I gravitate to historical books, fiction or fact. The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred the Great was a natural for me.
Benjamin Merkle provides a compete history of not just the man, but also the culture and society of Britain during the 800s. I learned about Alfred’s family, the conditions of the society, the origins of customs, and origins of words. As a finale to the historical account of Alfred’s life, Merkle carefully traces how Alfred brought education to his country and restored Christianity.
The story of King Alfred exemplifies providential history. Some describe Alfred as an unlikely hero. While that may be true, it’s more accurate to say he was an unlikely king. Although the son of a ruling monarch, Alfred was last in line for the throne. Because of the deaths of his older brothers, Alfred rose to throne.
His childhood didn’t prepare him for ruling the kingdom. Being the youngest, it was thought highly unlikely that he would need that training. Alfred was instead a daydreamer of winning battles, which would account for the description as an unlikely hero.
Alfred also enjoyed a good story and poetry. His mother gave him a small book of poetry, which he could not read. But he was able to commit it to memory by having it read to him. This became the foundation for the revival of education and Christianity he spurred later in life.
It did take me a long time to get through this book, though. Merkle writes as a historian would—like he’s writing a history textbook. There was little action or personality to draw me from one chapter to the next. Although the details of fighting the battles were interesting, the scenes were dry and technical. One explanation of battle strategy would have been enough. More action would have intrigued me more.
Merkle also annoyingly goes off on rabbit trails of information. Interrupting the flow with some detail that would be better suited for an endnote. Sometimes I got the feeling that the author wanted to put every bit of his research in the book, but couldn’t quite figure out how to do it smoothly.
For the romantic, there is none to be speak of. Through tales of Lancelot we’ve come to look for tender romances and marriages for this time period. Merkle squelches that notion with details of planned marriages for the sake of political gain or protection from invading Vikings. Some marriages were arranged with royalty in other countries for monetary benefits. Again, he resorted to little rabbit trails that interrupted what might have been a good story.
The White Horse King is an excellent history book for students studying early British history. Through the life of Alfred much is learned about Britian before the smaller kingdoms became one country. Students will also learn how King Alfred brought stability to all of kingdoms with innovative military strategies. Although written as a historical treatise, it has more detail than a typical history text.
For the reader looking for a creative and exciting story, this book is not the one.
The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred the Great
Available for Kindle