Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Dream of the Rood vs. Christ II - Anglo-Saxon Cultural Change

8th century Ruthwell Cross, inscription
based on The Dream of the Rood

Have you ever wondered what happened to the rich oral and literary traditions of pagan Anglo-Saxon Britain when Roman Christianity was introduced to the island in the late sixth century? How could the foreign concepts of Christianity translate into stories that the Anglo-Saxons could actually understand, and how did Christianity change the culture of England as it grew in popularity over the Germano-Norse mythology that the Angles, Jutes, and Saxons brought with them from Northern Europe?

          Christian poets of Anglo-Saxon Britain faced a unique challenge in telling the story of Christ so that their audience could relate to this faith which was so fundamentally different from that of the Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxon idea of a leader was a warlord with never-fading courage and the daring to fight to the death, yet Jesus was a leader who allowed himself to be convicted of and executed for a crime of which he was innocent. In the late seventh or early eighth century, a Northumbrian poet penned The Dream of the Rood, which eloquently translated the foreign concept of Christ’s crucifixion into a language that the Anglo-Saxons could better understand. In contrast is the later work of a Mercian poet named Cynewulf, who wrote Christ II, which mainly deals with Christ’s ascension into heaven. Cynewulf also molded the Biblical story so that his audience might better connect with the events of the story. The manner in which these two poems reshape the gospel of Christ can tell the reader quite a bit about the cultural, religious, and social changes that took place in Anglo-Saxon Britain between the eighth and tenth centuries. The Anglo-Saxon religion shifted from the Norse pantheon toward Christianity, but their mead hall-centric, war-clan culture stayed much the same.

North face of the
Ruthwell Cross
The Dream of the Rood describes Christ as both a brave warrior and warlord. The cross (rood) says of Christ, “I trembled when the warrior embraced me,” (l. 42) and even calls Christ “heaven’s War-Lord,” (l.64) who is served by his “warrior-men” (l. 61). The Christ of the eighth century Dream of the Rood was most certainly a powerful warrior-lord and the savior of mankind, but not much else. Christ is a fairly simple character in the Dream of the Rood.
In Cynewulf’s later poem, Christ II, Jesus is no longer identified as just a warrior-lord, but as the god-lord. He is not only the gold-giver, but “their Dispenser of treasure” (l. 455), “Bestower of glory” (l. 456), and “Protector of the heaven-kingdom” (l. 563), among many other names.  Christ II even analogously describes Jesus Christ as a bird, when Cynewulf writes that Job, “with the sympathy of love devised a name for the Ruler’s Son and called him a bird whom the Jews could not understand in the strength of his divine spirit," (l. 633-34). Christ as a bird is the utter opposite of the proud warrior of the Dream of the Rood. Cynewulf expanded Christ’s character so that he is not merely a warrior now, but he is gentle as a bird as well as a great ruler. The reader is merely introduced to Christ in the Dream of the Rood, but Christ is the reader’s intimate friend in Christ II, with a vast personality that can both vanquish the armies of evil (l. 558-585), and soar in the heavens like a bird.

In the Dream of the Rood, the reader is introduced to the Christian afterlife, for those who worship the warrior-Christ who died on the rood, “…where there is great bliss, delight in heaven, to where the Lord’s nation is seated at a banquet, to where the bliss is everlasting,” (Rood l. 139-42). This heaven is like a great feast that never ends, as facilitated by Christ for his faithful. The heaven of the Dream of the Rood is a place that is intended to convince the reader of the rewards of following Christ.
Descriptions of heaven in Christ II, are quite different, as heaven is now the “city of the Prince” (l. 554) in the heaven-kingdom (l. 563) instead of just a feast-hall. Cynewulf writes of all of Christ’s servants (the saints) arriving in heaven as a “radiantly clad, a shining throng. Welcome guests, they saw [Christ’s] trappings on the high throne heaven’s Ruler,” (l. 554-7). This is a grand leap from the festive, yet simple feast-hall-heaven of the Dream of the Rood. In Christ II, the reader is told of a great kingdom where all of the subjects wear rich clothing and are honored as guests of the king.

Page from the Exeter Book, the manuscript
containing Cynewulf's Christ II
The focus of the Dream of the Rood is on Christ and the cross. Other small details are explained, but the tale is mostly a shining and dramatic introduction to Christianity, so it does not weigh the reader down with side stories – it is an introduction to the faith of Christianity. “The time has now come that far and wide I will be worshipped by men across the earth,” speaks the cross, (l. 80-3) admonishing the dreamer who heard the cross’s story to go and share it with the rest of the world (l. 95-6). The Dream of the Rood tells the reader that Christianity has arrived (“The time has now come…” l. 80) and is the only way to partake in that eternal feast-hall after death.
The focus of Christ II is much wider than just the Ascension. Cynewulf also tells the reader of the end of the world and Christ’s return on Judgment Day, “with a great legion [to] visit again the nations of the earth and at that time judge every deed which people have committed here below the skies,” (l. 522-6) and also explains the idea of spiritual gifts that Christ “sowed and planted abundantly throughout men’s minds,” (l. 663). These are two deeper aspects of the Christian faith which might be difficult to understand without first a familiarity with the basics. Cynewulf seems to assume that his reader is already well versed in Christianity as he spends much more time embellishing than explaining.

The way in which the Dream of the Rood describes Jesus Christ as a warrior, heaven as an eternal banquet-hall, and the hope of salvation as simple and clear, demonstrates that it was written when the Anglo-Saxon reader was less likely to be familiar with the basics of Christianity. By the time Cynewulf penned Christ II, however, Christianity seems to have been fully integrated into Anglo-Saxon society, as Cynewulf’s Christ is a deep and rich character, heaven is his otherworldly kingdom, and in place of the message of salvation are several paragraphs about complicated aspects of Christianity, such as Spiritual Gifts. The Christianity of the Dream of the Rood is straightforward and easy to understand, while that of Christ II is complicated and grand. Clearly, a great shift happened in the one to two centuries between the compositions of these two poems, turning the culture of Anglo-Saxon England from one saturated in Norse mythology to one steeped in Christianity.

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