I love this piece. Here’s a link to the full poem translated by Richard Hamer. The text I worked with was translated by Alfred David. Both are lovely.
And here’s my analysis. Hopefully it adds to the meaning and beauty of the text.
In order for the gospel of Christ to be universal, it needs to make sense within a variety of cultural contexts, which is why Christian evangelism places so much emphasis on contextualization. “The Dream of the Rood” is a remarkable work of Christian theology that sets Christ’s death and resurrection within the Anglo-Saxon context. It appeals to traditional values within Anglo-Saxon culture even as it redefines these values in terms of Christ’s authority. The Rood, in particular, models Christian discipleship as it shares the wounds of Christ, assists in his conquest over sin and death, and ultimately shares in his glory. It demonstrates great strength, courage and loyalty—all characteristics of the Anglo-Saxon hero—but these values are ultimately defined by Christ who voluntarily and nonviolently sacrifices himself to save the world.
The narrator of the poem first notes the wounds of the Rood after he describes its dazzling beauty: “Yet I could see signs of ancient strife: / beneath that gold it had begun / bleeding on the right side” (18-20). This sudden turn of phrase indicates the primary importance of the wound and introduces the predominant theme of suffering. The Rood’s gold and jewels are beautiful, but they only make sense in the context of the “ancient strife” which caused the bloodstain. Because it carries the wounds of Christ beneath the exterior of bejeweled grandeur, the Rood is an authentic disciple.
Strength is a frequent theme in the Rood’s narration, but the virtue is defined in distinctly Christocentric terms. It is here that the author seems to be affirming as well as redefining, traditional manifestations of strength. Remembering the crucifixion, the Rood notes, “Then I did not dare act against the Lord’s word / bow down or fall to pieces when I felt the surface / of the earth trembling” (35-7). In this act, the Rood demonstrates both the virtues of a true disciple and that of a warrior. It obeys to the wishes of its lord and stands strong in the middle of suffering.
But the Rood continues, “Although I might / have destroyed the foes, I stood in place” (37-8). This is perhaps the poem’s most pointed commentary on the connection between strength and violence. The Rood clearly senses its own strength. It recognizes, almost to the point of indulgence, that it has the power to avenge itself and its lord. Although it does not give a definite reason for its rejection of violence, the contrast between destroying foes and standing in place suggests that violence would be an act of weakness. As a tree, the Rood would presumably have to fall on its enemies to destroy them, but to do so would be to fail in its duty to raise up Christ. It cannot exalt its lord and destroy its enemies at the same time. If the Rood would express its strength in violence, the mission of Christ would fail, so instead, it follows Christ’s example and lays aside its power for the sake of a cause more noble than vengeance.
Several lines later the Rood again deals with the question of violence, but this time it sets the question in the context of the malicious treatment it receives: “They drove dark nails into me; the dints of those wounds can still be seen, / open marks of malice; but I did not dare maul any of them in return” (46-7). Here again, the Rood mirrors the sufferings and wounds of Christ. It receives the same nails, it is wounded in the same places, it feels the same malice, and yet it resists the urge to take vengeance. The Rood still does not explain its rejection of violence other than stating it did not “dare maul any of them in return.” The phrase “in return” is important because it raises the issues of retaliation and eye-for-eye justice that defined so much of Anglo-Saxon life. The Rood needs to set aside his sense of just retaliation in order for the mission of Christ to succeed.
The Rood’s attitude also seems to have changed since its prior consideration of violence. Nonviolence is now motivated by the tenacious will to remain faithful instead of the noble, almost supercilious, withholding of strength. Like a true disciple, the Rood is forced into a moment of crisis in which it must decide whether to follow its own inclinations toward revenge, or fulfill the mission of Christ, however painful.
To a culture imbued with a strong warrior ethic, the Rood’s refusal to fight could be misunderstood as an act of cowardice, but the author makes it clear that this is not the case. Just as battle scars validate the heroic warrior, wounds received in the service of Christ validate the heroic disciple, and the Rood brandishes its “dints” and “marks” as evidence of its courage. Its rejection of vengeance is not motivated by cowardice, but by determined strength and obedient loyalty. In fact, retaliation would be the ultimate act of cowardice because it would be motivated by self-preservation. Christ’s mission is to die, and it is the Rood’s sworn duty to assist in this mission. Courageous loyalty, not vengeance, becomes the ultimate good. It is here that the author of the poem most clearly subverts the code of violent retribution.
The poem also expands on the biblical account of the crucifixion by envisioning the Rood as a participant in both the burial and resurrection of Christ. After Christ is taken off the cross and laid in his tomb, the Rood is also cut down and buried. However, this “frightful destiny” is not the end for Christ or the Rood, and it is soon resurrected and adorned with gold and silver (75-7). The Rood participated in the suffering and death of Christ, so now it shares in his glory. Because it faithfully endured “grievous sufferings,” “terrible sorrows,” and humiliation for the sake of its Lord, it is now elevated to a position of honor. As the Rood notes, “So the lord of glory, guardian of Heaven, / exalted me then over all forest-trees…” (90-1). This sequence of death, burial, and resurrection closely parallels the Christian liturgy of baptism in which believers are buried with Christ, resurrected to new life, and given the hope of future glory with him.
However, as the Rood indicates in its description of the final Judgment, this glory can only be attained through suffering and death: “Before the multitude [God] will demand / where a soul might be who in the Savior’s name / would suffer the death He suffered on that tree” (112-4). Suffering is the criteria for judgment because it indicates authenticity. Only those who have received Christ’s wounds are worthy of being his disciples. Only those who die with him are worthy of reigning with him. Suffering is the rite of passage for the disciple. Wounds are medals of honor. And ultimate victory over evil and death comes through nonresistant sacrifice.
“The Dream of the Rood.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. 33-6. Print.