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1.3 “The Dream of the Rood”

PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently in draft form; material is not final.

Learning Objectives

  1. Recognize and account for both pagan and Christian elements in “The Dream of the Rood.”
  2. Interpret the poem’s characterization of Christ in terms of the Anglo-Saxon culture.

“The Dream of the Rood” tells a Christian story with emphasis on elements that would appeal to the pagan warrior society of the Anglo-Saxons. Note the use of epithetscharacterizing words or phrases used in place of a proper name (characterizing words or phrases used in place of a proper name). For example, the cross is referred to as “wondrous wood,” “victor-tree,” and “ the Saviour’s tree.” Each epithet suggests a characteristic of the cross. Like much Old English poetry, “The Dream of the Rood” exemplifies an elegiac tonean awareness of the transitory nature of life, human sinfulness and sorrow, and the promised consolation of Heaven, an awareness of the transitory nature of life, human sinfulness and sorrow, and the promised consolation of Heaven.

Told by two narrators, the unnamed Dreamer and the Rood, the poem is an example of dream vision literaturea narrative in which an individual experiences a dream or vision which substantially changes his/her life, frequently through the wisdom of a guide or mentor, a narrative in which an individual experiences a dream or vision which substantially changes his/her life, frequently through the wisdom of a guide or mentor. In this case the Rood, the cross upon which Christ was crucified, relates his experiences in the terms of a loyal retainer supporting his king.

Text: “The Dream of the Rood”

(translated by James M. Garnett, Boston: Ginn & Co., Publishers, The Athenaeum Press, 1911. rpt. in Project Gutenberg)

Lo! choicest of dreams I will relate,
What dream I dreamt in middle of night
When mortal men reposed in rest.
Methought I saw a wondrous wood
Tower aloft with light bewound, 5
Brightest of trees; that beacon was all
Begirt with gold; jewels were standing
Four at surface of earth, likewise were there five
Above on the shoulder-brace. All angels of God beheld it,
Fair through future ages; ‘twas no criminal’s cross indeed, 10
But holy spirits beheld it there,
Men upon earth, all this glorious creation.
Strange was that victor-tree, and stained with sins was I,
With foulness defiled. I saw the glorious tree
With vesture adorned winsomely shine, 15
Begirt with gold; bright gems had there
Worthily decked the tree of the Lord.
Yet through that gold I might perceive
Old strife of the wretched, that first it gave
Blood on the stronger [right] side. With sorrows was I oppressed, 20
Afraid for that fair sight; I saw the ready beacon
Change in vesture and hue; at times with moisture covered,
Soiled with course of blood; at times with treasure adorned.
Yet lying there a longer while,
Beheld I sad the Saviour’s tree 25
Until I heard that words it uttered;
The best of woods gan speak these words:
“‘Twas long ago (I remember it still)
That I was hewn at end of a grove,
Stripped from off my stem; strong foes laid hold of me there, 30
Wrought for themselves a show, bade felons raise me up;
Men bore me on their shoulders, till on a mount they set me;
Fiends many fixed me there. Then saw I mankind’s Lord
Hasten with mickle might, for He would sty upon me.
There durst I not ‘gainst word of the Lord 35
Bow down or break, when saw I tremble
The surface of earth; I might then all
My foes have felled, yet fast I stood.
The Hero young begirt Himself, Almighty God was He,
Strong and stern of mind; He stied on the gallows high, 40
Bold in sight of many, for man He would redeem.
I shook when the Hero clasped me, yet durst not bow to earth,
Fall to surface of earth, but firm I must there stand.
A rood was I upreared; I raised the mighty King,
The Lord of Heaven; I durst not bend me. 45
They drove their dark nails through me; the wounds are seen upon me,
The open gashes of guile; I durst harm none of them.
They mocked us both together; all moistened with blood was I,
Shed from side of the man, when forth He sent His spirit.
Many have I on that mount endured 50
Of cruel fates; I saw the Lord of Hosts
Strongly outstretched; darkness had then
Covered with clouds the corse of the Lord,
The brilliant brightness; the shadow continued,
Wan ‘neath the welkin. There wept all creation, 55
Bewailed the King’s death; Christ was on the cross.
Yet hastening thither they came from afar
To the Son of the King: that all I beheld.
Sorely with sorrows was I oppressed; yet I bowed ‘neath the hands of men,
Lowly with mickle might. Took they there Almighty God, 60
Him raised from the heavy torture; the battle-warriors left me
To stand bedrenched with blood; all wounded with darts was I.
There laid they the weary of limb, at head of His corse they stood,
Beheld the Lord of Heaven, and He rested Him there awhile,
Worn from the mickle war. Began they an earth-house to work, 65
Men in the murderers’ sight, carved it of brightest stone,
Placed therein victories’ Lord. Began sad songs to sing
The wretched at eventide; then would they back return
Mourning from the mighty prince; all lonely rested He there.
Yet weeping we then a longer while 70
Stood at our station: the [voice] arose
Of battle-warriors; the corse grew cold,
Fair house of life. Then one gan fell
Us all to earth; ‘twas a fearful fate!
One buried us in deep pit, yet of me the thanes of the Lord, 75
His friends, heard tell; [from earth they raised me],
And me begirt with gold and silver.
Now thou mayst hear, my dearest man,
That bale of woes have I endured,
Of sorrows sore. Now the time is come, 80
That me shall honor both far and wide
Men upon earth, and all this mighty creation
Will pray to this beacon. On me God’s Son
Suffered awhile; so glorious now
I tower to Heaven, and I may heal 85
Each one of those who reverence me;
Of old I became the hardest of pains,
Most loathsome to ledes [nations], the way of life,
Right way, I prepared for mortal men.
Lo! the Lord of Glory honored me then 90
Above the grove, the guardian of Heaven,
As He His mother, even Mary herself,
Almighty God before all men
Worthily honored above all women.
Now thee I bid, my dearest man, 95
That thou this sight shalt say to men,
Reveal in words, ‘tis the tree of glory,
On which once suffered Almighty God
For the many sins of all mankind,
And also for Adam’s misdeeds of old. 100
Death tasted He there; yet the Lord arose
With His mickle might for help to men.
Then stied He to Heaven; again shall come
Upon this mid-earth to seek mankind
At the day of doom the Lord Himself, 105
Almighty God, and His angels with Him;
Then He will judge, who hath right of doom,
Each one of men as here before
In this vain life he hath deserved.
No one may there be free from fear 110
In view of the word that the Judge will speak.
He will ask ‘fore the crowd, where is the man
Who for name of the Lord would bitter death
Be willing to taste, as He did on the tree.
But then they will fear, and few will bethink them 115
What they to Christ may venture to say.
Then need there no one be filled with fear
Who bears in his breast the best of beacons;
But through the rood a kingdom shall seek
From earthly way each single soul 120
That with the Lord thinketh to dwell.”
Then I prayed to the tree with joyous heart,
With mickle might, when I was alone
With small attendance; the thought of my mind
For the journey was ready; I’ve lived through many 125
Hours of longing. Now ‘tis hope of my life
That the victory-tree I am able to seek,
Oftener than all men I alone may
Honor it well; my will to that
Is mickle in mind, and my plea for protection 130
To the rood is directed. I’ve not many mighty
Of friends on earth; but hence went they forth
From joys of the world, sought glory’s King;
Now live they in Heaven with the Father on high,
In glory dwell, and I hope for myself 135
On every day when the rood of the Lord,
Which here on earth before I viewed,
In this vain life may fetch me away
And bring me then, where bliss is mickle,
Joy in the Heavens, where the folk of the Lord 140
Is set at the feast, where bliss is eternal;
And may He then set me where I may hereafter
In glory dwell, and well with the saints
Of joy partake. May the Lord be my friend,
Who here on earth suffered before 145
On the gallows-tree for the sins of man!
He us redeemed, and gave to us life,
A heavenly home. Hope was renewed,
With blessing and bliss, for the sufferers of burning.
The Son was victorious on that fateful journey, 150
Mighty and happy, when He came with a many,
With a band of spirits to the kingdom of God,
The Ruler Almighty, for joy to the angels
And to all the saints, who in Heaven before
In glory dwelt, when their Ruler came, 155
Almighty God, where was His home.

