Lying awake one night, alone in the dark while everyone else is sleeping, a man receives a strange vision. He sees a great tree lifted up into the sky, radiant with light, so huge that it seems to fill the whole universe. It is studded with jewels, adorned with gold, with bright banners streaming from its limbs. Watching in awe, the solitary man suddenly has a sense that he is no longer alone: he is surrounded by a vast company of spirits, all gazing in silent adoration upon the mighty tree.
Naturally enough, he is seized with terror at this unearthly vision, but he can’t stop looking at the tree. As he gazes at it, he sees more details; he notices that beneath its covering of gold and gems, the tree is bleeding. It seems to flicker as he watches it, as things do in dreams. At one moment he sees it drenched in blood, the next adorned with the finest treasure. Then the tree begins to speak: “It was long ago – I remember it yet – that I was cut down at the edge of a forest, removed from my root.” At this moment, it becomes clear which particular tree is speaking: the Cross of Christ, “the Savior’s tree.”
So begins the Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood, which survives in a tenth-century manuscript from southern England. It tells the story of the Crucifixion as seen through the eyes of the Cross, which speaks in its own words, describing how it was forced to participate in Christ’s death. The tree tells how it was violently wrested from its forest home to be made a tool of execution, and how it witnessed the suffering of the “young hero, God almighty” who willingly climbed upon it. The tree loves and admires this warrior, who ascends his cross like a soldier going into battle, but it is forced to become his slayer as Christ endures a terrible and humiliating death.
They suffer together, the Warrior and the Cross. It’s a profoundly intimate bond. Both are driven through with cruel nails; they are pinned together, and their bodies mingle sap and sweat, water and blood. Christ bears it all without a word, but in this poem the Cross can give voice to the pain of both, the agony, the fear. Unlike Christ, the Cross has not chosen this death, and the pain is almost too much for it to bear; it is, after all, only an ordinary tree. But it holds firm to its position, as its Lord has commanded, and stands fast until the end.
When the battle is over and the young warrior dead, the Cross feels Christ’s body being lifted from its arms and carried away for burial. It doesn’t see what happens next, because its part in the story is over. We have to fill in those details for ourselves: the garden, the stone rolled away, the empty tomb. The Cross knows none of this. Its knowledge ends on the evening of Christ’s burial, as the grieving disciples depart, singing a song of mourning, their voices dying away. The Cross itself is buried in a deep pit and forgotten, its purpose completed in the eyes of the executioners. Centuries later, though, it tells us, it was rediscovered; like its Lord, it rose from the grave to be exalted and honored across the world. The poem explains how through Christ’s death and resurrection the journey from suffering and grief to glory and joy, which the Cross has experienced, is now held out to human beings too: through the Cross, we have been granted a home in the heavens.
That was the message The Dream of the Rood was designed to teach its Anglo-Saxon audience. This poem was first written for a culture to which Christianity was still relatively new: a few lines of it appear, carved in runes, on a giant stone cross made in the early eighth century, only a hundred years or so after the Anglo-Saxons began to be converted to Christianity. Though the fuller version as it is preserved today is from a few centuries later, some form of this poem may be among the earliest surviving Christian poems in English.
The story it tells is shaped to resonate with an Anglo-Saxon audience. By imagining Christ as a warrior and the Cross as his loyal follower, it echoes the relationship found in poems like Beowulf, where the bond between a warrior and his men is invested with the most intense emotions of love and grief. The opening vision of the Cross as a great tree, towering as tall as the heavens and worshiped by all beings in the world, likely draws on the pre-Christian veneration of sacred trees. It presents the Cross as a kind of world-tree, something like Yggdrasil in Norse mythology, whose branches span the universe and connect the realms of heaven and earth.
The poem is emphatic in describing the Cross as a tree. In its opening lines, the object the dreamer sees is repeatedly called a treow (tree): “tree of glory,” “the best of trees.” The usual Old English word for the Cross, rod (rood), is deliberately avoided until later in the poem. (The title The Dream of the Rood is an invention of modern editors, and gives away what the poem is careful to conceal in this opening vision.) The language of the poem is ambiguous, enhancing the sense of a shifting, paradoxical vision. The Cross is called beama beorhtost, “brightest of beams,” and beam here bears a double meaning, as it does in modern English; it’s both a shaft of light and a pillar of timber. The Cross is, somehow, both these things at the same time. But most importantly, it is a tree – and a tree that has a voice, a memory, a personality.
