Analyzing Striking Themes Subjects In Literature English Literature Essay

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In my study of Old English and Middle English texts I have found one strong theme that reappears frequently in the stories and poems; the depiction of heroism, and the glory of chivalry and bravery, especially in the face of adversity. Since the early fourth century from which I will be discussing the poem The Dream of the Rood, a powerful hero was seen in Christ; who through his sacrifice and crucifixion offered redemption to mankind who had sinned and fallen. Many critics have noted the poet's use of heroic diction and imagery in the poem and the unique representation of the Crucifixion as a battle. This is an unusual but valid comparison to the heroic figures we meet in Malory's Morte D'Arthur, where the Arthurian legend became a focus for the exploration of heroic and chivalric themes and ideals. The stories of great warrior leaders who come to power and wage many successful wars but then are finally brought down by treachery and betrayal are extremely well known and set the standard that men aspired to in order to be truly chivalric and heroic. Now recognized by scholars as a key concept in medieval literature, to be recognized as a hero the character must possess mental courage, determination; and they commonly aspire to the honour that is bestowed upon them for fighting for something they believe in. Commonly, their trysts and conflicts were backed by religion, usually a devout belief in Christianity. They believed that loyalty to their God and their King would lead to rewards, both earthly and heavenly. True heroes were often made following the result of a battle or a joust.

When given a chance to exhibit his chivalric prowess, Gareth proves his heroic qualities; courageous, strong, and victorious in fighting: "by fortune he met with his brother Sir Gawaine, and there he put Sir Gawaine to the worse, for he put off his helm, and so he served five or six knights of the Round Table, that all men said he put him in the most pain, and best he did his devoir." [3] Only his armour changes from green to blue to white to red to black so "that there might neyther kynge nother knight have no redy cognysshauns of hym." [4] Malory proves Gareth capable of overcoming the Red Knight of the Red Lands and liberating his ladylove Lyonesse both because he is a great knight and because he loves his lady. [5] The tale shows their belief that true love enhances the knight's 'jantylnesse' as a quality already inherent in his character. Although Lyonesse has already chosen Gareth as her love and declared that she will have no one else and Gareth has already proved himself to be one of the best knights for miles around, Malory devotes five chapters to the triumphant proof of Gareth's knightly prowess. In the tale the notions of erotic love and sexual fulfilment have a rightful and legitimate place in the life of the great knight, and his hunger to bed his lady before their wedding day is held as proof of his greatness as a man and a knight.

What is interesting about Malory's writing is despite the magnitude of the brave and great characters and events he depicts, he uses plain uncomplicated vocabulary to do so. However in his use of repetition and patterning, particular in his descriptions of Gareth as "jantyll" and "noble", the fantastical romantic and adventurous atmosphere of the tale is captured and clear to the reader. Malory himself was jailed for violent crime, so perhaps it was clear to him that action was key; more important than conversation or thought in the story telling of a true hero. The use of an outsider narrator looking over the action increases the sense of a story being told, which adds to the legendary fairy-tale feel of the story.

The poem The Dream of the Rood was found partly in a manuscript dating back to the 10th century, and partly inscribed upon a wooden cross dating back to the 8th century. What is first striking about this poem is that the narrator is the cross; in its personification it is telling us its side of the events leading up to the crucifixion of Christ. The use of prosopopoeia to enhance the telling of the poem can be found in other Old English verses, for example in the early Old English riddles 'Bookworm' and 'Bible'. In being an inanimate object made from a living thing the cross effects the transformation of the poet-dreamer from the anxious and confused sinner of the opening lines to the confident, evangelising Christian of the poem's conclusion. [6] The device essentially allows the poet to express the physical suffering of Christ through the parallel experience of the cross. Though commonly seen as unholy and ordinary, the cross described in the poem is very different, "gems covered splendidly the rulers tree" [7] ; the nails that held Christ to the cross have become relics and precious stones, a kind of spiritual treasure. It is described as a "wondrous tree", "the tree of glory", the "victory tree" [8] . The poem's version of the crucifixion does not stray far from the chain of events told in the Gospel; elements such as the soldier's cruelty towards them "strong enemies seized me there, made me there a spectacle for themselves" [9] , and the nature in which Christ died has been untouched; "Christ was on the cross." However certain aspects of Christ's crucifixion have been exaggerated or altered to show Christ as a much stronger, braver, warrior-like figure, who does not doubt Gods presence in the altercations unlike in the Gospel: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" [10] The poet interprets Christ's doubt in God as weakness, and created a more courageous Christ in order to incite stronger Christian fervour and support and depict a more inspirational version of Jesus Christ's crucifixion. The poem depicts a "young hero", who is not forcibly nailed to the cross but instead according to the cross he "hastens with great fortitude because he wanted to climb onto me" [11] . A noticeable alteration is the absence of Christ's disciples and friends during his crucifixion, while in the Bible they play an important part in being some of Christ's only supported among a jeering crowd; in the Dream of the Rood a narrowed focus in given to Jesus facing his fate alone: "he climbed upon the high gallows, brave in the sight of many, when he wanted to redeem mankind" [12] . The interesting use of the metaphor as the cross being "the high gallows" functions as a cultural translation of the execution of Christ being similar to the typical Anglo-Saxon form of execution, making the magnitude of the cruelty in which Christ died more relatable to the common audience of the 10th century. The sudden change in weather and atmosphere following Christ's death is also interpreted in the poem; "All creation wept, lamented the death of the king." [13] 

