"The Dream of the Rood" Summary


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

“The Dream of the Rood” is the most widely studied Old English poem with the exception of Beowulf (first transcribed c. 1000 c.e.). As with many works of Old and Middle English, it is not possible to determine precisely when “The Dream of the Rood” was written or by whom. Linguistic evidence indicates that the poem was written in the late seventh or early eighth century, and its transmission in several forms attests to its popularity. A fragment of the poem is inscribed on the Ruthwell cross, a twenty-two-foot Celtic ornate high cross that dates to the eighth century and was originally erected at Ruthwell in what is now Scotland. The late tenth century Brussels cross, a small silver reliquary cross, has a two-line inscription similar to the Ruthwell cross’s speech. Only one manuscript copy of the 156-line poem exists in the late tenth century Vercelli Book, which also contains three other poems and eighteen homilies.

“The Dream of the Rood” is written in the Late West Saxon dialect of Old English. Although some Old English words survive in modern English, one cannot read Old English without first studying the vocabulary and grammar of the language. When relying on a modern English translation of “The Dream of the Rood,” it is important to understand whether the translator is providing a verse or literal translation and to what extent the translator’s interpretation influences his translation.


(The entire section is 606 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Carrigáin, Éamonn. “Crucifixion as Annunciation: The Relation of ’The Dream of the Rood’ to the Liturgy Reconsidered.” English Studies 63, no. 6 (December, 1982): 487-505. This article argues for a correlation between the Crucifixion and the Annunciation in the poem and equates the actions of the rood with those of the Virgin.

Cherniss, Michael D. “The Cross as Christ’s Weapon: The Influence of the Heroic Literary Tradition on ’The Dream of the Rood.’” Anglo-Saxon England 2 (1973): 241-252. This article discusses the personification of the cross in the context of the weaponry personification in the Anglo-Saxon heroic tradition.

Harbus, Antonina. “Dream and Symbol in ’The Dream of the Rood.’” Nottingham Medieval Studies 40 (1996): 1-15. This article argues that the poetic form of the dream vision balances the paradoxes in the poem.

Johnson, David F. “Old English Religious Poetry: Christ and Satan and ’The Dream of the Rood.’” In Companion to Old English Poetry, edited by Henk Aertsen and Rolf H. Gremmer, Jr. Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1994. The second half of this article discusses the dream vision technique and use of eschatological imagery in “The Dream of the Rood.”

Thieme, Adelheid L. J. “Gift Giving as a Vital Element of Salvation in ’The Dream of the Rood.’” South Atlantic Review 63, no. 2 (Spring, 1998): 108-123. This article explores the relationship between Christ, cross, dreamer, and audience in the context of the Germanic cultural practice of gift giving.