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“Ruthwell Cross” by unknown artist. Wikimedia Commons.

Introduction

by Jerson Valenzuela

 

The Dream of the Rood is an Old English poem that was written by an anonymous author and details the Passion of Christ from the perspective of the cross (or “Rood”) itself (Gray). Fragments of the poem were found on the 8th century Ruthwell Cross and the entire poem is found, in translation below, in the Vercelli Book which dates back to the 10th century (Gray).

This poem was written as a “dream vision” or “visio” which was a common framing device in early medieval literature (“Dream Vision”) wherein the narrator receives knowledge or truth as he sleeps. The poem may have been composed as a way of appealing to “heathen” Vikings by depicting Christ as a warrior fighting against sin and death on the cross. The personified cross acts as Christ’s “thane” here, that is, a brave warrior who is loyal to his king even until death. Heroism and loyalty were two common themes in Old English literature that carried over from the Germanic myths that were brought to the British Isles by the Anglo-Saxons. The poem, for the purposes of study, is often divided into three parts: the introductory section, the speech of the cross, and the closing section (“Dream of the Rood”).

 

Summary

The narrator begins by saying what he saw during the night as he dreamt; before him was the cross, hovering in the air. It was covered in gems, gold, and “treasure adorned.” The speaker also states that through the glint of gold, he sees a “wretched hostility” and blood on “on the right side.” As time passes, once again the dreamer states that the cross changes appearance from well-adorned to filled with blood. In the second part, the dreamer changes and seems to be speaking, in the first person, from the perspective of the “Rood” who gives his account of what happened.

After transforming from tree to cross, the Rood is put on a hill where Jesus is crucified onto its limbs and where he fights for the salvation of mankind. The Rood relates how he fought with Jesus by not bending down and not fighting the wicked. After these events, the Rood narrates how the dead body was detached from him and buried. After this, the cross narrates how he ascended into the heavens, decorated so that everyone could see him. In the last part of the poem, the narrator is once again in the present, having relayed the details of his dream. He praises Jesus and has hope for eternal life.

 

Literary Themes

All throughout the poem there are various themes that emerge: courage, heroism, and Christian religion mixed with pagan symbols. Old English poems usually “reflect timeless values (ex: courage, honor)” and “treat universal themes (ex: life and death; good and evil)” and this poem is no exception.

The theme of courage and heroism go together because they are psychological aspects that the pagan Vikings admired so much and which then influenced British culture. Courage was spoken about every time the Rood was commanded by Christ to stay firm for him. Heroism is also repeated since the start when the narrator mentions how the Rood is decorated but has marks of past conflict. Then it repeats with the death of Christ and so on, again and again in the piece. Underlying this metaphor of Christ as a warrior-king is the idea of “Comitatus”; this is the idea in which the warrior or thane is loyal and bound to their king to death. Additionally, in Germanic societies, the King was usually recognized as king because of his deeds and not because of hereditary reasons. The deeds that Kings do (in this case, Christ) are considered both heroic and full of courage (Villarreal).

There is also an obvious theme of faith–both monotheistic and pagan. The Christian idea of forgiveness and sacrifice mixes with the Anglo-Saxon ideas of Comitatus and Heroism (“Dream of the Rood”) to create this beautiful poem that shows the transition in England from paganism to Christianity. These competing ideas are fully realized and combined when Jesus and the Rood are portrayed as courageous warriors instead of victims that died for God to be able to forgive all the sins of the world.


Works Cited

“Dream Vision,” Wikipedia, 03 April 2019. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dream_vision Accessed 09 Dec. 2019.

“Dream of the Rood.” Wikipedia, 07 July 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dream_of_the_Rood Accessed 07 Sept. 2019

Gray, Wendy Howard. “Dream of the Rood: Background.” English Literature I, Lumen Learning, n.d. .lumenlearning.com/britlit1/chapter/dream-of-the-rood-background/ Accessed 09 Dec. 2019.

