The Dream of the Rood
Some issues and themes to consider when writing about The Dream of the Rood.
- Can you identify any specific characteristics which differentiate the rood's speech from that of the narrator? Why is it only the rood and the narrator who speak, when the Bible specifically notes the final words of Christ on the cross?
- The rood does not identify itself as "rod" until line 44. What is the effect of this deferral?
- Look at the words used for those who crucify Christ. They are generally unspecific and generic. What might be the purpose of this?
- Note the repeated phrase "elne mycle", which is used to describe first Christ, then the Cross, and then the Dreamer, and of "mæte weorode" which describes both Christ and the Dreamer. Are there other comparisons to be drawn between the three?
- Consider the representation of Christ in the poem - what kind of vocabulary does the poet employ to describe him and his actions? Many of the epithets used for Christ are more common in descriptions of God the Father. Why might the poet consider these appropriate for Christ in this poem?
- The cross is named with a large number of different epithets in the poem. What kind of theology is built up by the way the poet describes it?
- The poet makes much use of the vocabulary of sight in the poem. Why might this be so? What are the religious connotations of sight?
- The narrator's experience seems to be based very strongly in the experience of the senses - sight and sound, in particular. Does he make a distinction between worldly and spiritual experiences of this sort?
- Look for images of opposition - where two things or ideas are placed in a binary relationship, such as dark/light, beauty/ugliness, the world/the heavens and so on.
- Descriptions of wounds and suffering are, of course, an important part of the poem. The more extreme language of this sort is used to describe the Rood rather than Christ himself. Look at the difference between the way the two are described in this regard - Christ is seen more as a weary warrior than someone suffering a horrific and bloody death.
- The word "Hwæt" is a common way to begin a poem - the Old English coursepack gives examples of others. What is the effect of this emphatic opening? What relationship does it establish between poet/speaker and audience?
- There are a large number of hypermetric lines in this poem - these are lines which have three stresses in each half-line rather than two. The function of such lines is unclear. They may be intended to create a more solemn down by slowing down the narrative, or they may have other functions now lost to us. The coursepack gives a list of which lines are hypermetrical.
- How does the poet present time? Look at the use of different tenses and of adverbials expressing duration or passage of time. The rood seems particularly fond of the adverb "Hwæðere", which can mean however, yet, nevertheless or still. Which of these seems the most appropriate translation in each case? What effect does the choice of translation have on the narrative's sense of time?
- Why does the poet choose to frame this vision as a dream? Look at other uses of dreams - the episode of Fursey in Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica, as well as Bede's account of other visions in Book 5, chapters 12-14. See also Ælfric's life of Saint Swithin. What is the importance of dreams in these texts?
- The use of prosopopoeia has been compared with the speaking objects found in the Old English riddles. Is this a helpful comparison? What other reasons might there be for the cross to speak? Is the riddle an appropriate vehicle for religious ideas?
- Consider the poet's use of repetition. The rood, for example, refers to the dreamer as "hæleð min se leofa" twice, and we have already looked at other repetitions of ideas relating to the three main characters of the poem.
Artistic and cultural context
- Use the "Context" section of the Old English coursepack to look at the relationship between Rood and the Ruthwell Cross.
- Traditional crucifixion iconography often shows Christ in agony, covered with wounds. However, such images, and the feminisation of Christ which they entail, are originally a product of the later Middle Ages and were not prevalent in the Anglo-Saxon visual arts.
- Barbara Raw argues that there is "no coherent chronological development from pictures of Christ triumphing over death to ones of Christ suffering. The drawings in the Ramsey Psalter [...] and the Arenberg Gospels [... from] the end of the tenth century, show Christ dead on the cross, his body sagging and his head sunk below his shoulders; a drawing in the Sherborne Missal made sixty years later shows him standing erect with open eyes." (Barbara Raw, Anglo-Saxon Crucifixion Iconography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).) However, even the images to which Raw refers show Christ with relatively straight limbs, a peaceful expression, and small wounds with little blood.
- Jewelled metalwork crosses were produced in the A-S period. See this article for some interesting discussion of their style and significance.
Intertextuality and formulae
- "reordberend" as a word characterising humanity also appears in other religious poetry. Interestingly, it is used in the poem Daniel, when king Nebuchadnezzar asks his wise men to interpret "hwæt hine gemætte, þenden reordberend reste wunode" (l. 122).
- "Syllic wæs se sigebeam, ic synnum fah, forwunded mid wommum" (ll. 13-4). Compare Satan's self-description: "Nu ic eom dædum fah, gewundod mid wommum" (Christ and Satan, l. 155).
- "Eall ic wæs mid sorgum gedrefed" (l. 20, the Dreamer's words), "Sare ic wæs mid sorgum gedrefed" (l. 59, the Rood's words). Compare Judith's prayer to God, asking for courage before her mission to kill Holofernes: "Þearle ys me nu ða heorte onhæted ond hige geomor, swyðe mid sorgum gedrefed" (Judith, ll. 86-87).
Be careful of...
- Making assumptions that critical interpretations you know of can be taken as read in your discussion. Common examples of this are the ideas of the cross as a "retainer" of Christ or as a feminised figure - these are widely-known critical interpretations but are by no means accepted by everyone. So, for example, rather than saying that the cross is described as a retainer, use the language of the passage to back this idea up (if it can be backed up!)
- Assuming that a line is hypermetrical just because it looks longer than normal. Make sure that you're confident about which lines are hypermetrical and which aren't.
- Suggesting a binary opposition between the heroic and the Christian. Although war and heroism were no doubt integral to pre-Christian Germanic culture, they are also important in Christianity, as we can see by looking at the Bible. The Old Testament in particular has many accounts of fighting between peoples and the destruction of Israel's enemies, but the New Testament also uses warfare symbolically and metaphorically to discuss the role of the Christian in fighting sin and the devil. The fact that Anglo-Saxon authors adapted their own social practices to the Christian context does not necessarily imply that those practices were an alien intrusion into Christian ideas.