The idea of the Cross as a sacred tree of life is not confined to the Anglo-Saxon world; it’s widespread in medieval culture, found throughout the Middle Ages in Christian art, preaching, and poetry. Modern iconography of the Crucifixion usually depicts the Cross as simple planks of wood, hewn into shape, and no longer looking much like a living tree. Medieval artists, however, often emphasize the tree-like qualities of the Cross, making it impossible to forget that this wood once grew from the earth. Artists show this in various ways, by depicting the knots in the timber, or coloring the Cross a naturalistic bark-brown or a vivid bright green. Sometimes the Cross has little twigs and tendrils springing from it, as if the tree is still sprouting growth. More stylized forms of iconography may show Christ nailed to a living tree still rooted in the earth, or fixed to some other kind of vine or plant; one late-medieval tradition presents him crucified on a lily, the symbol of his mother Mary.
The imagery of the Cross as a tree regularly features in medieval liturgy too. One significant influence on The Dream of the Rood must have been Latin hymns such as the sixth-century Crux Fidelis, which sets the Cross in comparison with other trees of the forest:
Faithful Cross, among all others the one most noble tree; no wood can bear such surpassing foliage, blossom, or fruit. Sweet wood, sweet nails, upholding so sweet a weight!
It is Christ himself who is the blossom and fruit of this tree, its “sweet weight.” This hymn, and others which imagine the Cross as a living tree, would be sung on Good Friday and on the two feasts in the church’s year dedicated specifically to the Cross, which fall in May and September – in spring and autumn, when trees are laden with blossom or with fruit. On such occasions, medieval worshipers would see the Cross lifted up for veneration and adorned with gold, jewels, and bright drapery, very much as the tree appears in the opening of The Dream of the Rood. The personification of the Cross as fidelis, faithful, also seems to inform the poem’s emphasis on the Cross’s steadfast loyalty, which endures despite its fear and pain: “I trembled when that man embraced me,” it says, “yet I dared not bow to the ground; I had to stand fast.”
This way of envisioning the Cross as a real tree, with leaves and branches, blossom and fruit, had profound consequences for medieval thinking about the Crucifixion. It underlined the parallels between the Cross and the tree in the Garden of Eden: “through a tree came to us death, when Adam ate the forbidden fruit, and through a tree came to us again life and redemption, when Christ hung on the Cross to redeem us,” as one Anglo-Saxon writer put it. The pairing of the trees connects the sin and the redemption, the sickness and the remedy – the tree of death and the tree of life.
It also offered poignant ways of thinking about Christ himself, the blossom of the tree. It’s no coincidence that medieval poetry about the Crucifixion, most appropriate to read around Eastertime, is full of imagery of blossoming trees; it reflects what people would be seeing around them, the natural world bursting into life and beauty. The new life brought by Christ’s death on the Cross was mirrored and recalled by the rejuvenation of springtime. “When I see blossoms spring and hear the birds’ song, my heart is stung with a sweet love-longing,” begins one English poem of the fourteenth century. The speaker goes on to explain that this love-longing is for Christ, who himself was “stung” by love when he was nailed to the tree. The blossoming of the trees has brought Christ’s suffering to the speaker’s mind, leading to a sudden, heart-piercing stab of love, sharp as a spear. Blossom and birdsong, among the most beautiful experiences the natural world has to offer, bring thoughts of suffering and death, and a love so powerful that it becomes painful. The image of Christ as a blossom might at first glance seem sentimental, but its nuances are moving, yoking together death and life, bliss and pain, natural growth and a terrible distortion of the beauty of nature. Christ on the tree has not grown like a blossom; he is hung there as a dying man.
This juxtaposition of death and new life is also evident in the iconography of Christ crucified on a lily, which is sometimes found in conjunction with images of the Annunciation. In the Middle Ages, the Annunciation and Good Friday were widely thought to have taken place on the same date, March 25, so that Christ died on the same date he was conceived; his death and conception unite, completing the full circle of his life on earth. The Virgin is often linked with scriptural images of the tree or the vine, such as the root of Jesse, and medieval liturgy on Marian feasts was rich in imagery of life-giving trees. This gives Mary a particular parallel with the tree of the Cross, another created being chosen by God to play a unique role in the salvation of mankind. The Cross in The Dream of the Rood compares itself to Mary, saying that God chose to honor her above all human beings, just as he honored the tree of the Cross above all creatures of the natural world.
