So far in the course we’ve focused heavily on the depiction of the Anglo Saxon warrior culture and the comitatus – the relationship between a warrior and his lord is the focus of the poem “The Wanderer”, and a key part to understanding characters and motivations in “Beowulf”.
In our reading of the poem “The Dream of the Rood”, we will see a clearer example of how the early Anglo Saxon culture blended with the introduction of Christianity to the British Isles. Be sure to pay attention to how this text works to very different ideas – the violent, warrior culture of the Anglo-Saxon’s with the mild and forgiving culture of Christianity.
The poem comes to us from engravings on a large cross from the 8th century (700’s AD) – in fact, this version of the story is older than any of the manuscript versions that still survive. The story of “The Dream of the Rood” is engraved on the surface of the cross, and would have served the purpose of telling the story of Christ to those who could not read (because they were illiterate in general, or in Latin). The Ruthwell Cross was also created during the period of ‘The Cult of the Cross’, where the crucifixes roll as an important symbol is Christian religion was born. During this period the role and worship of the cross as a physical manifestation of Christ was common, with stories of crucifixes coming to life to protect the churches they houses in from invaders being common.
The cross was destroyed during the early 17th century (1600’s AD) during a period when Protestants rejected the praise of icon/iconography in the church. It was reassembled in the 19th century.
For more background on “The Dream of the Rood” and the Ruthwell Cross on which the oldest remaining copy of the poem exists, please watch the videos below (note: the audio on the background video about the Ruthwell Cross is very poor – apologies).
Click here to access a copy of the poem, if you have lost your own copy from class.
The poem of “The Dream of the Rood” also give us the chance to examine the narrative technique of ‘framing’.
The poem itself is the recounting of a dream by a monk – he opens up the poem by describing going to sleep and being awoken by a brilliant ‘tree of glory’, and from there the tree itself tells us the story of his journey to become the cross that Christ was crucified on, before the narrative returns to the monk finishing up his retelling.
The frame narrative is used often to highlight the mystical, fantastic or magical nature of the ‘inner story’. By first presenting the reader/listener with a ‘normal’ set of characters and actions, it make the interior story seemed even more removed and distant, thus heightening how fantastical the actions of the story are view.
In “The Princess Bride”, a grandfather tells his sick grandson the tale of Princess Buttercup and the Pirate Wesley. The frequent interruptions by his grandson into the story remind the viewer of the framing device, and heighten the absurdity of the story.
Forrest Gump is actually sitting on a park bench, telling each new stranger the story of his life. By cutting back to the framing device bench and finding a seemingly new person/listener each time, the also unbelievable and fantastic events of his life are broken up. This means the accepting reactions of the individuals on the bench make it easier for the viewer to accept the reality that Gump is presenting.
In “The Dream of the Rood”, the visitation of the ‘tree of glory’ that Christ was crucified on heightens the mystical, supernatural power of God in the poem. The fact that it is a Monk, a man of God, that see the cross in a dream reinforces this idea. The supernatural elements of the tale would also appeal to the recently converted Anglo Saxons.