The Dream of the Rood, an ‘epic’ in the Late West Saxon dialect of Old English, was written in the late 7th or early 8th century in Northumbria, a kingdom that once stretched from Derbyshire to the Firth of Forth. There is an extract carved into the 22-feet high Celtic Tall Cross at Ruthwell, near Annan, which itself dates from the 8th Century.
The earliest surviving manuscript copy of the 156-line epic is in the Vercelli Book (late 10th century) discovered in 1822 in the library at Vercelli in Italy. It may have been taken there by Jacopo Guala Bicchieri who had been papal legate to England in 1216 and who founded a hospice there for English pilgrims.
The epic follows the heroic style of the period. Christ is the hero who accepts the pain of his crucifixion and the sins of all humanity, just as the heroic soldier accepts untold hardship in battle for the greater cause. A Rood, of course, is Old English for cross or crucifix – still in use in Scotland and Northumbria today.
In the first of the three distinct sections, the narrator dreams ‘the choicest dream’ of ‘a wondrous tree’ for he dreams of the Cross. It is covered in jewels and guarded, it seems, by angels because it is so precious. Compared to the glorious tree and what it represents, the narrator feels aware of his own sin ‘wounded sore with woe.’ He sees the Cross seeming to sweat blood and is aware that this is Christ’s blood that had seeped into the Cross. And then, the narrator notes, ‘This best of wood began to speak with words.’
The second section recounts what the Cross tells the dreamer. It suffered too, cut down and set to work as an ugly killing platform for criminals. Then it saw the ‘Lord of mankind’ coming courageously to embrace the Cross in His agony (again, a characteristic of noble leadership in Anglo Saxon times). And so they suffered together: the nails pierced Jesus – and they pierced the Cross as well. Christ’s blood was shed, some of it on the Cross which was both horrific and honouring as the Cross stood loyally with Him. This was the supreme task for the Cross: Jesus was accepting this death, and the Cross could not fail Him. The loyalty that the Cross had for Jesus would have resonated well: a liegeman being trustworthy to his eorl, or sovereign prince. Christ died and his followers were ‘grim after that great battle’ (again in the ‘epic’ tradition). Jesus’ body was taken for burial while the Cross remained, watching sadly: “Yet we remained a-weeping.” Just as Jesus’ death echoed Moses raising the bronze snake on a pole to heal others (Numbers 21:4-9), so the Rood noted:
Beseech this bright beacon. For upon me God’s bairn
Suffered at that time; therefore I am now gloriously
Raised high to the heavens, and may heal
Each and all who shall be in awe of me.
In the third section, the Cross urges the narrator to share the dream and to proclaim Jesus will come again to middle earth (loving the Tolkien!) to judge all:
Hither coming again Beseech this bright beacon.
To this middle-earth, mankind seeking
On Doomsday, the dear Lord himself.
None need be afraid, for they are redeemed under the sign of the Cross and through Christ’s victory, dwelling in heaven, their true homeland. The narrator sees that he, like the Cross, is a liegeman – his loyalty is to Jesus, his true homeland is heaven. He will follow the Rood’s advice.
It truly is an epic tale, imbuing the Crucifixion and all it stands for (our redemption through Jesus) with the flavours of Anglo Saxons steeped in Celtic Christianity. It is an epic that is so advanced in its concepts and narrative. It is uplifting, and as it says itself: “Hope was renewed with blessedness and bliss.”
Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story—
those he redeemed from the hand of the foe (Psalm 107:2)
Extracts from the Dream of the Rood (This translation © Colin Symes. Reproduced by kind permission.)
