Comparing the Heroes in The Dream of the Rood and Beowulf

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The Heroes in The Dream of the Rood and Beowulf

In The Dream of the Rood, the poet has added elements of the idealized heroic death (as exemplified in Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon) to the crucifixion. He has also eliminated details of the story that tend to render Christ as a figure of pathos, in order to further Christ's identification with the other glorious warriors Anglo-Saxon poems.

When a hero meets his death, for example, he is usually surrounded by faithful retainers (as is Byrhtnoth) or at least one steadfast companion, such as Beowulf's Wiglaf. The gospel clearly states that Jesus died ignobly, in the most humiliating fashion possible, and that his disciples kept themselves from Golgotha in order not to be implicated alongside him. The crowd mocked Christ with fake veneration. The poet must realize, however, that his audience will not accept a Lord who did not die a radiant death, and was not universally lamented. He says instead that "all creation wept, bewailed the king's death -- Christ was on the cross." After Jesus is taken down, the poet asserts that a grave was carved for him "of bright stone", and that the soldiers sung a dirge for him in the eventide. Men came "from afar, hastening to the prince." [165] The rood extols upon Christ's shining beauty as he died. Very noble, but there's little biblical support for this account.

Also rooted in the heroic tradition is the subsequent gold-plating and raising of the cross. Just as Beowulf asked that a "bright mound" be erected in his honor, and the gold in the dragon's cave becomes as a monument to him, so do the disciples unearth and gild the rood. The idea of God himself lacking a proper gold-drenched headstone was unthin...

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...e most such works, it tries to convince heathens to convert by co-opting the extant value system. Christ emerges as a powerful king who will stoically suffer for us, and reward us, for the price of our piety.

Sources Cited and Consulted

Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.

Mitchell, Bruce and Fred C. Robinson (eds.). "The Dream of the Rood: or A Vision of the Cross." A Guide to Old English, 6E. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2002. 256-263.

O'Keeffe, Katherine O'Brien. "Heroic values and Christian ethics." The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Ed. Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. 107-125.

Wheelock, Jeremy I. "The Word Made Flesh: 'Engel Dryhtnes' in The Dream of the Rood." English Language Notes. March 2000, Vol. 37 Issue 3: 1.
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