I came to know about ‘The Dream of the Rood’ when I was exploring the oldest works in English language. Students of English Literature have probably studied this in their course. It is a poem written in Old English, which was quite different from the English we read today. I read a modern translation of the poem online, and marveled at the beauty of it. Like most of the Anglo-Saxon poems, it is written in alliterative verse. It is one of the most important literary works in Old English which have survived till date.
The manuscript of the poem is preserved in the Vercelli Book from the 10th century. The poem also appears as runes carved on the 8th-century Ruthwell Cross. No one surely knows who wrote the poem. Some of the researchers have speculated that it could be one of the poets Caedmon and Cynewulf. However, this conclusion is not widely supported.
The word ‘Rood’ in the title of the poem comes from the Old English word ‘rōd’, which means ‘crucifix’. In ‘The Dream of the Rood’, the poet has a dream of the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. The cross, or the ‘Rood’ has been personified in this poem as a companion of Jesus Christ when he suffered tortures before his death. The entire story of Christ’s crucifixion has been told by the cross.
The poem has three sections. In the first section, the poet, in his dream, observes the ‘greatest tree’, or the cross adorned in gold and all kinds of beautiful jewels. He also discovers that the cross is soaked in blood, and it reminds him of the sufferings of Christ.
In the second section the cross begins to tell the poet how he was cut down from a tree and made into a cross, which served as an instrument of punishment for criminals. Later the cross discovered that he was not going to be used for punishing any criminal. The brave and glorious Christ was to mount on him to be crucified, and heroically embrace death for a greater cause. The cross had also borne all the pain of tortures with Christ till the end, and did not fall down. Christ’s victory over death had glorified the cross, and now he has become the path to Christ. He instructs the poet to spread the message to all mankind.
In the third section, the poet prays to the cross, and expresses his hope that he will receive salvation and go to heaven in his afterlife. He talks about the second coming of Christ and praises God.
The Anglo-Saxons were pagans before Christianity was introduced to them. They had their own culture, customs and their own kind of poetry. If they had to be converted to Christianity, it was to be done in a way that resonated with their culture.
In the beginning we notice that the tree, or the cross has been personified. The narrative of Christ’s crucifixion has been entirely described from the perspective of the cross. Towards the end, the poet prays to the cross. Worship of a natural object, e.g. a tree is a pagan ritual which has been combined with Christianity in this poem.
Heroism was an integral part of Anglo-Saxon culture. In this poem, Christ is not seen carrying the burden of cross and falling three times as described in the Bible. Here, Christ is a brave warrior king who hastened to embrace the cross willingly for a greater purpose. At many places he has been referred to as the ‘Sovereign’, the ‘Warrior’ or the ‘King’. Loyalty to the king from his kinsmen had been of paramount importance to the Anglo-Saxons. Therefore the cross has been represented as Christ’s faithful companion who suffered with his king and never abandoned him. Christ’s followers have been described as his ‘thanes’ i.e. people loyal to the king. Singing mourning songs at the funeral of a great king or warrior was also an Anglo-Saxon ritual, which was performed by the followers of Christ in the poem after his burial.
Once written to draw the pagan Anglo-Saxons towards Christianity, this poem presents to the readers a whole new perspective of Christ’s crucifixion. In this poem, Christ is not helpless and humiliated. Rather he is a strong and brave warrior, and so is the cross.