When Christians like St Augustine of Canterbury first brought the Gospel over to Britain in the late sixth century, they were entering a culture that was totally ignorant of the Jewish roots of the biblical narrative. No doubt, this posed great difficulty in translating the language and ideas of the Gospel writers into a new cultural context. The Jewish metaphors concerning Christ’s crucifixion found in the New Testament, such as “Christ, our Passover lamb” or the snake that Moses lifted up in the wilderness, would have held little, if any, meaning for the Anglo-Saxons. As apologist Holly Ordway observes, for a metaphor to work at all, “it’s necessary to have basic knowledge of the second item.” In order to communicate the truth of God’s Word to the pagan Anglo-Saxons, these Christians had to create new metaphors using images that were more familiar to the Anglo-Saxon culture, such as that of the young warrior or hero. Perhaps the best examples of this new kind of cultural apologetics are represented in the epic poem Beowulf and the shorter poem “The Dream of the Rood.” Though we do not know their names, these two poets can offer us great insight into how stories can shape our theological imagination. Through their use of the hero as a metaphor for Christ, the two poets of Beowulf and “The Dream of the Rood” were able to transfer deeper levels of meaning about Christ’s death and resurrection to a pagan, heroic culture.
Through Beowulf’s awaited and successful victory over Grendel, the Beowulf poet conveys an understanding of and even a longing for a savior who will deliver his people from evil. When Heorot is being continually ravaged by the monster Grendel, the poet laments that the pagans, in their “heathenish hope,” vainly “swore oaths / that the killer of souls might come to their aid / and save the people.” The poet here criticizes the pagan heroic culture’s belief that their false gods would come down and defend them from evil creatures, demonstrating that evil cannot be used to defeat evil. Rather, it takes a good, true hero, like Beowulf, who must do battle with evil in order to overcome it. Similarly, God had to remind the Jews constantly to “put not your trust in princes” or in false gods, but to place their hope in Him and in His coming Messiah.
Drawing on the image of an awaited Messiah, the poet brings into focus Beowulf’s identity as an awaited hero, which, in turn, points us to Christ. When Beowulf arrives at Heorot, Queen Wealhtheow “thanked God for granting her wish / that a deliverer she could believe in / would arrive to ease their affliction.” Here, the poet affirms the heroic culture in his assessment that it was God who sent a true hero to deliver their people from the unjust suffering brought by Grendel. It is likely that his verses intentionally echo the prophecies of the Old Testament, like the one in Isaiah 9, which proclaims that God will give us a son — His own Son — to deliver his people, break “the rod of his oppressor,” and establish justice. Isaiah’s prophecy and Queen Wealhtheow’s words both find their fulfillment in Christ, who delivered all mankind from the power of sin and death through His death and resurrection. Thus, Beowulf, as the long-awaited hero who will battle and defeat the monster, functions as a metaphor for Christ as the awaited Messiah who battled and defeated the Devil at Calvary.
The poet further illuminates the meaning of Christ’s crucifixion as both a perceived defeat and a true victory in the treatment of Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel’s Mother. While Beowulf battles this second foe at the bottom of a festering lake, the people look on from the surface in fear and agitation. After an intense battle that is completely inscrutable to the men looking on, Beowulf succeeds in cutting off her head, and her blood boils up to the surface. Unfortunately, the crowd misinterprets this sign as an ill omen: “it was clear to many / that the wolf of the deep had destroyed him forever.” In a similar way, the Jewish observers (and non-Christians throughout the centuries) saw defeat when Christ died on the cross; the awaited savior had been killed. However, on a deeper, spiritual level, Christ’s death on the cross was truly a victory over Satan and death itself. The poet captures this paradox of a surface-level defeat, yet true victory through Beowulf’s victory over Grendel’s Mother, as an extension of the metaphor of Christ as a warrior. He even demonstrates these two levels of meaning vertically in the scene: the onlookers see the sign on the surface of the lake that they interpret (not without good cause) as the death of their hero, but if they could look deeper, down to the bottom of the lake, they would see clearly that their hero was victorious.
