Friday, October 19, 2012

Greatness

It’s October and that means I’m thinking about Alfred the Great whose feast day is on the 26th.  We’re enjoying our tradition of reading Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse, my favorite long poetic work, which is about Alfred – the only English king to be called “the Great” – and his struggle to stop the Danish invaders. This is not a retelling of historical events in verse, but an epic poem of the legendary Alfred, portraying the eternal conflict between Christian faith and pagan nihilism.

It is layer upon layer of truth and beauty, and greatness. I think this is our fifth time to read it, and every time I find a new gem, which is one reason it’s so important to be deeply familiar with a few great works.

The passage that stands out the most to me this time is from Book II: The Gathering of the Chiefs. In Book I, Alfred had a vision of Mary in which he asked whether he would succeed in driving out the pagan invaders. She refused to answer him, saying only that it would get worse and he must be brave. In Book II, Alfred has been to Eldred, a chief who is of Saxon descent, and Mark, of Roman blood. He now comes to Colan, who is Welsh and Irish, representing the pre-Roman Britons. I’ve shared before the passage where Colan is introduced to us. Here is Alfred’s encounter with him:


Lifting the great green ivy
    And the great spear lowering,
One said, “I am Alfred of Wessex,
    And I am a conquered king.”

And the man of the cave made answer,
    And his eyes were stars of scorn,
“And better kings were conquered
    Or ever your sires were born.

“What goddess was your mother,
    What fay your breed begot,
That you should not die with Uther
    And Arthur and Lancelot?

“But when you win you brag and blow,
    And when you lose you rail,
Army of eastland yokels
    Not strong enough to fail.”

“I bring not boast or railing,”
    Spake Alfred not in ire,
“I bring of Our Lady a lesson set,
This—that the sky grows darker yet
    And the sea rises higher.”

Then Colan of the Sacred Tree
    Tossed his black mane on high,
And cried, as rigidly he rose,
“And if the sea and sky be foes,
    We will tame the sea and sky.”
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Look at that again:

“But when you win you brag and blow,
    And when you lose you rail,
Army of eastland yokels
    Not strong enough to fail.”
After we finished reading Book Two, I went back and read that passage over again to my children. It is said that if you want to know what something is, one thing you should do is learn what it is not. Alfred does not respond in anger, but humbly accepts the rebuke and proves proves his greatness by stating that he’s planning on continuing the fight, even if it ultimately ends in defeat.

If you read yesterday’s post, you’ll know that I need these lessons myself as much as, if not more than, my children.


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The Ballad of the White Horse is available online for free at Gutenberg.com and for Kindle, but I highly recommend the hardback by Ignatius Press, especially if you’re going to be reading it over and over again, which of course you should. This copy is elegantly laid out, uses a simple and beautiful font, and is generously illustrated with woodcuts by Robert Austin. The introduction gives a brief historical note on the events in the poem as well as some discussion of the poem itself, and contains a photograph of the actual white horse, which is cut into the turf on the side of a hill and filled with chalk – it’s nearly 400 feet long and its age is unknown. When the Romans asked the Britons about it, they said that when their people first arrived it was already there, and the people who were there before them did not know who had made it. This copy of the book also has a lot of end notes with helpful and interesting tidbits, but there are no notes in the text itself, so you’re not distracted by them while reading.

Also helpful is Benjamin Merkle's biography, The White Horse King (also available for Kindle).


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Previous entries on Alfred the Great:

Alfred the Great post from the 26th of October, 2005; history, prayers, and lots of cool links; don’t miss it!

Three selections from Poetry Month 2008:
The Way of the Cross (Mary’s answer to Alfred, when he asked whether he would prevail over the enemy)
The Great Gaels of Ireland (where Colan is introduced)
The King’s Laughter (from the episode of the old woman and burnt cakes)

All my posts where he’s mentioned are filed under the Alfred the Great label

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I'm an Amazon Affiliate.  If you click through the links to The Ballad of the White Horse and buy it, I'll earn a little bit for advertising on my blog.

3 comments :

  1. This is so beautiful. Thanks for highlighting and discussing that part.

    I love that word, ire, 'ira'... and spake... and the 'tossed his black mane on high'

    Who would have thought I would be able to understand this poem enough as to enjoy it!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. or enjoy it enough as to understand it? LOL

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    2. I think it works both ways, plus you understand English better than lots of native speakers. I think you'd love the whole thing and I doubt you'd have any trouble with it at all -- that book you're reading now is probably harder to follow than this is!

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