Book Review: The White Horse

Miles, David. The Land of the White Horse: Visions of England. (London: Thames and Hudson, 2019)

“We’ll run the course/ From Stonehenge up to Uffington,/ On a white chalk horse we’ll ride . . .” So sang the band Uffington Horse. The real thing is not quite as mythical, perhaps. It is world famous, and is set in a very, very old landscape, one where people have been leaving traces for tens of thousands of years. The horse is prehistoric . . . or is it? That question kept academics busy for over a century. Although the matter has now been settled, others mysteries remain. David Miles explores that question and others, and considers the role of the horse in life in Eurasian religion and politics since the Indo-Europeans first domesticated them. In the process he covers ground from Scythia to Scandinavia to England. Miles also considers the land under the White Horse, and how people have understood the form, perhaps. Some things we moderns will never know, and he’s upfront about that.

The book begins with the first popularization of the White Horse of Uffington, and questions about its age and history. He then takes us through the archaeology and how questions about the age of the chalk figure were, at last, answered.

From there Miles goes back, to the first images of horses. He follows the story of horses, people, and art from the steppes to the bogs of northern Europe and on to England, or what would become England. Some of this is familiar to those who have read about language and migration history, or horses in society. Miles does a fantastic job placing things in context, and telling the story for non-specialists.

One very important point Miles makes is that the Uffington Horse exists in a landscape. Around the figure are prehistoric, Roman, Saxon, and later ruins, graves, and roads. The horse does not exist in a vacuum, and the setting and structures can tell us a great deal about how people understood the horse.

Because that might be the most important part of the story. The White Horse of Uffington survived for 2500 years, because people took care of it. Each wave of peoples who settled in the area following the first creation of the horse kept it clean, renewed the chalk, and preserved it. Why? What did they see in the form? How did they understand it? We don’t always know, although we can make some good guesses. Obviously it was important. Exactly why changed over the centuries as people understood the figure in different ways and gave it different meanings.

Miles writes very well and tells an entertaining story. If you are interested in archaeology and antiquities, English history, mythology, or history and memory, this is a wonderful book. It gets a bit slow in places, but that might just be me, and the slow sections give way to more interesting ones. When Miles describes the landscape, you are there standing on the crest of the ridge as mist fills the dry valley and the horse runs on clouds.

FTC Notice: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration from author or publisher for this review.

For those curious about the song quoted at the start of the review:

11 thoughts on “Book Review: The White Horse

  1. For any here who’ve not read it, there’s Chesterton’s =Ballad of the White Horse=. There are places you’ll never forget, and long sections of slower going, but the the visions that Chesterton gave King Alfred are haunting, and perfectly reflect the First Century After Gilbert. -And this shall be the sign of them: The sign of the dying fire. And man made like a halfwit That knows not of his Sire.-

  2. In the summer of 1976, my younger brother and sister and I hitchiked from where were staying at a youth hostel in Swindon to see the White Horse, and the earthworks of Uffington Castle, and Wayland’s Smithy … it was a glorious afternoon, as we hiked along the Ridgeway for a good distance, and had a pub lunch in a little village pub. It was a lovely afternoon, all along the crest of the hill above the golden lowlands. There were so many historic spots within a stone throw…

    • And I found the post that I wrote about visiting the White Horse – http://www.celiahayes.com/archives/368

      “But the one old tale that Granny Dodie told, the one that stayed my memory, especially when Pip and JP and I spent the summer of 1976 discovering (or re-discovering) our roots was this one:

      “There are places,” she said, ” Out in the country, they are, where there are stone stairways in the hillsides, going down to doorways… but they are just the half the size they should be. They are all perfectly set and carved… but for the size of people half the size we are. And no one knows where they lead.”

      Into the land of the Little People, the Fair Folk, living in the hollow hills, of course, and the half-sized stairways lead down into their world, a world fair and terrible, filled with faerie, the old gods, giants and monsters and the old ways, a world half-hidden, but always tantalizingly just around the corner, or down the half-sized stairway into the hidden hills, and sometimes we mundane mortals could come close enough to brush against that unseen world of possibilities.”

  3. I’d somehow managed to forget that band, though somehow the song seems very familiar. I’ve ordered the CD, and most likely after it arrives I’ll be unpacking a moving box and find a copy of the CD sitting in its shrink-wrap, acquired back-in-the-day and misfiled.
    Digressing, I notice that heatherlands.com seems to have gone dark, and that Heather’s successor entity has been re-recording some of her albums. Is she to be erased from memory?

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