Few people know how often history turns on a single event or rested in the will of a single man. Moderns take for granted the liberties they enjoy or bear the chains that burden them without recognizing the fragility of these states. Humanity is frequently unaware that we are but one battle, uprising, or vote from tyranny or freedom. The historian searches the annals of our existences and can warn us against repeating previous folly or, give us hope that even overwhelming odds can be defeated.
Such is the case with Benjamin Merkle’s fine new book The White Horse King. The story of Alfred the Great (the only Anglo Saxon king to earn that sobriquet) stands separated from the dusty, dry accounts that litter the history library. The pages turn themselves as Alfred’s life is detailed with equal accounts of his courage in battle, the sharp tactical mind he brought the arrangement of his kingdom, and the piety that drove it all. The intensity of standing side by side within the shield wall as Ashen spears probe for exposed targets comes off of Merkle’s pages and increases your pulse while you read quickly to see if the threat of defeat becomes a reality. The brief, quiet interludes between skirmishes are spent by Alfred healing but also, seeking the will of God.
The king’s impact on English history may not be well known in our modern age, as more recent Britains such as Churchill come to mind quicker. To understand the import of Alfred’s stand and repulsion of the pagan invaders who were within a breath of conquering and settling England is to recognize the monumental change that this defeat would have had on all of history. Cultural and military history would have tacked much differently had the Vikings been allowed to conquer the Saxons, perhaps delaying even the Christian establishment and its effects for centuries.
The White Horse King reads like a Robert Louis Stevenson adventure mixed with the Nordic sagas of Poul Anderson. The thread of faith winds its way throughout the book but it never reads as proselytizing. Alfred was a man whose faith defined him, his decisions for himself and his people were driven by the Christian values that he held dear. Because the faith was internalized, Alfred does not appear as a man who lines up the Bible against the decision that he wants to make, looking for approval. Instead, the way of Christ has so influenced his heart that we marvel over the distance of time how naturally he applies the paradigm of the Kingdom to the challenges that were forced upon him.
This book was graciously provided by Thomas Nelson for review.