The Dream of the Rood – A Blend of Christian and Pagan Values

The Dream of the Rood – A Blend of Christian and Pagan Values

Tampierova, Helena (University of Hradec Králove)

South Bohemian Anglo-American Studies No. 1. (2007)

Abstract: The Dream of Love, acknowledged as perhaps the greatest religious poem in English, has been recognized as an essentially Christian poem. It is my aim to analyse the capacity of the form of a dream vision to integrate also pre-Christian elements within the poem. The resulting text then creates the effect of continuity rather than of antagonism and lends itself to a multicultural interpretation, bringing the pagan oral tradition and mythology together with literacy through Christianity. The point to be made is therefore very rudimentary, it is to show spiritual continuity of the Germanic world through the archetypal image of the Tree in the Anglo-Saxon poem known as The Dream of the Rood.

Introduction: A generation after God had been declared dead by Friedrich Nietzsche, the American dramatist of early Modernism Eugene O’Neill employed in one of his less well received plays called Days without End the image of the Cross becoming a tree as the symbol of renewed faith of one of the protagonists. The man’s faith, however, was redeemed with the sacrifice of the woman´s forgiveness. The Anglo-Saxon poem known as The Dream of the Rood brings, more than a thousand years earlier, a reverse image – that of a tree becoming the Cross.

The Tree is perhaps the most widespread of religious symbols in the spiritual history of mankind. All the way from shamanism to the biblical tradition, there is hardly any mythology, culture, religion or system of thought that does not include in one way or another that particular symbol. The reason for that is doubtless its overwhelming semantic potential. It may be interpreted as the axis mundi or the Cosmic Tree, the Tree of Life, the Tree of Knowledge or wisdom and even as the Tree of Death as it is the case in the tradition of the Kabala where the Tree is blamed for providing the leaves to Adam to cover up his nudity. In the book of Zohar, the Tree is the source of esoteric knowledge as one of the consequences of the Fall. Such knowledge is linked with the physical existence of the body deprived of the “body of light.” There again the Cross as instrument of torture and redemption brings together in one single image the two signified extremes of that major signifier of the Tree of Life. Through death the path leads to life, through the Cross, formerly a tree, to eternal light

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