The “Hero” and the “Substitute”: Looking into the Relationship between Christ and the Cross in “The Dream of the Rood”

Laki Molla

Assistant professor, Department of English, Bhairab Ganguly College

Volume II, 2016 | Full Text PDF

‘The Dream of the Rood’, a masterpiece of Old English religious poetry found in the Vercelli Book, is a rather short poem describing the crucifixion and the ordeal of the Cross. Benjamin Thorpe, an English scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature gave the title of the poem in 1836 in his editorial notes to the late tenth century manuscript, the so-called Vercelli Book containing literary work. [01] The poem is believed to have originated much earlier than the manuscript — it is likely to be one of the oldest works of Old English Literature.[02] 15 of the 156 lines of the poem are carved in runic letters on the Ruthwell Cross in Dumfriesshire in the Lowlands of Scotland. It was a preaching cross, raised in a missionary area in Northumbria, around the year 700. [03] The Ruthwell Cross and the Vercelli MS are separated by a distance of 1000 miles and a period of 270 years. Michael Alexander claims that it is likely that the poem had been composed before the Cross was built. It is a poem in which two apparently contrasting but not antagonistic worlds — the Christian and the Anglo-Saxon traditions — mingle together creating a coherent unity. Written in alliterative verse ‘The Dream of the Rood’ can aptly be termed as ‘heroic verse’. But the merging of genres of riddle, dream vision and Christian narrative complicates the poem significantly. In spite of all these the spirit of heroism that pervades Anglo-Saxon literature and life plays a significant part in the poem.

‘The Dream of the Rood’ is set up with the narrator having a dream. In this dream or vision he is speaking to the Cross which “tells of its origin in the forest, its removal to be made into a Cross for “the master of mankind”, its horror at the role it had to play but its determination to stand fast because that was God’s command, and the suffering of “the young Hero” who ascends the Cross resolutely in order to redeem mankind”[04]. The poem can be divided into three separate sections: section one (line 1-27) is about the description of the Cross. The second section (28-121) is the speech by the Cross to the Dreamer sharing its account of Jesus’ death. In section three, the author gives his reflections about this vision. Constance Hieatt, in her essay ‘Dream Frame and Verbal Echo in The Dream of the Rood’ divides the poem based on speaker, subject and verbal parallels. The divisions are Prologue (1-27), Vision I (28-77): history of the Cross, Vision II (78-94): explanation of the Rood’s glory, Vision III (95-114): the Rood’s message to mankind and Epilogue (122-156). [05]

The battle is between Jesus and the men who were against his teachings. And we find Jesus accepting death calmly in the hands of his enemies and still blessing them. Thus the battle depicted in ‘The Dream of the Rood’ is different from the heroic battles presented in other heroic poetry. The heroism of Jesus is manifested by his submission to and suffering in the hands of his own murderers rather than by an outward display of courage in battle. The Rood, though not a human, acts as a thane whose primary duty of protecting his lord is actually forbidden by the lord himself.

The crucifixion of Jesus is told from the perspective of the Cross. In this way the Rood also describes its creation as a Cross:

“I was hewn at holt’s end,
moved from my stem. Strong fiends seized me there,
worked me for spectacle; cursèd ones lifted me .
On shoulders men bore me there, then fixed me on hill;” [06]

It is then that Christ approaches the Rood, like a hero ascending to battle:

“Then saw I mankind’s Lord
come with great courage when he would mount on me.” [07]

It is interesting to note that the dramatic tension and poignancy inherent in ‘The Dream of the Rood’ spring from the fact that their battle are not against the Romans who crucify Jesus, but against each other. Though they are not opponents like Beowulf and Grendel and we find in the poem the Rood addressing the crucifiers as ‘enemies’. Jesus has to endure his suffering upon the Cross and the Cross who is forbidden by his lord Jesus to offer any help must correspondingly suffer his complicity in that death. It should also be noted that in the New Testament Jesus is described as carrying the Cross himself to the place of his crucifixion. The Rood poet deliberately transforms the event as described in the Gospel to suit the specialized situation.

The traditional Anglo-Saxon boast of heroism is not altogether missing in the poem. It is found not in Jesus, but in the Cross. Just before Jesus commits the heroic act, the Rood claims:

“All fiends
I could have felled, but I stood fast.” [08]

The Rood’s personal statement of will, ability and individual intent is very much brought out here. It reminds us the boast of Beowulf before he fights Grendel. The Rood describes the action of Jesus at that time of crucifixion:

“The young hero stripped himself – he, God Almighty –
strong and stout-minded.” [09]

Jesus stripping for battle (rather than arming) reminds us of the disarming of the traditional heroes before his fight with the opponent and which is not a sign of weakness, but a declaration of strength. It is interesting that the Rood poet chooses this moment to call Jesus ‘hero’.

In ‘The Dream of the Rood’ the Lord and the Cross become one, and they stand together as victors, refusing to fall, enduring insurmountable pain for the sake of mankind. It is not just Christ but the Cross as well that is pierced with nails. “The Rood and Christ are one in the portrayal of the passion– they are both pierced with nails, mocked and tortured”. [10]

Another element found in ‘The Dream of The Rood’ which is similar like the Anglo-Saxon heroic poems is that the death of the substitute precedes the main character’s actions and often serves as a galvanizing event in the development of the hero. In ‘Beowulf’, Handscio and Aeschere act as substitute. They both are warriors. Handscio, a Geatish warrior and a close friend of Beowulf is eaten by Grendel. Aeschere is an old Danish warrior who is close to the King Hrothgar. He was beheaded when Grendel’s mother came to enact revenge for his son’s death. These deaths make Beowulf resolute to revenge upon Grendel and his mother. In Iliad the death of Patroclus in the hands of Hector becomes the prime motivation for Achilles to return to battle. The death underpins a great deal of Achilles’ actions and emotions toward the Trojan War. It is as if the demise of the hero’s companion acts as a catalyst for the evolution of the hero himself: Achilles achieves glory during his subsequent vengeance and kills Hector, the Trojan hero; Beowulf also after witnessing the killing of Hondscio attains his first great victory. Both Beowulf and Achilles can be seen as blameworthy in the death of their friends- as Achilles lends Patroklus his armor and Beowulf makes no move to protect his kinsman.

