Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Dream of the Rood


The Dream of the Rood, one of the few surviving pieces of Anglo-Saxon literature, is a vital reference for the ambiguous culture of England's early ancestors. Argued as one of the oldest pieces of Old English Literature, The Dream of the Rood effectively embodies the blended culture, moral code, and religious values of its unknown author. In the poem the narrator recalls a vision he received in a dream, where he encounters the rood on which Christ was crucified. The rood's dictation, steeped with references to both Pagan and Christian culture, implies the subservient relationship he shared with Christ as that of a lord and thane. Furthermore, the crucifixion scene is metaphorically illustrated as a battle and elevates both Christ and the rood to the warrior status reminiscent of Anglo-Saxon heroes. This contradictory concept of Christ as a self-sacrificing victim, yet fearless warrior king, coupled with the conflicting references to Pagan and Christian culture demonstrate the blended perspective of the poem's author. Within the context of the poem, the clash between the newly emerging society of ecclesiastical ethics and Pagan tradition of heroism and warfare is evident.
The prominence of Pagan culture in The Dream of the Rood is most obviously demonstrated by the animistic characteristics of the rood, which is endowed with a living spirit. The personification of the rood is analogous to the beliefs of the ancient Celts, where nature was regarded as a living, feeling, and conscious entity. Furthermore, when the narrator first introduces the reader to the rood he describes it as though it were an idol, with it "entirely cased in gold; the beautiful gems stood/ at the corners of the earth" (6-8). The narrator later asserts that it is by "the means of the rood each soul/ who thinks to dwell with the Ruler/ must seek the kingdom from the earthy way/ I prayed to the three with a happy spirit then" (199-122). With these lines, the pious dreamer is sympathizing with Pagan tradition, signaling out the rood itself as an object of worship. He prays to the golden rood as an idol, initiating the rood's prophecy that it will be "honoured far and wide/ by men over the earth and all this glorious creation/ they will pray to this beacon" (81-83). These Pagan attributes highly contrast the overall Christian elements of the poem, where Christ is declared as the sole source of salvation for mankind.
Christ is depicted both as a warrior and king in The Dream of the Rood, substituting the traditional Christian concept of Christ as a passive redeemer of sins with the bravery of Germanic hero. The narrator regards the willing sacrifice of Christ's life as a triumph and embodies Christ with the courage, honor, and might of a traditional Anglo-Saxon king. While the rod explains that he could have easily "felled all the enemies" (38) for Christ, Christ instead willingly "ascended on the high gallows/ brave in the sight of many/ when he wanted to ransom mankind" (40-42). With this action Christ proves himself a heroic being, determined to carry out God's divine plan, even if it means losing his life in the process. Like all Anglo-Saxon heroes, Christ submits himself to the winds of fate and gains immorality. The rood, like a burial mound, becomes a symbol of Christ's triumph.
Throughout the poem there are strong suggestions of a lord/ thane relationship between Christ and the rood, where the rood is presented as a selfless retainer of Christ. The relationship is subtlety suggested when the dreamer witnesses the rood began to bleed on the right side as Christ had, implying the inseparable connection between lord and thane. This bond is later solidified when the rood and Christ are depicted in battle together and the rood obediently follows the desires of his lord, recalling that he did "not dare, against the word of the Lord/ bow or break, when I saw the/ corners of the earth tremble" (35-38). The act of the nails piercing Christ and literally fastening him to the rood serves as a subtle symbolic reference to the unbreakable loyalty of a thane to his lord. This lord/thane relationship is later expanded to the bond between the Christians and Christ, where in a kenning Christ's followers are referred to as "the Lord's thanes" (75). At the conclusion of the poem, the narrator himself accepts this lord/thane relationship with Christ. Just as the lords of ancient times presented thanes with treasures for their service, the poet regards this vision of the gold-enameled cross as a gift from God and is thus bound by the Anglo-Saxon code of conduct to serve Christ.
It is truly remarkable how a poem can so flawlessly embody two distinct cultures, or rather the transition point between them. The Dream of the Rood offers readers a glimpse into the distant past of England; a time where the Anglo-Saxon hierarchy and Pagan rituals fell into steady decline and a newer, more centralized faith captivated the eyes of the people. However, The Dream of the Rood is evidence of something much more significant within its stanzas. It affirms that the reverence for spirits, the bond between lord and thane, and glorification of the heroic character did not fall under the shadow of Christ's cross. Instead, these things persisted on: masked, obscured, shining in the luminance of wet ink.

1 comment: