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Alfred the Great

The celebrations in connection with the millenary of King Alfred struck
a note of sympathy in the midst of much that was unsympathetic, because,
altogether apart from any peculiar historical opinions, all men feel the
sanctifying character of that which is at once strong and remote; the
ancient thing is always the most homely, and the distant thing the most
near. The only possible peacemaker is a dead man, ever since by the
sublime religious story a dead man only could reconcile heaven and
earth. In a certain sense we always feel the past ages as human, and our
own age as strangely and even weirdly dehumanised. In our own time the
details overpower us; men's badges and buttons seem to grow larger and
larger as in a horrible dream. To study humanity in the present is like
studying a mountain with a magnifying glass; to study it in the past is
like studying it through a telescope.

For this reason England, like every other great and historic nation, has
sought its typical hero in remote and ill-recorded times. The personal
and moral greatness of Alfred is, indeed, beyond question. It does not
depend any more than the greatness of any other human hero upon the
accuracy of any or all of the stories that are told about him. Alfred
may not have done one of the things which are reported of him, but it is
immeasurably easier to do every one of those things than to be the man
of whom such things are reported falsely. Fable is, generally speaking,
far more accurate than fact, for fable describes a man as he was to his
own age, fact describes him as he is to a handful of inconsiderable
antiquarians many centuries after. Whether Alfred watched the cakes for
the neat-herd's wife, whether he sang songs in the Danish camp, is of no
interest to anyone except those who set out to prove under considerable
disadvantages that they are genealogically descended from him. But the
man is better pictured in these stories than in any number of modern
realistic trivialities about his favourite breakfast and his favourite
musical composer. Fable is more historical than fact, because fact tells
us about one man and fable tells us about a million men. If we read of a
man who could make green grass red and turn the sun into the moon, we
may not believe these particular details about him, but we learn
something infinitely more important than such trivialities, the fact
that men could look into his face and believe it possible. The glory and
greatness of Alfred, therefore, is like that of all the heroes of the
morning of the world, set far beyond the chance of that strange and
sudden dethronement which may arise from the unsealing of a manuscript
or the turning over of a stone. Men may have told lies when they said
that he first entrapped the Danes with his song and then overcame them
with his armies, but we know very well that it is not of us that such
lies are told. There may be myths clustering about each of our
personalities; local saga-men and chroniclers have very likely
circulated the story that we are addicted to drink, or that we
ferociously ill-use our wives. But they do not commonly lie to the
effect that we have shed our blood to save all the inhabitants of the
street. A story grows easily, but a heroic story is not a very easy
thing to evoke. Wherever that exists we may be pretty certain that we
are in the presence of a dark but powerful historic personality. We are
in the presence of a thousand lies all pointing with their fantastic
fingers to one undiscovered truth.

Upon this ground alone every encouragement is due to the cult of Alfred.
Every nation requires to have behind it some historic personality, the
validity of which is proved, as the validity of a gun is proved, by its
long range. It is wonderful and splendid that we treasure, not the
truth, but the very gossip about a man who died a thousand years ago. We
may say to him, as M. Rostand says to the Austrian Prince:

"Dors, ce n'est pas toujours la Légende qui ment:
Une rêve est parfois moins trompeur qu'un document."

To have a man so simple and so honourable to represent us in the
darkness of primeval history, binds all the intervening centuries
together, and mollifies all their monstrosities. It makes all history
more comforting and intelligible; it makes the desolate temple of the
ages as human as an inn parlour.

But whether it come through reliable facts or through more reliable
falsehoods the personality of Alfred has its own unmistakable colour and
stature. Lord Rosebery uttered a profound truth when he said that that
personality was peculiarly English. The great magnificence of the
English character is expressed in the word "service." There is, perhaps,
no nation so vitally theocratical as the English; no nation in which the
strong men have so consistently preferred the instrumental to the
despotic attitude, the pleasures of the loyal to the pleasures of the
royal position. We have had tyrants like Edward I. and Queen Elizabeth,
but even our tyrants have had the worried and responsible air of
stewards of a great estate. Our typical hero is such a man as the Duke
of Wellington, who had every kind of traditional and external arrogance,
but at the back of all that the strange humility which made it
physically possible for him without a gleam of humour or discomfort to
go on his knees to a preposterous bounder like George IV. Across the
infinite wastes of time and through all the mists of legend we still
feel the presence in Alfred of this strange and unconscious
self-effacement. After the fullest estimate of our misdeeds we can still
say that our very despots have been less self-assertive than many
popular patriots. As we consider these things we grow more and more
impatient of any modern tendencies towards the enthronement of a more
self-conscious and theatrical ideal. Lord Rosebery called up before our
imaginations the picture of what Alfred would have thought of the vast
modern developments of his nation, its immense fleet, its widespread
Empire, its enormous contribution to the mechanical civilisation of the
world. It cannot be anything but profitable to conceive Alfred as full
of astonishment and admiration at these things; it cannot be anything
but good for us that we should realise that to the childlike eyes of a
great man of old time our inventions and appliances have not the
vulgarity and ugliness that we see in them. To Alfred a steamboat would
be a new and sensational sea-dragon, and the penny postage a miracle
achieved by the despotism of a demi-god.

But when we have realised all this there is something more to be said in
connection with Lord Rosebery's vision. What would King Alfred have said
if he had been asked to expend the money which he devoted to the health
and education of his people upon a struggle with some race of Visigoths
or Parthians inhabiting a small section of a distant continent? What
would he have said if he had known that that science of letters which he
taught to England would eventually be used not to spread truth, but to
drug the people with political assurances as imbecile in themselves as
the assurance that fire does not burn and water does not drown? What
would he have said if the same people who, in obedience to that ideal of
service and sanity of which he was the example, had borne every
privation in order to defeat Napoleon, should come at last to find no
better compliment to one of their heroes than to call him the Napoleon
of South Africa? What would he have said if that nation for which he had
inaugurated a long line of incomparable men of principle should forget
all its traditions and coquette with the immoral mysticism of the man of
destiny?

Let us follow these things by all means if we find them good, and can
see nothing better. But to pretend that Alfred would have admired them
is like pretending that St. Dominic would have seen eye to eye with Mr.
Bradlaugh, or that Fra Angelico would have revelled in the posters of
Mr. Aubrey Beardsley. Let us follow them if we will, but let us take
honestly all the disadvantages of our change; in the wildest moment of
triumph let us feel the shadow upon our glories of the shame of the
great king.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton


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