Villarreal, Allegra. “Traditions of Anglo-Saxon Poetry,” English Literature 2322: British Literature I. 05 Sept. 2019, Austin Community College, Austin. Class Lecture.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some symbols, personification, and diction that appear throughout the piece and what do you think they mean?
  2. What historical events led to this unique vision of Christ’s courage?
  3. What is the definition of loyalty in modern times? How is it different from the 8th century? What do other Old English texts have to say about this theme?
  4. Why do you think this piece has survived for so long? Is it really worthy of transcending the centuries
  5. What features of the poem are most interesting? Why?

Further Resources

  • A video clip of the Ruthwell Cross excerpt in Old English (with modern English subtitles)
  • A University of Washington webpage that analyzes some of the more interesting aspects of the poem
  • A study guide that includes the poem and some key points about its authorship, history and literary elements


Reading: Dream of the Rood

Lo! choicest of dreams I will relate,

What dream I dreamt in middle of night

When mortal men reposed in rest.

Methought I saw a wondrous wood

Tower aloft with light bewound,                                        5

Brightest of trees; that beacon was all

Begirt with gold; jewels were standing

Four at surface of earth, likewise were there five

Above on the shoulder-brace. All angels of God beheld it,

Fair through future ages; ’twas no criminal’s cross indeed,           10

But holy spirits beheld it there,

Men upon earth, all this glorious creation.

Strange was that victor-tree, and stained with sins was I,

With foulness defiled. I saw the glorious tree

With vesture adorned winsomely shine,                              15

Begirt with gold; bright gems had there

Worthily decked the tree of the Lord.

Yet through that gold I might perceive

Old strife of the wretched, that first it gave

Blood on the stronger [right] side. With sorrows was I oppressed,     20

Afraid for that fair sight; I saw the ready beacon

Change in vesture and hue; at times with moisture covered,

Soiled with course of blood; at times with treasure adorned.

Yet lying there a longer while,

Beheld I sad the Saviour’s tree                                       25

Until I heard that words it uttered;

The best of woods gan speak these words:

“‘Twas long ago (I remember it still)

That I was hewn at end of a grove,

Stripped from off my stem; strong foes laid hold of me there,         30

Wrought for themselves a show, bade felons raise me up;

Men bore me on their shoulders, till on a mount they set me;

Fiends many fixed me there. Then saw I mankind’s Lord

Hasten with mickle might, for He would sty upon me.

There durst I not ‘gainst word of the Lord                            35

Bow down or break, when saw I tremble

The surface of earth; I might then all

My foes have felled, yet fast I stood.

The Hero young begirt Himself, Almighty God was He,

Strong and stern of mind; He stied on the gallows high,               40

Bold in sight of many, for man He would redeem.

I shook when the Hero clasped me, yet durst not bow to earth,

Fall to surface of earth, but firm I must there stand.

A rood was I upreared; I raised the mighty King,

The Lord of Heaven; I durst not bend me.                              45

They drove their dark nails through me; the wounds are seen upon me,

The open gashes of guile; I durst harm none of them.

They mocked us both together; all moistened with blood was I,

Shed from side of the man, when forth He sent His spirit.

Many have I on that mount endured                                     50

Of cruel fates; I saw the Lord of Hosts

Strongly outstretched; darkness had then

Covered with clouds the corse of the Lord,

The brilliant brightness; the shadow continued,

Wan ‘neath the welkin. There wept all creation,                       55

Bewailed the King’s death; Christ was on the cross.

Yet hastening thither they came from afar

To the Son of the King: that all I beheld.

Sorely with sorrows was I oppressed; yet I bowed ‘neath the hands of men,

Lowly with mickle might. Took they there Almighty God,                60

Him raised from the heavy torture; the battle-warriors left me

To stand bedrenched with blood; all wounded with darts was I.

There laid they the weary of limb, at head of His corse they stood,

Beheld the Lord of Heaven, and He rested Him there awhile,

Worn from the mickle war. Began they an earth-house to work,          65

Men in the murderers’ sight, carved it of brightest stone,

Placed therein victories’ Lord. Began sad songs to sing

The wretched at eventide; then would they back return

Mourning from the mighty prince; all lonely rested He there.