If we look into ‘The Dream of the Rood’ we become quite confused in our endeavour to identify the ‘Hero’ and the ‘Substitute’. From the above two examples in Beowulf and Iliad, we get the main criteria of the pattern: the death  of the ‘substitute’ is caused by the actions of the ‘hero’, the death of the ‘substitute’ precedes the main character’s action and the death of the ‘substitute’ acts as a galvanizing event in the development of that hero. In ‘The Dream of the Rood’ the primary hero seems to be Jesus and certainly the Rood’s death is brought about by Jesus. The Rood’s boast indicates that if he had been allowed he could have saved his lord, and saved himself in the process:

“Then dared I not against the Lord’s word
bend or break, when I saw earth’s
fields shake. All fiends
I could have felled, but I stood fast.” [11]

It is Jesus’ command that prevents the Rood’s action and thus causes not only his own death but that of the Rood also as after the Crucifixion the Rood is also buried in a deep pit. In the content of the poem, we find that the other criteria are also fulfilled but in a different way. Jesus’ suffering and death are impossible without the suffering and death of the Rood. And without both events taking place, Jesus cannot become “the guardian of the heavenly kingdom”. Looking into the relationship between the Cross and Christ, we find that Christ accepting death on the Cross for the sake of mankind is the ‘hero’ of the poem and the Cross ‘the substitute’. In ‘The Dream of the Rood’ each character serves as the other’s ‘substitute’.

The story of the crucifixion without any doubt is the centerpiece of the poem and its central conflict. But at the most basic level this crucifixion story is not mainly the story of Jesus, but rather of the Cross. [12] The whole story of the Crucifixion is told from the first person perspective of the Cross. Here we also tell about his origin. His story relates how he became a Cross, hewn down from the edge of the wood, and is not concerned with the story of Christ. So, it is the action and reactions of the Rood that constitute the bulk of the narrative. We find Christ hastening towards the Cross and the Cross had the intention to defend his Lord and it suffers from its own torment at not daring to do so. So, the central heroic conflict is clearly the Rood’s.

The story of the Crucifixion is described in the second section of the poem. “During some 15 lines that describe the Crucifixion scene, the first person singular pronoun is used no fewer than 12 times. Certainly Jesus is depicted as a warrior but in terms of the narrative the Rood is portrayed no less heroically”. [13] Rood is the means by which Jesus conquers and also the status of the Rood as a hero is reflected in his gold and silver ornamentation, his ability to heal anyone in awe of him and his function of bringing mortals into heaven. Jesus’ death is caused by the Rood who ‘stand fast’ in order to abide by the order of Christ. Jesus’ death is also acts as a galvanizing force in the Rood’s development. It is the death of Jesus which transforms the Cross from mere wood to ‘a tree of glory’ covered in gold and gems:

“Now has the time come
when they will honor me far and wide,
men over earth, and all this great creation,
will pray for themselves to this beacon.” [14]

When we consider the Rood as ‘hero’ and Jesus as its ‘substitute’ the poem begins to resound with different dimensions. The poem is a deeply Christian one and “Jesus with her bitter death on the Cross not only substitutes for the Rood, he substitutes for all mankind making salvation possible.” [15] As the death of Patroklus transformed Achilles, Jesus’ death is the event through which the Rood itself is imbued with purpose.

Thus in ‘The Dream of the Rood’, we can find the paradoxical status of Christ and the Cross. The “heroism of Jesus is inherent in his refusal to fight for his life and whose life is inherent in his death”. [16] The Cross which acts as an instrument, through which Christ transmits eternal life, is the one which did not defend his Lord and becomes the “fulfiller of his Lord’s desire”.


  1. Wrenn, C, L. A Study of Old English Literature. London: George G. Harrap & Co Ltd, 1967. p. 134–135.
  2. Alexander, M .Macmillan History of Literature: Old English Literature. London: Macmillan, 1983, p. 177.
  3. Kennedy, W. The Earliest English Poetry. A Critical Survey of the Poetry Written before the Norman Conquest with Illustrative Translations. London: Rowman & Littlefield,p. 260–261.
  4. Daiches, David. A Critical History of English Literature(Vol.I).New Delhi: Random House India, 2007.p.18
  5. Hieatt, Constance B. “Dream Frame and Verbal Echo in The Dream of the Rood”. Neuphilologische  Mitteilungen 72(1971): 251–263.
  7. Ibid
  8. Ibid
  11. Stratyner, Leslie. “The Battle with the Monster: The transformation of a Traditional Pattern in ‘The Dream of the Rood”. Oral tradition 12/2 (1997):308-321
  12. Ibid
  14. Stratyner, Leslie. “The Battle with the Monster: The transformation of a Traditional Pattern in ‘The Dream of the Rood”. Oral tradition 12/2 (1997):308-321
  15. Ibid

Laki Molla is an Assistant professor in the Department of English, Bhairab Ganguly College


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