Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

The Dream of the Rood Study Guide
[page numbers refer to NA 9th ed., 2012; for page numbers in 8th ed., 2006, click HERE]

Background: Old English Literature

Read carefully the general background information NA 3-10, paying particular attention to the discussion of oral poetry, literacy, and the connection between Christianity and writing; note also the comments on heroic values (NA 8). Also read information on the Old English language (NA 19, 1st paragraph only); the presentation of Old and Middle English prosody and first page of the Texts/Contexts timeline (NA 24-26); the information on the Saxons and Danish rulers of England (NA Appendix A41); and the headnote on The Dream of the Rood (NA 32-3). Make sure you understand what is meant by alliterative verse and can identify parts of the Old English alliterative lines in Caedmon's hymn (NA 30-31) and in the Poet's Song in Heorot selection from Beowulf (NA 40-41). What is meant by the Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) period? Know dates (or approximations given by editor) for: the Anglo-Saxon conquest; Augustine's arrival in Britain to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity; the Dream of the Rood; the Norman Conquest. Know what is meant by the term "dream vision" (see below). 

The Dream of the Rood

As you read the Dream of the Rood, keep in mind that you are reading a modern English translation -- the original was an Old English POEM composed ORALLY (not "written") in ALLITERATIVE VERSE, NOT in prose. Compare the two translations of the poem: E.T. Donaldson's prose translation, which appeared in the Norton Anthology up until the 8th edition (2006), and Alfred David's alliterative verse translation in the 9th edition of the anthology (2012).  Which do you prefer, and why?  Be sure to have copies of BOTH translations with you in class; note that after our initial comparison, we will base our discussion on the PROSE translation from the NA 8th edition.  (For your convenience, both translations are included in a .PDF file, 5 pp., on e-reserve in PolyLearn.)

Who are the speakers in the poem? (Is the person saying "I" the same throughout the poem?) Does the relationship between the speakers change at different points in the poem? What is the significance of the "doubling" of the tree in the first paragraph? (Who or what is this "Rood," anyway?) Why might the Rood be characterized as he is? What purposes would this characterization serve?

The subject matter of the poem is explicitly Christian. Do you see any traces of pre-Christian religious practice or beliefs? How are pagan symbols converted into Christian ones? Who is the target audience for this poem? What purpose does it serve? The editor points out parallels between the experience of the Rood and that of the Dreamer (NA 32-33). What about parallels between the Rood and Christ? What are the implications of these parallels? Why would the poet present some aspects of the story of Christ's Crucifixion from the perspective of the Rood rather than of Christ?

How is Christ portrayed in this poem? Notice the military language used to describe Christ. Would it be appropriate for a religious poem in our culture? What values does this characterization suggest? Pick out nouns, adjectives and verbal forms which convey a military flavor.

We are dealing here with a medieval Dream Vision, a genre in which the poet/dreamer purports to relate a dream which he actually had. Given that the experience related is a dream, on what level can it be said to be "true"? What is the role of the poet in this poem? (Pay special attention to the last two paragraphs.) Compare the Rood poet with Caedmon, as described by Bede. The Rood's words to the dreamer are enclosed within a narrative "frame" in which the dreamer addresses his audience directly. What is the effect of these two levels of address? Does it add to our understanding of the role of the poet? What is implied about our role as audience?

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1999-2014

Click here for Bede and Caedmon Study Questions

Click here for Beowulf Study Questions

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