The Dream of the Rood
by Tony Linsell
This article first appeared in Steadfast Magazine –
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Over one-thousand years ago the clergymen of England were on the whole more vigorous and formidable than the mostly feeble bunch who today, with notable exceptions, supervise the decay of a largely irrelevant Church of England. They were Englishmen who were born into a culture where the imperative was to act heroically in this short life so that their fame might live on in the communal memory. The warrior outlook and the war-band ethos that was part of heathen culture lived on long after the nominal conversion to Christianity. Men of the Church saw themselves as warriors fighting for a heavenly rather than an earthly Lord. While they did not share the heathen view that death was a curse, they were still rooted in a culture where men and women felt the need to earn a good name for themselves, their family, and their Lord. To earn a good name it was necessary to be true to one's word, be loyal to those to whom one professed loyalty, be hospitable to guests, and to deal fairly in matters of trade. The imperative was to be bold in thought and deed, and to win honour and fame not just for oneself but for one's community and Lord.
Long after the arrival of Christianity, the heroic ideal was still held out as something to aspire to. Augustine arrived in England in 597 but the English did not become meek and mild, or turn the other cheek and forgiving those who had done them or their family harm. The heroic verse written to record the Battle of Maldon in 991 does not have the warriors crossing themselves and looking forward to ascending into heaven - there is no mention of it at all. They are fighting for their honour and that of their shield companions and their leader. The greatest heroism is shown when facing death - to display dogged determination and fight to the end against overwhelming odds - not to run from the enemy but to fight and die with one's battle companions and one's Lord.
The qualities of vigour and boldness were recognised in friend and foe alike - those deeds that won fame and respect among friends and companions, were likely to also win fame and respect among foes. This outlook is evident in an Old English poem which is known as the Dream of the Rood. Part of it is carved in runes on the Ruthwell cross which is dated to the period 650-725, so the poem obviously predates that.
The name given to the poem can be misleading because it is not about the rood dreaming, but about a person dreaming about the rood. The dreamer sees a rood (a wooden cross) bedecked in fine decoration of gold and jewels. And then the vision becomes one of the rood bloodstained. The view switches back and forth until the rood speaks to the dreamer and tells how it was once a mighty tree standing in the forest before it was cut down and made into a gallows for criminals. It served that purpose until one day the Lord of Mankind - the young hero - boldly mounted the rood - strong and steadfast - ready and eager to die for a great cause. Both Christ and the rood stand firm until each of them is cut down. Each is in a different way resurrected.
I am not a Christian but I find the poem beautiful and powerful. It is a bit late for Easter, that heathen festival named after the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre, but better late than never.
One final point, the poem is written in English - an English spoken by the English people and the sort of English in which John Wycliffe and William Tyndale wrote. It is a powerful English which can say much with few words - which is perhaps why it is not liked by those who have little or nothing to say and, for example, prefer to call a warehouse a storage facility or a town rubbish dump a civic waste disposal amenity.
The Dream of the Rood - the first 109 lines translated
Listen. I shall speak of a wonderful dream
that came to me in the very deep of the night
when human voices were all stilled in rest.
It seemed I saw a miraculous tree,
borne on the air, enveloped in light,
the brightest of trees. The whole of that beacon was
drenched in gold, with beautiful jewels set
as though at earth´s four corners, and five such placed
up on the shoulder-beam. All there beheld
God´s angel, through all time forever fair.
For this was not a felon´s gallows-tree,
but holy spirits there all gazed upon it,
and men on earth, and all the great Creation.
Wondrous in triumph, that tree; I, stained with sin,
with my wrongdoing maimed. I saw the glory-tree
dressed in its raiment, in splendour shining,
bedecked with gold; bright jewels there
clustered to grace a tree from the forest glades.
And yet, through the sheen of gold I could perceive
death-throes of wretches in the past, for it started to bleed
on the right-hand side. I was transfixed with grief,
in fear for that beautiful thing, the urgent light
now moving in raiment and colours, now misted over,
soiled with the flow of blood, then again sheened with gold.
