounds for complaint.

Colan is a mystic who views the world as a living experience of paradox. His world is totally inaccessible to people not possessed of spiritual insight; the mystics see clearly the “flip side” of existence, the eternal part of the equation. For Colan, the tears of this world are the laughter of the next, the sufferings of earthly life are the delights of the next world, the insults and blows one experiences here are actually the endearments and caresses of God Himself. Mystics such as Colan have more than one foot in the next world while yet living in this one; their grasp of temporal reality may be a bit loose, but only because their grip on spiritual reality is that much stronger. They are the contemplatives and the visionaries, living on the fringe of what most would call normal, the oddballs, the misfits, the extremists; indeed, they are the race that God made mad. In the Christian economy these are the folks who see most clearly that the world is a reverse image of reality, what Chesterton famously termed “topsy-turvydom.”

Think of Francis of Assisi and his beloved Lady Poverty, the flying friar Joseph of Cupertino, the highly unwashed bum Saint Benedict Joseph Labré and Symeon the Stylite atop his pillar. There are too the “Fools for Christ” and those very odd early monks who would spend their days grazing with a herd of antelope, praying and nibbling on an occasional herb. There would be the great Carmelite saints, John of the Cross with his harrowing renunciation of all earthly consolation (and indeed spiritual consolation as well!) and his good friend Teresa of Avila. A look at the career of St. Symeon of Emesa might be instructive; he is the very model of a Fool for Christ. His icon shows him entering the city dragging a dead dog tied to his belt while bystanders throw stones and beat him with sticks… and his story only gets more interesting from there!

In the Old Testament think of Ezekiel sitting in the marketplace of Nineveh, shaving half his beard and throwing the hairs to the wind with a sword, eating bread with interesting ingredients, playing with miniature cities and toy soldiers and generally making a real spectacle of himself. Chapters 4 and 5 of Ezekiel will impart a real sense of just how very strange the mystical life can be! The lives of the mystics are all a sort of ongoing street theater, a constant visible reminder that earthly life consists largely of vain pursuits: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” indeed!

Harold: Winner, Winer and Womanizer

Moving now to the character of Harold, an easily recognizable pagan type emerges. Harold is the sort of pagan most often found in the modern Western world. He loves his comfort, his luxury, his wine from Burgundy, marble and gold:

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

He derides the cloisters of Christianity, finding no value in prayer and self-sacrifice. There is not the slightest tendency in Harold to question himself, to engage in any sort of introspection or self-analysis. In short, Harold is a thoroughgoing materialist. He sees no lasting future as he says,

But the red unbroken river
Of a race runs not for ever,
But suddenly it fails.

His philosophy of life comes down to seizing what you can today, for tomorrow may never come. Being a complete materialist, Harold takes no thought for any afterlife. For him, success might be summed up in the old quip, “The winner is the one who dies with the most toys.” This is the man who enjoys himself while he may—the “wine, women and song, for tomorrow we die” sort. He takes seriously the “necessity” of keeping up with the Joneses, the building of a sort of earthly empire, the amassing of the trappings of worldly success. He sees nothing past death. There is no next life demanding any earthly preparation. There is only the one go-round, so each person must make the most of it while he can.

The Nordic god named Loki corresponds to Harold; Loki is a god of self-indulgence, mischief and fun. There is a whiff of elegant decadence about Harold and Loki, a decayed personality still desperately seeking fun and ease even while it is increasingly apparent that such a pursuit is ultimately doomed to failure. One grows old and the ability to “party hearty” eventually disappears. The great sin involved is a failure to recognize that growing up and accepting limitation and death is a vital component of human life. Harold completely misses this point in his pursuits, as do all those pathetic moderns who make the futile attempt to remain young forever.

Eldred: The Simple Soul

The character of Eldred, the farmer from Wessex, is that of the simple soul. Alfred finds the farm somewhat untidy, run-down and seedy when he arrives, Eldred’s sword a bit rusty and Eldred himself rather reluctant to stir from his home and hearth. Still, Eldred welcomes Alfred with open hospitality and warm regard:

And Eldred’s great and foolish heart
Stood open like his door.

He is a generous, hearty soul, always ready to share a tankard of beer, some earthy conversation and observations on his own little bit of the earth:

Friend, I will watch the certain things,
Swine, and slow moons like silver rings,
And the ripening of the plums.

