The Dream of Rood and Christ as a Hero

Early Anglo-Saxon religion had heavy Norse influences with an emphasis on a warrior culture. When Christianity was first introduced with Jesus Christ depicted as the Savior of mankind- he must have paled in comparison to the native Norse gods such as Thor, the god of thunder or Balder, the Sun god who were beloved and accomplished warriors. The dreamer in “The Dream of the Rood” describes Christ as “The Hero young begirt Himself, Almighty God was He”. (“The Dream”, 38) But how is “hero” defined?

“Definition of Hero:
b : an illustrious warrior ;
c : a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities;
d : one who shows great courage” (Merriam-Webster)

“…Then saw I mankind’s Lord/Hasten with mickle might, for He would sty upon me” (“The Dream”, 32-33). This quiet resolve is truly a courageous deed and that he did so to redeem mankind is noble. Norse heroes charged into battle with weapons raised high but this Christian hero sacrificed himself.

Sacrifice to a god was quite common in pagan religious practices in order to bring about various good effects, such as a fertile harvest. The most common sacrifices were animals and it was only on rare occasions that a human being was killed.  It was unheard of to hear of Gods willing to sacrifice themselves for mankind.

“…which Almighty God suffered upon/for all mankind’s manifold sins/and for the ancient ill-deeds of Adam./Death he tasted there, yet God rose again/by his great might, a help unto men.” (“The Dream”, 98-102)

The sacrifice of Jesus, presents to us an unspoken spiritual battle against the sins of mankind and mankind’s desire for repentance personified by the reversal of goodness and sin, with Christ’s body as the manifestation of mankind’s sin and the actions of his torturers as repentance.  With the death of Christ (mankind’s sin) and his subsequent rebirth (mankind’s salvation) the battle was won. This sort of battle is typical of Christian symbolism since it is not a physical one but a metaphysical one.

There is more symbolism that was originated in paganism but has been incorporated into Christian mythology. An example of a pagan belief adopted by Christianity was the narration by the tree. This personification was common in paganism in which the trees were thought to be the slumbering spirits of the forest unless their knowledge was sought out. Legend has it that the dogwood tree was once able to grow large and tall like an oak but it was appalled for having been used as the cross that killed Christ and now bears the markings of the crucifixion and no longer allows itself to grow that large again.

Queen Elizabeth and Elizabethan Era Literature

  1. Queen Elizabeth was considered an icon of her era, glorified as the “Virgin Queen” since she ruled in a patriarchal society without a king or prince ruling beside her and without a serious commitment to marriage. In her own writings and speeches, she spoke about the subject of her gender and lack of a partner as a way to inspire her subjects.

    “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.” (Elizabeth I, Speech to the Troops at Tilbury)

    As a queen, she tried her best to be fair and listen to her councilors, even to the point of not marrying a man that she loved against the wishes of her parliament. (Crofton, 148-149) Elizabeth never married and this sort of romantic ideal of refusing to marry if she could not marry the man she loved seems to be echoed in the literature of the era. The best example of this in her own words would be in her poem, “On Monsieur’s Departure”, “Let me or float or sink, be high or low;/Or let me live with some more sweet content,/Or die, and so forget what love e’er meant.” (16-18)

    2. Literature within the Elizabethan era was full of religious allegory intermingled with the mysticism of the old Gods. Edmund Spenser’s “Faerie Queene” was a prime example of the intermingling of religious iconography with the added benefit of making reference to Queen Elizabeth within the epic poem. “And cursed heauen, and spake reprochfull shame/Of highest God, the Lord of life and light;/A bold bad man, that dar’d to call by name/Great Gorgon, Prince of darkness and dead night,/At which Cocytus quakes, and Stya is put to flight.” (Book I, Canto I)

    The transition from the medieval displacement of troubles to devils to the blame upon the people themselves is more evident in Shakepeare’s “King Lear” where the ill luck that falls upon the King are the folly of his own mislaid trust. It is a sharp contrast to the mischief caused by magic and faeries in Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

