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.

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;, 2000.

King Arthur and Christianity

King Arthur has been honored through the ages as being a noble, fair and chivalrous king as well as being a brilliant soldier.  He is the epitome of British nobility and chivalry and for centuries, kings of England have claimed to have ties to his noble linage.  Arthur’s story begins in magic and miracles but ends in the gritty reality of blood and tragedy. The death of King Arthur is symbolic as it ushers in the end of two eras, of Camelot and of magic, where the old Pagan religion has been swept away and replaced by Christianity.

King Arthur’s true beginning is in a magical deception of the Duke of Cornwall’s wife, Igraine by King Uther Pendragon.  Merlin cast a spell called a “glamour” upon Pendragon that gave him the physical appearance of the absent Duke that enabled Pendragon and Igraine to conceive Arthur without the duchess knowing the truth of Pendragon’s identity. (Malory, 3)  Magical transformations are a reoccurring theme in Pagan mythology as a method for the gods to woo and bed beautiful mortal women that are resistant to their regular charms.  The children born from these god/mortal unions grew up to be great heroes and in this way, Arthur was predestined by the magical nature of his birth to become a hero as well. The overwriting destiny that Arthur came into was the kingship of England by means of the Christian ordained miracle of the sword in the stone on Christmas.

“(…) that Jesus, that was born on that night, that he would of his great mercy show some miracle, as he was come to be king of mankind, for to show some miracle who should be rightwise king of this realm,” (Malory, 7).  The act of pulling the sword from the stone was considered a miracle by the people but the nobles were resistant to the idea of a squire becoming their king until Merlin informed them of Arthur’s royal linage.  The notion of God ordaining a man to be king over another man was not a new concept introduced by the Arthurian legend but a concept used by monarchial lines for ages; for example, in Egypt kings were almost considered on the same level as Gods themselves for their right to rule was granted by the Gods.  Once Arthur had been established as king he went about the earthly duties of being king and waged wars to win many territories in the surrounding are to include Ireland and some of Wales.  It was on the battlefield he confirmed his strength and through these victories he was able to prove his prowess as a warrior and as all kings do, he finally took a wife.

It was on the matter of love that Arthur was weakest, he so loved his wife, Guinevere and his knight, Lancelot that he refused to believe the stories of their affair from his son, Mordred.  But the infidelity was foreseen by Merlin and he tried to subtly warn Arthur that Guinevere would be loved by and fall in love with Lancelot if she became queen.  (Malory, 79-80)  Since Arthur’s weakness was his love of Guinevere, it was this that Mordred exploited to divide the loyalty of the knights of the table but it wasn’t by any sort of magical means- it was done by regular gossip and entrapment.  Like Judas, Mordred was trusted by his fellows so the treachery was unexpected and this led to Arthur’s and Mordred’s mutual deaths at each other’s hands.

In Arthur’s dying moments, he had one of his surviving knights return his magical sword, Excalibur to the mystic Lady of the Lake by casting the blade into the waters of the Lake.  It was only after the sword was returned that Arthur himself died.  As a consequence for all the bloodshed caused by the affair, both Guinevere and Lancelot turned to God for penance and respectively became a nun and a priest. (Malory, 922-931) These actions are very telling of the additions of Christian values into the Arthurian mythos but still keeping with the original story.  The inclusion of both magic and repentance are elements that were important to help ease the populace into the notion of Christianity.  It is with Arthur’s death that the reality that the age of magic and Camelot are gone- almost all of the Knights of the Round Table are dead and Excalibur has been returned to the Lady of the Lake. In the end, the pagan beliefs were lost to Christianity.

Works Cited
Hamiliton, Edith. Mythology. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2011. Print.

Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte D’Arthur. New York: The Modern Library, 1994. Print.