THE DREAM OF THE ROOD I. Lo ! I will recount the choicest dream I dreamed amid the deep of night, When speech-bearers were at their rest. Bethought me that I saw a wondrous tree, Lifted aloft, light bewreathing Brightest boughs. All that beacon was Bedecked with gold; gems glittering, it stood, Fair upon earth's face; five of them there were Upon the axis-span. There beheld God's angels all, Fair of their fore-making. Nor was that any felon's gallows, But rather, hallowed spirits beheld it there, Men earthly, mortal, with all creation's marvels. Splendid was that saving tree, but I, foul with sin, Wounded sore with woe, I saw the wondrous tree, Winsome, shining, wearing a worthy covering, Begirt with gold; gems now Weighed worthily upon the Ruler's tree. Yet through that gold I still could glimpse The erstwhile agony, as it first began To sweat blood from its right-hand side. Full of sore distress, I feared before that fair vision. I saw that fateful sign Change covering and colour; where it had been wet and damp, Steeped in a stream of blood, now in such wealth arrayed. While I was yet a long time lying there, Heart-sorrowed, I beheld the healing tree, And then I heard that it addressed me; This best of wood began to speak with words: II. "It was years ago (I still remember well) That I was hewn down at the holt's edge, Stripped from my stock. Strong foemen took me thence; Working me into a warning-sign - they meant to have me raise up their rogues. Borne on broad man-shoulders, 'til they set me on a hill-brow, Many foemen fastened me there. The Lord of mankind then I saw Hastening with great desire that he should climb upon me. There, then, I durst not at the dear Lord's word Bow nor break, e'en when I beheld the quaking Face of earth. Well might I have felled All his foemen, but rather I stood fast. The young hero undressed himself, (this was God almighty) Strong and steadfast; he stepped up on the high gallows, Mighty, in full sight of many, for he would loose mankind. I trembled as the Warrior embraced me; yet did not dare to buckle ground-ward, To fall upon the face of earth, but as I should, stood fast. I was raised up a rood; I lifted up the bless'd realm's King, High Lord of heaven, I durst not fail Him. They drove me through with dark and evil nails: Upon me still the doleful wounds are seen, Open wounds of malice; nor durst I any of them injure. They mocked us both together; I was all steeped in blood, Poured from that human side, after he sent forth his spirit. Fully had I endured upon that hill A fearful fate. I saw the God of hosts Ruthlessly racked. The gloom had Covered in cloud the High King's corpse, That shimmering star; a shadow went forth, Dark under the sky. All creatures wept, Crying at the king's fall; Christ was on cross. But then came faithful ones from far To that Prince's side. I beheld it all. Though sore was I, and sorrow-afflicted, Yet I submitted to the warriors' hands, Humbled most willingly. They took from me Almighty God, Hove him from that heavy torture. The warriors left me then Standing, drenched and streaming, wounded still with piercings. Laid they there that limb-weary one, then stood at his lifeless head, Beholding there the Lord of heaven, and resting there awhile, Grim after that great battle. Began they then to make a grave for him, These brave ones, in full sight of his bane; carved of bright stone; They laid therein their Lord and Victor. Began they then to make lament, Eerie on the eventide, ere they departed after, Wearied, from this wondrous prince; rested he there with the few. Yet we remained a-weeping a good while Still standing at our stations, after the departure Of the Warriors. The body cooled, Fair life-dwelling, then they began to fell us All to earth. That was a fearful fate! They dug us a deep pit and buried us. Yet there the Lord's servants, His friends, found me, And adorned me with gold and silver. III. Now you may hear, O my beloved hero, That I have suffered evil-doers' works, And sore sorrows. The season is now come When far and wide I am called worthy; Men earthly, mortal, and all creation's marvels, Beseech this bright beacon. For upon me God's bairn Suffered at that time; therefore I am now gloriously Raised high to the heavens, and may heal Each and all who shall be in awe of me. Once was I made the worst of torments, By folk most feared, ere I life's way Of righteousness revealed to speech-bearers. Lo, then was I honoured by the Prince of Glory Above all holm and wood, by Heaven's Guardian! Just as he too his mother, Mary, Almighty God for all men Made worthy above all womankind. Now would I have you, my beloved young hero, Tell this vision unto many men, Unwrap these words; this is the wondrous cross On which Almighty God once suffered For mankind's manifold sins And Adam's ancient work. Death He tasted there, but the Lord arose In his mighty might as mankind's helper, Then stepped into the heavens. Hither coming again To this middle-earth, mankind seeking On Doomsday, the dear Lord himself, Almighty God, his angels with Him, Then will judge, with his judgement's power Each one, as he shall hereto In this fleeting life have earned himself. Nor may any there be unafraid Of the word which the wise Lord speaks: He will ask before many where might the man be, That for the Lord's name would Taste bitter death, as he did first upon that tree. But they then fearing, will little think What they could begin to say to Christ. Yet there then need not any be afeared Who ere bears in his breast this best of signs, For through this rood shall reach his realm From the earthly way, each and every soul That with the Lord desires to dwell." IV. I beseeched then at that rood-beam with blithe heart, With great zeal, while I was alone, Away from crowds; my mind was Focused on its forward path, fully enduring all Its times of longing. My life's hope now is That I might seek out this victory-tree Alone, more often than all other men - It is well worthy. My will in this is Much in mind, and my mainstay is Rigged upon that rood. I have not many rich Friends on earth; for they hence forth Have quit the world's delights, seeking for that wondrous King. Living now in heaven with their High Father, They dwell in glory; and I look for That day when the Lord's cross, Which here on earth I once was shown, From this fleeting life might fetch me And then bring me where there is much joy, Delight in heaven, where the Lord's folk are Seated at the feast, where there is single bliss, That I might then be sat where afterwards I may Dwell in glory, as well of those holy Delights partaking. Be to me, O Lord, a friend, Who here on earth once did suffer On that gallows-tree for human sin, Unloosing us to give us back our life, And heavenly home. Hope was renewed With blessedness and bliss for them who otherwise should burn. The Son's victory secure, he then set out, Mighty and swift, as he came with many, A company of souls, to God's own realm, Almighty Overlord, to angels in their bliss, And to all those holy ones who now in heaven Dwelt in its wonders, as their liege-Lord came, Almighty God, to where his homeland was. This translation © Colin Symes. Reproduced by kind permission.
[from Timothy Pitt]