The image of Jesus Christ is one that is depicted in numerous ways depending on the culture of the land it is presented in. This reality is one that is demonstrated throughout this Anglo-Saxon poem. In the poem, The Dream of the Rood, a poet comes across the cross that Jesus Christ was crucified on. The cross speaks of the strength and courage of Christ and compels the poet to revere the cross as a symbol of hope and strength. In many aspects the depictions of the events are similar to that of modern Christianity. On the other hand, in other ways the depiction is far from what is the normal belief of the emotional state of Christ during his final hours.
First, for one to understand the differences of the Christian views of this time period and their significance, they must know about the current religious state of the Anglo-Saxon community during this time period. During this time period, Pope Gregory sent a letter to Abbot Mellitus on how to help Anglo-Saxons transition over to Christianity in ways that would not assault all of their previous beliefs (Bede, 1.30). The church was on a mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity from their current Pagan values. In the Pagan culture, they worshiped idols including trees and springs and offered sacrifices even though many had converted to Christianity (Talbot). In an effort to slowly move the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, Pope Gregory gave some instructions to Abbot. He told Abbot that, “the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed, but let the idols that are in them be destroyed… seeing that their temples are not destroyed may remove error from their hearts, and knowing and adoring the true God, may the more familiarity resort to the places to which they have been accustomed” (Bede, 1. 30) Pope Gregory’s plan of attack against the Pagan religion was to slowly move the Anglo-Saxons towards more Christianized behavior and practices. Repurposing the temples for Christian purposes gives some familiarity to the Anglo-Saxons and helps ease their transition over towards Christianity. He also tells Abbot, “There is no doubt that it is impossible to efface everything at once from their obdurate minds; because he who endeavours to ascend to the highest place, rises by degrees or steps, and not by leaps” (Bede, 1. 30) This slow transition from Paganism to Christianity is one that is evident throughout the poem as both Pagan and Christian symbols are used.
Anglo-Saxons, as Pagans, worshipped trees, streams and offered sacrifices to Gods. Their culture valued heroic warriors who fought valiantly for their causes. Due to this cultural value of warriors, the poet uses this value to connect Christ with their current belief system as he depicts him as hero with great courage (Dickens 39). The poet also used titles such as Lord and King to refer to Christ. Both of these titles are valued by the culture and easily relatable to the view of Christ as a man or God to be worshipped. In addition to the word choice used by the poet, the symbolism is heavily influenced by Paganism. As previously mentioned, Pagans worshiped trees. The use of a tree as a main character alone is a wonderful example of the poem’s intended relativity to the popular culture of the time period. The cross is depicted as having human characteristics including the ability to talk and stand strong. The tree is, “decked with gold/ gems had wrapped that forest tree worthily round” (Dickens 16-17). These gems and gold adorned on the tree is similar to that of which the Pagans would have done to trees prior to Christianity. In addition, the poet goes on to revere the cross in high regard in what appears to be a literal sense. The poet refers to the tree as the “victory-beam” and goes on to praise the tree. The tree appears to believe that it is of religious value, saying, “Therefore I, glorious now/ rise under heaven, and I may heal / any of those who will reverence me” (Dickens 84-86). This idea that the actual cross should be reverenced and worshipped as an idol is traditionally a Pagan view. Its use helps to bridge the gap between the physical world that the Pagans worshipped and the spiritual world that the Christians valued. You can see this reverence for the cross in modern Christianity. The main difference is that modern Christians speak of the cross in a non-literal way and instead focus their attention on the spiritual journey that Christ’s crucifixion allowed them to experience, not the greatness of the tree that was used to suspend his body from.
On the other hand, not all of this poem was focused on the tree. As briefly mentioned earlier, the Anglo-Saxons valued strong and mighty men. The choice of wording about Chris in this poem was not an accident. Christ was depicted as a man with great courage that embraced his fate and sought to endure his destiny and not run from it (Dickens 42). The cross said that he lifted, “a mighty king / Lord of the heavens” (Dickens 44-45). It also said that, “The young hero stripped himself… / strong and stout-minded. He mounted high gallows / bold before many, when he would lose mankind / I shook when that man clasped me” (Dickens 39 – 42). All of these examples portray Christ as an active participant in his death and not someone who solely endured suffering at the hands of his enemies. Seeing Christ as a mighty man with great strength without a doubt gives the Anglo-Saxon reader a relatable and favorable depiction of Christ in a context that is of great value to them. Adversely, this portrayal is not necessarily the same as later depictions of the crucifixion.
In more modern texts, such as the Bible, Christ is illustrated as God who is in ways had his fate forced upon him. According to John, chapter 19, “Then he (Pilate) delivered him therefore unto them to be crucified. And they too Jesus and led Him away” (21st Century King James Bible, John. 19.16). In this more modern illustration, Jesus is said to have been delivered, not coming with great courage. A better contrast between the two ideals is found later in the book of John. “Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His garments and made four parts…” (John 19.23). In The Dream of the Rood, the cross said that, “the young hero stripped himself” (Dickens 39). This difference may seem slight but it is of great significance. The Anglo-Saxons, valuing strong and mighty men, might not have revered Christ if they had felt that he had been forced against his will and stripped of his clothes as he was led to his death. Instead of depicting him as a martyr, the poet paints him as a man of great courage who “dared not to bend” upon the cross. This picture of Christ is one that Anglo-Saxons could relate to and thus value Christ as someone to be worshipped for courageously enduring.
Overall, this poet uses Anglo-Saxon cultural values, symbols and strong illustrations to depict Christ as an ideal hero to the Anglo-Saxon community. Undoubtedly, works such as The Dream of the Rood, played an integral part in the slow conversion of Anglo-Saxons from Paganism to Christianity. Without the blending of Pagan symbols and Christian symbols, this piece would not have acted as a bridge for the Anglo-Saxons but with its use it serves as link from the old values of the Anglo-Saxon culture into the new ones of today.
21st Century King James Bible. Michigan: Grand Rapids, 2002. Print
Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, translator not clearly indicated (But it
seems to be L.C. Jane’s 1903 Temple Classics translation), introduction by Vida D. Scudder
(London: J.M. Dent; New York E.P. Dutton, 1910)
C. H. Talbot, The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany (London: Sheed and Ward, 1954), pp. 45-46.
Dickens, Bruce, and Alan S.C. Ross, eds. The Dream of the Rood. Methuen’s Old English
Library. New York: Appleton, 1966.