The dream of the rood

The Dream of the Rood is one of the earliest Christian poems in the corpus of Old English literature and an example of the genre of dream poetry. Like most Old English poetry, it is written in alliterative verse. Rood is from the Old English word rod 'pole', or more specifically 'crucifix'. Preserved in the 10th century Vercelli Book, the poem may be considerably older, even one of the oldest works of Old English literature.

Background information

A part of The Dream of the Rood can be found on the 8th century Ruthwell Cross, which was an 18 feet (5.5 m), free standing Anglo-Saxon cross that was perhaps intended as a 'conversion tool'.[1] At each side of the vine-tracery are carved runes. On the cross there is an excerpt that was written in runes along with scenes of Jesus healing the blind, the Annunciation and the story of Egypt. Although it was torn down and destroyed during a Protestant revolt, it was reconstructed as much as possible after the fear of iconography passed.[2] Fortunately during that time of religious unrest, those words that were in the runes were still protected in the Vercelli Book, so called because the book is kept in the Italian city of Vercelli. The Vercelli Book, which can be dated to the 10th century, includes twenty-three homilies interspersed with six poems: The Dream of the Rood, Andreas, The Fates of the Apostles, Soul and Body, Elene and a poetic, homiletic fragment.

Possible authorship

The author of Dream of the Rood is unknown, but by knowing the approximate date of the Ruthwell Cross, scholars have been able to suggest possible authors. These include the Anglo-Saxon poets Caedmon and Cynewulf.

Knowledge about Caedmon, who flourished in the middle of the 7th century, comes from Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. According to Bede, Caedmon was an illiterate herdsman who one night dreamt how to praise God by singing beautiful Christian verses. Caedmon then became the foremost Christian poet, who led the way for others such as Bede and Cynewulf.[3] Old English scholar and noted commentator on the Ruthwell Cross Daniel H. Haigh argues that the inscription of the Ruthwell Cross must be fragments of one of Caedmon's lost poems, stating "On this monument, erected about A.D. 665, we have fragments of a religious poem of very high character, and that there was but one man living in England at that time worthy to be named as a religious poet, and that was Caedmon".[4] Another runic scholar, George Stephens contends that the very language and structure of the verses in Dream of the Rood could only have come from the 7th century and a time before Bede. Considering that the only Christian poet before Bede was Caedmon, Stephens makes the point that there could have been no one else during this time period or living in the same area that could have authored the poem other than Caedmon. Furthermore, Stephens claims that there is a runic inscription on the Ruthwell Cross, that, when translated, comes to mean "Caedmon made me".[5] Despite this evidence most scholars reject the Haigh and Stephens assertion that there is in fact such an inscription.

Cynewulf lived roughly c. 770–840 AD, yet very little is known about his life.[6] The only information scholars have on Cynewulf's life is what they can discover from his poetry. Two of Cynewulf's signed poems were discovered in the Vercelli Book, which includes Cynewulf's holy cross poem "Elene" as well as Dream of the Rood.[7] Where many scholars will argue that all of the poems in the Vercelli are in fact Cynewulf's, the noted German scholar Franz Dietrich demonstrates that the similarities between Cynewulf's "Elene" and The Dream of the Rood reveals that the two must have been authored by the same individual. Dietrich makes four main arguments: one, the theme of both poems is the cross, and more importantly, in both poems, the cross suffers with Christ; two, in "Elene" Cynewulf seems to make clear references to the same cross in Dream of the Rood; three, in "Elene" and his other poems Cynewulf usually speaks of himself, which makes it quite possible that the dreamer in Dream of the Rood is none other than Cynewulf himself; and finally four, "In both poems the author represents himself as old, having lost joys or friends and as ready to depart.[8]

The Poem

The poem is set up with the narrator having a dream. In this dream or vision he is speaking to the Cross on which Jesus was crucified. The poem itself is divided up into three separate sections: the first part (ll. 1–27), the second part (ll. 28–121) and the third part (ll. 122–156).[9] In section one, the narrator has a vision of the Cross. Initially when the dreamer sees the Cross, he notes how it is covered with gems. He is aware of how wretched he is compared to how glorious the tree is. However, he comes to see that amidst the beautiful stones it is stained with blood.[10] In section two, the Cross shares its account of Jesus' death. The Crucifixion story is told from the perspective of the Cross. It begins with the enemy coming to cut the tree down and carrying it away. The tree learns that it is not to be the bearer of a criminal, but instead Christ crucified. The Lord and the Cross become one, and they stand together as victors, refusing to fall, taking on insurmountable pain for the sake of mankind. It is not just Christ, but the Cross as well that is pierced with nails. Adelhied L. J. Thieme remarks, "The cross itself is portrayed as his lord's retainer whose most outstanding characteristic is that of unwavering loyalty".[11] The Rood and Christ are one in the portrayal of the Passion—they are both pierced with nails, mocked and tortured. Then, just as with Christ, the Cross is resurrected, and adorned with gold and silver.[12] It is honoured above all trees just as Jesus is honoured above all men. The Cross then charges the visionary to share all that he has seen with others. In section three, the author gives his reflections about this vision. The vision ends, and the man is left with his thoughts. He gives praise to God for what he has seen and is filled with hope for eternal life and his desire to once again be near the glorious Cross.[13]