Their honor and their life-giving power were not all Mary and the Cross had in common; they were also partners in grief. One medieval poetic tradition imagines a dialogue between Mary and the Cross, in which both express their anguish at Christ’s death. Mary begins by fiercely upbraiding the Cross for its cruelty to her child, “my Fruit,” as she calls him. He is the fruit of her body, tenderly nurtured, and she cannot bear the thought that he is now hanging exposed to the elements, left to rot like an overripe apple. In her agony of grief, she blames the Cross. But the Cross protests that it loves this Fruit too; it would never have chosen the role that has been given to it, but it must do as it has been commanded. In order to become the remedy for the apple of the Garden of Eden, God chose to become both the fruit of Mary’s body, loved and cherished, and the fruit of the Cross, broken and torn – crushed so that the juices of life might flow.
Though a speaking tree may seem strange to our modern imaginations, The Dream of the Rood has much in common with Anglo-Saxon riddles, which give voices to all kinds of objects, from an inkhorn to a bucket, a plough to a ship’s anchor. Like the tree in The Dream of the Rood, these objects have their own stories, memories, and emotions. The plough describes how hard it is to work with its nose in the earth; the shield talks about the scars and wounds it has received in battle; the anchor tells how it feels to be buffeted by the waves. The stories these objects tell are often narratives of transformation: they have begun their existence in one form and then, carved or stripped or hammered into shape, have taken on a new identity as objects used in human society. Many have been constructed from organic materials – wood, leather, bone, or feathers – and they seem to carry within them a memory of the living creatures they came from, even after they have been pressed into service by human beings. In one riddle, a leather shoe remembers that it used to be part of an ox, a powerful creature killed so that its skin could be literally trodden into the earth. In another, an inkhorn, made from the antler of a stag, wistfully recalls its journeys on the stag’s lofty head, before it was captured and forcibly repurposed for human use. Very often these transformations are imagined as violent, unwanted, and painful; the inkhorn’s account of having its insides carved out to hold ink is particularly gruesome. In parting from the animals who bore them, these objects have undergone a kind of death, yet through their difficult transformations they are given a new life in the human world.
In The Dream of the Rood, the Cross too experiences a process of violent transformation. Ripped from its root and forced to share in Christ’s agony, it undergoes suffering as painful as any in the riddles. Once again the inflictors of this violence are human beings, blindly causing pain to serve their own ends; the men who cut down the tree have no idea what they’re doing to it, any more than we think about how our shoes feel when we walk on them. Through its transformative suffering, though, the Cross too acquires a new identity – no longer an ordinary tree but the tree of life, connecting heaven and earth. At a key moment, as Christ is nailed to the Cross, it announces its new and glorious purpose: “As a rood I was raised up; I lifted the mighty King.”
This tree, stained with blood and adorned with jewels, is a meeting-point of extremes, a place of paradox. It is simultaneously a symbol of horror and beauty, shame and glory, suffering and joy. But really, of course, all this is not about the suffering of the Cross; that is merely a poetic conceit, like the riddles of the inkhorn and the leather shoe. The suffering is Christ’s. Though The Dream of the Rood offers an unforgettable alternative perspective on the events of the Crucifixion, it’s not so much about the Cross itself as it is an attempt to help its audience approach the central strangeness of the Christian story: the idea that an all-powerful God should choose to place himself in the hands of human enemies, willingly undergo suffering, to take on himself the punishment for mankind’s many sins. The tree didn’t choose to suffer, to become the Cross, any more than the antler chose to be turned into an inkhorn, or than any human being can choose the forms of suffering that come to us and transform us. But God chose to suffer. Through that suffering, the poem suggests, it is not he but we who are transformed, given life, and made into something new.
Wondrous was that victory-beam,
and I stained with sins,
wounded with wickedness.
I saw the tree of glory
adorned with drapery,
shining with joys,
decked with gold;
gems worthily wrapped the Ruler’s tree.
But through that gold I could perceive
ancient wretches’ hostility,
so that it first began
to bleed on the right side.
I was entirely afflicted with sorrow;
I was afraid at the fair vision.
I saw that eager beacon
change its clothing and colour;
at times it was drenched with moisture,
soaked with the flow of sweat;
at times it was adorned with treasure.
But I, lying there a long while,
beheld, sorrowful, the Saviour’s tree,
until I heard that it spoke.
The best of trees began to speak words.
From The Dream of the Rood (trans. Eleanor Parker).