Bad Chess and Good Theology: G. K. Chesterton’s “Ballad of the White Horse”
By Doug Jackson
“The Ballad of the White Horse,” G. K. Chesterton’s poetic account of the desperate last stand and ultimate victory of King Alfred of Wessex over the vikings, may not qualify as an epic, but it certainly does not qualify as history. Chesterton himself chortles in the opening line of his introduction, “This ballad needs no historical notes, for the simple reason that it does not profess to be historical.” He calls it a ballad but in its sweep and soaring lines, it approaches (for me, at least) epic proportions.
One particularly grips me in this long and lovely war story. Alfred has taken a beating from the Danes and barely holds his small kingdom when the Virgin Mary appears to him. Humbly, Alfred tells Our Lady that he has no desire to pry into any theological mysteries. He asks only some encouragement, some hope of victory at last against the northern terror. Mary’s response both breaks and emboldens my heart every time:
The gates of heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gold,
Men may uproot where worlds begin,
Or read the name of the nameless sin;
But if he fail or if he win
To no good man is told.
That’s red meat and rare to a native Texan raised on the legend of the Alamo! That heritage tends to give one the mindset of C. S. Lewis’ mouse-king Reepicheep who, though a good chess player, occasionally lost because, forgetting that it was a game and not a real battle, exposed pieces to great danger. “For his mind,” Lewis writes, “was full of forlorn hopes, death-or-glory charges, and last stands.”
But beyond the romance, see the elegant theology: God generously reveals God’s nature; God never reveals the future. And this makes sense, because to those who know the character of the God they serve, the ultimate outcome of a specific venture ceases to be of ultimate importance, so long as one offers the present duty before the throne. If a good person offer a good deed to the good God, only good can come of it even if, as Mary says in her only concession to prophecy:
“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.”
And so I close with a prayer, inspired by Chesterton’s epic:
Great God of the desperate battle,
Great God of the hopeless way,
Grant us the madness born of grace
To bear the load and run the race
Not knowing ‘till we see Your face
Why you called us to the fray.
Doug Jackson is a preacher/professor/poet who after a quarter-century in the pastorate now teaches spiritual formation, pastoral ministry, and Greek for the Logsdon Seminary program at the South Texas School of Christian Studies in Corpus Christi. His collection of poetry, Nothing There is Not More, is available from Finishing Line Press.