Medieval Poets: Truth in Other Words, or Worlds – Dream of the Rood, Bede, Pearl, Sir Orfeo, Sir Gawain & his Green Knight

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Poetry conveys truth in a way that is different form, and complementary to, truth as presented in rational argument.  Consider these lines from Tegner’s Drapa:

“I heard a voice that cried,

Balder the beautiful

Is dead, is dead”

which moved the young C.S. Lewis, though  “I knew nothing about Balder” the older Lewis admits.  “But instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described”[1] Lewis reminisced.  Such was the power of imaginative literature for the Oxford Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Studies who would become perhaps the premier writer on the Christian faith in the twentieth century.  It was poetry and story, with their imagery and allegory, through which Lewis so strongly felt the call of Christian truth.  ‘Reason’ and arguments play their role, but not in isolation.  It is vital to realize that the life-transforming power of the gospel, the Christian faith, demands to be communicated not just rationally but imaginatively: through argumentation and the arts, logic and story, proof and poem.

balder

Medieval literature, typically in the format of the poem, provides some of the clearest glimpses of the power of Christian truth, though often embedded within the imaginative literature of the existing culture.  Lewis’s example provides further glimpses of this, as even pagan imagery awakened him towards Christian truth.  Lewis claimed that “the Norse gods had given me the first hint of … understanding the words ‘We give thee thanks for thy great glory’ ;“[2]  similarly, it was “through the gods of Asgard” that Lewis learned “how a thing can be revered not for what it can do to us, but for what it is in itself … that God is to be obeyed because of what He is in Himself.”[3]   But the Christian faith explicitly encroached on Lewis when he began reading poems such as The Dream of the Rood.  “Deeply moved by The Dream of the Rood,” Lewis noted how it reinforced a paradox he had been observing:  that nonreligious writers whom he should have enjoyed most did not move him as deeply as did The Dream of the Rood, and works by other religious authors such as John Donne, George Herbert and George MacDonald.[4]

The Dream of the Rood (DR) is thus an exemplary poem with which to start to comprehend the power  of imaginative apologetics.  Likely written in the ninth century in the Mercia region of Northumbria, in southern England, the author of DR casts Christ in the mold of a heroic Germanic warrior, ascending the cross to battle death itself,  as he observes “the Lord of Mankind, hasten with such courage to climb me.” (the poem is written partly from the perspective of the tree, or ‘Rood,’ which served as the cross).[5]  The battle is set: “then the young warrior, God Almighty, / stripped Himself, firm and unflinching. He climbed / upon the cross, brave before many, to redeem mankind”[6] It is plausible that DR draws on imagery from the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, as Beowulf similarly removes his garments in waiting for battle with, and ultimately embracing or climbing onto, his larger opponent, the monster Grendel.[7]

In this Christian casting of cosmic conflict, DR follows other poems of the era.  The heroic Germanic (or Norse, or Anglo-Saxon) genre was first used in Caedmon’s Hymn, with the work of “the Guardian of Heaven” showing “the might of the Lord and His purpose of mind” and providing “heaven as a roof for the sons of men.”[8] But it is with the Advent Lyrics that the full imagery of earth as a Viking mead hall [9] crafted by the “Lord of Glory” and “Lord of Life,” comes to life, as said Lord through “might” and “mysterious skill” let “wall remain upright against wall” while otherwise providing care and repair when it is in decay. [10]

But it is in the yearning of the poet and the melancholy of the battle where the spiritual nature of the human moment makes itself felt.

“We yearn for the sun,

for the Lord of Life to show us light,

take our souls into His protection,

clothe our clouded minds in His Glory”[11]

writes the author of the Advent Lyrics.  In DR, “dark nails” driven in, “dire wounds” and “gaping gashes of malice” led to “the God of Hosts stretched on the rack” where  “darkness covered the corpse of the Ruler with clouds, His shining radiance.”[12]

Victory is achieved:

“all creation wept,/ wailed for the death of the King,” [13]

“tell them with words this is the tree of glory

on which the Son of God suffered once

for the many sins committed by mankind,

and for Adam’s wickedness long ago.

