The Ballad of the White Horse: a complete reading for King Alfred’s Day

October 26th is the day the Church remembers Alfred, King and Scholar who founded places of learning, translated Boethius’ consolation of philosophy and strove to preserve the Christian faith in the midst of the pagan Danish invasions. He is also the subject of GK Chesterton’s wonderful poem The Ballad of the White Horse. I recorded a reading of the whole poem back in 2011, on its 100th anniversary, and I thought I would repost it here, with links to the readings, in honour of Alfred’s day.This great poem is as much about modern times as it is a ballad of the days of King Alfred. In 1911 Chesterton foresaw that the modern Nihilism and worship of the ‘superman’ embodied in the writings of Nietzsche together with false worship of race and a cult of violence, would likey wreak unimaginable damage in the new century, as proved to be the case. He also saw that a renewal of the vision of joy and humility that is at the heart of the Christian creed was the only way to resist the death-wish which is the shadow side of our fallen humanity. He wrote a poem at whose heart is a call to courage kindled not by probable chances of success but by what he called ‘the joy without a cause’. Many Englishmen called to combat in the two world wars, went out with this poem in their pockets and were greatly strengthened by it. The Times quoted it twice in leaders each at key points in the second world war; “nought for your comfort” was the leader headline after the disaster of Crete and Alfred’s great cry ‘The high tide’ and the turn’ was the headline after the D Day landings. And yet this poem, once so centrally part of the national consciousness, is now hardly known at all or read, but its time must suely come again.

Chesterton had a big influence on the Inklings, the writers who clustered around Tolkien and Lewis and there are a number of echoes between the Ballad of the White Horse and the Lord of the Rings. Especially the descriptions of Colan the Celt and his people, who, like the elves, are always haunted by the sound of the sea and have their hearts in an undying land. Likewise the detail of battle in which Alfred and his Celtic allies are sundered and the Celts, given up for lost, re-emerge as though they were the armies of the dead and put their foes to flight, that meeting on the field of battle against all odds is very like the events on the fields of the Pelanor. But perhaps the greatest similarity is in the ending of the two tales. In the final book of the Ballad, ‘The Scouring of the Horse’ Chesterton deals with the problem of the peace, the problem that after winning on the battle the wariors find corruption at home and have to confront evil in another form and in their own native place. Whilst Alfred leaves Wessex to confront the Danes in London the weeds are allowed to grow over the White Horse and at this point Chesterton gives Alfred a vision of the future and calls England to an eternal vigilance. I think the very namng, let alone the plot features, of Tolkien’s ‘Scouring of the Shire’ are derived from this.

Here’s a quick youtube video of me reading some verses from the first part and setting the scene, then below that are the links for you to download audio of my reading of the whole poem:

You can read and download the entire text of the poem here, though better still buy an old hardback copy. They are very cheap and still widely available.

My reading of each of the episodes can be found through the links below and you will find, on my podomatic page, that I have also given a brief introduction to each book. I have left the settings so that the episodes can be downloaded, so you can listen to them off line or even, if you wish, burn them to a cd and use them to while away the hours on long car journeys! I hope you enjoy them, let me know what you think.

The Ballad of the White Horse, read by Malcolm Guite:

The Dedication

Book I The Vision of the King

Book II The Gathering of the Chiefs

Book III The Harp of Alfred

Book IV The Woman in the Forest

Book V Ethandune: The First Stroke

Book VI Ethandune: The Slaying of the Chiefs

Book VII Ethandune: The Last Charge

Book VIII The Scouring of the Horse

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Filed under christianity, imagination, literature, Poems

16 responses to “The Ballad of the White Horse: a complete reading for King Alfred’s Day

  1. Robert

    I’m a trainee history teacher at the moment, and have already have had the pleasure of teaching a couple of lessons about King Alfred. If he hadn’t successfully resisted Viking conquest, England would have become a very different place!

  2. Alice Hornbeck

    All I can say is WoW! Thanks for telling us about this. I learn so much from you. Am so grateful.

    • malcolmguite

      Thanks. Hope you enjoy the recordings if you get time M

      • Alice Hornbeck

        I did listen to part of a recording and ordered the book and now reading. You are a very good reader. I was absolutely enchanted thinking about worlds before worlds. Problem. My mind wanders off and I miss what is being read next. But after I have read more, I am going to go back and listen. The poetry is enchanting. It has such aptness, truth and beauty. It reminds me of Beowulf to which I strangely relate. You, among so many things, are an education.

      • malcolmguite

        Thanks Alice I’m glad it’s hitting the spot!

      • Alice Hornbeck

        What reminds me of Beowulf is the starkness of the situation and the nobility, should I say courage and modesty, of the people who respond against the evil.

      • malcolmguite

        Yes indeed

  3. This may be far more relevant than we know!

  4. eleanor h prugh

    Thank you for this gift, Malcolm. Never would I have known. Education is a piecemeal thing. I’ve been told some of my far back ancestors are those Danes, thankfully ameliorated by many flavors of “true” English. Then we ventured across the ocean.

  5. This is a wonderful gift you have given us! I have in the past invested in two different recordings of the Ballad, after visiting the Horse and getting caught by its romance. The first recording was Chesterton reading it himself. They were both terribly scratchy and very hard to get through… I’m not sure I ever did!

    It will be lovely to listen to you reading in your loving and lovely voice. Thank you!!

  6. Malcolm, at your urging I purchased a copy of THe Ballad of the White Horse last year, I believe from Abe Books. It has languished however, waiting for someone to unlock the language and add some background. You have done both. I’ll look to downloading and listening to the readings later. Thank you!

  7. Pingback: After Athelney | branchlines

  8. Pingback: The Scouring of the White Horse – Covenant

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