The Dream of the Rood: Incorporating Heroic Elements in Old English Christian Poetry

"The Dream of the Rood" is a religious poem dating back to the tenth century. It was found in a manuscript in Northern Italy with a number of other Old English poems, although some of the passages are also found inscribed on a stone cross in Scotland which dates back to the eighth century. Like much of the surviving Old English poetry, no one knows who actually wrote "The Dream of the Rood."

The poem takes the form of a dream, which the narrator, an unnamed man, relates to the reader. While the term "rood" refers to a cross, the dream is really about a tree that has been fashioned into a cross. Specifically, the tree has been turned into the cross used to crucify Christ, and feels immense sorrow and pain at what he has become which he relates to the dreamer in a long passage.

While the poem is clearly a religious text, a closer examination actually reveals some elements of German Heroism (a non-Christian culture competing with Christianity during this time). While in many works these Germanic and Christian elements are shown as diametrically opposed in philosophy, they are actually reconciled rather nicely within "The Dream of the Rood." Although nothing is known about the original author or context of the poem, the possibility exists that finding a way to blend these two elements of society might have been one of the primary motivations of the author.

The Ruthwell Cross, near Dumfries, Scotland, is decorated with carved runes depicting aspects of the Rood's speech to the dreamer.
The Ruthwell Cross, near Dumfries, Scotland, is decorated with carved runes depicting aspects of the Rood's speech to the dreamer.

Popularizing Christianity

While the basic narrative of the text is a version of the Crucifixion of Christ, it is overlaid throughout with heroic sentiment. During this period in history, the Christian religion was still gaining ground, and many practitioners sought varying methods of popularizing the new religion.

"The Dream of the Rood" can be viewed as an attempt to inject the "pop culture" of the time into a religious message, implying that there is not mutual exclusion of the two philosophies but rather that there is a way for each to compliment the other.

Such an incorporation of pre-existing beliefs was actually a common practice of the early Christian church, who often sought to incorporate elements of traditional culture or pre-existing religious ceremonies and beliefs into the Christian dogma. Through this type of juxtaposition, the newly converted could still hold on to some of the remnants of their previous religion, while practicing the Christian faith for all intents and purposes.

Textual Analysis

The first juxtaposition of Heroism with Christianity occurs early in the text, with the use of the word "beacon." Says the narrator:

It seemed to me that I saw a most rare tree reach high aloft, wound in light, brightest of beams. All that beacon was covered with gold; gems stood fair where it met the ground, five were above about the crosspiece.

The word beacon in contemporary use means a signal fire or mounted light for guidance, a source of inspiration, or simply a light. This stems from the Middle English version of the word, around the fourteenth century. However, in Old English, a beacon can also mean a battle token, sign, or standard.

Because the cross is described as a beacon so early in the poem, we get an immediate clue that the cross is to take on a sense of battle symbolism. Further into the poem, as Christ mounts the cross, he is referred to as the "Hero" and the "Warrior," which are both romanticized and idealized titles within the German Heroic tradition. From Christ's perch on the cross, he takes on a "great struggle" for salvation of mankind.

Close up of the Ruthwell Cross.
Close up of the Ruthwell Cross.

Rewriting Heroism

While the story is consistent with the biblical account of the Crucifixion, it is told in a style that is not biblical in tone and word choice, but could easily read as a Heroic epic, save for the two main subjects, Christ and the Rood. In this poem, it appears as if the modes of battle have simply shifted to employ new tactics of submission and martyrdom.

While these acts would have been regarded as symbols of weakness or folly within popular Germanic thought, "The Dream of the Rood" functions to impart a sense of glory upon these types of acts.

Ultimately, the poem simply substitutes new characters and missions for the old. The Hero is now fighting on behalf of the sinners, rather than the landowner. Instead of vengeance, Christ's followers are encouraged to show mercy towards his executioners, and are imparted a new task, the "seeking of the tree of triumph." (Which is actually an interesting correlation to the search for the Holy Grail).

While the concept of heroism is still exists, it has simply been transmuted into a more religiously acceptable form-- the heroism that occurs with the adherence to religious doctrine, and a reward system has been set into place that guarantees feasting, glory and joy in Heaven, rather than treasure, seledream, comitatus, or war spoils on Earth, the message appears to be that the just desserts will still be provided, but one must simply wait a little longer for them.

On a final note, while the poem does take the form of a hero's journey, there is still quite an appeal to the common man, even the sinner. The concept of hero is being extended into a more tangible and accessible form, one need not be a warrior swearing allegience to his lord (landowner) to swear allegience to a new lord, this time being Christ and religious doctrine. In this manner, Christianity was made more accessible in some ways than Heroism, as there was equal opportunity to take part, rather than simply a few chosen Heroes or Warriors. The popular appeal was obviously successful, as Heroism gradually declined to a relic of a past age, preserved in a few notable texts like Beowulf, while Christianity not only flourished in the wake, but spread to most of the Western World.

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Comments 3 comments

BwB 4 years ago

Very interesting read!

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Anate 2 years ago

Yet another excellent article on an old poem. Your writing is quite impressive.

linkj 8 months ago

0h, how awesome

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