To what extent and to what purpose does The Dream of the Rood reinterpret a Christian narrative through a Germanic cultural lens?
The Emperor Constantine fueled the conversion to Christianity in medieval Britain after a “vision” of a cross prior to his victory over Maxentius; due to this, Christianity itself became a symbol of supremacy and conquest. Before this, the Cross bore very little status, and there are no prior definitive representations of the Crucifixion. Germanic culture at the time the poem was written focussed mostly on heroism; Epic heroes such as Beowulf were praised and warrior culture was a way of life. Dying an honourable death after fighting an honourable fight would have been ideal, and this is reflective of the Crucifixion of Christ outlined in The Dream of The Rood.
Taking into account that Anglo Saxon culture was highly sculpted around battle, Christ himself is represented as a battle hero in the poem. The Dream of The Rood depicts Christ as a “young warrior ” going forth into the challenge of death with his head held high and an acceptance of mortal danger. Christ is said to have “alacrity and courage”, focal elements in the survival of a battle hero. Furthermore, rather than the Crucifixion being humiliating for Jesus, he is described as being “keen for the combat”; rather than being shown as an unwilling sacrifice. Christ can almost be seen as a warrior beginning battle with an opponent. If we assume that Christ was in fact following the Anglo Saxon heroic code, then his death represents self sacrifice for his comitatus, and due to his bravery, is even more affecting in defeat (death) than victory against his captors. However, although there are, to some extent, likenesses between Christ and an Anglo Saxon battle hero, there are also apparent differences. ‘Christ’s willing to die on the Cross wasn’t undertaken in order to achieve political power or securing wealth; his death was not an attempt to introduce any form of gift in return for loyalty, it was simply a necessary sacrifice that had to be made’ . Christ’s goal was more than just the protection of a community or his comitatus; it was an attempt at redemption for everyone.
In The Dream of the Rood, I believe that the focal member of Christ’s comitatus was the Cross itself, which stoically feels the physical pain of Jesus. The Dream shows prosopopoeia, where the Cross itself tells its own story, despite it truthfully being an inanimate object. “The cross is confessing his unwilling participation in that worst crime of retainer against warrior lord—he has been disloyal, and his disloyalty has lead to the death of his ring-giver, so to speak. The speech of the penitent cross is in fact a dramatization of the narrator’s remorse for his sinful part in the necessity for this same crucifixion, and it clarifies for the narrator both his guilt and the ready redemption.” However, despite the disloyalty and with the heroic ethic that the comitatus must be willing to die for their Lord in mind, it can be said that the Cross willingly defends his Lord and is chivalric in the sense that the Cross has to witness the voluntary death of Christ. In The Dream, the Cross says, “Here we can see how although in its ‘heart’ the Cross wanted nothing more than to save his lord, he stuck whole heartedly to the commands he had been given; the Cross almost shows a physical loyalty to Christ despite its own suffering. “In His blood when it sprang from His side, was my splintered surface soaked” shows the Cross’s own ache at the death of Christ, and that it takes the pain on Christ’s behalf also ensures that Christ’s divinity is protected from corporeality. Due to this, it could be argued that Christ represents the divinity of God’s Son on earth, and the Cross itself represents the human body. Overall, the majority of the excitement in the first part of the poem is that in order for the Cross to be loyal to Christ, it has to be disloyal in aiding his death.
Following the speech the Dreamer receives from the Cross, the Dreamer almost has an epiphany, realising that his new goal in life was to “turn to that tree of victory alone and more often than any other man and honour it fully”; it is straightforward to see the obvious change in the narrator, he has followed a path from start to end of the poem, which ultimately ends in redemption and realisation of the Dreamer’s ambition and life’s purpose. He experiences “wonder, confusion, and grief, then clarity and confession, and finally joy” From this journey, we can once again draw a comparison between Christianity and Germanic culture; the journey The Dreamer goes through could also match the emotions of the people the Anglo Saxon warriors leave behind in death. For example, the wife of a warrior would wonder at his ability, be confused at the circumstances of his battle, grieve his death and finally celebrate the life of the warrior that was lost. This parallel is hugely clear throughout the poem; Germanic culture not only influences the poet to portray the Crucifixion of Christ as a death in battle, but also mirroring the journey of the people who are left behind and likening it to the Dreamer’s relationship with the Cross. Furthermore, this experience of Christianity is not just hidden in the realms of the Anglo Saxon culture; as the poet would have intended, the text is timeless, “its poetic content is readily accessible to the modern reader ”and I believe that it is for this purpose, to keep the text timeless, that the poem can so easily be translated and adapted not only to Anglo Saxon culture, but our own modernity: the Christian values are rife throughout the poem, and these shall not be altered.
In conclusion, the extent to which the Dream of the Rood portrays a Christian narrative through a Germanic cultural lens is high; the likeness of Christ to a warrior, the prosopopoeia of the Rood and its determination and physical strength as a leading retainer in Christ’s “comitatus” and the timeless journey that all people must go through if they have a relationship with death and religion draw clear comparisons between heroism (Christ) and the fight for eternal life. “The Rood poet offers us a web that interweaves patterns found in oral-formulaic narrative with the story of the crucifixion ”; and therefore the cultural reflection on Germanic heroism can evolve and prevail.