The Dream of the Rood is one of the earliest Christian poems in the corpus of Old English poetry and an example of the genre of dream poetry. Like most Old English poems, it is written in alliterative verse. Rood is from the Old English rod "pole", specifically "crucifix". Preserved in the 10th century Vercelli Book, the poem may be considerably older, even one of the oldest works of Old English literature.

Background informationEdit

There are sections from “The Dream of the Rood” that are found on the Ruthwell Cross that dates back to the 8th century. It was an 18 foot, free standing, Anglo-Saxon Cross, perhaps intended as a "conversion tool".[1] At each side of the vine-tracery the runes are carved. On the cross there is an excerpt that was written in runes along with scenes of Jesus healing the blind, the annunciation, and the story of Egypt. Although it was torn down and destroyed during initial Protestant revolt, it was reconstructed as much as possible after the fear of iconography passed.[2] Fortunately during that time of religious unrest, those words that were in the runes were still protected in the Vercelli Book, so called because the book is kept in Vercelli, Italy. The Vercelli Book dates back to the 10th century, and also holds 23 homilies interspersed with six poems; "The Dream of the Rood," “Andreas,” “The Fates of the Apostles,” “Soul and Body,” “Elene,” and a poetic, homiletic fragment.

Possible authorshipEdit

To this day the authorship of Dream of the Rood remains unknown; however with the Ruthwell Cross giving the poem a rough time period in which it could have been written, scholars have been able to make educated suggestions on possible authors. Two of the most heavily argued, for probable authorship, are the Anglo-Saxon Christian poets Caedmon and Cynewulf.

What scholars know of Caedmon's life comes from Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. He is known best during the time fl. 658-680 AD., and Bede tells us that he was an illiterate herdsman to a monastery who one night in a dream learned how to sing beautiful Christian verses praising God's name. Following his dream, Caedmon became the foremost Christian poet who led the way for others such as Bede and Cynewulf.[3] Old English scholar and noted commentator on the Ruthwell Cross Daniel H. Haigh argues that the inscription of the Ruthwell Cross must be fragments of one of Caedmon's lost poems, stating "On this monument, erected about A.D. 665, we have fragments of a religious poem of very high character, and that there was but one man living in England at that time worthy to be named as a religious poet, and that was Caedmon".[4] Another runic scholar, George Stephens contends that the very language and structure of the verses in Dream of the Rood could only have come from the 7th century and a time before Bede. Considering that the only Christian poet before Bede was Caedmon, Stephens makes the point that there could have been no one else during this time period or living in the same area that could have authored the poem other than Caedmon. Furthermore, Stephens claims that there is a runic inscription on the Ruthwell Cross, that, when translated, comes to mean "Caedmon made me".[5] Despite this evidence most scholars reject the Haigh and Stephens assertion that there is in fact such an inscription.

Cynewulf lived roughly c. 770-840 AD, yet very little is known about his life.[6] The only information scholars have on Cynewulf's life is what they can discover from his poetry. Two of Cynewulf's signed poems were discovered in the Vercelli Book, which includes Cynewulf's holy cross poem "Elene" as well as Dream of the Rood.[7] Where many scholars will argue that all of the poems in the Vercelli are in fact Cynewulf's, the noted German scholar Franz Dietrich demonstrates that the similarities between Cynewulf's "Elene" and The Dream of the Rood reveals that the two must have been authored by the same individual. Dietrich makes four main arguments: one, the theme of both poems is the cross, and more importantly, in both poems, the cross suffers with Christ; two, in "Elene" Cynewulf seems to make clear references to the same cross in Dream of the Rood; three, in "Elene" and his other poems Cynewulf usually speaks of himself, which makes it quite possible that the dreamer in Dream of the Rood is none other than Cynewulf himself; and finally four, "In both poems the author represents himself as old, having lost joys or friends and as ready to depart.[8]

The PoemEdit

The poem is set up with the narrator having a dream. In this dream or vision he is speaking to the Cross on which Jesus was crucified. The poem itself is divided up into three separate sections. In section one, the narrator has a vision of the Cross. Initially when the dreamer sees the Cross, he notes how it is covered with gems. He is aware of how wretched he is compared to how glorious the tree is. However, he comes to see that amidst the beautiful stones it is stained with blood.[9] In section two, the Cross shares its account of Jesus’ death. The Crucifixion story is told from the perspective of the Cross. It begins with the enemy coming to cut the tree down and carrying it away. The tree learns that it is to be the bearer of a criminal, but instead the Christ comes to be crucified. The Lord and the Cross become one, and they stand together as victors, refusing to fall, taking on insurmountable pain for the sake of mankind. It is not just Christ, but the Cross as well that is pierced with nails. Adelhied L. J. Thieme remarks, "The cross itself is portrayed as his lord's retainer whose most outstanding characteristic is that of unwavering loyalty".[10] The Rood and Christ are one in the portrayal of the Passion—they are both pierced with nails, mocked and tortured. Then, just like with Christ, the Cross is resurrected, and adorned with gold and silver.[11] It is honored above all trees just as Jesus is honored above all men. The Cross then charges the visionary to share all that he has seen with others. In section three, the author gives his reflections about this vision. The vision ends, and the man is left with his thoughts. He gives praise to God for what he has seen and is filled with hope for eternal life and his desire to once again be near the glorious Cross.[12]

Paganism and ChristianityEdit

Like many poems of the Anglo-Saxon period, “Dream of the Rood” exhibits many Christian and pre-Christian images, but in the end is a Christian piece.[13] Examining the poem as a pre-Christian, or pagan, piece is difficult, as the scribes who wrote it down were Christian monks and who lived in a time when Christianity was already established (at least among the aristocracy) in Anglo-Saxon England.[14] Some argue for the prevalence of pagan elements within the poem, claiming that the idea of a talking tree is animistic, recalling the way in which pagan elements incorporate spirits and other fantastical elements. The belief in the spiritual nature of natural objects, it is argued, recognizes the tree as an object of worship. In his text, Heathen Gods in Old English Literature, Richard North stresses the importance of the sacrifice of the tree in accordance with Pagan virtues. He states that "the image of Christ's death was constructed in this poem with reference to an Anglian ideology on the world tree.[15] Additionally, North suggests that the author of Dream of the Rood "uses the language of this myth of Ingui in order to present the Passion to his newly Christianized countrymen as a story from their native tradition".[16] Furthermore, the tree's triumph over death is celebrated by adorning the cross with gold and jewels.

Despite the possibility of pagan elements, the very nature of The Dream of the Rood is based upon Christian belief. The entire poem deals with the passion, death and resurrection of Christ as a triumph over sin and evil, which is the strongest mark of Christian faith. The dreamer, in his converted state, remarks, "May the Lord be my friend/ he who here on Earth once suffered/ on the hanging tree for human sin/ he ransomed us and gave us life/ a heavenly home." Here the dreamer realizes that Christ's death was not only victory in battle, but also the way in which human salvation was secured.(Citation needed)

The poem may also be viewed as both a Christian and pre-Christian piece. Bruce Mitchell notes that “The Dream of the Rood” is “the central literary document for understanding [the] resolution of competing cultures which was the presiding concern of the Christian Anglo-Saxons”.[17] Within the single culture of the Anglo-Saxons were the at times conflicting Germanic heroic tradition and the Christian doctrine of forgiveness and self-sacrifice, the influences of which are readily seen in the poetry of the period. Thus, for instance, in “The Dream of the Rood” Christ is presented as a "heroic warrior, eagerly leaping on the Cross to do battle with death; the Cross is a loyal retainer who is painfully and paradoxically forced to participate in his Lord's execution."[18] Christ can also be seen as "an Anglo-Saxon warrior lord, who is served by his thanes, especially on the cross and who rewards them at the feast of glory in Heaven".[19] Thus, the crucifixion of Christ is a victory because Christ could have fought His enemies, but He chose to die on the cross. John Canuteson believes that the poem "show[s] Christ's willingness, indeed His eagerness, to embrace His fate, [and] it also reveals the physical details of what happens to a man, rather than a god, on the Cross".[20] This image of Christ as a “heroic lord” or “heroic warrior” is seen frequently in Anglo-Saxon (as well as further Germanic) literature, and follows in line with the theme of understanding Christianity through pre-Christian Germanic tradition. (cp. Alfred the Great’s translation of BoethiusConsolation of Philosophy and the Old English Genesis). In this way, “the poem resolves not only the pagan-Christian tensions within Anglo-Saxon culture but also current doctrinal discussions concerning the nature of Christ, who was both God and man, both human and divine”.[21]