The Ruthwell Cross

Part of the poem “The Dream of the Rood” is inscribed on the Ruthwell Cross, an 18-foot tall, free standing cross, one of oldest extant Christian monuments in Britain.

Video Clip 7

The Ruthwell Cross and The Dream of the Rood

(click to see video)

The stone is carved with scenes from the Bible, decorative vine work, and 18 lines of “The Dream of the Rood” in Anglo-Saxon runes and Latin lettering. Scholars believe the cross could have been carved after 650, probably after the Synod of Whitby in 664; others think it may have been carved as late as 710.

The Ruthwell Cross, a preaching cross, originally stood outdoors at a crossroad. Because the Anglo-Saxons were mostly illiterate, one of the ways the missionary Christian monks communicated knowledge about the Bible and Christianity was through pictures. Pagan people who saw the cross might be influenced to convert to Christianity or the first Christian converts could be taught biblical knowledge.

The Vercelli Book

Only four manuscripts contain all extant Old English literature: the Junius manuscript (which includes “Caedmon’s Hymn”), the Exeter Book, the Nowell Codex (which includes the Beowulf manuscript), and the Vercelli Book (so called because it was found in Vercelli, Italy). The Vercelli Book contains two poems by Cynewulf, whom some scholars believe may also have composed “The Dream of the Rood.”

Key Takeaways

  1. “The Dream of the Rood” is a Christian story presented in terms of the Germanic heroic ideal.
  2. “The Dream of the Rood” exemplifies typical literary devices of Old English literature such as elegiac tone and dream vision format.


  1. In “The Dream of the Rood,” there are two speakers. Who speaks the first and last stanzas? Who speaks the middle stanza in quotation marks?
  2. “The Dream of the Rood” pictures Christ as a Germanic hero. List some of the epithets for Christ found in “The Dream of the Rood.” What qualities of Christ are emphasized by these epithets? Why is he portrayed that way?
  3. Also note the epithets used for the cross. What qualities are emphasized by these epithets?
  4. Describe the mood of the Dreamer in the first paragraph and in the last paragraph. What consolation is revealed to him?


Text in Modern English

Text in Old English

Audio Text in Old English


Old English Manuscripts

Exeter Book

Junius Manuscript

Nowell Codex

Vercelli Book

The Ruthwell Cross

Manuscript and Author