He is not concerned with appearances; he has better things to do than to ensure that everything is absolutely shipshape at all times. He does not need luxury but is satisfied as long as he is getting by in life. Here is the description of a man of the earth, a practical man, a Christian type absolutely essential to the health of the Church. Think here of a saint like King St. Louis of France, who famously supplied a scribe to Aquinas at a feast. Queen Elizabeth of Hungary saw to it that poor people had food and that the sick received decent care. Elizabeth Ann Seton founded an educational network to serve the Catholics of America. Vincent de Paul began a system of charitable work that has endured through the years. Though Mary “chose the better part” the tasks of Martha in the house of Lazarus are none the less necessary.

These are the saints who tend to the practical affairs of earthly life, the teachers, the prison visitors, those who care for invalids and clothe the naked. They are a humble folk, not given to flashy display (note the state of Eldred’s farm!) or brilliance of wit—Eldred enjoys conversing about pigs and plums! From these folks, the salt of the earth, humble but very great works of charity arise. Their tasks are not glamorous, but they must be appreciated for taking care of the Colans and the Marks of the Church. Someone needs to tell the mystics that they must come in out of the rain and see to it that the intellectuals eat a decent meal now and again!

Elf: The Superstitious Pagan Mystic

Elf’s song reveals him as a superstitious pagan mystic. The Ballad describes his journeys into the realm of the Rhine Maidens, at the very heart of Teutonic paganism. He searches for esoteric knowledge and powers beyond those of ordinary mortals. Elf’s is not a life with clear-cut aims and ambitions, but rather a life spent pursuing the latest trends in Gnosticism. In modern terms, Elf is something of a New Age seeker after wisdom. The New Age, among other characteristics, is a method of taking questionable short-cuts in the quest for spiritual maturity. Such short-cuts are fraught with dangers. People on this path do not build a solid spiritual life step by step, as Christians must, but rush from guru to cult leader to the latest trend in psychology, never settling into a real program of self-improvement. Yesterday’s fads and fashions easily fall into disuse; they must constantly be replaced by fresh visions. New Agers have no real roots and thus Elf sings:

There is always a forgotten thing,
And love is not secure.

Elf cannot cease pursuing the “forgotten thing,” never realizing that he is really seeking something not to be found in this world. The Christian knows that only the love of God is secure, to be fully realized only after death; final spiritual satisfaction is not available in mortal life. But this is a reality Elf will never understand; his seeking will never end in finding the truth.

Elf’s corresponding god is Balder, the Nordic god given to nostalgia and the pursuit of beauty. Certainly an appreciation for beauty is a Christian virtue, but it is clear in New Age philosophy the beauty to be found is not in God, but rather within the seeker. God’s beauty is replaced by the more limited beauty to be found in the human personality. In short, the human person becomes an idol and the object of worship. Like Narcissus, a New Age practitioner falls in love with the self, an obviously flawed model for life which can only result in sterility of body, mind and spirit.

Mark: The Christian Intellectual

Turning to Mark the Roman, the Christian intellectual makes an appearance. Mark’s estate, unlike the untidy farm of Eldred, is perfectly ordered, very exact, perfect in its organization:

The long farm lay on the large hill-side,
Flat like a painted plan…
His fruit trees stood like soldiers
Drilled in a straight line.

When Alfred arrives and states his purpose, Mark immediately analyzes the positions and tells Alfred exactly what he must do in order to wage a perfect military campaign. He sees very clearly what must be done, analyzes the situation in an instant and knows the best course of action. But, he is a bit reluctant to enter into it himself. Intellectuals tend to remain in their ivory towers and not be involved in the messy details of life. They are often not practical people; though they can plot out a winning plan, they do not want to have to put it into effect. Of course, the saints overcome this tendency and throw their considerable intellectual weight into the fray. They realize that standing aloof in the Apocalypse is not an option. The Church has no lack of intellectual giants: Thomas Aquinas, Basil the Great, Augustine of Hippo, John Chrysostom, Charles Borromeo; this list is a very long one.

Ogier: A Fury and Despair

Turning to the next of the pagan chiefs, Ogier is perhaps the most terrifying of them all. At the very heart of Ogier’s character lies “Fury, that does not fail” and his final verdict on existence is that “…hate alone is true.” He is the extreme of paganism, being the embodiment of paganism’s inevitable despair. When all else fails to satisfy (as paganism must fail to satisfy) all he has left is rage at the unfairness of it all. His response is to destroy all that has failed him. The Nordic god of thunder and war, Thor, is the model for Ogier’s behavior.