Yet lying there still, for a long time I beheld,
in cruel care of heart, my Saviour´s tree
Until I heard it make the sound of a voice,
this tree of trees, and presently speak these words:
"Long years ago it was, I still remember,
they cut me down, severed me from my roots
at the edge of the wood. Fierce devils,
to put on a show, would have me hang up their thieves.
Men shouldered me, and brought me to a high hill,
where a gang of devils rooted me.
I saw the Master of Men,
who was God Almighty, hasten in all his valour.
so eager was He to ascend to me,
and then I did not dare, against God´s word,
to bend, or split, when I saw the tremor shaking
the corners of the earth. I might have crushed,
easily, all the devils. But I stood fast.
Then he girded himself for battle, this young hero
that was God Almighty, strong and steadfast,
he climbed the high gallows, brave in the sight of many,
when he sought to redeem mankind.
I quivered when the warrior embraced me,
and yet I dared not bend down to the ground,
fall flat to the earth beneath. I must stand fast.
I was raised, the Rood. I bore the mighty King,
the Lord of Heaven. Bow down I dared not
They pierced me through with blood-black nails;
the wounds you see on me,
the open gashes of malice; nor yet dare I
do harm to any of them
They taunted and mocked us, both together,
I was a drench of blood
that gushed out from the Warrior´s side
when he gave up the ghost.
Such things I had to endure upon that hill,
such dire events. I saw the Lord of Hosts
cruelly racked. Darkness had wreathed
in cloud, the corpse of the Almighty,
that brilliant ray; the dark went forth,
a shade under the clouds. All Creation wept
the fall of the King. Christ was crucified.
Yet eager comrades hastened from afar
to help the Prince. And I beheld it all
Beside myself with grief,
yet I bowed to the helpers´ hands, humble, in duty.
They received Almighty God,
brought him down from his dire torment
The warriors left me there,
standing, in moisture swathed,
sore-stricken with many barbs,
while they laid Him down, limb-weary,
and stood at the head of the corpse.
They beheld the King of Heaven
and he rested there for a while
exhausted from the great fight. And so they built a tomb,
those friends, where the killers could see it,
from shining, new-cut stone,
and laid there the Lord of Hosts
They chanted a lament,
mournful, at eventide; and when the hour came to depart,
desolate, from the great King
they left him resting there, with little company.
We, crosses, however, weeping there a long while
stood in position after the voice of the mourners
had died away; the corpse grew cold,
that fair house of life. Then they felled us all,
cut us down to the ground. That was a terrible fate!
In a deep pit they buried us,
where yet God´s servants sought me.
They asked, and found the place.
With gold and silver they adorned me.
So you have heard, O my beloved friend,
how I endured the work of evil men,
bitter sorrows. Now the time is come
when I shall be revered , far and wide
through all the earth, through all the great Creation
by those who kneel in prayer to this sign. (continued)
On me, the Son of God
endured a space, and therefore, glorious now
I tower under heaven; and I may heal
each one of those who stand in awe of me.
Once I was deemed the harshest punishment,
abhorred by everyone, till I prepared,
for living men, the right way to life.
For lo, the Prince of Glory, the Lord of Hosts,
has honoured me above all trees in the wood,
even as his mother, Mary herself,
Almighty God has honoured for all men´s sake,
honouring her above all womankind.
Now I command you, dear disciple,
tell forth this vision you have seen.
Find words to say that this is the glory-tree
on which the Almighty God once suffered so,
for the sake of mankind´s manifold offences
and our father Adam´s ancient trespasses.
Death He tasted there, and yet God rose again
in power and might, to come to the aid of man.
He ascended into heaven. He will come again,
upon the earth, to seek out humankind
on Judgement Day, come as our living Lord,
Almighty God, and all his angels with him.
From the Judgement Seat, He will pass sentence then,
on everyman, as each one has deserved
for what he was, in this, our fleeting life.