In the dark days of World War I, British soldiers carried with them in the trenches an epic poem they treasured deeply. It cast a spiritual meaning to the war, providing a national and religious icon. G.K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse retold the AD 878 victory of Alfred the Great over the Vikings — Germanic heathens — as a battle of Christianity against paganism. Chesterton’s depiction of Alfred’s childlike faith and persistence in the face of certain defeat inspired troops to defend homeland and sacred tradition.
Chesterton portrayed the White Horse, a prehistoric drawing across the hills of Uffington, England, as an eternal figure looking on at the rise and fall of pagan deities and civilizations. The approaching enemies, Guthrum and his Danish chieftains, were “a Christless chivalry: who knew not of the arch or pen.” After King Alfred defeats the pagans, he predicts a forthcoming foe without deadly weapons, “but books be all their eating, and ink be on their hands.”
Nestled between these descriptions of apparent pagan illiteracy is a startling claim from Alfred, who disguises himself as a minstrel to spy on the enemy. Noticing the neglect of the White Horse Vale — which must be routinely scoured to prevent weeds from distorting the image — and the fatalistic worldview of the Danish chieftains, Alfred asserts that “it is only Christian men guard even heathen things.”
What Chesterton is targeting with his faux-prophecy is not mere illiteracy, but the mindless consumption of stories which misses the transcendent reality of God’s presence in the world. In Chesterton’s mind, Christians alone possess the ability to make sense of why prehistoric men drew horses in the grass and, more importantly, the power of understanding stories as pointing to the truth of the gospel.
‘The only way back from the darkness’
“Stories help us understand life and other people, and the fantastical and fictional elements often give us eyes to see things we have missed about how magical the real world is,” said James M. Hamilton Jr., associate professor of biblical theology at Southern Seminary.
In his sermons at Kenwood Baptist Church and lectures in the seminary classroom, Hamilton frequently draws illustrations from Christian literary fiction, but also finds inspiration in secular novels like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
“Reading stories forces us to exercise our empathy and imagination muscles, and that helps us conceive what the Bible depicts or demands, helps us connect with others, helps us illustrate what the text teaches, and helps us apply the text’s truths,” Hamilton said.
Recently, I experienced Andrew Peterson’s fantasy epic The Wingfeather Saga. I say “experienced” because the act of reading the tale of the Jewels of Anneria threw me headlong into their adventure and immersed me in the world of Aerwiar. As I accompanied siblings Janner, Kalmar, and Leeli on their thrilling journey, I was often unaware of my physical surroundings. And yet, the story sunk into the recesses of my soul to reveal my true condition and spiritual yearnings I had long ignored.
What is it about stories and their tendency to captivate the reader? More importantly, what is it about stories and their ability to explore deep gospel truths and uncover the wonder of our seemingly ordinary lives?
“Stories are kind of subversive,” said Peterson in a recent interview with Towers. “If it’s a good story, then it casts a kind of spell, and you suspend disbelief and you enter into the story, you cross a kind of threshold. And once you’re inside the story, who knows what can happen?”
Peterson first established his reputation as a singer-songwriter, releasing a dozen albums since 1996. Peterson’s penchant for telling stories in short form, he said, prompted him to explore writing novels after reading C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia to his children.
“Christians, of all people, should pay attention to the power inherent in stories,” said Peterson, because “God chose to express himself to us” through the grand story of Scripture.
In his children’s fantasy epic, Peterson weaves a beautiful and thrilling tale not only of the power of brotherly love and self-sacrifice but of stories and their ability to awaken in oneself a sense of purpose and meaning in life.
This notion comes to the forefront of the story when brothers Janner and Kalmar encounter misshapen beasts in the forest who resisted the temptation of Gnag the Nameless to transform into his minions — the dreaded Fangs of Dang.
For the Fangs who committed their allegiance to Gnag, they were given new names and forgot the stories of who they once were. As the reader learns in the first book, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, Fangs are incapable of appreciating the ordinary wonders of life — beautiful music, tasty food, entertaining stories. But the misshapen beasts Janner and Kalmar encounter cling to the remnants of their true identity.
“We all forget from time to time, and so we need each other to tell us our stories. Sometimes a story is the only way back from the darkness,” says Queen Arundelle, the tree creature who rules over the beasts. As another character says, the arrival of the Throne Warden Janner and High King Kalmar “awakens the hope that our story is not over.”
In Chesterton’s epic, Alfred’s childlike faith rested in a holy conviction worth fighting for and persisted despite continual setbacks spelling imminent defeat. Likewise in Peterson’s saga, its investigation of the devastating ruin of sin causes the Jewels of Anneria to struggle with the uncertainty of their fate. Their inner struggles of doubt and fear, however, precipitate the faith and hope of ultimate victory.
“If you want to tell a story that reminds you that there is something greater than the darkness, you have to fully acknowledge the weight of that brokenness,” said Peterson, “to show the full weight of the grace of God and his beauty and mercy.”
No one — and that is absolutely no one — is beyond saving in Peterson’s saga, and the story of one’s true identity and the free grace of redemption are uplifted as the hope for every creature in Aerwiar.
“What I want is for the kids to close my book with an assurance that there is something in the world that is stronger than the darkness in the world,” Peterson said. “Because it’s scary to be a human.”
‘The sudden joyous turn’
On Nov. 10, 1942, the Allies were on the verge of securing a major victory in the Second Battle of El Alamein along the coast of Egypt, marking the turning point of World War II. During a famous speech that day, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared it was the “end of the beginning.”
When The Times ran the story the next day, the London newspaper quoted a memorable line from the Battle of Ethandune in Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse: “‘The high tide!’ King Alfred cried. ‘The high tide and the turn!’” Alfred’s persistence and faith was rewarded with divine aid, enabling him to clinch victory and bring about the Danish king’s Christian conversion at the sight of the cross.
Thus, the essence of the gospel in storytelling is a “sudden joyous turn,” what J.R.R. Tolkien terms the “eucatastrophe.” In his essay “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, contends all stories with joyous endings find ultimate fulfillment in the story of Scripture:
The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. … But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.”
In a similar essay, “Myth Became Fact,” Tolkien’s friend and colleague C.S. Lewis contrasts the historical reality of the Incarnation with the abstract, yet parallel, mythologies created elsewhere in ancient cultures. This should not alarm Christians, according to Lewis, but rather affirm the universal significance of Christ and the removal of a stumbling block in those cultures.
“The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact,” Lewis writes. “To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths.”
This intertwining of myth and fact, Lewis writes, claims “not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight.”
Here the thrust of Chesterton’s vision of the White Horse Vale comes into full view. Alfred, and Chesterton as well, revere the White Horse drawing not because of its prehistoric existence but because it casts light upon the God whose story is written across the universe. Only Christians can be truly nourished from the power of storytelling, which directs light from a faroff country to mend our broken souls.
The challenge for Christians today is not merely to read literature, lest they fulfill Alfred’s prophecy and mindlessly devour books, but to embrace them with a spirit of childlike wonder captivated by the beauty of grace and hope of ultimate victory.