Whereas the Beowulf poet shows how a pagan hero can reflect truths about Christ, the poet of “The Dream of the Rood” expresses the metaphor more directly, comparing Christ on the cross to a young warrior. In the poem, a personified cross (the “rood”) speaks about the man who climbs upon him as “the young warrior, God Almighty.” Though the details of the Gospel accounts are largely absent from the poet’s telling, scholar and poet Malcolm Guite notes that the Rood poet “does reflect the Gospels in this poem … not at the level of historical narrative, the telling of the outer events, but at the level of exploring their inner meaning.” The poet makes full and proper use of the metaphor by directly comparing two outwardly dissimilar things, God and a young warrior, to reveal a deeper level of inner meaning that would be imperceptible on a purely historical or literal level.
The poet’s description of Christ actively stripping himself before he ascends the cross concisely reveals the paradox of Christ’s two natures. The poet continues, “the young warrior, God Almighty, / stripped Himself, firm and unflinching.” The image of a young warrior stripping himself for battle is reminiscent of Beowulf stripping himself to prepare for his battle against Grendel. The Gospels also record that Christ went to the cross stripped of his clothes — not as a warrior before battle, but as one who is mocked by his enemies. The poet draws together the two images, both familiar to the Anglo-Saxons, to help them understand and visualize the events of the crucifixion. On one level, Christ is passively stripped by his accusers in an act of humiliation, but on another level, Christ is actively preparing himself for the spiritual battle that was about to take place.
The dissimilarity between the passive, suffering Christ and the active, confident warrior captures the true paradox that lies at the center of the mystery of the incarnation. Guite reminds us that both sides of the paradox, Christ’s humanity and divinity, are represented in the different Gospel accounts: Mark emphasizes the passivity of Christ, while John emphasizes Christ’s authority in the events. The genius of the poet is that through his use of metaphor, he is able to “ simultaneously both parts of the paradox and the mystery adequately.” By joining these two images together, the poet brings new meaning to the historical event by helping us see a deeper, spiritual layer. On the outer, physical, and visible layer, Christ allowed himself to be stripped of his clothes, passively surrendering to his enemies and refusing to take vengeance on his accusers. On the deeper, spiritual, invisible (yet equally true) layer, Christ was actively stripping his clothes, not in shame or humiliation, but in confidence and strength. We get a glimpse of the glorious King of Kings who dared to do battle with death on our behalf. The dissimilarity in the images that the poet chooses enhances this paradox of Christ as both passive sufferer and active warrior.
Through this paradox of the suffering, yet victorious, warrior-Christ, the poet transforms the pagan concept of battling and dying beside one’s chief. The rood, sharing in the great suffering of his Lord whom he bears, says, “I had to stand firm…They drove dark nails into me…the gaping gashes of malice; I dared not injure them.” By enduring suffering alongside his master, the cross exemplifies the heroic ideal of duty to one’s king, memorably expressed in Beowulf, when Wiglaf alone stands by his king, the aged Beowulf, in his final battle against the dragon. As Guite eloquently asserts, this heroic ideal “is transformed in the Dream into this intense identification with the agony of Christ.” By extending the metaphor of Christ as warrior to the cross as a dutiful companion, the poet takes this high, pagan virtue, transforms it, and brings it to completion. The follower of Christ, like the cross in the poem, must share in the suffering of Christ, so that while we participate in his physical suffering, we might also participate in his spiritual victory. When we fight alongside Christ, our warrior-hero, we can endure suffering and achieve eternal life.
The image of Christ as the warrior-hero in these two poems concisely communicates the truth about Christ’s powerful, regal, divine nature — even at his lowliest moments. Unfortunately, these truths tend to go unnoticed by modern Christians. Whereas the Anglo-Saxon could revel in Christ’s strength and bravery as if he had been one of his mythical heroes, the modern American is generally content to smile back at the meek and mild, friendly, peace-loving Jesus. He prefers the human and humanitarian side of the Son of God. Perhaps it is time for the apologist to revive this image of the warrior-Christ, especially now that heroes are filling the cultural imagination via the movie screens. There really was a cosmic battle raging on Golgotha, invisible to human eyes, that ended in our hero’s triumph, not defeat. This may help us remember why we call the crucifixion Good Friday. Apologists today can use the insightful images of these Medieval, Anglo-Saxon poets to illuminate this underlying spiritual reality in order to restore a deeper understanding of both Christ’s humble, human suffering and his glorious, divine victory.
Alex Markos, “Christ, Our Hero at Calvary: Meaning and Metaphor in Beowulf and ‘The Dream of the Rood’,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 3. (Fall 2020), 87-96.
Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com///christ-our-hero-at-calvary-meaning-and-metaphor-in-beowulf-and-the-dream-of-the-rood/