The earliest fragment of the Dream of the Rood that we have is a few lines of runic inscription of a North English cross that is now at Ruthwell in Dumfriesshire. The rest of the text that we have is in the Vercelli Manuscript. A lot of critics dispute what the relationship between the runic inscriptions and the poem found in the Vercelli Manuscript is. Some believe that the poem on the Ruthwell Cross is an earlier poem, and the one we find in the Vercelli Manuscript is a later revision or expansion on that earlier work. The Ruthwell Cross dates back to eighth century Northumbria, and is adorned with Christian inscriptions and iconography. The version that is found in the Vercelli Manuscript is the most complete that we know of and consists of one hundred and fifty six lines in Old English. The author (or authors) of the poem is also under dispute. Some believe that the author is Cynewulf or Cyneheard, but these are mostly based on conjecture. At any rate, the two pieces are undoubtedly related in some way (Fleming).
Much of the meaning of The Dream of the Rood lies in its use of tropes commonly associated with Anglo-Saxon culture and literature in order to adapt to the Christian theme of the poem.
pær ic pa ne dorste ofer dryhtnes word
buggan odde berstan, pa ic bifian geseah
eordan sceatas. Ealle ic mihte
feondas gefyllan, hwædre ic fæsta stod. (35 – 38)
This passage roughly translates to “There I did not dare, against the word of the Lord / bow or break when I saw the / corners of the earth tremble. / I might have felled all the enemies; even so I stood fast.” In “The Dream of the Rood and Anglo-Saxon Monasticism,” John J. Fleming writes about this passage,
The cross, in the poetic role of a warrior in Christ’s band, must become the bana, or technical slayer, of its own lord. For this paradoxical disloyalty, the Cross receives the traditional reward of the faithful retainer.
The heroic code and the ideology that surrounds the comitatus and warrior culture was an important one in Anglo-Saxon culture as well as their literature. The laws and codes of conduct of the comitatus influenced communities, rule of law, and was the basis for much of Anglo-Saxon culture and conduct as well as a common, albeit often exaggerated, theme for poetry and literature. Beowulf, for example, is a fine example of the heroic comitatus theme being put to use in early English literature.
Comitatus was a system of relationships that describe loyalty and partnership. It was an extremely affluent class in which only the elite were included. A landowner or the leader of a warband is a member of a comitatus, a group of other landowners and leaders. That comitatus is headed by a lord, who in turn is a retainer of the king. Adelheid L. J. Thieme writes,
All these relationships are strengthened by and maintained by means of gift-giving. Unfortunately, there are not historical records that bear direct witness to the practice of gift exchange in Anglo-Saxon culture. In the absence of extensive historical records, we have to rely on literary sources and analogous studies to arrive at an approximation of what gift exchange must have meant for the Anglo-Saxon audience of the Rood poet. (Thieme)
Thieme goes on to explain that we get very powerful examples of the role of gift exchange in Beowulf, “that it functions as a controlling theme in the poem.” She goes on,
Similarly, the gnomic literature of the Anglo-Saxon period, especially Maxims I and II, place major emphasis on the significance of proper gift exchange. In varying contexts, the Maxims, which articulate the accumulated wisdom of the culture that produced them, accentuate the importance of gift giving with respect to rulers and the obligation of the retainers to reciprocate the gifts received. (Thieme)
So we see that there is good material to use that provides a lot of information about the rules of comitatus and the role of gift giving in the forming and maintaining these relationships. Gift giving essentially forms and maintains the social ties of a society. If a gift is not reciprocated, it ruins the beneficent effect that the gift giving and those social ties involved provide. The tradition of gift giving has the power to benefit all members of the social group, but if gifts are not reciprocated then social group loses benefit. Gift giving in The Dream of the Rood has multiple purposes. It emphasizes the importance of the gift that Christ has given to mankind and it also highlights the need for the gift to be reciprocated by a countergift. Any person who wants to achieve the glory of God as Christ and the cross did must actively participate in their struggle. That person must join the comitatus by reciprocating the gift that has already been given, and must actively show their loyalty to Christ and the Father at all times, just as they would for any earthly lord. The poet also uses gift giving in order to propulgate “the continuity of pre-Christian and Christian values” (Thieme 109). In one sense, you might say that The Dream of the Rood is smoothing out the edges during an extreme transition into Christianity while at the same time working to preserve the culture and traditions that already existed before the mass conversion to Christianity.