There are, alas, all too many of these pagans in the world. At the lowest level, call to mind teen-age vandals, who wantonly damage property for no reason whatever. More seriously, the two killers in the Columbine High School massacre certainly fall into this category. Most catastrophically, this sort of paganism becomes horrendously dangerous in the leaders of nations. Perhaps the most extreme example in recent history would be Adolph Hitler. As the final days of his mad empire grew near, he had plans to destroy what little of value was left in Germany. His wish was that every factory, every bridge, every farm be destroyed so that he could finish his career in a massive, Wagnerian Götterdammerung, the Twilight of the Gods in Nordic myth, an orgy of destruction leaving nothing behind but utter devastation. Fortunately, a certain economic infrastructure was left intact and Germany was left with some basis for rebuilding. Hitler’s plan, though, was the sort of end an Ogier would relish!

Alfred: A Conquered King

The “types” represented by the two chiefs are more complex than the others, since they serve as the centers of unity for the forces involved. Alfred exhibits several complementary characteristics. Certainly he is a type of Christ, or as the term runs in literature, a Christ-figure. He could also represent the authority of Christ on earth, hence the Pope and the magisterium of the Church. He could be looked upon as a personification of the Faith itself, since that is the bond which holds together such disparate characters as Colan, Eldred and Mark. We must actually see Alfred in all these roles. In the Ballad, there are events which call to mind the “center of unity” under various manifestations. Although the ultimate victory belongs to Alfred and the forces of Christianity, until the time of that victory we most often see Alfred as a defeated man and a hunted fugitive. He is, in fact, something of a failure: “I am that oft-defeated King Whose failure fills the land.” and “I am Alfred of Wessex, and I am a conquered king.”

It is perhaps best to consider Alfred as a personification of the earthly Church, a Church which, after all, is subject to “the long defeat” as Chesterton once wrote. The Church was persecuted by Rome, but eventually Rome disappeared. The Church was over-run by barbarians, but eventually the barbarians were converted. There was a revolt by the Protestants, but the Church survived. So, too, in our day, the Church is under violent assault by the forces of a newly resurgent and subtle paganism. Like Alfred at Ethandune, the Church will survive this also; in spite of defeat after defeat, the Church endures and will endure to the end.

Guthrum: The Noble Pagan

Guthrum represents all that is noble in paganism. Every pagan culture carries within it the seeds of Faith; Greek Stoicism is transformed into Christian asceticism, pagan rhetoric becomes great Christian preaching, the unknown god of Athens becomes the revealed God-Man. With his humiliation at Ethandune and capture by the humblest Christian soldier, Guthrum finds his soul and his world-weariness is transformed into the joy of new purpose.

Guthrum’s god is Odin, a deity of wisdom and power. In the eventual conversion of Guthrum, we can see what is called the “baptism” of whatever good there is in pagan culture. Thus, we see in the early Greek Fathers of the Church the “baptizing” of the pagan philosopher Plato and the rhetoricians of ancient Greece. With Thomas Aquinas, the wisdom of pagan Aristotle is enlisted in the service of presenting a magnificent Summa of the Faith. Old Teutonic celebrations become transformed into Christmas trees and Yule logs in honor of Christ’s birth.

A Clash of Theologies

The theological stage is then set. A clash of theologies is the basis for the Ballad and it only remains to look at the interaction between the chiefs to have the key for poetic understanding.

The first stroke at Ethandune is the slaying of Harold by Colan. Even the most hardened materialist might be impressed by the simplicity and other-worldliness of a St. Francis, as one example. Almost single-handedly, Francis transformed a remorselessly materialistic society in the early Renaissance. The embrace of Lady Poverty pierced the consciences of huge numbers in the history of early Franciscans, just as the sword hurled by Colan pierced Harold’s brow. It is in the very act of casting away possessions that materialistic tendencies in the soul are overcome. The Ballad teaches that

Man shall not taste of victory
Till he throws his sword away.

All too often the unsophisticated and simple folk of the Church are misled by glamor and glittering lifestyles, by the fads and fancies of those rootless, restless seekers after a “higher knowledge” or more intense experience of life. There is an old song, “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?)” Simple souls are susceptible to the blandishments of modern sophisticates; they do not have the intellectual capacity to see through the hollow arguments to the emptiness of the pagan world-view. Thus, the superstitious worldly-wise Elf is able to overcome the mighty Eldred by the thrust of his intriguing magical spear.

