RIDDLE AND ROOD
The uncanny may sustain as well as destroy. If we riddle the darkness with unknown shapes, we shape recognition
in a sacred riddle. Who existed before his mother was born, walked on water, turned water into wine, was married
to all and married to none-who rode on the rood, swordless to slay death? The greatest riddle is sung in flesh.
Who plays not, perishes. The first and finest dream-revelation of the cosmic riddle to emerge from Western Europe
is the Old English lyric, "The Dream of the Rood." The heart of the poem is a recollection in two frames.
The dreamer recounts his midnight vision of the rood sometimes clothed in the light of victory, sometimes stained
with a terrible blood. As the dreamer struggles like a narrative riddler to say what the mysterious creature means,
the rood rises out of the dream like a personified riddle-creature to recall its passionate history as the Christ-tree:
It was long ago--I remember I was ripped
From the forest's edge, torn from my trunk,
Seized by fierce enemies, sheared and shaped,
Forced to raise hard criminals high
A dumb show. Swung onto the shoulders
Of cruel men, speared into a hill,
I saw Christ climb like a warrior,
Coming with a king's zeal. The earth shook:
I dared not bend or bow down, killing
Against the Lord's command. I could have crushed
The fierce men-yet I stood fast.
The warrior that was God Almighty stripped
For battle, body-strong and spirit-keen.
He climbed high on the hated swing–
Proud in the eyes of many, mounted the gallows
To save men. I trembled in Christ's clutch:
Unbowed I bore the body of God.
A rood I was raised-I raised the mighty Icing,
Heaven's Lord, and bent not to earth.
Through my body men drove dark nails,
Blood-iron with a battle-ring: the fierce wounds
Still flow, but my Lord brooked no vengeance.
They mocked us together-I was stained with blood
Borne from the side of God as he sent forth,
His body streaming, a quick spirit.76
In its formal structure the poem is a combination of two modes of riddling-in part the dreamer recounts what he
saw, in part the creature reveals what it is. In its use of metaphoric disguise and paradox, the poem raises riddle
language to the level of sacred mystery. The rood crosses categories: it is tree, artifact, suffering servant,
and divine mediator. In this it imitates Christ (as it later exhorts the dreamer to do). In the crucifixion it
is paradoxically both servant and slayer-this is the heart of its suffering. As gallows it is a symbol of unholy
vengeance; as rood, a token of redemptive love. Christ himself is a riddle incarnate. Like a great warrior (the
metaphoric link), he is "battle-strong" and "spirit-keen" (the ground) in service to his lord.
Paradoxically he strips instead of arming for battle and embraces his slayer in a self-willed sacrifice that kills
death (the gap). The metaphor invites us to be one with Christ; the gap requires us to redefine our traditional
notions of heroic action.
Why should the rood imitate Christ and make of the crucifixion a riddle? To allow the warrior to climb to victory?
To mediate the awesome and unknown consciousness of a suffering human god? To bring the natural world into the
sacred conflict? To convey through the miracle of a talking tree something of the mystery lost in living with the
idea of the incarnation? To raise the idea of empathetic play (one in another pretending I am) from riddle to redemption?
To create in the mystery a metaphor of heaven? However we read the roots of the dream, as the rood exhorts the
dreamer "to reveal this vision in words to men," we are reminded in poetic, religious terms of a primitive
truth: Who would know (and be initiated into) the mysteries of the tribe must engage in the play of sacred riddles.