An interesting paradox is created within this poem. The Cross is set up to be the way to salvation. In the poem the Cross states that it cannot fall and it must stay strong to fulfill the will of God. However, in order to fulfill the will of God the Cross has to be a critical instrument in the death of Christ.[22] It also puts a whole new light on the actions of Jesus during the Crucifixion. Neither Jesus nor the Cross is given the role of the helpless victim in this poem. Instead they are both standing firm to what they need to do. “Then saw I mankind's Lord come with great courage when he would mount on me” (33b-34b), with Jesus as the strong conqueror. He is made to appear a “heroic German lord, one who dies to save his troops”.[23] Jesus does not just accept that he will be crucified instead he “embraces” the Cross and takes on all the sins of mankind.

See alsoEdit



  1. Schapiro, Meyer (September 1944), "The Religious Meaning of the Ruthwell Cross", The Art Bulletin 26 (4), 
  2. O Carragain, Eamonn. Ritual and the Rood: Liturgical Images and the Poems of The Dream of the Rood Tradition. London, University of Toronto Press, 2005, p. 7, 228
  3. Hunter 2
  4. Cook, Albert S., ed. The Dream of the Rood: An Old English Poem Attributed to Cynewulf. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905. Sep. 27, 2007, p. 6
  5. Cook, Albert S., ed. The Dream of the Rood: An Old English Poem Attributed to Cynewulf. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905. Sep. 27, 2007, p. 7
  6. Krstovic, Jelena. ed. "The Dream of the Rood: Introduction." Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism. Vol 14. Gale Group, Inc., 1995. 2006. Sep. 27, 2007
  7. Drabble, Margaret. ed. "The Vercelli Book: Introduction." The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Ed. 5th Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. Sep. 27, 2007, p. 2
  8. Cook, Albert S., ed. The Dream of the Rood: An Old English Poem Attributed to Cynewulf. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905. Sep. 27, 2007, p. 12-13
  9. Bradley, S.A.J. “The Dream of the Rood.” Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Ed. S.A.J. Bradley. London, Everyman, 1982, p. 160
  10. Thieme, Adelhied L. J. "Gift Giving as a Vital Element of Salvation in the Dream of the Rood." South Atlantic Review, 1998, p. 108
  11. Galloway, Andrew. "Dream-Theory in the Dream of the Rood and the Wanderer." Oxford University Press Vol. XLV, No. 180, 1994, p. 1
  12. Lapidge, Michael. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England. England, 1991.
  13. Mitchell, Bruce. A Guide to Old English. Sixth Edition. Massachusetts. Blackwell Publishers, 2001, p. 256
  14. Mitchell, Bruce. A Guide to Old English. Sixth Edition. Massachusetts. Blackwell Publishers, 2001, p. 139-140
  15. North, Richard. Heathen Gods in Old English Literature. Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 273
  16. North, Richard. Heathen Gods in Old English Literature. Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 273
  17. Mitchell, Bruce. A Guide to Old English. Sixth Edition. Massachusetts. Blackwell Publishers, 2001, p. 256
  18. Black, Joseph ed., Supplement to Broadview Anthology of British Literature. Broadview Press, 2007, p. 23
  19. Dockray-Miller, Mary. "The Feminized Cross of 'The Dream of the Rood.'" Philogical Quarterly, Vol 76. 1997, p. 1, 3
  20. Canuteson, John. "The Crucifixion and Second Coming of Christ." Modern Philology, Vol. 66, No. 4, May 1969, p. 296
  21. Mitchell, Bruce. A Guide to Old English. Sixth Edition. Massachusetts. Blackwell Publishers, 2001, p. 257
  22. Burrow, J.A. “An Approach to The Dream of the Rood.” Neophilologus. 43(1959), p. 125
  23. Treharne, Elaine. “The Dream of the Rood.” Old and Middle English c.890-c.1400: An Anthology. Malden, MA, Blackwell, 2004, p. 108

External linksEdit


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