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    Alfred the Great

    by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
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    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

    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.
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