He sipped the drink of death. Yet the Lord rose

with His great strength to deliver man.[14]

            The wounds of Christ present yet another powerful image of redemption and meaning in DR. Whereas in the above lines the wounds paint the portrait of a suffering Savior, early in the poem the blood spent through those wounds, lying at the foot of the cross, are described as “beautiful jewels  … strewn around its foot, just as five studded the crossbeam,”[15] referencing the five wounds of Christ.

The hope of the Christian faith is delivered in a touching way throughout DR as well as other poems of the era.  In Bede’s (673 – 735 A.D.) short tribute to death, Bede’s Death Song, the ‘yearning’ of the DR poet can be seen: in contemplating the journey beyond life, Bede hopes “his soul will win delight” rather than  “darkness after his death-day.”[16]  The DR poet likewise continues in the vein, with the hope that

“each soul that has longings to live with the Lord

must search for a kingdom far beyond the frontiers of this world.”[17]

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The Christian doctrine of hope thus provides one example of the powerful presentation that can be made with poetry.  This presentation of hope goes beyond simply watching, say, a Rocky movie, as hope is here grounded explicitly in Christian truth. The way hope can be felt, however, provides the crux of the case for poetry, or in the general case, what can be called imaginative apologetics.  While traditional apologetics, the providing of a “reason for the hope that is in us” (1 Peter 3:15), can explain, imaginative apologetics can illustrate and move: move the heart closer to the truth while the mind may yet struggle.  But it is helpful to examine the role and nature of apologetics more closely at this point.

Apologetics depends on both rational argument as well as imaginative framing about man’s situation.  These elements of reason and imagination can be seen in the statement ‘apologetics is like brush-clearing: clearing away (the often rationally-based) objections so the person can more clearly see the cross,’ made by Alister McGrath once in a discussion on apologetics.[18]  Mind and heart are thus both present in making the case for the gospel, with the confusing path of reason often clouding the essential issue of Christianity, the self-sacrificing love of the Creator for the created.  C.S. Lewis formulated the matter in terms of a triad of will, reason and emotion.  “Reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the natural organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition. ” [19] Following Lewis’s description of meaning as “the antecedent condition of both truth and falsehood,”[20] Michael Ward states the relation even simpler: “before something can be true or false it must mean.”[21] The imagination untethered from reason can of course lead to absurdity; on the other hand, the imagination can lead reason to worlds it never dreamt of, such as with Lewis’s claim to have had his imagination ‘baptised’ by reading George MacDonald while a teen. Imagination can thus sometimes enter in where reason is unable or gets lost. But the proper relation between reason and imagination can only be understood in terms of something else, the will.

It is the will which is the ultimate arbiter, integrating both reason and the imagination.  Once again where Lewis puts the relation poetically, Ward states it clearly.  Lewis has Screwtape, the senior devil, advise his understudy Wormwood “No amount of piety in his imagination and affections will harm us if we can keep it out of his will;”[22] Ward states “ imagination, which is good, serves reason, which is better, and both serve the will, which is best of all.”[23] Ultimately, faith becomes a matter for the will, and the role of the apologist in presenting gospel truth diminishes.  Divine operation on the human will then ends the play, as it were, with the apologist playing the role of a John the Baptist, notes Ward.[24] Ward further summarizes the role of reason, imagination, apologetics and belief in augmenting Austin Farrer’s summary:

“ What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no on shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned.  Rational argument does not create belief [here Ward adds ‘not even rational argument most richly and sensitively supplied by imagination’], but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish. So the apologist who does nothing but defend may play a useful, though preparatory, part.” [25]

Who is St. Thomas Aquinas?

