The Intervention of Our Lady in Chesterton’s “The Ballad of the White Horse”

In The Ballad of the White Horse, an epic poem by author G.K.Chesterton, a fallen King Alfred fights the Danes in an attempt to preserve the last remnants of civilization in England. Initially, the future of Wessex men appears bleak, as Alfred is in utter despair and the pagan armies have threatened England with their swords and their dangerous ideologies. However, Alfred, his chiefs, and his armies are changed by the intervention of Mary through a twofold vision on the Isle of Athelney and the plains of Ethandune, the setting of their climactic battle. Our Lady’s message of Christian joy and courage inspires Alfred and his chiefs to continue their battle with the Danes against all odds, and her final appearance on the battlefield strengthens Alfred and his armies and leads them to victory.

Our Lady’s appearance to Alfred in Athelney saves him from despair and reminds him of his need for reliance on God, and her message of Christian courage in the face of uncertainty strengthens his will to fight the Danes. Alfred bemoans the loss of his kingdom and the apparent fate of his subjects. Alone in Athelney and hiding from the enemy, he fears that he has been abandoned. He longs for comfort and reassurance, but only sees fit to despair, and cries “shameful tears of rage” at the God who has “wearied of Wessex men.”[1] As he dwells on his losses, he recalls a Marian image from his childhood, and this inspires a much larger vision of Our Lady in the surrounding landscape. In the simplicity of nature he finds comfort and begins to see all things as plainly as a child. Indeed, he remarks, the “very colours”(14) of Mary’s coat, which seem to leap out of the grass at him, are “better than good news,” and at once his mindset begins to evolve. Alfred chooses this moment to speak with Mary, and inquires what the outcome of the war with the Danes will be. This becomes a crucial moment in Alfred’s spiritual transformation, and Mary responds by contrasting the pagan attitude toward adversity with the proper Christian one. While the pagans practice sorcery in an attempt to predict the future, the Christian man goes “gaily in the dark,”(17) overjoyed because he can place his trust in God, no matter the outcome. Furthermore, the “gates of heaven are lightly locked,” and Mary reminds Alfred that he has already been granted all the wisdom for obtaining heavenly victory. This, she reminds him, should be his primary mission. Of course, Alfred is still required to do his part in preserving Christian culture, which is being directly threatened by the pagan ideology of the Danes. Fighting the enemy will be no easy task, and Mary even reveals that the “sky grows darker yet”(18) and “the sea rises higher.” And yet, Alfred, “shaken of the joy of giants,”(21) does not despair, for he has been completely transformed by the causeless mirth and hopeless faith that Mary preaches. Thus, does the image of Mary in Athelney bring spiritual comfort to Alfred, her message of the trust in God and the attainability of heaven save him from complete internal destruction, and her message of Christian courage in the face of insurmountable odds inspire him to continue the fighting the Danes.

Mary’s message of courage in the face of uncertainty inspires Alfred’s three chiefs, Eldred, Mark, and Colan, relieves them of their indifference and doubt, and gives them strength to fight the pagans. Alfred first visits the farm of Eldred, a generous and kind-hearted Saxon. Eldred is a simple man, and prefers to remain among the more certain factors of life: his home, his farm, and his feasting. He has also witnessed the deaths of his friends in battle, and cannot understand why Alfred would engage in a war he will almost certainly lose. Seeing the inevitability of the good king’s defeat, Eldred asks, “Why should my harmless hinds be slain. . .[when]in all fights we fail?” (22-23) Eldred has grown weary of prophecies of victory, and has chosen to settle into his home life and also into a certain indifference. Alfred responds with the Marian message of uncertain victory and hope for heaven. First, the ease Eldred has grown accustomed to will be in short supply, for Mary has promised “no comfort shall ye get,”(23-24) save that the “sky grows darker yet, and the sea rises higher.” Second, if Eldred is to enter into battle with Alfred, it will be to “break and be broken,” not simply for an earthly victory, but for a heavenly cause. This is because the Mother of God calls simple, able men to do the work of preserving Christianity, even in the face of certain defeat. Eldred accepts this mission when from a “cobwebbed nail on high, [he] unhooked his heavy sword.”Alfred also visits the vineyard of Mark, the Italian man of noble blood. Mark is the product of an orderly and advanced civilization, remembers the glorious age of Rome, and keeps what little order he can on his land. A lover of predictability, his long farm lays neatly, “like a painted plan,”(25) and he presents Alfred with a necessary but highly improbable tactical approach. A military man, he sees the improbability of Alfred’s success, saying, “I doubt if you shall take the crown. . .till you have taken London town, for me I have the vines”(27). Mark is reluctant to follow Alfred because he desires more favorable odds, however, Alfred tells Mark that through Mary he has seen “the truth, like fire.” (26) Mary desires Alfred’s men to know that evil forces will not wait for the preparedness of good men, and Mark cannot wait for easier times. Instead, he should face the immediate threat of the Danes.

