The “Battle with the Monster”: Transformation of a Traditional Pattern in “The Dream of the Rood”
Oral Tradition, 12/2 (1997): 308-321
In his preface to his edition of the Old English poem “The Dream of the Cross,” more often called “The Dream of the Rood,” Michael Swanton describes the poem as “immediately attractive,” stressing that “its poetic content is readily accessible to the modern reader” (1970:v). The question of accessibility is a good place to begin, but concern with the poem’s accessibility to the modern audience should not be the ultimate issue. Of far greater importance is how the poem was “accessible” to its contemporary readers. It seems that much of the criticism surrounding this poem has at its heart an intent to expound upon what Swanton calls the poet’s “literary sophistication” (v), which becomes more apparent, Swanton suggests, as we familiarize ourselves with the poem. To an Anglo-Saxon audience, however, “literary sophistication” was not necessarily a determinant of poetic merit. Even so, the status of “The Dream of the Rood” as having roots in oral tradition is not yet fully acknowledged.
Incorporation of oral-formulaic theory into an analysis of “The Dream of the Rood” may at first seem odd. It is safe to say that the term “oral literature” is far easier to associate with a poem like Beowulf than a poem that has been the crux of such thoroughgoingly literary criticism. From Swanton’s perspective, as well as the perspective of many other critics of the poem, “literary sophistication” is one, if not the determinant of the poem’s poetic merit. Martin Irvine completely textualizes “The Dream of the Rood”; he suggests that as a text itself it drew its lifeblood only from other texts, and should be read “as exegetical extensions of, or supplements to, the gospel narratives, commentaries on the gospels, and saint’s lives—texts that formed one of the deepest layers of literary discourse”.