This relation between rational and imaginative apologetics was clearly seen in the Christian literature of the Medieval era.  ‘Rational apologetics’ in the writings of Thomas Aquinas made the  argument for belief in God to appear reasonable, though these arguments could not on their own draw one to faith.  While Aquinas pointed to God as the source of order, design and being in our cosmos, it was in his observations of beauty in the world and our awe of it that he came closest to imaginative ‘argumentation.’ But it largely remained the task of the literary figures of the Medieval era to imaginatively frame the argument from meaning. The early medieval Anglo-Saxon authors of Beowulf, Advent Lyrics, and the Dream of the Rood among others have provided a moving account of the Christian story itself, Christ’s role in battling evil and reclaiming mankind, and the hope which that offers.  But it is with the likely late 14th century poems Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo that we see imaginatively portrayed the virtues and depth of the life of Christian faith.

gawain tlkn

Christian virtues surpassing and redeeming those of traditional medieval Chivalry are on display in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Honor, loyalty, chivalry and love – the air which medieval nobility breathed, are the virtues tested and found in Sir Gawain.  Authored by a poet whose identity has been lost to time, from the English West Midlands likely around 1400 AD, the tale shows Gawain as a faithful Christian Knight, in contrast to the less faith-imbued image of the medieval Knight so popular in medieval literature.

The story of Gawain is in the classic Medieval quest genre, with Gawain accepting on King Arthur’s behalf a New Year’s Day challenge by The Green Knight to give and receive battle blows, the challenger’s and the challenged’s blows beings separated by a full year. Gawain gallantly accepts and gives the first blow, lopping off the Green Knight’s head, upon which event the Green Knight promptly picked up his head and rode off. But the Green Knight made sure to first remind Gawain that he expected to give Gawain his blow next New Year’s Day, once Gawain managed to find the Green Knight’s domicile, the Green Chapel.

Gawain’s tale is full of imaginative, symbolic Christian recasting of typical (secular), courtly virtues of Medieval knights.  “Sir Gawain in God’s care, though no game he found it / Off forlorn and alone”[26] scoured the realm of Logres in search of the Green Knight, his debt to repay: honor and loyalty, but infused with God’s care and purpose, accompany Gawain.  But it is with Gawain’s virtues, symbolized as a pentagular ouevre on his shield, that Christian virtues are most meaningfully portrayed.  Five sets of five symbols speak of Gawain’s fidelity regarding his five senses, his use of his five fingers, his regard for the Five Wounds of Christ on he cross, as well as “the Five Joys (whence) all his valour he gained.”[27] But it was the fifth set of five, scribed on the inside of his shield “that when he cast his eyes thither his courage never failed”[28] that spell out his faith-guided chivalrous code: “free-giving and friendliness first before all, / and chastity and chivalry ever changeless and straight,/ and piety surpassing all points.”[29]   Bound by piety, or reverence, Gawain recognizes Him whom he references elsewhere as “the Lord that made me”[30] But it is with the Five wounds of Christ that “all his faith was set.”

The testings and temptations of Gawain prove Gawain’s virtuous Christian mettle. Three times Gawain refuses unchaste, adulterous advances by the the lady of the lord in whose castle he stayed before his re-encounter with the Green Knight. Typical of his rebuffs are appeals made to God: “’In good faith’ said Gawain, ‘God reward you’” and “being so beholden in honour, and, so help me the Lord, desiring ever the servant of yourself to remain” are how Gawain keeps his pure vision of a Christian Knightly service in plain view.[31]   Such chastity of Knights “was in the original tradition of amour courtois or ‘courtly love,’ “[32] though the sense of the comment leads one to believe that aspect had fallen away to some extent in the artifices of courtly games of love. Gawain’s knightly virtues are also on display as he engages in courtly conversation and games while at the castle. But while Gawain remains loyal to his oath to the lady of the castle, he shows himself overly distraught and self-humiliating upon his keeping his oath to take from her a scarf that will save him in his ultimate encounter.  The charges of cowardice he endures upon his revealing the salvific scarf cause Gawain to offer to amend, showing his true knightly and Christian humility and sense of wrong, however overplayed by Gawain.