In The Dream of the Rood, just like with Beowulf, the Maxims and other works of literature from Anglo-Saxon England, places much importance on the role of gift giving within the comitatus. The Dream of the Rood is a wonderful example of Anglo-Saxon literature that fuses together the most important story in Christianity (the Crucifixion) with traditional Anglo-Saxon culture, namely the heroic code. It achieves this by making the characters that are presented in the poem (Christ, the Cross, and the Dreamer) fit into the comitatus theme of Germanic warrior culture. We can see this in several ways that the characters are represented.
Christ himself, for one, does not function in the way he usually does in biblical texts or Latin verse. In The Dream of the Rood, he is brave and stoic, like a great warrior.
Ongyrede hine pa geong hæleð, (pæt wæs god ælmihtig),
strang ond stiðmod. Gestah he on gealgan heanne,
modig on manigra gesyhðe, pa he wolde mancyn lysan. (39-41)
These lines describe Christ as a warrior. Rather than an abused but unbroken martyr who is doomed to suffer for the sins of humanity, Christ is a “geong hæleð” (young hero) “strang ond stiðmod” (strong and resolute). He approaches his death like it is a glorious battle, and the Cross stands with him, resolute, though it must kill its lord. Christ, through remaining loyal, strong, and resolute through this trying time, is acting like many of the Germanic heroes in other Anglo-Saxon literature. Christ is actually functioning in a similar way to Beowulf, for one. Beowulf had to submit himself to Hygelac and employ his strengths in order to benefit his lord and his lands. Beowulf is richly rewarded for his services, and so is Christ. In The Dream of the Rood, Christ is not initially depicted as a lord himself, but is submitting himself to the Father. The poem seems to suggest that it is only after Christ’s heroic battle and death that he is rewarded by his lord, the Father, and is made lordly himself. Christ, for his faithful service to his lord father, is rewarded with a seat at his father’s right hand after his death (Thieme).
The Cross, for its “paradoxical disloyalty,” as Fleming puts it, is rewarded by his lord, Christ. The Cross, for bearing the weight of his lord and letting him be killed despite being able to resist, is rewarded by being adorned with gold and silver (line 77). The cross, as Thieme explains, is granted by his lord Christ the power to act as a lord itself. It uses this power to appear, adorned in precious metals and gems to the Dreamer and tell him the story of how he held his lord aloft out of loyalty and faith and was rewarded by being given these glorious gifts in reciprocation.
Hwæt, me pa geweorðode wuldres Ealdor
ofer homwudu, heofonrices Weard,
swylce swa he his moder eac, Marian sylfe,
ælmihtig God for ealle menn
geweorðode ofer eall wifa cynn. (90-94)
The cross, once plain wood, is now exalted. It is “honoured above the trees of the forest” and risen to the status of a lord. The Dreamer is seeing for himself the validity of Christ’s claims of rewarding his faithful servants. So the Cross, it seems, is now further gift-giving and reciprocating by telling the Dreamer that he has been given a gift by Christ, who died for his sins. The Dreamer interprets the telling of this story by the Cross as a gift, and so in return for this gift that the Cross has given him, the Dreamer tells the story of his dream to others in order to tell the tale and let others know of this great gift that was given to all of humanity by Christ. Its resplendence in its appearance to the dreamer is testament to the validity of its sacrifice in going against traditional Germanic servitude, which is important to addressing the comingling of cultures in The Dream of the Rood. This is certainly not heroism and faithful retainership as the Anglo-Saxons were used to it, but the Dreamer’s vision of the Cross in all its glory gives credence to Christ as a lord and gift giver.
The dreamer in the poem is not directly linked to Christ, as the cross is, but he is paralleled with the cross, and so joins Christ’s comitatus through the cross. One way that the characters are all paralleled is through the stigmata. Christ and the cross both physically share the same stigmata, having gone through the same ordeal together. The dreamer has no such stigmata, but the parallel is made when the dreamer first sees the cross adorned with gold and gems and the dreamer says “Syllic wæs se sigebeam, on ic synnum fah” (Wondrous was the victory-tree, and I was stained with sins). The dreamer, though not having physical stigmata, shares in the wounds and blood-stains of the cross and Christ through being stained with sin. The contrast between the resplendent cross and the dreamer, stained with sins, highlights Christ’s gift to mankind: the chance to clean oneself of these stains caused by sin (Fleming).
Just as with the cross, faithful servants and retainers to the lord Christ are promised great rewards for their loyalty. It’s a promising prospect to be awarded by the greatest lord and ring-giver of all of Creation. The tradition of gift giving also aids in the spreading of Christian culture through The Dream of the Rood because of its inclusion of the audience as a character in the poem. The audience becomes paralleled with the Dreamer, as the audience is in a similar position as the Dreamer, i.e. someone who has heard this story for the first time and is perhaps compelled to reciprocate Christ’s gift and become his loyal follower.
