The poet who penned The Dream of the Rood for the Anglo-Saxon people faced the challenge of communicating the saving power of Christ’s death on a cross to a people who placed great value on heroic battle and victory. Accomplishing his goal required communicating a sacrificial death in a way that these warriors would see Christ as a hero and his death as a victory. This is exactly the type of challenge imaginative apologetics is designed for, transforming the ideals of a people or culture to show the truth of the gospel message. The Dream of the Rood stands at the beginnings of imaginative apologetics as it transforms the pagan heroic ideals of a warrior’s bravery and victory through defeat into a message of truth the Anglo-Saxons could fully grasp and make their own.

In order to fully understand the scope of this poem, one of the earliest Christian poems written as early as the 10th century A.D., we will start with an overview of its purpose and strategies. The Dream of the Rood takes the historical gospel message of Christ’s death on the cross and tells it from an entirely imaginative point of view. The cross itself is personified, telling his own heroic tale of the day Christ came to give his life upon it. Malcolm Guite in Faith, Hope, and Poetry reveals the true appeal to a pagan culture, “The poem…blend[s] in a brilliant fusion…two pagan forms – on the one hand elegy for the fallen hero and on the other battle song of his triumph.”[1] The poem describes for the reader not one but two warriors, the cross and the Christ, and their battle and triumph together on that day.

The first warrior of the poem is the cross itself. The poet creates a character which the Anglo-Saxons could relate through his personification of the cross. The cross begins his seemingly tragic tale, “Strong enemies seized me, / bade me hold up their felons on high, / made me a spectacle.”[2]  The words, enemies and seized, cue the reader that this is a battle tale. The reader sees the cross as a warrior under attack, forced to act against his own will. The poet goes on to show the endurance and strength of the cross but also the grief and trials it faces, “On that hill, I endured many grievous trials;”[3] We see that the cross goes through intense pain and sorrow. He is covered in blood; he agonizes over being a participant in the death of the Christ. It is a pain which will follow him long after the day is done. It requires a warrior’s strength.

As the Lord is placed upon him, the cross is surrounded not only by his enemies but Christ’s. He faces a quandary that contradicts the ethics of a pagan warrior, “I dared not bow or break there / against my Lord’s wish, when I saw the surface / of the earth tremble. / I could have felled / all my foes, yet I stood firm.”[4] The poet paints a picture of the Cross’s desire to strike out against their enemies, but he knows that he must not, for it was not the Lord’s will. Guite confirms this idea, “What is so moving here is the sense of having to restrain all the desire to hurt back, the impulse to vengeance, which was part of the pagan ethic.”[5] One might begin to wonder why the poet included this need to restrain himself from vengeance, but Guite clarifies, “this desire to give as good as we get is subsumed into something, also deep in the pagan ethic…that is the courage of endurance.”[6] The pagans understood this need for endurance very keenly; they respected the ability to stand firm at the behest of their prince even when every bodily impulse is screaming for vengeance. The cross is a warrior in this poetic tale, but he is not the prince, not the primary warrior.

When we look at Christ and his sacrificial death, the term warrior does not come to mind, but that is exactly what he was. The poem describes Christ’s approach to the cross, “I saw the Lord of Mankind / hasten with such courage to climb upon me.”[7] He does not describe him as being dragged or forced to the cross but as willingly climbing up to death. The poem goes on to name him a warrior and describe his preparation, “The young warrior, God Almighty, / stripped himself, firm and unflinching.”[8] Guite explains that the Anglo-Saxon word used in this stanza, “carries the sense of preparing, especially preparing for a contest or a battle, but it actually means to strip or divest oneself.”[9] It’s a lovely double meaning. We know that Christ was stripped by his captors to die on the cross. However, Christ also stripped himself of his immortality and divine power so he could sacrifice himself for our sins. The poet’s use of the Anglo-Saxon word in this way helps the pagan relate to the nature of the warrior prince and the control he held even in this most humiliating of moments.