But it is the redeemed  (Christian) account of courtly and chivalric honor, love and other virtues with which the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight offers such meaning. The Christian manner in which Sir Gawain exercised his chivalric virtues, those of free-giving, friendliness, chastity, chivalry and piety, served to enrich Gawain’s world, as “To His bliss us bring Who bore / the Crown of Thorns on brow!”[33]

ang sax

It is believed that the author of Sir Gawain  penned other epic poems exhibiting the redemption of medieval life by Christian virtues and hope; the poem Pearl is one such powerful poem.  The dream-based tale of grief and hope, found in the same manuscript as Sir Gawain and hence similarly ascribed to the late fourteenth century in Southern England, tells the story of grief of a father for his daughter who appears to have died somewhere around two years of age. The author uses the image of a pearl, noted for its purity, which “especially appealed  to the imagination of the Middle Ages (and notably of the fourteenth century),” notes popular author, philologist and translator of Pearl, J.R.R. Tolkien.  The purity and great value of the pearl allow the poem to depict the priceless regard of the father for his daughter, the daughter’s  purity while in glory and the presentation of Christ as the ‘pearl of great price.’

pearl3

The purity and value of the pearl imaginatively depicts the value of love.  The father’s tender love and grief are displayed in the first stanza: “I pine now oppressed by love-wound dear / For that pearl, mine own, without a spot.”[34]   The doctrine of Christian hope for redeemed and purified love upon reunion in heaven is likewise imaginatively suggested by the pearl.  The image of the once lost (but now mature) daughter in glory has her as “that flawless fair and mirthful maid / arose in robes majestical, / a precious gem in pearls arrayed.”[35] But it is with the imagery of one hundred thousand such virgins “in pearls appointed” serving “as pearls of price His rainment”[36] that the glory of the purified is most fully seen.

Well, almost: it is of course Christ as that Pearl of Great Price from whom our own purity is made possible. While the parable of the pearl of great price seems to point to a place, “this pearl immaculate purchased dear … is like the realm of heaven’s sphere,”[37] it is Christ, “my immaculate Lamb, my final end / Beloved, Who all can heal,” and by whom “power and beauty he gave to me … and arrayed me in pearls immaculate,”[38] that the imagery completely aligns with doctrine, and we are reminded that in Him we find our ultimate source of purity.

The imaginative depiction of this life as a melancholic journey is another achievement of Pearl. The hope of  such purity as seen in the daughter now in glory, while comforting to ponder, sadly is something for which we must wait.  Just as the father is admonished “now over this water you wish to fare: / by another course you must that attain … through dismal death must each man fare / ere o’er or this deep him God redeem,”[39] our path to such redemption has yet to be completed.  Instead, like the father we are charged to “swiftly seek Him as your friend / your prayer His pity may excite,”[40] in hope that He make “us inmates of His house divine / make precious pearls Himself to please.”[41]

pearl2

The griever’s suffering nevertheless can work, like the proverbial grain of sand, to produce its own pearls of value in the present.  We see this in Sir Orfeo, likely written about the same time and and in the same region as Pearl.  While King Ofreo (a minstrel harpist as well as King) wanders the countryside alone for ten years before reclaiming his lost wife Lady Heurodis from the fairy kin, his music attains a quality it never had before: “then notes he harped more glad and clear / than ever a man hath heard with ear.”[42] Similarly, in the account of dealing with his wife’s death, C.S. Lewis notes how eventually he turns to God Himself as the result of his suffering. As Lewis had likened his departed beloved to a “garden full of fragrant and fertile life”[43] or a gem-studded Jerusalem Blade, he found himself instead turning “up from the garden to the Gardener, from the sword to the Smith. To the life-giving Life and the Beauty that makes beautiful.”[44]

Agriefobservedcover

The patient travails of this life for such a traveler as Lewis, the father in Pearl, or Sir Ofreo, finds a comfort and meaning in Lewis’s account.  Lewis contemplated the making of his beloved (in glory) into “a right Jerusalem blade,” tempered to some extent by the intersection of their lives, and now fit for service by the Smith who “grasps the hilt; weights the new weapon; makes lightnings with it in the air.”[45] But just as Sir Ofreo found renewed meaning, purpose and even a sort of melancholic depth, so might it be considered that figures such as Lewis and the father in the Pearl may find themselves rendered through the tempering into a blade fit for such service here.  With Lewis, he found himself turning from his memory “of her and of every created thing I praise” to the thought that they were “in some way, in its unique way, like Him who made it.”[46]

Lewis’s account is very nearly paralleled by the father in Pearl , where the account makes powerful use of  imagery as did Lewis in his own story.  In Pearl, the grieved love described by Lewis is paid homage with  “ ‘O Pearl, renowned beyond compare!”  and “too soon my joy did sorrow seize.”[47] And like Lewis, the father turns to God for sustenance and purpose:

With Christ’s sweet blessing and mine own

I then to God it did resign.

