The Old English poem The Dream of the Rood is an early Christian poem written in alliterative verse describing a dream vision. Fragments of the poem were found carved in the runic alphabet on the Ruthwell Cross – an Anglo-Saxon monument dating from the 8th century which is situated in present day Scotland. The poem was written in a structure which was a popular convention in medieval literature called a dream vision. The dream vision allowed the poet to safely talk and describe things which, if they were not part of a dream, could be considered satanic and blasphemous because of their supernatural character. The dream provokes the imagination, it creates new themes and topics, or can be used as a metaphor or a revelation. The structure of the poem is not the only thing interesting about it. The Cross (the rood) appears in the dream of the speaker and tells him of the crucifixion and its experience of it. In this dream, the Passions of Christ are presented from the point of view of the Cross which had never been done before in its time, thus making the poem even more provocative and interesting to analyse.
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The Dream of the Rood does not present Christ in the conventional way. The author has changed a lot not only when describing the scenes before and after the crucifixion but he has altered Christ’s character in ways which make him more fitting for the period the poem was written. It is a characteristic trait for every age to depict Christ in accordance with its own character (Jaroslav Pelikan, 1985). That is why the Jesus Christ of The Dream of the Rood is described by the rood as a warrior, a hero and a king. The poet chose on purpose these depictions because they are consistent with the honour, strength and courage which were valued highly in the early medieval period. The relationship between the rood and Christ from the point of view of the cross is one between a lord and his mighty, noble knight. Christ is rarely addressed as “Christ” throughout the poem. He is “the hero”, “the warrior” and in some translations even as a “knight”. These images and choice of words force the reader to associate Christ with Beowulf. By portraying Christ as a warrior, the poet drastically changes the whole scene of the crucifixion and the very image of Christ. It makes the sacrifice not only stronger in the reader’s eyes but turns it into a battle in which Christ has to fight as a warrior and the rood is beside him, not leaving his side even when the nails struck. The rood is Christ’s servant and its mission is to protect him.
Before The Dream of the Rood there had been many poems and plays about Christ or other episodes of the Gospel and in them the image of Jesus Christ with its familiar submissive characteristics unlike those in the poem. This shows that the poet chose on purpose to present the Saviour in a different light, one which would answer all the heroic ideals of the Middle Ages. Like Beowulf Christ is strong and noble. The poet has also purposely changed parts of the crucifixion in order to aid this depiction. Christ is not seen carrying the cross or falling under its weight. Nor is he aided in carrying it to the top of the hill while being whipped and humiliated. He walks to the cross which is already in place, and embraces it.
Then saw I mankind’s Lord
Hasten with great might, for
He would climb upon me.
The word “hasten” (along with many others throughout the poem, such as “eager”, “ready”, “willing”) underline Christ readiness to sacrifice himself for mankind. The crucifixion is seen as a kind of battle, and Christ is not approaching the cross in an act of defeat but this is the act that he must do as mankind’s Saviour and warrior. He is “strong and stern of mind” and climbs on the cross without any help. This shows Christ who is in control of the situation and willing to die. The image of the warrior in the Middle Ages was that of a hero who was not afraid of dying. Dying bravely and publicly in a glorious battle was a way to prove their loyalty and strength. This was also the way a warrior was sure to gain immortality and a place at the mead hall of the gods. The rood takes the place of Christ’s trusted warrior who fights by his side and has sworn to die by his side. For the warrior death is better than a life of disgrace if they flee to save their own lives. Both Christ and the rood are hit and pierced by the nails, both bleed on the right side. This detail appears in the very beginning of the poem and it is the first thing the speaker notices about the cross after its riches. It helps to indicated that this is no ordinary cross or dream but an actual vision. Death in battle for the medieval warrior was an act of personal victory and Christ is victorious in redeeming mankind of its sins. The poet’s attention is entirely on this victory over sin. The scene is triumphant and alters by belittling the abuse Christ was supposed to endure before and during the crucifixion. He has omitted on purpose many details of such nature, like Christ asking for water in order to deprive him of the image of human weakness and frailty. This strengthens the image of Christ as the ultimate hero and brings him closer to the image of Beowulf. It even aims to present him as someone who is higher than Beowulf or any other warrior of the Middle Ages
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Instead of Christ, it is the cross who feels pain and suffers throughout the crucifixion and afterwards. As Christ is the “lord” and king”, so is the rood his sworn warrior and knight. It is bound to serve him, to endure and be his shield, to take away the pain and glorify the act of death in the eyes and ears of those who will listen to its story. The rood has become witness to Christ’s rise and fall, it describes how the body of his master was taken down and buried in a way befitting that of a warrior. This is again another scene which the poet alters from the original one from the Gospel. Christ’s body is not placed in the nearest available tomb but a special sepulchre is made for him. The burial in the Gospel is performed in silence while in the poem a dirge is being sang for Christ. This description echoes that of Beowulf’s burial, making the emphasis between the two stronger.
The poem’s whole vision of Christ is one which contradicts the passive participant wishing to gain redemption but here he is a hero and a martyr. The very image of the medieval and heroic values. The Dream of the Rood shows how the Anglo-Saxons were undoubtedly ready make the transition to Christianity. Their philosophy was wholly based on paganism and needed to expand further and Christianity gave them that very opportunity. Such scenes like the crucifixion from the Gospel and other Christian ethics were easier to perceive and understand shown through the light of the heroic values. These new values corresponded to the old ones and their principles. The poem also has a more optimistic light than the original source. By turning Christ into a triumphant warrior who fights a battle with the rood, that very rood later becomes the very image and symbol of Christian faith and does not condemn the cross as an instrument of torture and disgrace.
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