    3. Shakespeare’s humor and love of honesty shines through in Sonnet 130 “I grant I never saw a goddess go;/My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:/ And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare/As any she belied with false compare.” And again in “King Lear” with the lovely Coredlia’s statement of plain love for her father, “I love your Majesty./According to my bond, no more nor less.” Shakespeare writes a create variety of characters in all of his plays but it seems that he favors words of wisdom coming from unexpected places, such as from the Fool in “King Lear”. “I marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are. They’ll have me whipped for speaking true; thou’lt have me whipped for lying; and sometimes I am whipped for holding my peace.” (Act 1 Scene 4, 186-189) To have the foolish speak wisdom and the wise speak foolishly it says to me that Shakespeare feels that the real wisdom comes from whom you least expect. He also seems to make t plain that often times the truth is a plain thing that cannot be concealed in falsehoods.

    Work Cited:
    Crofton, Ian. The Kings and Queens of England. New York: Metro Books, 2006. Print.

    Shakespeare, William. King Lear. New York: Signet Classic, 1998. Print.

    Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. The Norton Anthology. Ed. Steven Greenblatt. Norton & Company, 2006. Print.

    Queen Elizabeth I. “On Monsieur’s Departure.” The Northon Anthology. Ed. Steven Greenblatt. Norton & Company, 2006. Print.

    Queen Elizabeth I. “Speech to the Troops at Tilbury.” The Norton Anthology. Ed. Steven Greenblatt. Norton & Company, 2006. Print

Paradise Lost as an epic

John Milton’s Paradise Lost is an epic according to the Webster’s New Dictionary definition of epic as “a long narrative poem in a dignified style about the deeds of a hero or heroes” (p. 219).  To classify Paradise Lost as an epic forces the reader to take into consideration the subject matters of the fall of Lucifer from Heaven; the fall of mankind from the Garden of Eden; and, if a reader can classify the actions of Adam, Eve or even Lucifer during these events as “heroic”.   Taking into consideration that a hero is defined as “any person, esp. a man, admired for courage, nobility” (Webster’s New Dictionary, p. 303), I can think about what actions I might personally consider noble or courageous.  Some of the things that I consider courageous are accepting responsibility for one’s one actions; speaking out for the greater good when it is unfavorable; or fighting against overwhelming odds to accomplish a goal.

In Milton’s poem, both Adam and Lucifer acted in ways that I consider courageous, albeit a little foolish but courageous nevertheless the fact that they faced death or banishment for their actions.  Surprisingly, the actions of Lucifer are the ones that stand out as the more heroic despite the notion that he is generally perceived as the source of evil and hatred in the world.  Lucifer’s plans to pervert all that is “good” to “evil” becomes heroic when the reasoning for his evil actions becomes what appears to be the desire to be free from life of servitude rather than jealousy.  “…but rather seek / Our own good from ourselves, though in this vast recess, / Free, and to none accountable, preferring/ Hard Liberty before the easy yoke / Of servile Pomp.” (Milton, 252-257)  It becomes harder to consider Lucifer a villain when he is the main focus of many of the twelve books of Paradise Lost.  The reader does follow Adam as well but Adam’s actions when compared to Lucifer’s appear more consequential.  Adam only accepts responsibility for disobeying God after initially denying all blame and then tries to repent for his actions.

Works Cited

“Epic.” Webster’s Fourth New World Dictionary. 2003. Print.

“Hero.” Webster’s Fourth New World Dictionary. 2003. Print.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost.  New York: Signet Classics, 2010. Print

Lucifer the antihero

My favorite character in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” happens to be Lucifer.  I preferred Milton’s depiction of Lucifer as an antihero against the typical notion of a hero because I find it easier to relate to a character that has their flaws but makes up for their shortcomings with commitment to action despite overwhelming odds.  I found many of Lucifer’s speeches in Book I inspiring as he tells his followers to not give up hope but to make the best of their situation.

