Death’s Death Part 1: The Anglo-Saxon Jesus in “The Dream of the Rood”

In the late 11th century CE, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm, wrote his famous book Cur Deus Homo (Latin for Why God Became a Man) where he tried to explain the incarnation of Jesus. He said that God became a human being in Jesus Christ because human sin had violated the honor and justice of God, and thus, Jesus’ death is a human being satisfying the honor and justice of God. Anselm had made God object of Jesus’ atoning death.

Before Anselm’s writing, Christianity generally understood Jesus’ death as God confronting evil to reclaim, ransom or redeem human beings from the powers of sin, death and Satan. Some saw this as more militaristic in nature, others as more economic. In both cases, God was the subject and the object of the atonement. John Donne’s “Death, be not proud,” reflects the Anselmian tradition, being written after the Protestant Reformation rooted itself in Anselm’s “satisfaction theory.”

But what happens when it is read through the prism of a text written prior to Anselm? Does the sonnet still work as a poem? My thesis over the next few posts is to show that Donne’s poem is opened up to a whole new world, more vivid and visceral than previously imagined, when read through the lens of the Anglo-Saxon poem, “The Dream of the Rood.” Donne writes a sonnet of victory over death, and not just in some spiritual sense, but politically here on earth as well. Donne joins in with the Anglo-Saxon poet to both celebrate and anticipate the coming feast for the saints.

6706_noucolororig“The Dream of the Rood” retells the biblical crucifixion narrative within the framework of the Anglo-Saxon warrior culture—think Beowulf or Tolkien’s Aragorn. Jesus is painted as the Anglo-Saxon hero described as possessing strength, courage and might (40, 102). He possesses several appellations that designate Jesus as God, King and Lord (34, 39, 133, 156). He is the “guardian of heaven” and the “High-Father” (90, 134). Jesus has a comitatus, or war-band, as seen in the warriors who give him a funeral, the thanes who rescue the tree that was chopped down, and his friends with whom the poem’s speaker wishes to be identified (61-70, 75-7, 146). Heaven is Jesus’ mead-hall where he dispenses the treasure obtained from his victorious conquest (134-48). Thus Jesus looks similar to King Theoden ruling over Rohan and his Rohirim in his Great Hall.

By casting Jesus as an Anglo-Saxon king, the poem is now able to present Jesus as victorious over death. The poem calls the cross Jesus’ “great struggle” and his “slayer” (66-7). The Rood describes his initial purpose in this way, “There powerful enemies took me, / put me up to make a circus-play to lift up and parade their criminals” (30-1). On the rood Jesus is nailed down and killed. Anglo-Saxon kings had enemies that they fought, like Beowulf fighting the dragon or Grendel. By defeating these great enemies they achieve for themselves and their comitatus honor and treasure. But Jesus’ enemy was not a rival king but mankind’s sin, death and a cross. His very battle would bring dishonor to both himself and his comitatus. But by rising from the dead that honor is restored. Again, when the speaker begins to conclude the poem he says, “The Son was victorious in venturing forth, / mighty and triumphant when he returned with many, / a great company of souls to the Kingdom of God” (150-3). Jesus is the mighty warrior-king who has triumphed over the greatest of enemies in death, not by military force of arms, but by enduring the dishonor of defeat and reversing the criminal’s death into a king’s triumph. Therefore, Jesus is now the Anglo-Saxon warrior-king enthroned over his kingdom, having won his great battle and distributed the plundered treasure to his comitatus. The speaker is now waiting for Jesus to reward his faith in the rood tree by granting him a piece of the plunder.

cross-450Understanding Jesus’ death this way pushes back against the Anselm and Reformation understandings of the crucifixion. Anselm saw Jesus as man acting upon God to satisfy God’s honor and justice. Jesus’ death is a spiritual transaction that takes place between man and God. “The Dream of the Rood” does not see Jesus as satisfying the honor and justice of an offended God. Rather, Jesus is seen as God waging war against sin and death to retake mankind from their fallen state. God reconciles himself to his people through his Anglo-Saxon victory. Humankind shows themselves to be part of the comitatus, and thus share in the treasure of eternal life, by turning to the rood for protection as the speaker does after the vision of the tree ends (122-31).


“The Dream of the Rood.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt et. al. 9th ed. Vol. A. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2012. 33-6. Print.

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~ by hankimler on June 11, 2016.

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