Although Mark claims that he prefers to remain with his vines, Alfred knows that Mary’s message, and the noble cause for which they fight, will compel Mark to join him at Egbert’s Stone. The last of Alfred’s chiefs is Colan, a Welshman whose love of impossible odds makes Mary’s message highly appealing. Colan is a strong-willed Celt who refuses to fight for the vanity of any man, and he sees Alfred as a fallen king, “not strong enough to fail.” (31) He references men far greater than Alfred who have accepted their own defeat, but who died as legends, and asks why Alfred is not content to do the same. However, to Colan’s surprise, Alfred does not boast of certain victory, nor does he seek his own glory on the battlefield. Instead, the latter declares that they fight to the death in the most impossible odds, and delivers Mary’s message that the “sky grows darker yet, and the sea rises higher.” This part of Mary’s speech appeals to Colan’s untamed nature, and the Welshman responds by declaring that if nature itself be their enemy, then he and Alfred shall wield it together. Although Colan refuses to fight for any man’s pride, he is willing to die in battle alongside the humble Alfred, and embraces the bleak odds presented by Our Lady. With Alfred as her messenger, Mary dissolves the uncertainty of Alfred’s chiefs, and speaks to the simplicity of Eldred, the noble nature of Mark, and the madness of Colan, and prepares them for battle.

At the final battle on the plains of Ethandune, where defeat seems most inevitable, the final vision of Our Lady strengthens Alfred and his men in their final stand against the Danes, resulting in the Christians’ victory. The Christian forces have scattered, are deprived some of their strongest leaders, and have lost all hope of victory. Although he has seemingly lost the battle, Alfred “smiles, but not in scorn,”(92) for he has remained loyal to Mary’s message to the bitter end. As he blows his battle horn, he calls his troops to die as the last brave men of Wessex, rather than to live as slaves under pagan rule. Still, Alfred has words of encouragement: that this remains a “war of men,”(94) and he calls them to contribute to the battle with the strength of their individual skills. As he leads the final charge against the disorderly Danes, and the “last arrow”(96) is “fitted and flown,” Alfred looks up and sees Our Lady once again- this time, as the combined image of suffering and militant strength. She appears standing over the torn and broken flags of the English army, a picture of singular sorrow and sincerity, but even more so, an image of power: a “queen of men.” Within her heart, she holds seven swords, and yet another in her hand. Like Alfred, who has experienced every sorrow humanly possible, this Marian image encourages him to continue fighting despite the army’s great losses. Because of this vision, Alfred is able to successfully defeat Ogier, one of the remaining pagan chiefs, and this turns the battle in favor of the Christians. The remnants of Alfred’s army make one, mad rush at the Danes, and for a moment seem indiscernible from one another. The effect Mary’s vision has on them is powerful- “then bursting all and blasting, came Christendom, like death.” (97)Alfred cries that as she goes over his armies, walking on “wind and flame,”(99) and “dreadful cherubs borne,” the Danes suffer a crushing defeat. Our Lady’s strength has been transferred onto the once weak and disassembled army, and the pagans are ultimately pushed back, forced to surrender to the army of Mary. Though their defeat seemed inevitable, Alfred and his men stayed loyal to Mary’s message, and the combined image of her suffering and strength makes Alfred and his army truly resilient.

Our Lady’s message of Christian joy and courage inspires Alfred and his men to fight, and her appearance at Ethandune has a marked effect on Alfred and his men in the most hopeless of situations. However, before Alfred can battle the Danes, he must conquer his own fears, and through the intercession of Mary he is able to overcome his doubts and fight the pagan with unfounded joy. When Alfred delivers Mary’s message to his three chiefs, they are relieved of their fears and reminded of the true cause for which they fight. Like Alfred, they are reminded that for the preservation of Christendom they must be willing to die for their cause. Finally, at the final battle of Ethandune, Alfred and his troops are transformed by the intervention of Mary, who strengthens them and leads them to victory. Without the intervention of the Mother of God, Alfred and his men would have fought a battle for an earthly kingdom, their focus unattended to a heavenly purpose. Instead, like Mary, their humble beginnings and sufferings conquer evil and bring glory to God.

[1] G.K.Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse(Front Royal, Virginia, Seton Press, 2011),page 13.

All subsequent references will be parenthetically noted in the text.