However more crucial to the meaning of the poem is the development of the true hero of the poem as the cross itself. The dreamer discovers the tree "ennobled by its garments, shining with joys", yet "it began to bleed on the right side". Parallels with Christ are drawn within the first stanza. The cross is required to show its loyalty by being complicit in Christ's death; "I trembled then, when the man embraced me, yet I dared not bend to the ground, fall to the earth's surfaces, but I had to stay firm." [14] It is a servant of the Lord, and his loyalty in not 'daring' to protect or defend him is a point made three times in six lines (lines 42-47). Paradoxically, the cross supports Christ but is also complicit in killing him; "I did not dare then, against the word of the Lord, to bend or break, though I saw the surfaces of the earth shake." Through this torment of carrying the tortured man, the cross must also endure the same injuries and attacks; "they pierced me with dark nails: the scars are visible on me...they mocked us both together. I was all soaked and drenched in blood." [15] In having to sustain itself through the same violence and resisting the urge to defend itself ("I dared not injure any of them" [16] ) the cross is as noble and as brave a figure as Christ. It is wounded by spears, which echoes Anglo-Saxon battle weaponry; it is spattered with the blood of Christ, which is symbolic of the holy sacraments. It is blessed but tormented by the death of "almighty God." An interesting parallel is the felling of the cross and the burial that is similarly like Christ's; "We were buried in a deep pit." [17] Similarly, as Christ was resurrected, in a sense the cross is resurrected too: "But then the Lord's servants, friends, heard about me, and adorned me with gold and silver" [18] . It is true that the cross is important symbolism for Christianity as much as the figure of Christ is, and it is worshipped and worn by many; the cross predicts this, giving the poem validity: "The time is now come that far and wide men across the earth and all this glorious creation will worship me, will pray to this beacon." [19] The story of the cross inspires the dreamer and there is the sense he has been on a journey in the last stanza, as he prays to the tree with a "glad heart." The poet no doubt aimed to stimulate the same sort of response in his audience. The meticulous structure of the poem gives the sense of it as a prayer or a creed, and the poem is framed by the first-person testimony of the narrator, who witnesses a shift in judgement following the story of the cross.

The two texts I have compared show very different kinds of hero, but both kinds each show the common qualities of a hero; bravery, strength, modesty, and valiant. Sir Gareth is an interpretation of the hero the readers of Mort D'Arthur in the 17th century would expect; bold, gallant, and a hit with the ladies, despite certain moral codes being forgotten in the desire to obtain his ladylove's virtue before marriage. Such behaviour is expected in this kind of hero. However, in the unusual depiction of Christ's crucifixion, the Rood and Christ become one in its portrayal - they are both pierced with nails, tortured and jeered at, and finally killed and buried; to be, like Christ, soon after resurrected and adorned with gold and silver. The heroic qualities in this are stronger and more moral in the sense that the only thing sustaining the two is their faith in God. However it is clear in some parts that the poet was consciously trying to appeal to an audience acclimatized to heroic verse, and therefore introduced aspects of warfare and modern day imagery into the poem; some critics explain this as the poet possessing inherent knowledge of the imagery of warfare and naturally using it in his writing.

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