Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Dream of the Rood vs. The Bible

In preparing my address on Warrior Christ imagery, I've decided to make "The Dream of the Rood" the centerpiece. As I've focused tightly on it, I've been surprised by how willing the Rood poet is to depart from the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion.

Some lines, of course, are a matter of interpretation. For example, when the poet writes, "Then saw I mankind's Lord come with great courage when he would mount on me," we can excuse it as a heroic rendering of the crucifixion -- after all, Jesus probably wasn't skipping along gleefully. Others, though, simply cannot be rectified with the Gospel accounts. Here are a few examples:
  • Strong fiends seized me there, worked me for spectacle; cursèd ones lifted me. On shoulders men bore me there, then fixed me on hill; fiends enough fastened me. According to the Biblical accounts, Jesus carried the Rood himself. When he grew too weak, Simon of Cyrene bore it.
  • The young hero stripped himself--he, God Almighty--strong and stout-minded. In the Gospel accounts, his clothes are removed and soldiers gamble for the garment.
  • Then they worked him an earth-house, men in the slayer's sight carved it from bright stone, set in it the Wielder of Victories. Then they sang him a sorrow-song, sad in the eventide, when they would go again with grief from that great Lord. That the poet refers to the disciples as "warriors" (hilde-rincas) so often doesn't really bother me, since that is clearly metaphorical language designed to depict Jesus as a temporal lord. They didn't "work him an earth-house," though -- they used Joseph of Arimathea's tomb.
Scribes who might be very careful in copying sacred texts apparently did not find their concern's matched by poets. I suspect if I examined other Anglo-Saxon poetic treatments of Biblical myths (such as Genesis and Crist), I'd find a similar ethic regarding poetic license. Our modern ethic (as I draw it from film) seems to be that you can fill in the blanks as you wish, but you have to be very careful about making changes. For the Rood poet, a poetic treatment seems to have permitted much more latitude in taking liberties.


  1. Tsk! Typical. Those Catholics just didn't know their Bible.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  2. Scott, perhapd you're being a bit hard on our old friend. In your first point, the poem says the rood was carried by "men." Certainly Jesus and Joseph count as men! On the second count, the poem does not reference clothes specifically...I interpret the line as Christ stripping himself of power: a sort of willful negation of His godhood necessary to bear the burden he was to bear on the cross. As for the last, perhaps I'm not as qualified because I don't know if "earth-house" is a culture-specific term in OE, but it doesn't sound like an inaccurate descriptor of cave...does it? Anyway, you can thank Les for directing me here to criticize you! See you on the 9th!

  3. Greg,

    That's what I get for using an easy-to-find online translation, rather than translating for myself!

    In the Old English, the rood is carried by "strange feondas," or "strong foes." This word "feondas" doesn't just mean "foes" or "enemies" -- our modern English word "fiend" comes from it, and in Old English it sometimes refers to devils. The association with evil here is very, very strong, so it can't be Jesus.

    The second point is another story. The word there is "ongierede," which is probably best tranlated "un-clothed" or "un-adorned." I think an argument that this part refers to Christ un-adorning Himself with power is plausible, though that wouldn't be my own reading.

    As for the earth-house, my problem isn't with the earth-house (mold-aern) itself, but rather with the fact that the poem claims they "worked" it -- i.e. that they made it themselves. Normally this would be a small detail I would over-look, but this rendering eliminates the Joseph of Arimathea story altogether.

    I'm a bad, lazy medievalist for not supplying my own translation!

  4. Do you have a full translation of your own? I'd love to see it. This poem is relatively new to me (I had to study it for my PhD comps last term), but I absolutely love its portrayal of Christ. My delight and the discovery of your delight are the main reasons why I'm still responding...I never get to talk about this stuff "at home."

    For the second and third issues, I am, as they say, answer'ed. But for the first issue (and I'm running a huge risk by dog paddling into such deep waters) it seems to me that the word in question is "beornas" in line 32 that can be translated (more or less) as "man."

  5. Would the Rood poet have necessarily had a copy of the gospels in front of him, or have read them himself? Are we simply dealing with a game of "telephone" here?

    Alternately, I don't think it's particularly surprising that the Rood poet would take "liberties" with a canonical account, even one dealing with the crucifixion. This is quite popular/ common when looking @ exegesis or apocalyptic texts (stuff I focus on). Mary Carruthers has some stuff to say about this, I think, in her The Book of Memory.

    I definitely want to know more about this warrior-Christ thing though...

  6. Yes, it is beornas in 32, but it is feondas in 30 -- and I can't see how to read it where the beornas and feondas aren't the same people.

    Nope, I don't have my own translation (or at least haven't got one saved from Old English classes in grad school), but that would have only been about a half dozen lines I needed to translate for that post.

    Still, perhaps I have the excuse that I'm busily writing my papers for the Areopagus Lectures, and couldn't find the time!

  7. N.E. Brigand11:26 AM

    Here is a translation of The Dream of the Rood that was made in support of a 2003 discussion at that compared themes in the poem to those in The Lord of the Rings.

  8. "...and so we measured swords and parted" (As You Like It V.4.86).

  9. I'd take a look at the Heliand. I did a paper on the Crucifixion in the Rood vs. that in the Heliand, and found a number of similar liberties - even though the Heliand is in many ways a translation of the Gospel of Matthew. For example, an army of men shows up at the garden, and it's made clear that Jesus' words alone threaten to overpower them until stronger, hateful men at the back of the army push them back. It seems that for purposes of conversion, which was ongoing when both were written, the poets figured there wouldn't be as much success unless Jesus was seen as sharing similarities with warrior kings. There wasn't the same obsessive attitude toward the sanctity of the original text that takes over later with the Vulgate and lasts until the Lollards.

    I love the Dream of the Rood and don't see any reason to consider its differences from the Gospel accounts as erroneous in any artistic sense, nor do I think the poet would have either.

  10. april1:32 AM

    Hi there. My name's april. I'm just a lowly aussie undergrad, but I did a paper on DOTR last year (from my own translation). I did a lot on the warrior ethos (not just regarding Christ, but also the rood, the dreamer, the 'feondas' and Christ's friends.
    I subscribe to the idea that the 'ongyrede’ of line 39 is etymologically related to ‘gyrede,’ which Campbell and Toller gloss as ‘to arm,’ and is used in heroic texts such as Beowulf to describe a hero’s preparation for battle. So, metaphorically at least, Christ is preparing himself for what comes ahead. perhaps it is this that is more important here than the literal stripping of clothes. Not that it shouldn't be taken literally too, but maybe this isn't the main thing (even given cultural appropriation). I guess the main thing is that Christ is given a lot more agency here than in the gospel tradition (or, at least, the bits that are still accepted as such within Catholicism) - this makes a lot of sense in A-S context.

    :), april bertels

    some references: C. Wolf, ‘Christ as Hero.’p.205; E. Ó Carragáin, Ritual and the Rood: Liturgical Images and the Old English Poems of the Dream of the Rood Tradition, 2005. University of Toronto Press, Toronto and Buffalo.p.317. See also A. Campbell and T.N. Toller, An Anglo Saxon Dictionary: Supplement 1972. Oxford University Press, London: “girwan (III),” p.471.

  11. Thanks for your comments, April. Lowly Aussie undergrads are welcome here too!

  12. Maybe it's not the poet taking liberties with the gospel, but the cross. It's the cross's account of the crucifixion, after all. Never trust a tree! :)

  13. C Fort

    I am interested in the dream and the choice of vocabulary. The dream begins with the word "Listen!" or "Lo!" This seems to be a very gentle calling to the listener. Where can I find more about the dream?