How Christ Symbolizes the Ultimate Ring-giver in Anglo Saxon Poetry Incorporating traditional Anglo Saxon beliefs of heroism with the image of Christ on the cross allows the poet of The Dream of the Rood to effectively communicate the benefits of Christianity to pagan warriors. By comparing characteristics, duties, and treatment of heroes in Beowulf and the Battle of Maldon to the depiction of Christ in The Dream of the Rood, it becomes evident that the image of Christ is altered to mirror that of heroic warriors. Through this melding of heroic beliefs and Christianity, the poet of Rood is able to show how Christ can become the ultimate ring giver or Lord.
Dominant characteristics of heroes in Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon revolve around their willingness to do battle in order to protect their kinsman and treasure. At the beginning of The Battle of Maldon, Birhtnoth clearly demonstrates this characteristic with this statement to the Vikings: “it seems to me too shameful that you should go unfought to ship with our tribute” (Maldon 105). In his desire for honor, Birhtnoth would rather risk death in battle than pay off enemies with treasure. Turning away from a heroic challenge lessens Birhtnoth’s image as a heroic man. His kinsmen could no longer favor him with respect and loyalty if he did not uphold his obligation to fight and protect the tribe.
Another example of this is given in Beowulf when the king Beowulf is preparing for battle against the dragon. “This fight is not yours, nor is it up to any man except me to measure his strength or prove his worth” (Beowulf 86). This passage again illustrates that it is ultimately up to the hero to fight the enemy and protect the kinsman from pillaging and death.
With these heroic characteristics in mind, The Dream of the Rood poet writes that Christ “climbed on the high gallows, bold in the sight of many, when he would free mankind” (Rood 27). The Christ depicted in this passage willingly accepts his battle on the cross and because of this act the poet then goes on to describe Christ as a “warrior”, “strong,” and “stouthearted.” Christ is not portrayed as a meek and humble man resigned to his task as savior and lord. Within this portion of the text, he becomes a bold warrior climbing the cross as if going into battle. At the end of the poem, the narrator looks to Christ and the cross for protection.
Furthermore, the primary duty of a hero is to provide his kinsmen with great treasure and weaponry. Beowulf fulfills this duty by stating “Behold this treasure … that I have been allowed to leave my people…” (Beowulf 91) to Wiglaf after defeating the dragon. The warriors in The Battle of Maldon describe their Lord and hero as a “treasure-giver,” and also a “ring-giver.” The warriors in both of these texts reflect on all that their lords or heroes provide for them. It is through this gratification for material wealth that kinsmen feel so indebted to fighting for their lord. Wiglaf illustrates this concept when he remembers “the bountiful gifts bestowed upon him” (Beowulf 88) and finds that “he could not hold back” (Beowulf 88) from his lord’s side.
Christ also fulfills this duty of a hero by bestowing many wonderful gifts and treasures upon any man who will follow Him faithfully. The treasures described in the poem state that followers will “dwell in glory,” “delight in the heavens,” and “fully enjoy bliss with the saints” (Rood 28). The treasures that Christ bestows differ, however, in that they are not limited to material goods that can only be enjoyed on a mortal level. They are gifts that followers can enjoy on an eternal level.
If a hero both possesses the characteristics of a hero, and fulfills his assigned duties as a hero, his fellow kinsmen will then treat him accordingly. When a hero meets his death, for example, faithful kinsman usually surrounds him. In Beowulf, Wiglaf valiantly stays by his lord’s side during the battle with the dragon and until Beowulf finally passes away. The Battle of Maldon gives another example of this treatment with Birhtwold’s refusal to leave the battle field: “from here I will not turn, but by my lord’s side, by the man I loved, I intend to lie” (Maldon 109).
Likewise, as a result of this devotion, men will lavish the hero’s burial site with gifts and treasure. “His [Beowulf’s] royal pyre will melt no small amount of gold” (Beowulf 96). This final act of gratitude allows the kinsman to pay tribute to their lord and hero for providing wealth and protection.
Christ, as well, is given this treatment after his death on the cross. Warriors lifted him from “his heavy torment” (Rood 27) and “began to build him an earth-house… of bright stone” (Rood 27). In addition to adorning the body of Christ, the followers found the cross and “decked me [the cross] in gold and silver” (Rood 27). Christ followers show, by these examples, that they consider him a hero. Because they acknowledge his status as a hero, it would be disgraceful for them to leave his body in a simple tomb or burial site.
Now that it is established how Christ fulfills the characteristics, duties and treatment of a hero, it becomes evident that he can provide more than the traditional medieval warrior hero. Christ becomes the ultimate hero or ring-giver out of these poems due to the mortality of Beowulf and the heroes in The Battle of Maldon. Beowulf’s death brought great concern to his people because of the threat of invasion from enemy tribes. His people were “disconsolate and wailed aloud,” ( Beowulf 99) a woman in Beowulf’s tribe “unburdened… her worst fears…of nightmare and lament, her nation invaded… slavery and abasement” (Beowulf 99). After death, the hero can no longer fight to save his people. Death prevents him from bestowing armor or gold to his faithful followers. The hero is bound by mortality. Although, dying in a battle is perceived as honorable, losing a lord or hero leaves a tribe lost and unprotected.
However, Christ overcomes these limits of mankind through his atonement on the cross. It is only through the death of Christ that mankind is able to enjoy great treasure. His protection does not end at the funeral pyre. Followers will always find comfort from “the Lord…[their] friend who once here on earth suffered on the gallows tree for man’s sins: he freed us and granted us life, a heavenly home” (Rood 28). Mankind is not left with a deep feeling of abandonment. The narrator in The Dream of the Rood relates to this sense of loss by admitting to having few “powerful friends on earth” (Rood 28). However, he finds comfort knowing that one day his loneliness will be taken away in a “heavenly home” (Rood 28).
In conclusion, the poet in The Dream of the Rood successfully creates a Christ that resembles the fearsome heroes of the Middle Ages. By doing this, the poet is able to proselytize the benefits and beliefs of Christianity to the pagan warriors of England. Accurately portraying Christ as a gentle, forgiving, and patient lord would only cause kinsmen to view him in a negative and shameful manner. How could they respect a man that did not fulfill their beliefs about honor and duty? With this belief system in mind, the poet develops an image of Christ that is both fierce and divine. This image is something that the poet’s kinsmen can both relate to and worship.