Medieval/Renaissance Studies: Sample Writing
October 2003 Imagery in The Dream of the Rood
The Dream of the Rood is an Old English religious poem by an unknown author, which dates back to at least the tenth century. It is an interesting piece for a variety of reasons, one of which is its use of word imagery to convey its subject matter. Epitaphs and metaphors riddle the work in surprising frequency. Christ and the cross especially are referred to by all sorts of epithets and word pictures. In doing so, the two become virtually indistinguishable as they meld into one divine saving and conquering force. The story’s imagery follows the established biblical practice of using epithets to describe the mysteries of faith in order to honor and teach them. The identification of Christ with his cross is also not totally foreign to the Bible, though it is taken to a much greater degree. Perhaps more importantly, though, is the way the imagery is used to dress the gospel in cultural and sociological clothing suitable for its presentation to Anglo-Saxons at the turn of the first millennium. This works wonders in making the story understandable, believable, reasonable, and desirable to its readers, and also falls within accepted and established Christian methods of evangelization and catechesis.
The Dream of the Rood tells the gospel from a rather unique perspective, as the name implies, from that of the cross. The cross is personified and given a voice to tell its harrowing tale of God’s reconciliation of the world to himself by it. From its very introduction, it is not just a piece of wood used to execute criminals, but “a most rare tree reach[ing] high aloft, wound in light, brightest of beans.” From this description, the cross seems to luminesce, a transferal of “the light of the world” (cf. Jn. 8.12, 9.5) from Christ to his cross. This type of transferal and identification of the cross with Christ is characteristic of this story, and not entirely alien to Christianity and its principles. The New Testament itself sometimes does this (cf. 1 Cor. 1.17f, Gal. 6.12ff, Eph. 2.16). The author of the poem simply follows Saint Paul’s example in exalting the cross to such lofty positions. The next line follows up in its praise of the tree by lavishing it with gems, a symbol of royalty and richness. The Old English word “beacen” is applied to it, which could be translated “battle standard.” In this way, the work begins its elaborate and subtle process of transcribing the gospel into an Anglo-Saxon archetype familiar and persuasive to its readers. This archetype is warfare. In a way, this actually returns the cross more to its historical context of being an instrument of torture and death. Yet here it becomes not the weapon of man, but of God, who wields it to destroy Satan and his evil works. This is only the beginning of the brilliant way in which the author presents the tale to its culturally-conditioned audience, though it may seem strange to modern man.
Returning to the cross, the piece continues in its praise, proclaiming, “Wonderful was the triumph-tree. . . . I saw the tree of glory shine splendidly adorned, with garments, decked with gold: jewels had worthily covered the Lord’s tree.” Here we find the common Old English practice of combining two words into one: the cross is now “the triumph-tree,” a description well suited to its being the divine weapon against evil. Its praise is furthered with more gems, garments, and jewels. Next we learn that the cross (not Christ) is bleeding from its right side. This gory image completes a depiction of the rood as a weapon. The words form a picture in our heads not of a cross, but of a beautifully-adorned, yet bloody, sword stuck in the ground. It is God’s sword, therefore by definition the greatest sword ever.
As the story unfolds, the cross becomes more and more closely linked to Christ, until it has practically become him. When Christ is crucified, the crucifixion tree says, “They pierced me with dark nails: the wounds are seen on me, open gashes of hatred. Nor did I dare harm any of them. They mocked us both together” (emphasis mine). These words could just as easily, and more realistically, have come from Christ’s mouth, for it was him whom they really pierced and wounded. The cross was incidental, but the author would rather make it the center of the story. A few paragraphs later we find that all people are praying to the cross. Literally, this makes no sense, but figuratively, it works very well with the tale’s themes. Moreover, the cross “may heal every one of those who hold [it] in awe.” This can be understand a little more literally than praying to the cross, but, still, the cross has taken over Christ’s role as healer and Physician of Souls. Then the story makes a somewhat bizarre comparison of the crucifixion tree to the Virgin Mary. As she is honored above all humans (cf. Lk. 1:42,48), so it is honored above all trees. This is weak, though, because unlike humans, trees have little or no honor. The comparison doesn’t live up to the praise the cross has already received.