May He that in form of bread and wine

By priest upheld each day one sees,

Us inmates of His house divine

Make precious pearls Himself to please.[48]

 

Imagination is crucial to the presentation of the truth of the Christian gospel.  The meaning of its life-altering message can be communicated directly in the images of how it does transform life and imbue an otherwise lost world with meaning. The Medieval poets knew this well, as they continually recast the pagan culture and secular traditions of their day in the purpose and glory of God.  The twentieth century Lewis, of all people, has explicated this clearly for us: images provide meaning upon which reason can base its claims.  Reason and imagination are thus both crucial the task of apologetics, though even the apologist must defer in the end to the will with which a person makes their acts of faith.  The Medievals knew this perhaps as well as anyone, and produced some of the most beautiful, meaningful and moving poetry the Christian faith has yet seen.

 

References

The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology, translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland.  Oxford: Osford University Press, 2009.

“Caedmon’s Hymn”

“Advent Lyrics” I,II.

“The Dream of the Rood”

“Bede’s Death Song”

Lewis, C.S. A Grief Observed.  New York: Bantam Books, 1976.

“Pearl” in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo, edited by J.R.R. Tolkien. New York: Ballantine Books, 1975.

“Sir Orfeo” in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo, edited by J.R.R. Tolkien. New York: Ballantine Books, 1975.

[1]    C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Glasgow: William Collins, 1955), 20.

[2]    Ibid., 169.

[3]    Ibid., 185.

[4]    Ibid., 171.

[5]    The Dream of the Rood, 2.

[6]    Ibid., Stanza 2.

[7]    Beowulf, lines 671-687.

[8]    Caedmon’s Hymn, lines 1-6.

[9]            ‘Mead’ was a popular alcoholic Viking drink made with honey and water, enjoyed in the mead hall, a central gathering place of the Viking village

[10]  Advent Lyrics, Stanza I.

[11]  Advent Lyrics, Stanza II.

[12]  The Dream of the Rood, Stanzas II-III.

[13]  Ibid., Stanza III.

[14]  Ibid., Stanza IV.

[15]  Ibid., Stanza I.

[16]  Bede’s Death Song, lines 4-5.

[17]  The Dream of the Rood, 4.

[18]  Alister McGrath, Stuart McAllister and Ravi Zacharias, Apologetics Now and Then (Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, 2004) DVD.

[19]  C.S. Lewis, Bluspels and Flalansferes in “Selected Literary Essays”(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 265.

[20]  Ibid., 265.

[21]  Michael Ward, C.S. Lewis on Imagination and Reason in Christian Apologetics. Much of this article can be found in Ward, Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition, ed. Andrew Davison (London: SCM Press, 2011).

[22]           The Screwtape Letters (Glasgow: Collins, 1982) 37.

[23]  Ward, 26.

[24]  Ward, 32.

[25]  Austin Farrer, “The Christian Apologist”, in Light on C.S. Lewis 26.

[26]  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Stanza 30. trans. J.R.R. Tolkien, in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo (New York: Ballantine Books, 1975).

[27]  Ibid., 28.

[28]  Ibid., 28.

[29]  Ibid., 28.

[30]  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 18.

[31]  Ibid., 61.

[32]  J.R.R. Tolkien,  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo (New York: Ballantine Books, 1975), 5.

[33]  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Stanza 101.

[34]         “Pearl,” Stanza 1.

[35]  Ibid., 17.

[36]  Ibid., 92-93.

[37]  Ibid.,  62.

[38]  Ibid., 64.

[39]  Ibid., 27.

[40]  Ibid., 30.

[41]  Ibid., 101.

[42]  Sir Orfeo, lines 527-528.

[43]           C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: Bantam Books, 1976), 73.

[44]  Ibid., 73.

[45]  Ibid., 73.

[46]  Ibid., 73.

[47]  Pearl, 100.

[48]  Ibid., 101.

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