Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Dream of the Rood

Recently I've been reading Ben Merkle's book on King Alfred the Great – The White Horse King. Alfred was a truly remarkable man; it's hard to imagine a man facing worse odds than he did; and reading about him has reminded me once more why I love the Anglo-Saxons so much.

Thinking about Alfred inspired me to go back and reread an Anglo-Saxon religious poem, The Dream of the Rood. One of the reasons why I'm so keen on reading is that it is the best way to travel back and experience the thoughts, worldview, and flavour of an earlier time. Beowulf, for example, may not be an intensely factual description of Anglo-Saxon life – but it will teach you more about their character than any history book.

As the Venerable Bede records in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Anglo-Saxons were among the Proud Warrior Races that came from the Germanies after the fall of Rome. After the withdrawal of Roman forces from Britain, the Saxons invaded and pressed the Celts and remaining Romans deep back into Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall, nearly extinguishing the spark of Christianity that remained. The Saxons had a reputation for cruelty, ferocity, and barbarism and they ruled England with an iron hand.

Then something strange happened. Beginning in the kingdom of Kent, the seven Saxon kingdoms were evangelised. One by one they fell to Christianity. Over the next few centuries, something truly wonderful emerged from savage Saxon England: a culture of learning, literature, songs, bravery, and nobility. England became so safe that it was said a woman could travel alone across the country with a purse full of gold in perfect safety. One of my favourite stories tells about a king who married a young princess from a neighbouring kingdom. It was the ambition of this girl's life to remain a virgin and join a nunnery. Even though the succession and security of his kingdom was at stake, the king agreed and allowed her to go into the nunnery. Even though I think the princess was a silly goose, I love that story because it shows how Christianity had turned the Saxons into a kind—though far from a weak—people.

The Dream of the Rood is an excellent example of how these remarkable Christians viewed their faith. The narrator tells how the cross of Christ appeared to him in a dream to recount the story of the Crucifixion. Unless you've made an in-depth study of the Saxon people, the first thing you'll probably notice about this poem is the strangeness of how the Saxons viewed the same faith that you celebrated in church this morning.

Some of the theology is a little hazy. For instance, the part where the narrator “prayed to the cross with friendly spirit”--that sounds unusual to us modern-day Protestants, and that's as it should be.

However the most obvious point of difference between modern religion and The Dream of the Rood is probably the contrasting view of Jesus. After all, in the last hundred or so years, we've had Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild; we've had Radical Revolutionary Jesus, we've had Hell, What's That? Jesus, we've had Wise Human Teacher Jesus, and we've had Only Wants Your Personal Fulfilment Jesus.

Well, this is Anglo-Saxon Jesus:

The young hero stripped himself then (that was God Almighty)

strong and resolute. He ascended onto the high gallows,

brave in the sight of many there, since he wished to release mankind.

Warrior, Mighty King, Lord of the Heavens, Wielder of Triumphs--this is what the Dream of the Rood calls Christ. The Anglo-Saxons, coming from the cold hard myths of the North into Christianity, probably could not help seeing Christ as the epitome of what was honourable and good in their own eyes: the self-sacrificing warrior-king who will enjoy fellowship in the mead-hall of heaven with his faithful thegns. Even after “the King's fall” the poet speaks of the dead Christ in terms that hint at more to come:

They laid him down there, weary-limbed; they positioned themselves at his body's head,

there they gazed at the Lord of heaven, and he rested himself there for a while,

weary after the great battle.

Strangely, I've heard criticisms of this particular view of Christ as the conquering King. Now it's perfectly true: Christ is also the prophet and the priest, also the sacrificial Lamb, and there was certainly defeat in His triumph. But can anyone say this view of Christ is wrong? Incomplete—maybe. But was it meant to be complete? Can you fault the Anglo-Saxons for their delight in one aspect of Christ that so often goes overlooked? Can we not rather say that the Saxons had a much healthier, a more full-orbed idea of kingship than we have?

The Westminster Shorter Catechism has one marvellous question that addresses this issue well:

Q. 26: How doth Christ execute the office of a king?

A. Christ executeth the office of a king, in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies.

Christ the King was the particular joy of Anglo-Saxon Christians. We're embarrassed by the idea these days. It makes Christianity seem so...well, so manly. Or even worse – such a view might lead one to think that God hasn't planned on the Church's ultimate failure...that maybe, after all, Christ won the decisive battle on the Cross and the rest of history is just cleanup.

And you'd have to be crazy to believe that, right?

Modern English translation of The Dream of the Rood

1 comment:

Radagast said...

Now that is a great blog post.


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