At times, Christ himself speaks. In the second paragraph, the cross speaks some of him some. He first enters the plot as “the Lord of mankind hasten[ing] with stout heart.” This is pretty typical biblical imagery, but with a particular Anglo-Saxon emphasis tacked onto it: having a stout heart is the sign of the warrior. Confirmation of his warrior status is given a few lines later when he is called “the young Hero . . . –that was God Almighty–strong and stouthearted.” Obviously Christ’s divinity is stated far more explicitly here than ever in the Bible, so that no one should wonder. Several other epitaphs are reverently and purposefully applied to him: “the Warrior” (more war imagery), “the Mighty King, Lord of the Heavens,” “the God of Hosts,” “the Ruler,” “the King,” “Almighty God,” “Wielder of Triumphs,” “the great Prince,” “God’s Son,” “the Lord of Glory,” and “the Ruler of Heaven.” Some of these are straight from the Bible, but others are more inventive. Even the biblical metaphor of God as King proves perfect for this story, since kings were central to the Anglo-Saxon culture. “Wielder of Triumphs” also deserves special attention, because it is an obvious compliment to the previous phrase of “triumph-tree.” There can be no question that the cross, as a weapon, belongs more to Christ than to his slayers. The use of the word “wielder” is deliberate, for what does one wield other than a sword?
War imagery continues after Christ has died: “The warriors left me [the cross] standing, covered with blood. I was all wounded with arrows.” Christ’s slayers are now portrayed as warriors, rather than as executioners or just common people. The cross’s injuries have also figuratively become arrows, weapons common to the Anglo-Saxon culture, yet quite alien to that of the Bible. Meanwhile, Christ is resting like a warrior after a great battle. The cross is buried, but “thanes of the Lord” uncover it centuries later, a reference to St. Helen’s mystical discovery of the “true cross” in the fourth century. Christians are not Jesus’ disciples, but his thanes, a more desirable title.
The story approaches its finale with a description of the end of the world, a popular topic then as well as now. Now the exaltation of the cross and its merge with Christ reaches its epitome. The Just Judge is looking for “the man who in the name of the Lord would taste bitter death as he did on the Cross.” The one who will escape condemnation is the one “who bears on his breast the best of tokens.” Moreover, “through the Cross shall the kingdom be sought by each soul on this earthly journey that thinks to dwell with the Lord.” The author himself prays to the cross and receives “hope of life” now that he is “permitted to seek the tree of triumph,” for his “hope of protection is directed to the Cross.” In the end, the author seeks the cross more than he does Christ. This is not to replace Christ, but rather to very strongly emphasize that it is through the cross that one comes to him, for “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (New American Bible, Mt. 16.24, cf. Mk 8.34, Lk. 9.23). Similar techniques are more often applied to Mary in other Christian literature, calling her the “Gate of Heaven” and “Mediatrix.” An example is set for readers to follow, so that they too can be saved.
The author concludes his moving tale in the most sublime way possible: by describing heaven, revealing some final images to complete the identification of the cross with Christ and win the Anglo-Saxon’s soul to him.
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 the cross itself which will bring the author to heaven at his death. Additionally, heaven is here described not as much in terms of beholding the face of God and the beatific vision, but rather as a feast. This biblical image is absolutely perfect for the culture and requires no modification or exaggeration by the author. The Book of Revelation itself would probably be ideal religious reading material for the culture, with all of its plagues and spiritual wars.
This story is brilliantly fabricated for its purpose, though how well it served that purpose we can’t know. Maybe its survival to the modern day is a testament to its popularity and effectiveness. Christ, his Passion, the cross, the end of the world, and heaven are all portrayed in terms of an epic battle between heaven and hell, good and evil, in which the people of this earth participate. Christ is the mighty general and king, Christians are his thanes, and the cross is both their standard and weapon against evil. Victory is assured, and when the fight is over, all will relax and feast around the Lord’s Table for ever and ever. By building on and confirming existing beliefs, such as that the afterlife is a kind of giant mead hall in the sky, Christianity helps to ensure its acceptance among a culture. Had the story flat-out rejected Anglo-Saxon culture and its belief as illegitimate, wrong, and evil, it is unlikely many people would have been willing to listen to its message, let alone adopt it as their own. Making the gospel relevant is the way successful evangelization is done, and this story is the perfect example of that principle.
The Dream of the Rood. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. I. 5th ed. NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1986. 23-25.
The New American Bible. Saint Joseph Edition. NY: Catholic Book Publishing, Co., 1992.