“…Here at least

We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built

Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:

Here we may reign secure, and in my choice

To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:

Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heav’n.” (Milton, Book I, line 259-263)

Lucifer’s portrayal as a leader of the fallen angels seeking their freedom of the oppressive forces of heaven in the poem is an intriguing juxtaposition to the archetypical portrayal of him as an angry defiler who seeks to destroy things for the sake of destruction.  One such villainous depiction of Lucifer in the King James Version of the Bible is in the First Book of Peter, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.” (5:8)

It is hard to hate a person for desiring to live free, though I found Lucifer’s resolve in the later Cantos of “Paradise Lost” to seek vengeance instead of victory on his battle for freedom disheartening.  “Which if not Victory is yet revenge.” (Milton, Book II, line 105). I think it was the transition from the desire to live free to cause harm that transforms Lucifer from the realm of antihero to tragic hero because despite all of his inspiring words and noble ambitions he becomes corrupted by hate and despair and abandons his dreams.  I truly enjoyed reading about Lucifer and his schemes throughout Milton’s work even though I knew how the story would end because I wanted to see how this interpretation of Lucifer would handle things differently than the devil I learned about in Sunday school.

Works Cited

Milton, John. Paradise Lost, Book 1. The Northon Anthology. Ed. Steven Greenblatt. Norton & Company, 2006. 1831-1850. Print.

The Holy Bible, King James Version. New York: American Bible Society: 1999; Bartleby.com, 2000.

Loyalty Honored but Betrayal Repaid: Betrayal and Loyalty in “King Lear”

Shakespeare’s tragedy “King Lear” has the main theme of betrayal but also about loyalty.  “King Lear” is a play about King Lear who is so blinded by vanity and madness that he casts out the people who are most genuine and loyal to him to elevate flatterers who ultimately betray him.  The play opens with King Lear asking his daughters to tell him how much they love him and it is from that point it is presented to the audience that the truth is sometimes an ugly, plain thing and that a man would rather succumb to the beautiful allure of a falsehood than to allow himself to hear what might be a bitter ugly truth.  It also seems that the most unexpected betrayals come from those who are closest to us and if we are patient, those who would betray us will receive justice in one way or another.

Betrayal comes in many forms in within “King Lear” from simple lies; to usurpation of power; to infidelity; to murder.  The first betrayal of the play was the most blatant and surprising because it was the condemnation of King Lear’s youngest daughter, Cordelia, for refusing to lie about how much she loved her father. “Why have my sisters husbands if they say/ They love you all? Haply, when I wed,/ That lord whose hand must take my plight, shall carry half my love with him, half my care and duty./ Suce I shall never marry like my sisters,/ To love my father all,” (Shakespeare, Act 1 Scene 1, 101-106). King Lear was upset by the fact that his favorite daughter told him the truth of her feelings, that she could never love a husband if she loved only her father and he betrays her by disowning her.  But it is from this first betrayal that the seeds of rebellion are planted in the minds of King Lear’s other daughters, Regan and Goneril, and he soon finds himself stripped of his power and authority.  If King Lear cannot be trusted nor can he trust his family, it brings to mind the question of who is actually loyal.

There are a few acts of loyalty within “King Lear”.  One of the most notable and visible was Kent with his unwavering desire to serve his king despite being banished by that same king for telling him he was wrong to disown Cordelia.  Then there was Edgar of Gloucester who also remained loyal to his father despite being hunted for unwarranted accusations of treachery and guided his blinded father out of Gloucester to safety. And lastly there was Cordelia who remained loyal to her father despite being betrayed and took an army to war against her sisters over the mistreatment of King Lear.  But how was this loyalty repaid?

“Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides,/ Who covered faults, at last shame them derides (…)” (Shakespeare, Act 1 Scene 1, 282-283).  Sadly, loyalty does not get to reap its fullest rewards within the play but there is some measure of justice for those who suffered from betrayal.  Each betrayer is punished in some way, the daughters die after betraying their father; the Duke of Gloucester and each other; Edmund dies after instigating the mutilation of his father and the banishment of his brother; and King Lear dies of heartbreak after realizing that he betrayed Cordelia and that his actions led to her death.  The true moral of “King Lear” is that if you betray those around you and surround yourself with flatterers that you yourself will end up betrayed.

 

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. New York: Signet Classic, 1998. Print.