The Ballad of the White Horse, by Chesterton, G. K.

Book V

Ethandune: The First Stroke

King Guthrum was a dread king,

Like death out of the north;

Shrines without name or number

He rent and rolled as lumber,

From Chester to the Humber

He drove his foemen forth.

The Roman villas heard him

In the valley of the Thames,

Come over the hills roaring

Above their roofs, and pouring

On spire and stair and flooring

Brimstone and pitch and flames.

Sheer o’er the great chalk uplands

And the hill of the Horse went he,

Till high on Hampshire beacons

He saw the southern sea.

High on the heights of Wessex

He saw the southern brine,

And turned him to a conquered land,

And where the northern thornwoods stand,

And the road parts on either hand,

There came to him a sign.

King Guthrum was a war-chief,

A wise man in the field,

And though he prospered well, and knew

How Alfred’s folk were sad and few,

Not less with weighty care he drew

Long lines for pike and shield.

King Guthrum lay on the upper land,

On a single road at gaze,

And his foe must come with lean array,

Up the left arm of the cloven way,

To the meeting of the ways.

And long ere the noise of armour,

An hour ere the break of light,

The woods awoke with crash and cry,

And the birds sprang clamouring harsh and high,

And the rabbits ran like an elves’ army

Ere Alfred came in sight.

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.

But halted in the woodways

Christ’s few were grim and grey,

And each with a small, far, bird-like sight

Saw the high folly of the fight;

And though strange joys had grown in the night,

Despair grew with the day.

And when white dawn crawled through the wood,

Like cold foam of a flood,

Then weakened every warrior’s mood,

In hope, though not in hardihood;

And each man sorrowed as he stood

In the fashion of his blood.

For the Saxon Franklin sorrowed

For the things that had been fair;

For the dear dead woman, crimson-clad,

And the great feasts and the friends he had;

But the Celtic prince’s soul was sad

For the things that never were.

In the eyes Italian all things

But a black laughter died;

And Alfred flung his shield to earth

And smote his breast and cried —

“I wronged a man to his slaying,

And a woman to her shame,

And once I looked on a sworn maid

That was wed to the Holy Name.

“And once I took my neighbour’s wife,

That was bound to an eastland man,

In the starkness of my evil youth,

Before my griefs began.

“People, if you have any prayers,

Say prayers for me:

And lay me under a Christian stone

In that lost land I thought my own,

To wait till the holy horn is blown,

And all poor men are free.”

Then Eldred of the idle farm

Leaned on his ancient sword,

As fell his heavy words and few;

And his eyes were of such alien blue

As gleams where the Northman saileth new

Into an unknown fiord.

“I was a fool and wasted ale —

My slaves found it sweet;

I was a fool and wasted bread,

And the birds had bread to eat.

“The kings go up and the kings go down,

And who knows who shall rule;

Next night a king may starve or sleep,

But men and birds and beasts shall weep

At the burial of a fool.

“O, drunkards in my cellar,

Boys in my apple tree,

The world grows stern and strange and new,

And wise men shall govern you,

And you shall weep for me.

“But yoke me my own oxen,

Down to my own farm;

My own dog will whine for me,

My own friends will bend the knee,

And the foes I slew openly

Have never wished me harm.”

And all were moved a little,

But Colan stood apart,

Having first pity, and after

Hearing, like rat in rafter,

That little worm of laughter

That eats the Irish heart.

And his grey-green eyes were cruel,

And the smile of his mouth waxed hard,

And he said, “And when did Britain

Become your burying-yard?

“Before the Romans lit the land,

When schools and monks were none,

We reared such stones to the sun-god

As might put out the sun.

“The tall trees of Britain

We worshipped and were wise,

But you shall raid the whole land through

And never a tree shall talk to you,

Though every leaf is a tongue taught true

And the forest is full of eyes.

“On one round hill to the seaward

The trees grow tall and grey

And the trees talk together

When all men are away.

“O’er a few round hills forgotten

The trees grow tall in rings,

And the trees talk together

Of many pagan things.

“Yet I could lie and listen

With a cross upon my clay,

And hear unhurt for ever

What the trees of Britain say.”

A proud man was the Roman,

His speech a single one,

But his eyes were like an eagle’s eyes

That is staring at the sun.

“Dig for me where I die,” he said,

“If first or last I fall —

Dead on the fell at the first charge,

Or dead by Wantage wall;

“Lift not my head from bloody ground,

Bear not my body home,

For all the earth is Roman earth

And I shall die in Rome.”

Then Alfred, King of England,

Bade blow the horns of war,

And fling the Golden Dragon out,

With crackle and acclaim and shout,

Scrolled and aflame and far.