Yet weeping we then a longer while                                70

Stood at our station: the [voice] arose

Of battle-warriors; the corse grew cold,

Fair house of life. Then one gan fell

Us all to earth; ’twas a fearful fate!

One buried us in deep pit, yet of me the thanes of the Lord,          75

His friends, heard tell; [from earth they raised me],

And me begirt with gold and silver.

Now thou mayst hear, my dearest man,

That bale of woes have I endured,

Of sorrows sore. Now the time is come,                                80

That me shall honor both far and wide

Men upon earth, and all this mighty creation

Will pray to this beacon. On me God’s Son

Suffered awhile; so glorious now

I tower to Heaven, and I may heal                                     85

Each one of those who reverence me;

Of old I became the hardest of pains,

Most loathsome to ledes [nations], the way of life,

Right way, I prepared for mortal men.

Lo! the Lord of Glory honored me then                                 90

Above the grove, the guardian of Heaven,

As He His mother, even Mary herself,

Almighty God before all men

Worthily honored above all women.

Now thee I bid, my dearest man,                                       95

That thou this sight shalt say to men,

Reveal in words, ’tis the tree of glory,

On which once suffered Almighty God

For the many sins of all mankind,

And also for Adam’s misdeeds of old.                                 100

Death tasted He there; yet the Lord arose

With His mickle might for help to men.

Then stied He to Heaven; again shall come

Upon this mid-earth to seek mankind

At the day of doom the Lord Himself,                                 105

Almighty God, and His angels with Him;

Then He will judge, who hath right of doom,

Each one of men as here before

In this vain life he hath deserved.

No one may there be free from fear                                   110

In view of the word that the Judge will speak.

He will ask ‘fore the crowd, where is the man

Who for name of the Lord would bitter death

Be willing to taste, as He did on the tree.

But then they will fear, and few will bethink them                   115

What they to Christ may venture to say.

Then need there no one be filled with fear

Who bears in his breast the best of beacons;

But through the rood a kingdom shall seek

From earthly way each single soul                                    120

That with the Lord thinketh to dwell.”

Then I prayed to the tree with joyous heart,

With mickle might, when I was alone

With small attendance; the thought of my mind

For the journey was ready; I’ve lived through many                   125

Hours of longing. Now ’tis hope of my life

That the victory-tree I am able to seek,

Oftener than all men I alone may

Honor it well; my will to that

Is mickle in mind, and my plea for protection                        130

To the rood is directed. I’ve not many mighty

Of friends on earth; but hence went they forth

From joys of the world, sought glory’s King;

Now live they in Heaven with the Father on high,

In glory dwell, and I hope for myself                                135

On every day when the rood of the Lord,

Which here on earth before I viewed,

In this vain life may fetch me away

And bring me then, where bliss is mickle,

Joy in the Heavens, where the folk of the Lord                       140

Is set at the feast, where bliss is eternal;

And may He then set me where I may hereafter

In glory dwell, and well with the saints

Of joy partake. May the Lord be my friend,

Who here on earth suffered before                                    145

On the gallows-tree for the sins of man!

He us redeemed, and gave to us life,

A heavenly home. Hope was renewed,

With blessing and bliss, for the sufferers of burning.

The Son was victorious on that fateful journey,                      150

Mighty and happy, when He came with a many,

With a band of spirits to the kingdom of God,

The Ruler Almighty, for joy to the angels

And to all the saints, who in Heaven before

In glory dwelt, when their Ruler came,                               155

Almighty God, where was His home.


Source Text: 

Dream of the Rood,” author unknown, trans. by James M. Garret, Elene; Judith; Athelstan, or Fight at Brunanburh; Byrthtnoth, or the Fight at Maldon and Dream of the Rood: Anglo Saxon Poems, licensed under no known copyright.

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