In his turn, Elf is undone by the intellectual Mark. A true intellectual is well able to discern the falsity of modern claims and to overwhelm the so-called sophisticates with a stern application of solid, rock-hard truth. The vagueness and vapidity of the New Age or the Higher Criticism, for instance, simply cannot hold up under the scrutiny of a Mark, well-schooled in the reasonableness of the Faith. Christian rationality will eventually triumph over the emotionally driven (and in our own time, politically correct) ravings that pass for intellectuality among the new pagans.

Alas, there are some to whom the appeal to reason is utterly lost. Mark for a time restrains the raging Ogier, trapped under his own shield. But Ogier is well beyond any intellectual appeal. Eventually the brutish hatred of Ogier is strong enough to burst the bonds of the mind and deal a death blow to Mark. There is in the modern world no lack of examples; there really is such a thing as a hate crime, for instance; crime based upon the color of human flesh or ethnic origin can in no way be called rational. A person steeped in racial hatred will not listen to calmer heads who will clearly explain that both good and not-so-good people exist in all skin shades. There clearly is no rational way to maintain that a given ethnic group is evil simply on the evidence of color. Yet, in all times and cultures, there have been people who hold precisely that point of view. There is simply no reasoning with them.

After the death of Mark, the poem enters its most clearly apocalyptic phase. The demonic rage and power of Ogier’s horde, the “brainless plague,” drives the Christian line back and back, splitting Alfred from Colan, striking terror into Christian hearts and bringing Alfred’s army to the very brink of final dissolution. One can only think here of those scenes in Revelation which show the tiny remnant of the Church fiercely persecuted by an entirely demonic world order, harried to the point of total collapse. The devil indeed rages through the world, seeking whom he may devour, and he comes perilously close to devouring the last weakened, demoralized and almost leaderless members of Christ’s flock.

The separation of Colan from Alfred is noteworthy. There is something of an aphorism in theology which states, “Mysticism ends in schism.” There is a tendency in many mystics to rely too heavily on their own direct connection with God. At times this may take a prideful form and lead to a reliance on self rather than submission to Church authority. The claim that “God is on my side” in an argument might be one form of this problem; the mystic must always remember that the mind of God is expressed on earth though the hierarchy and magisterium of the Church; to deviate from their norms is a chancy proposition. Church history is replete with examples of mystics coming to a bad end by assuming that their direct communication with the next life excuses them from authority in this world. Such was the fate of Colan, who died apart from Alfred, his earthly general. One might recall here the Great Schism with the Eastern Churches, a critical wound in the Body of Christ. But, at the end of all sacred battles, even as grave a condition as that will be healed.

Comes the Miracle

Scripture and tradition indicate that Christianity, at the last extremity of persecution, will be renewed and reinvigorated in a miraculous fashion. So it happens with Alfred. Upon his making the decision to take the battle once more to the Danes, with his determination that it is better to die gloriously in the freedom of Christ than to live enslaved by a pagan order, the miracle arrives. One of Mary’s more esoteric titles is “General of the Armies of Heaven.” Her appearance is precisely the event needed to goad Alfred’s battered army into one last effort. Alfred blows his horn, his men rally and the last charge is driven into the Danish ranks. Alfred himself overcomes the unthinking rage of Ogier: “Even the demons are subject to us in Your name!” The tattered men of Colan’s band come to strike anew at the flank, and the battle is won. Guthrum is overcome and captured physically by a humble commoner, but more importantly, he is fully captivated by Christ the King, before Whom Guthrum himself is but a common king.

During the First World War British soldiers read the Ballad with much the same avidity as the French army pored over The Story of a Soul, the autobiography of Thérèse, the Little Flower of Lisieux. Britons found in the poem a certain morale-building character, in that it glorified certain events in Britain’s military past. Rather more importantly, there was much spiritual consolation to be found in the work. The trenches were one of the most miserable military experiences in world history; the Ballad confirmed the value of such great suffering in the service of one’s nation and people.

In like fashion, readers one hundred years later can find their own consolation. The sea rises still higher, the sky grows ever darker and the inky blackness of paganism’s nightfall steadily continues to overtake humanity. There seems to be little hope at this point of any immediate reversal of the trend, making all the more poignant Our Lady’s promise to Alfred of a darker sky and a rising sea. Still, the message of hope in the face of disaster and faith in a final victory snatched from the “long defeat” constitute the real message of The Ballad. The times demand a Christian response of joy due to that ultimate victory and a gleeful engagement with a foe who does not yet realize a defeat already imposed.

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About Bob Wiesner

Bob Wiesner
Bob earned a B.A. in Philosophy from Christendom College and his M.A. in Theological Studies from Maryknoll School of Theology. His passions include classical music, iconography and history. Meet Bob
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