As the resplendent rood depicts Christ’s heroic conduct and his honorable reward, it sets up Christ as a model to be emulated by all believers. In the same way as Christ faithfully served God, Christians ought to devote themselves to Christ’s service. They can rightly hope that Christ will grant eternal bliss to his loyal servants, just as he himself was rewarded for his obedience by a superior position and supreme power. The rood suggests that God’s gift of redemption and everlasting happiness is contingent on the readiness of the believer to give God the only countergift that He demands, namely whole-hearted devotion and loyal service. (Thieme 113)
The tradition of gift giving was so dominant in Anglo-Saxon culture that this must have been a very compelling offer. They are used to giving their loyalty and devotion to a lord, and now they are given the chance to serve the most powerful and glorious lord of all. It makes sense that the change to Christianity was so tempting, and it’s easy to see how the story of Christ might be spread, with people giving the gift of this story to others, thus fulfilling their bond with Christ. This is not to say, however, that The Dream of the Rood was some sort of propaganda piece used to subtly convert the populace to Christianity. Instead, one should see it as a successful melding of cultures. The Dream of the Rood was written in a time and place that had been undergoing great changes, particularly in regards to the widespread conversion to Christianity. The Dream of the Rood could be a tribute to a great hero in the mind of the author, representative of a melding of two different cultures and literary traditions, but it is a bit more than that. There is no doubt that the language and telling of the story in The Dream of the Rood is characteristically Anglo-Saxon, but there is also evidence of influence from Latin and religious literature, borrowing several phrases, expressions and images from liturgical literature. If nothing else, these borrowings go to show that the Anglo-Saxon poet who wrote The Dream of the Rood had access to and was influenced by Latin and religious literature.
Peggy Samuels writes, in “The Audience Written Into the Script of The Dream of the Rood,” that “the audience of The Dream of the Rood participates in the sacramentilization of an object,” that object being the cross. She goes on to say that this action is done through pity and fear and experiencing what the narrator, the dreamer, experiences. She argues that “more than any other Anglo-Saxon poem, The Dream of the Rood creates a role for its audience by picturing, within itself, audiences.” The first character taking up the role of audience is the cross. The cross is certainly a participator in the crucifixion of Christ, as it bears his weight and participates in killing him, but the cross is also acting as audience at the same time, due to its passive role in Christ’s execution. The cross is as much observing what is happening as it is actually taking action. The cross then sets a role model for the dreamer as audience. The cross, by coming to the dreamer and presenting him with the story of Christ’s crucifixion and telling the dreamer of Christ’s rewards, is showing the dreamer what to do, showing him how to reciprocate this gift that Christ has given him (Samuels 312).
The audience, like the dreamer, is shown the glory of the cross after its transformation by Christ in reward for its loyal service. They are then shown how to attain that same glory by spreading the story of Christ, just as the dreamer was shown. This sets into motion a seemingly endless cycle of gift giving, with people giving to others the gift of Christ so that they may give that gift to others while at the same time reciprocating their gift from Christ. In order for this all to work, though, “the audience of observers must be transformed into an audience of participants. The transformation occurs if members of the audience use what they observe to shape their own desires (Samuels 313).” The audience must see in the resplendence of the cross their own wishes and desires. Some may wish to be adorned with gold, silver, and gems, just as the cross was, true, but most people must find their own desires symbolically represented in the cross’s appearance. Just as the cross became both observer and participant, so must the audience. There is a bit of conversionistic rhetoric in the poem, as the story really hasn’t done its job unless others tell it, thus strengthening Christian culture. Regardless of what the intention behind this method of storytelling was, the transforming of audience members into participants in the story, along with the tradition of gift giving and the way it was incorporated into The Dream of the Rood gives the poem a cultural significance and helps to ensure the transmission of its message.
Perhaps the reassigning of roles and augmenting of the transmission of the story of Christ’s crucifixion was intentionally done to force Christianity upon the population of England, but this is unlikely, as much of England was already converted to Christianity. At the very least, the lords and kings of England had been converted in the seventh century, a full century before the Ruthwell Cross was made. More likely, the poem that we find in the Vercelli Manuscript was an example of a fusion of Christian lore and Anglo-Saxon themes and culture. It is a great historical and literary piece that shows a culture in the stage of transition, trying to cope with a new religion while still trying to hang on in some way to older traditions.
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