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Ballad of the White Horse |
Know ye the barbarian, then and now

Ballad of the White Horse is drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 98, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Chesterton’s epic poem of Alfred’s defeat of the Danes warns that barbarism will be back

Ballad of the White Horse - Know ye the barbarian, then and now

Ballad of the White Horse - Know ye the barbarian, then and now
This majestic statue of King Alfred the Great by Hamo Thorneycroft was unveiled in the city of Winchester, England, in 1901 on the millennial commemoration of the king’s death. (He actually died in 899, but the Winchester populace persistently observes the later date.) The resolute fortitude conveyed by the figure is altogether consistent with the historical record.

G. K. Chesterton’s stirring, book-length, narrative poem, The Ballad of the White Horse, describes King Alfred’s seemingly hopeless, but ultimately triumphant, struggle against King Guthrum’s Viking Danes. The full poem consists of 544 verses, twenty-five excerpted here. As the excerpts show, the ballad is also a timeless allegory, filled with thrilling battles and visions of the ongoing war between Christianity and the forces of nihilistic destruction.

King Alfred strives in vain against the conquering Danes

A sea-folk blinder than the sea
Broke all about his land,
But Alfred up against them bare
And gripped the ground and grasped the air,
Staggered, and strove to stand.

For earthquake swallowing earthquake
Uprent the Wessex tree;
The whirlpool of the pagan sway
Had swirled his sires as sticks away
When a flood smites the sea.

Our towns were shaken of tall kings
With scarlet beards like blood:
The world turned empty where they trod,
They took the kindly cross of God
And cut it up for wood.

He bent them back with spear and spade,
With desperate dyke and wall,
With foemen leaning on his shield
And roaring on him when he reeled;
And no help came at all.

There was not English armor left,
Nor any English thing,
When Alfred came to Athelney
To be an English king.

The despairing king, in prayer, is rewarded with a vision of the Virgin Mary

“Mother of God” the wanderer said
“I am but a common king,
Nor will I ask what saints may ask,
To see a secret thing.

“But for this earth most pitiful.
This little land I know,
If that which is forever is,
Or if our hearts shall break with bliss
Seeing the stranger go?”

The Virgin responds with a hard message, reminding him what it means to be a Christian

“The men of the East may spell the stars
And times and triumphs mark,
But the men signed of the cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark.

“The men of the East may search the scrolls
For sure fates and fame,
But the men who drink the blood of God
Go singing to their shame.

“For you and all the kind of Christ
Are ignorant and brave,
And you have wars you hardly win
And souls you hardly save.

“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?”

Alfred, inspired by the vision, rallies his reluctant liegemen once more

“Out of the mouth of the Mother of God,
More than the doors of doom,
I call the muster of Wessex men
From grassy hamlet or ditch or den,
To break and be broken, God knows when,
But I have seen for whom!”

The resurgence of battered Wessex catches the powerful Danish king Guthrum unaware

The live wood came at Guthrum,
On foot and claw and wing,
The nests were noisy overhead,
For Alfred and the star of red;
All life went forth, and the forest fled
Before the face of the king.

Then bursting all and blasting
Came Christendom like death,
Kicked of such catapults of will,
The staves shiver, the barrels spill,
The wagons waver and crash and kill
The wagoners beneath.

Alfred sees that the battle has turned in his favor, that the Danes are faltering

The high tide, King Alfred cried,
The high tide–and the turn!*
As a tide turns on the tall gray seas,
See how they waver in the trees
How stray their spears, how quake
their knees
How wild their watchfires burn!

Alfred sentences his fallen enemy–to baptism

When the pagan people of the sea
Fled to their palisades,
Nailed there with javelins to cling
And wonder smote the pirate king,
And brought him to his christening
And the end of all his raids.

Chesterton foresees the barbarism that was yet to come

They shall not come in warships,
They shall not waste with brands,
But books be all their eating,
And ink be on their hands.

Yea, this shall be the sign of them,
The sign of the dying fire;
And man made like a half-wit,
That knows not of his sire.

What though they come with
scroll and pen,
And grave as a shaven clerk,
By this sign you shall know them
That they ruin and make dark;

By all men bond to nothing
Being slaves without a lord,
By one blind idiot world obeyed
Too blind to be abhorred.

By thought a crawling ruin,
By life a leaping mire,
By a broken heart in the breast
of the world
And the end of the world’s desire.

By God and man dishonored
By death and life made vain
Know ye, the old barbarian,
The barbarian come again.

This is the end of the Ballad of the White Horse category article drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 98, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City. To continue reading more about Ballad of the White Horse from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at