Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Ballad of the White Horse, by G. K. Chesterton

In this beautifully composed ballad, Chesterton relives before our inward eye the glorious fight of King Alfred as it is legend, though perhaps not as history. The lack of historical acumen is certainly not a handicap to the book. Far from it. Chesterton made sure to warn his readers in the foreword that he was not attempting to write a historical poem, but a ballad of a legend. King Alfred certainly existed, and the battle certainly happened. And the legends surrounding his life are the subject of ballad.

In this particular ballad, Chesterton proves his flexibility with language, and his keen eye towards human nature. His rhyme scheme varies throughout the poems, generally in 4-12 line stanzas, with predictable patterns of rhyming throughout. In fact, when reading the poem aloud, the listener will probably not notice the changing lengths in stanzas. The listener will instead become fully engaged in the story of King Alfred, who cannot win a war, but who fights on simply because the "sky grows darker yet/and the sea rises higher." In typical Chesterton fashion, the book is filled with quotable sayings, ranging in topics about prayer, bravery, and perseverance, to human nature, pagan men, heroes, the future, and the duty of man to do what is right, despite all odds. But the reader does not feel sermonized. Instead, he finds himself inspired but the stories of Kings who let the bread burn, of Celtic Kings ("For all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad."), battles against Pagan men, and the battles that occurred on the earth "before the gods who made the gods".

I highly recommend this book as a work to be read aloud to young boys, to anyone interested in the ancient world, the medieval world, or modern journalism. While the book is astounding when read, the full effect is best found when the book is read aloud to a group of listeners, who chime in at the rhymes that they know by heart. (Optional: Read with a glass of wine, by candlelight, on a cold winters eve.)

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