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The Dream of the Rood is one of the earliest Christian poems in the corpus of Old English literature and an intriguing example of the genre of dream poetry. Like all Old English poetry, it is written in alliterative verse. Rood is from the Old English rod "pole", 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

There are sections from “The Dream of the Rood” that are found on the Ruthwell Cross that dates back to the 7th century. It was an 18 foot, free standing, Anglo-Saxon Cross, perhaps intended as a "conversion tool" (Schapiro 1944). At each side of the vine-tracery the runes are carved. 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 initial Protestant revolt, it was reconstructed as much as possible after the fear of iconography passed (O Carragain 7, 228). 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 Vercelli, Italy. The Vercelli Book dates back to the 10th century, and also holds 23 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

To this day the authorship of Dream of the Rood remains unknown; however with the Ruthwell Cross giving the poem a rough time period in which it could have been written, scholars have been able to make educated suggestions on possible authors. Two of the most heavily argued, for probable authorship, are the Anglo-Saxon Christian poets Caedmon and Cynewulf.

What scholars know of Caedmon's life comes from Bede's "Ecclesiastical History of the English People". He is known best during the time fl. 658-680 AD., and Bede tells us that he was an illiterate herdsman to a monastery who one night in a dream learned how to sing beautiful Christian verses praising God's name. Following his dream, Caedmon became the foremost Christian poet who led the way for others such as Bede and Cynewulf (Hunter 2). 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" (Cook, 6). 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" (Cook, 7). 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 (Krstovic). 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 (Drabble 2). 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 (Cook, 12-13).

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. 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 also stained with blood (Bradley 160). 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 to be the bearer of a criminal, but instead the Christ comes to be 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, in his "Gift Giving as a Vital Element of Salvation in the Dream of the Rood," remarks, "The cross itself is portrayed as his lord's retainer whose most outstanding characteristic is that of unwavering loyalty (108.)" The Rood and Christ are one in the portrayal of the Passion—they are both pierced with nails, mocked and tortured. Then, just like with Christ, the Cross is resurrected, and adorned with gold and silver (Galloway, 1). It is honored above all trees just as Jesus is honored 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 (Lapidge).

Paganism vs. Christianity

Dream of the Rood is heavily laden with references to pagan culture. For instance, the dreamer (most likely a pagan at the beginning of the dream) recalls the cross telling him about the crucifixion as if it were a battle. Additionally, the poem presents Christ as a "heroic warrior, eagerly leaping on the Cross to do a battle with death; the Cross is a loyal retainer who is painfully and paradoxically forced to participate in his Lord's execution (Black, 23.)" 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" (Dockray-Miller, 3.) Thus, the crucifixion of Christ is a victory because Christ could have fought His enemies, but He chose to die on the cross. 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" (296.) Besides this image of Christ as a warrior king, the idea of a talking tree is animistic, recalling the way in which pagan elements incorporate spirits and other fantastical elements, but also Balaam's talking ass. Paganism puts a great emphasis on the spiritual elements that embody various things in Mother Nature. Specifically in the poem, this belief that natural objects possess a spirit or spiritual elements urges the reader to recognize the tree as an object of worship. In his text, 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 (North, 273.) Additionally, North suggests that the author of 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" (273.) Furthermore, the tree's triumph over death is celebrated by adorning the cross with gold and jewels. Despite these strong pagan elements, the very nature of The Dream of the Rood is based upon Christian belief. The entire poem deals with the passion, death and resurrection of Christ as a triumph over sin and evil, which is 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 realizes that Christ's death was not only victory in battle, but also the way in which human salvation was secured.[citation needed]


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, in order to fulfill the will of God the Cross has to be a critical instrument in the death of Christ (Burrow 125). It also puts a whole new light on the actions of Jesus during the Crucifixion. Both Jesus and the Cross are not given the role of the helpless victim in this poem. Instead they are both standing firm to what they need to do. “Then saw I mankind's Lord come with great courage when he would mount on me” (33b-34b). Jesus is the strong conqueror. He is made to appear like all of the other Old English heroes. Christ is shown as a “heroic German lord, one who dies to save his troops” (Treharne 108). Jesus does not just accept that he will be crucified instead he “embraces” the Cross and takes on all the sins of mankind.

Works cited

  • Black, Joseph ed., Supplement to Broadview Anthology of British Literature. Broadview Press, 2007.
  • Blair, Hunter. The World of Bede. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1970. Sep. 27, 2007
  • Bradley, S.A.J. “The Dream of the Rood.” Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Ed. S.A.J. Bradley. London, Everyman, 1982. 160.
  • Burrow, J.A. “An Approach to The Dream of the Rood.” Neophilologus. 43 (1959) 123-133
  • Canuteson, John. "The Crucifixion and Second Coming of Christ." Modern Philology, Vol. 66, No. 4, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Marathon Campus. May 1969, pp 293–297.
  • Cook, Albert S., ed. The Dream of the Rood: An Old English Poem Attributed to Cynewulf. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905. Sep. 27, 2007
  • Dockray-Miller, Mary. "The Feminized Cross of 'The Dream of the Rood.'" Philogical Quarterly, Vol 76. 1997, pp. 1 and 3.
  • Drabble, Margaret. ed. "The Vercelli Book: Introduction." The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Ed. 5th Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. Sep. 27, 2007.
  • Galloway, Andrew. "Dream-Theory in the Dream of the Rood and the Wanderer." Oxford University Press Vol. XLV, No. 180, 1994.
  • Krstovic, Jelena. ed. "The Dream of the Rood: Introduction." Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism. Vol 14. Gale Group, Inc., 1995. 2006. Sep. 27, 2007
  • Lapidge, Michael. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England. England, 1991.
  • North, Richard. Heathen Gods in Old English Literature. Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 273.
  • O Carragain, Eamonn. Ritual and the Rood: Liturgical Images and the Poems of The Dream of the Rood Tradition. London, University of Toronto Press, 2005.
  • Schapiro, Meyer. "The Religious Meaning of the Ruthwell Cross." The Art Bulletin. Vol 26. No 4. New York: College Art Association, 1944. Sep. 27, 2007.
  • Swanton, Michael. The Dream of the Rood. Ed. Michael Swanton. Great Britain, University of Exeter Press, 1996
  • Thieme, Adelhied L. J. "Gift Giving as a Vital Element of Salvation in the Dream of the Rood" South Atlantic Review, 1998.
  • Treharne, Elaine. “The Dream of the Rood.” Old and Middle English c.890-c.1400: An Anthology. Malden, MA, Blackwell, 2004

See also

External links



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