July 27th 2019


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Fixing Australia: Can we trust the Morrison Government?

ENERGY Yallourn early closure more than a mere challenge, Mr Premier

CANBERRA OBSERVED Can Labor learn a lesson or is it unredeemable?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS High power prices lead to more deaths of elderly

GENDER POLITICS Catholic Ed's document strong on doctrine, weak on protocols

ENERGY Renewables do push up power price: Chicago economists

OBITUARY The eminence of Dr Joe Santamaria

HISTORY OF SCIENCE Faith and reason and Father Stanley Jaki, Part 6: Medieval Christendom sparks a revolution

ENVIRONMENT As many Pacific islands are rising as are sinking

ASIAN AFFAIRS Uyghurs lose in ethnic power play

POETRY AND HISTORY The epic of the White Horse

HUMOUR On patrol with Father Bruce

MUSIC Joao Gilberto: Carrier of melodies

CINEMA Crawl: Toothful entertainment

BOOK REVIEW America's postwar boom and its end

BOOK REVIEW The story of the drafting of a great document

BOOK REVIEW The facts behind an undying distortion

LETTERS

POETRY

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Boris Johnson and the EU: Crash through or just crash

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POETRY AND HISTORY
The epic of the White Horse


by Hal G.P. Colebatch

News Weekly, July 27, 2019

 

“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, by G.K. Chesterton, was published in 1911, and is a vast (120 plus-page), sweeping, heroic account in ballad form of King Alfred the Great’s hopeless war, crushing defeat and final “eucatastrophic” victory over the Great Army of the marauding Vikings in the Thornland of Ethandune about a thousand years ago.

The Westbury White Horse, near Edington.

This victory saved English-speaking civilisation 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 Christianised kingdom of Wessex, the last hold-out against the marauding Viking army, 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,, with hope or without it. Otherwise nothing will survive. The fugitive king is told in a vision:

“I bring you naught for your comfort,
Naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet,
And the sea rises higher.”

He repeats these words to Eldred, an old Saxon warrior, who has greeted him kindly but after years of defeats considers the cause hopeless: “Your scalds still thunder and prophesy/The crown that never comes.”

He has taken refuge in ale.

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 Christianised Roman magnate, Mark, and a Celtic chief, Colan (“His kin were in holy Ireland/Or up in the crags of Wales”).

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. Indeed, it resembles The Lord of the Rings in several ways: both make the point that eventually the only defence against aggressive tyranny is some sort of counter-attack.

The philosophy of the poem is set off by some marvellously compact descriptive writing:

The rook croaked homeward heavily,
The west was clear and warm …

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.

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:

What have the strong gods given?
Where have the glad gods led?
When Guthrum sits on a hero’s throne
And asks if he is dead?

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:

“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
What spirit with whom 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?”

I mentioned that it resembled The Lord of The Rings in its inspirational heroism, but with one not unimportant difference: 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), where, against all odds, the nascent Anglic civilisation 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 Christianised: 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 civilisation were revived under Alfred’s rule, and we really were saved from being savages forever. Thank you, G.K. Chesterton; but, most of all, thank you, Alfred.




























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April 4, 2018, 6:45 pm