"The Dream of the Rood"

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1432

First transcribed: “The Dream of the Rood,” before c. 700 c.e.; earliest extant manuscript, c. 1000

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Edition(s) used: The Dream of the Rood, edited by Michael Swanton. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1970

Genre(s): Poetry

Subgenre(s): Narrative poetry

Core issue(s):Contemplation; the cross; evangelization; Jesus Christ; redemption; salvation


“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.

Anglo-Saxon poetry adheres to a set of conventions different from those used by the later English poetry with which most people are familiar. Alliteration, the repetition of an initial consonant sound, is the primary ordering structure of Old English poetry. The poetic line is divided into two half-lines by the caesura. Each half-line contains two stresses, providing four metrical positions in each line, and any number of unstressed syllables. The alliteration occurs on the stressed syllables and links the two half-lines so either one or both of the stressed syllables in the first half of the line must alliterate with one, usually the first, stressed syllable after the caesura. Medieval manuscripts do not divide works into stanzas and lines.

The poem opens with the dreamer’s midnight vision of the rood, or cross, alternately adorned with gold and jewels or drenched in blood, representing the redemptive and violent aspects of the Crucifixion. The rood begins to speak to the dreamer and tells the story of its participation in Christ’s death. “Enemies” ripped the rood from the ground when it was a tree and turned it into what is first described as a gallows and later a cross for the execution of prisoners. The rood then describes Christ’s willingness to ascend the cross as well as its own feelings of fear and a desire to defend the Lord against his enemies. Instead, the rood obeyed Christ, standing firm, and it tells with great pathos how it shared in Christ’s torment as nails pierced the wood and blood poured onto the cross. Friends of Jesus removed him from the cross, and the bloody rood watched as they prepared a tomb and sang funeral songs. The three crosses were taken down and buried. Now Christ has honored the rood with the ability to heal those who make supplication to it. The rood instructs the dreamer to make his vision known to others so that they might understand Christ’s sacrifice for their sins and prepare for the final judgment. The dreamer then declares his devotion to the cross and desire to share in the Kingdom of Heaven. The poem concludes with a recapitulation of the triumph of Christ’s crucifixion.

Christian Themes

The poem as a whole functions as a meditation on the redemptive power of Christ’s crucifixion. The dreamer as well as the audience is confronted with a retelling of the Crucifixion from the perspective of one who was not only a witness to but also a participant in the Lord’s suffering. The cross, the dreamer, and the audience experience a transformation from confusion to comprehension as anticipated in a medieval dream vision. As a work of affective devotion, the poem also causes movement from uncertainty to faith through the emotional description of Christ’s willing suffering and the assurance of salvation through veneration of the cross.

“The Dream of the Rood” belongs to the strong Old English tradition of Christian literature intended to guide the faithful through their lives. Saint Augustine brought Roman Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons in 597, and by the end of the seventh century, monastic life was well established in Britain. The poem exemplifies the fusion of Germanic and Christian-Mediterranean cultures found in Old English literature.

This poem takes up the cult of the cross theme popular in Christianity since the fourth century recovery of the True Cross by Saint Helena. The image of the cross provided a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice for the salvation of humankind. The dreamer’s experience leads him to a stronger devotion to the cross, and he accepts the command to embark on a mission of evangelization, revealing what he has learned in his dream. “The Dream of the Rood” adds a distinctly Anglo-Saxon dimension in its personification of the cross as a loyal retainer to Christ, standing with his lord even in the deadly battle. For example, the cross expresses its willingness to suffer wounds along with Christ, its refusal to disobey its lord’s command even to save him, and its sorrow at the Lord’s passing.

The mixture of Christianity and Anglo-Saxon culture is also evident in the portrayal of Christ as a heroic warrior rather than the tormented, suffering figure represented in most Christian art. Christ willingly climbs onto and embraces the cross to sacrifice himself for humankind’s redemption. The poet, in fact, comments on Christ’s “great courage.” The relationship between Christ and the cross as thane and retainer described above is further seen in Christ’s rewarding of the cross’s loyalty.

Christ also functions in the traditional harrowing of Hell as a Germanic warrior according to the pre-Anselmian belief that Christ battled and defeated Satan to save our souls from Hell. The dreamer in the poem describes Christ as being victorious or conquering in his expedition to retrieve the souls from Hell. In the eleventh century, Saint Anselm argued that Christ in his Crucifixion repaid the debt to God that humankind incurred for its sins and secured our salvation in that way.

Like many works of Anglo-Saxon Christian literature, “The Dream of the Rood” includes the theme of eschatology or “end things.” The cross speaks of the final judgment of humanity according to how each person lived. The dreamer accepts the rood’s instruction that salvation comes to those who carry the cross in their hearts. He acknowledges the transience of life as he anticipates the joys of the heavenly feast.

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.

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