Dream of the Rood

I’ve just escaped from four years of trying to bluff my way around an ancient language I could barely understand. So what do I do? Move onto another one.

Since I’m still in work-limbo, I’ve been spending part of my time learning Old English. It isn’t quite as ridiculous as it sounds – I’ve been interested in this stuff since my teens, and it was mainly personal circumstances that made me do the Sanskrit course at Cambridge rather than Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic.

More importantly, this time round I get the benefits of doing it as a hobby. I don’t have to do any more grammar than necessary, I don’t need to feel guilty when I consult a translation, and I get to cherry-pick the interesting bits.

Unfortunately, the corpus is pretty small, so there aren’t many interesting bits. The one that


great fun is the Dream of the Rood. I first came across this when I went to an ASNAC open day five years ago, and all the students agreed it was the best text on the course. I’ve picked at it a few times, but this weekend is my first attempt at reading all the way through in the original.

It’s the story of the Crucifiction – but it’s the crucifiction told by the cross, and Jesus is a Saxon hero. Here’s how Jesus gets on to the cross:

Geseah ic þa frean mancynnes
efstan elne mycle  þæt he me wolde on gestigan.
Then I saw that lord of mankind
Rush with great courage to climb onto me
þær ic þa ne dorste       ofer dryhtnes word
bugan oððe berstan,     þa ic bifian geseah
eorðan sceatas.     Ealle ic mihte
feondas gefyllan,  hwæðre ic fæste stod.
There I did not dare to bend or break against the
word of God. Then I saw the surface of the earth trembling.
I could have fallen on all those enemies, but I stood firm.
Ongyrede hine þa geong hæleð,  (þæt wæs god ælmihtig),
strang ond stiðmod.  Gestah he on gealgan heanne,
modig on manigra gesyhðe,   þa he wolde mancyn lysan.
Then that young lord (who was God Almighty) undressed,
Strong and resolute.  He climbed onto that wretched cross,
Going boldly into the sight of many, since he would liberate mankind
Bifode ic þa me se beorn ymbclypte. Ne dorste ic hwæðre bugan to eorðan,
feallan to foldan sceatum,  ac ic sceolde fæste standan.
I trembled because this warrior had climbed onto me,
But I didn't dare bend to earth, to fall onto the dark ground. And I had to stand firm.

There are texts, translations, and notes on this all over the web. For reading it, the best I’ve found is this one, which links each word to a dictionary definition. And since the sentence structure is pretty similar to modern English, it’s not too hard to understand without formally learning the language.

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