The poem goes on to elaborate, “He climbed / upon the cross brave before many, to redeem mankind.”[10] Guite notes the word used here“means both bravely and proudly, and is a kind of showing of inner glory in the midst of what is meant to be outward humiliation.”[11] Death on a cross would never be associated with glory. In fact, it was the complete opposite. It was utter humiliation. To counteract this association, the poet chooses the perfect word to communicate what really happened and Christ’s true status as a warrior prince.

The story of the cross continues to the death of Christ, and the people’s mourning for his death. He is removed from the cross, “and there he rested / for awhile, / worn-out after battle.”[12] This image of death as being worn out after battle particularly emphasizes the point that this is not the end of this story. It is merely a rest for the warrior. Victory is foreshadowed.

We still see the people and the cross mourn their prince. “They sang a dirge before they went, weary, / from their glorious Prince.”[13] Elegy was such an integral part of the pagan culture, and this poem which revolves around death does not hide the deep despair of people and creation. “Shadows swept across the land…all creation wept, / wailed for the death of their King.”[14] The fact that Christ defeats death or even that his death meant victory for mankind over sin does not lessen the grief. The poet quite clearly wants the reality of that grief to strike the hearts of the pagan people. The pagan people understood the finiteness of man, and such an image would lend reality and credence to the tale. It is here that the poem brings in the familiarity of the pagan elegy, but the grief and sorrow do not last.

Finally, we come to the victory itself, which is foreshadowed at the beginning of the poem as the dreamer describes his vision of the rood. The tree was adorned with jewels and garments of gold, “joyfully gleaming…the Tree of the Ruler.”[15] The warrior cross, in eternity, is adorned with the victory obtained by the King. Christ rose from his battle-weary rest, and that victory is shared with the cross itself and more importantly with humanity. It’s an image which allowed the Anglo-Saxon people to see his victory not only in death but a literal victory over death.

Throughout this poem, the reader is given a vision of Christ, not as a pathetic victim but as one who chose his fate for a greater purpose and goal. It was a story they could understand because it lined up with their own ideals. In Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, Holly Ordway provides some insight into why this works so well, “Imaginative literature is a particularly valuable means of creating meaning for ideas, as well as for conveying these ideas to people who would be resistant to them if presented as arguments.”[16] The poet could have chosen to argue the reality of Christ using only the historical gospel message, but he chose a much more imaginative strategy. He used imagery, personification, and foreshadowing to point the Anglo-Saxon people towards truth. However, his most important tool was connecting with what the pagans held most dear, the idea of the hero’s victorious death. The transformation of this ideal enabled the pagan reader or listener to grasp the significance and reality of what Christ did in a way no argument could. The impact of the poem did not die with the Anglo-Saxon people. Its unique point of view appeals to a modern reader because it is full of gritty truth and a sort of heroism which is uncommon in today’s world. The poem provides insight into the importance of imagination in relaying the gospel message in creative and non-intrusive ways which open new avenues of communication between believers and non-believers.

Citation Information

Korine Martinez, “An Unlikely Witness,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 3. (Fall 2020), 173-180.

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[1] Malcolm Guite, Faith, hope and poetry theology and the poetic imagination (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014), 46.

[2] “The Dream of the Rood,” in The Anglo-Saxon world: an anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland, lines 30-32.

[3] Ibid, lines 53-54.

[4] Ibid, lines 36-38.

[5] Guite, Faith, hope and poetry theology and the poetic imagination), 45.

[6]  Ibid, 45.

[7] “The Dream of the Rood,” in The Anglo-Saxon world: an anthology, trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland, lines 34-35.

[8] Ibid, lines 40-41.

[9] Guite, Faith, hope and poetry theology and the poetic imagination, 43.

[10] “The Dream of the Rood,” in The Anglo-Saxon world: an anthology), trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland, lines 41-42.

[11] Guite, Faith, hope and poetry theology and the poetic imagination, 44.

[12] “The Dream of the Rood,” in The Anglo-Saxon world: an anthology, trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland, lines 71-73.

[13] “Ibid, lines 79-80.

[14] Ibid, lines 57-59.

[15] Ibid, lines 15-16.

[16] Holly Ordway, Apologetics and the Christian imagination: integrated approach to defending the faith (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017), 39.