Paganism and Christianity

Like many poems of the Anglo-Saxon period, The Dream of the Rood exhibits many Christian and pre-Christian images, but in the end is a Christian piece.[14] Examining the poem as a pre-Christian (or pagan) piece is difficult, as the scribes who wrote it down were Christian monks who lived in a time when Christianity was firmly established (at least among the aristocracy) in Anglo-Saxon England.[15] Some scholars have argued that there is a prevalence of pagan elements within the poem, claiming that the idea of a talking tree is animistic. The belief in the spiritual nature of natural objects, it has been argued, recognises the tree as an object of worship. In Heathen Gods in Old English Literature, Richard North stresses the importance of the sacrifice of the tree in accordance with pagan virtues. He states that "the image of Christ's death was constructed in this poem with reference to an Anglian ideology on the world tree".[16] North suggests that the author of The Dream of the Rood "uses the language of this myth of Ingui in order to present the Passion to his newly Christianized countrymen as a story from their native tradition".[16] Furthermore, the tree's triumph over death is celebrated by adorning the cross with gold and jewels. Work of the period is notable for its synthetic employment of 'Pagan' and 'Christian' imagery as can be seen on the Franks Casket or the Kirkby Stephen cross shaft which appears to conflate the image of Christ crucified with that of Woden/Odin bound upon the Tree of Life.[17]

Despite the pagan elements, the very nature of The Dream of the Rood is based upon Christian beliefs. The poem deals with the Passion, death and Resurrection of Christ as a triumph over sin and evil, the strongest mark of Christian faith. The dreamer, in his converted state, remarks, "May the Lord be my friend/ he who here on Earth once suffered/ on the hanging tree for human sin/ he ransomed us and gave us life/ a heavenly home." Here the dreamer realises that Christ's death was not only victory in battle, but also the way in which human salvation was secured.

The poem may also be viewed as both Christian and pre-Christian. Bruce Mitchell notes that The Dream of the Rood is "the central literary document for understanding [the] resolution of competing cultures which was the presiding concern of the Christian Anglo-Saxons".[14] Within the single culture of the Anglo-Saxons is the conflicting Germanic heroic tradition and the Christian doctrine of forgiveness and self-sacrifice, the influences of which are readily seen in the poetry of the period. Thus, for instance, in The Dream of the Rood, Christ is presented as a "heroic warrior, eagerly leaping on the Cross to do battle with death; the Cross is a loyal retainer who is painfully and paradoxically forced to participate in his Lord's execution".[18] Christ can also be seen as "an Anglo-Saxon warrior lord, who is served by his thanes, especially on the cross and who rewards them at the feast of glory in Heaven".[19] Thus, the crucifixion of Christ is a victory, because Christ could have fought His enemies, but chose to die. John Canuteson believes that the poem "show[s] Christ's willingness, indeed His eagerness, to embrace His fate, [and] it also reveals the physical details of what happens to a man, rather than a god, on the Cross".[20] This image of Christ as a 'heroic lord' or a 'heroic warrior' is seen frequently in Anglo-Saxon (and Germanic) literature and follows in line with the theme of understanding Christianity through pre-Christian Germanic tradition. In this way, "the poem resolves not only the pagan-Christian tensions within Anglo-Saxon culture but also current doctrinal discussions concerning the nature of Christ, who was both God and man, both human and divine".[21]


An interesting paradox is created within this poem. The Cross is set up to be the way to Salvation. In the poem the Cross states that it cannot fall and it must stay strong to fulfill the will of God. However, to fulfill the will of God, the Cross has to be a critical instrument in Christ's death.[22] This puts a whole new light on the actions of Jesus during the Crucifixion. Neither Jesus nor the Cross is given the role of the helpless victim in the poem, but instead both stand firm. The Cross says, Jesus is depicted as the strong conqueror and is made to appear a "heroic German lord, one who dies to save his troops".[23] Instead of accepting crucifixion, he 'embraces' the Cross and takes on all the sins of mankind.

See also


Further reading

External links

  • The Dream of the Rood website
  • Modern English Translation
  • BBC Tyne – 'Dream of the Rood' vocal piece wins top prize
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.