The Dream of the Rood
Washington State University
THE DREAM OF THE ROOD
Here is the Old English poem interlaced with a modern English translation: The Dream of the Rood.
The culturally interesting facet of this poem — a very early example of the dream-vision genre popular in the later Middle Ages — is how it tries to negotiate between Anglo-Saxon values and Christianity, the two of which are largely opposite each other. Christianity, with its New Testament message of peace and forgiveness, and its central paradox of a savior who died on a cross, must have been a difficult sell to Anglo-Saxons with their heroic warrior culture. Old Testament translations are what we mostly find in Old English. But notice throughout the poem the ways the poet bends Christianity to appeal to his audience. The Anglo-Saxon word stefn means “tree-trunk” or “root”; but it can also mean “voice” (Keefer 28). Where do the Anglo-Saxon cultural values burst through?
The poet uses superlatives (“the best of dreams,” a most rare tree,” “brightest of beams,” “best of trees,” “hardest of torments,” “best of tokens”) to try to shock and awe listeners. Note the description of the cross: “All that beacon was covered with gold; gems stood fair where it met the ground, five were above the crosspiece.” Instead of anything like what the original rood (or cross) would have been, this description makes the thing look like what to the Anglo-Saxons, especially when it is described as drenched with blood?
The cross in the dream speaks: “It was long ago — I remember it still — that I was hewn down at the wood’s edge, taken from my stump.” The set-up is thus very much like the Anglo-Saxon riddles, with the personified and voiced object giving its puzzling story. And the cross seems to be carrying out the Anglo-Saxon “boast” ritual sometimes too. The Rood is linked to Christ in that they share the same scars (the displacement resembles that in the Gospel of Peter fragment), and it functions somewhat as a warrior to its “lord” (Keefer 26).
The crucified Jesus is rendered this way: “Then the young Hero stripped himself — that was God Almighty — strong and stouthearted. He climbed on the high gallows, bold in the sight of many….” Afterwards, his corpse is taken down and “rested there a while, tired after the great struggle.” The Old English Exodus in the Junius manuscript depicts and refers to Moses as a war-leader (Keefer 26). The rood also describes a post-battle scene, very “dreorig” (dreary, bloody).
The poet mentions Doomsday (from the Anglo-Saxon “daeg” of “dome” or simply judgment, not “doom” as we define it now). But he ends by giving listeners a pretty effective description of our heavenly afterlife: “And every day I look forward to when the Lord’s Cross that I beheld here on earth will fetch me from this short life and bring me then where joy is great, delight in the heavens, where the Lord’s folk are seated at the feast, where bliss is eternal.” It sounds like a great mead-hall in the sky!
Our culture retains the ideological tension, or paradox, represented in this poem. We have a “Salvation Army” and use the word “Crusade” rather freely (e.g., Billy Graham’s “Crusade Choir,” and the predilection for magazines to call medical research a “Crusade against Cancer”). “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “A Mighty Fortress Is My God” are familiar hymns. Sports stars thanking God and other forms of “muscular” and even militant “Christianity” thrive without sufficient derision. And “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”?
The Dream of the Rood. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. I. 8th ed. NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006. 27-29.
Keefer, Sarah Larratt. “Old English Religious Poetry.” Readings in Medieval Texts: Interpreting Old and Middle English Literature.” Ed. David Johnson and Elaine Treharne. NY: Oxford University Press, 2005. 15-29.