And under the Golden Dragon

Went Wessex all along,

Past the sharp point of the cloven ways,

Out from the black wood into the blaze

Of sun and steel and song.

And when they came to the open land

They wheeled, deployed and stood;

Midmost were Marcus and the King,

And Eldred on the right-hand wing,

And leftwards Colan darkling,

In the last shade of the wood.

But the Earls of the Great Army

Lay like a long half moon,

Ten poles before their palisades,

With wide-winged helms and runic blades

Red giants of an age of raids,

In the thornland of Ethandune.

Midmost the saddles rose and swayed,

And a stir of horses’ manes,

Where Guthrum and a few rode high

On horses seized in victory;

But Ogier went on foot to die,

In the old way of the Danes.

Far to the King’s left Elf the bard

Led on the eastern wing

With songs and spells that change the blood;

And on the King’s right Harold stood,

The kinsman of the King.

Young Harold, coarse, with colours gay,

Smoking with oil and musk,

And the pleasant violence of the young,

Pushed through his people, giving tongue

Foewards, where, grey as cobwebs hung,

The banners of the Usk.

But as he came before his line

A little space along,

His beardless face broke into mirth,

And he cried: “What broken bits of earth

Are here? For what their clothes are worth

I would sell them for a song.”

For Colan was hung with raiment

Tattered like autumn leaves,

And his men were all as thin as saints,

And all as poor as thieves.

No bows nor slings nor bolts they bore,

But bills and pikes ill-made;

And none but Colan bore a sword,

And rusty was its blade.

And Colan’s eyes with mystery

And iron laughter stirred,

And he spoke aloud, but lightly

Not labouring to be heard.

“Oh, truly we be broken hearts,

For that cause, it is said,

We light our candles to that Lord

That broke Himself for bread.

“But though we hold but bitterly

What land the Saxon leaves,

Though Ireland be but a land of saints,

And Wales a land of thieves,

“I say you yet shall weary

Of the working of your word,

That stricken spirits never strike

Nor lean hands hold a sword.

“And if ever ye ride in Ireland,

The jest may yet be said,

There is the land of broken hearts,

And the land of broken heads.”

Not less barbarian laughter

Choked Harold like a flood,

“And shall I fight with scarecrows

That am of Guthrum’s blood?

“Meeting may be of war-men,

Where the best war-man wins;

But all this carrion a man shoots

Before the fight begins.”

And stopping in his onward strides,

He snatched a bow in scorn

From some mean slave, and bent it on

Colan, whose doom grew dark; and shone

Stars evil over Caerleon,

In the place where he was born.

For Colan had not bow nor sling,

On a lonely sword leaned he,

Like Arthur on Excalibur

In the battle by the sea.

To his great gold ear-ring Harold

Tugged back the feathered tail,

And swift had sprung the arrow,

But swifter sprang the Gael.

Whirling the one sword round his head,

A great wheel in the sun,

He sent it splendid through the sky,

Flying before the shaft could fly —

It smote Earl Harold over the eye,

And blood began to run.

Colan stood bare and weaponless,

Earl Harold, as in pain,

Strove for a smile, put hand to head,

Stumbled and suddenly fell dead;

And the small white daisies all waxed red

With blood out of his brain.

And all at that marvel of the sword,

Cast like a stone to slay,

Cried out. Said Alfred: “Who would see

Signs, must give all things. Verily

Man shall not taste of victory

Till he throws his sword away.”

Then Alfred, prince of England,

And all the Christian earls,

Unhooked their swords and held them up,

Each offered to Colan, like a cup

Of chrysolite and pearls.

And the King said, “Do thou take my sword

Who have done this deed of fire,

For this is the manner of Christian men,

Whether of steel or priestly pen,

That they cast their hearts out of their ken

To get their heart’s desire.

“And whether ye swear a hive of monks,

Or one fair wife to friend,

This is the manner of Christian men,

That their oath endures the end.

“For love, our Lord, at the end of the world,

Sits a red horse like a throne,

With a brazen helm and an iron bow,

But one arrow alone.

“Love with the shield of the Broken Heart

Ever his bow doth bend,

With a single shaft for a single prize,

And the ultimate bolt that parts and flies

Comes with a thunder of split skies,

And a sound of souls that rend.

“So shall you earn a king’s sword,

Who cast your sword away.”

And the King took, with a random eye,

A rude axe from a hind hard by

And turned him to the fray.

For the swords of the Earls of Daneland

Flamed round the fallen lord.

The first blood woke the trumpet-tune,

As in monk’s rhyme or wizard’s rune,

Beginneth the battle of Ethandune

With the throwing of the sword.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30