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Book Review: The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred the Great by Benjamin Merkle

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In The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred the Great, author Benjamin Merkle opens the curtain on a time in the Middle Ages when Anglo-Saxon warriors fought Viking invaders with iron spears and defended themselves with wooden shields. This colorful biography focuses on one of the few medieval rulers who earned “the Great” as a tag to his name.

Alfred the Great lived only 50 years (849-899) but managed to cram an amazing amount of life into that time. Not only did he drive the Viking invaders from large parts of what is now England but he also revamped his army and devised a new way of defending his territory. During times of peace he learned to read Anglo-Saxon and Latin, translated key Latin texts including some works of Augustine and some Bible Psalms into the Anglo-Saxon vernacular, and eventually reworked and wrote a legal code for his kingdom. Three themes within Alfred’s life that Merkle draws our attention to again and again are his love for his country, his desire for wisdom, and his willingness to forgive.

Merkle really gets into the spirit of the times in his descriptions of equipment, appearance and manner of fighting, as well as the Anglo-Saxon customs of the day. Though his writing includes a lot of long, complex sentences, his style seems to fit the subject matter. Here, for example, is the description of the first time Alfred led his men into battle against the Vikings:

"As the two armies closed on each other, the various taunts and jeers of the Viking throng began to coalesce into a steady guttural rumble that rolled down the hillside. The deep rumble grew ever louder until that moment — after a seemingly interminable approach — when the first spear tip drove hard into the defiant sheildwall and the valley shook with the crack of the collision. Every nervous stomach, every quivering hand, every dry tongue, all foreboding fears and presentiments were instantly transformed into resolution and determination and the shieldwall erupted with a deafening war cry." (p. 56.)

How accurate is all this? According to the bibliography, Merkle, as a student of theology and classical languages, got as close to source documents as he could. Besides reading works of general Anglo-Saxon history like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and various biographies of Alfred the Great, Merkle consulted Alfred's own writings. He also credits museums in London, Oxford and Winchester for their displays of artifacts from the time.

Another nice stylistic touch is the inclusion of epigraphs from ancient literature (many of these translated from the Anglo-Saxon, no doubt) at the beginning of each chapter. The book's attractive cover (a detail of "The Vigil" by John Pettie 1839-1893), and design (chapter titles in a calligraphic font with decorative left borders on chapter heading pages) add to the feeling of authenticity. The book also contains a family tree, a chronology of dates, several maps and other black-and-white illustrations, a bibliography, and a detailed index.

Though I found the prose dense and the read slow going in places, on the whole I felt Merkle did a good job of bringing Alfred and the history of his time to life. His admiration for the man is infectious and he never fails to draw attention to the wellspring of Alfred's accomplishments — his Christian faith. This focus takes the story beyond a mere historical tale to an inspirational one as well.

The White Horse King would also be a valuable addition to the library of historians and casual readers. It would also make great supplementary reading for high school and college students studying medieval England.

(I received this book free from Thomas Nelson Publishers as part of their Book Review Blogger program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.)

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