The epic poem Beowulf was composed in Old English, Anglo-Saxon verse in the 8th Century but the oral material on which the written version is based dates back to the 6th Century.
It is the first story to be written down in our language but the events it describes take place in Denmark. It has come down to us in the only surviving manuscript which now sits in the British Museum.
Beowulf is pure legend with a simple and straightforward plot. It is the story of an aristocratic hero , presented in a series of significant actions from his youth to his old age facing ogres and the powers of evil; mainly in opposition to the monster Grendel. Beowulf lives in a boasting, hard drinking, feasting and contentious warrior society. Much of the action takes place in the great hall Heorot, the Hall of the Stag. Out of the many characters in the poem there are only two women. The queen, Waltheow, and Grendel's mother.
I have studied a number of translations from the Old English over many years as a hobby. It struck me recently that it would be interesting to attempt to see this life from the point of view of a serving woman at the hall: life in the hall from another perspective.
To do this I have written a poem, Helga in Heorot using the Old English verse form and with similar language structure.
Unlike modern poetry the lines have no syllable count or prescribed length. Each line is theoretically divided into two sections though this is not evident in reading them.
The poem makes great use of alliteration but in a certain way. In many lines one or two words in the first half alliterate with at least one word in the second half but not usually with the last word. There are frequent examples of metaphor and assonance. A much liked form is the kenning. This is the use of phrases like 'widow maker' for a sword, 'wave cutter' for a ship, swans' ride for the sea. These are devices that hold together the subtle rhythm and flow of the sentences.
Here is an excerpt from the original but you will have to be aware that, like Shakespeare, it was meant to be read out loud. For perfect understanding listen to the actor, Julian Glover reciting it. The first half can be heard on YouTube but I have the full version.
So, the company of men// led a careless life
all was well //with them:
Till this one spirit, hell in his mind,// his malice began.
Grendel the fiend's name: //grim, infamous
Wasteland stalker, master //of the moor and fen fortress.
Here is a short excerpt from my poem Helga in Heorot
Helga is publicly raped in the hall across the mead bench and made pregnant. Her father is brutally cut down when he goes to seek redress. You will gather that Helga has a more cynical view of life in Heorot.
‘The boasting you have heard //the braggarts’ tales in Heorot.
How warriors wielding swords//wilfully come to blows,
Settle slights and vie //with violence and anger.
For fame’s sake,// slay friends of yesterday.
Nobles of the mead bench//making merry while
Mean churls, lesser folk//live lives of want.’
Thus declared Helga //daughter of Magan,
Iron bending smith//smiter of anvils,
Whose mighty muscles// melded white hot steel
Into swords and helms//for self-styled heroes.
But now the might//of his muscled sinews
Has waned, weakened//by age as we all must be
‘Till we are called by Him//carolling our joy
As we enter His Hall//of heavenly splendour.
In time so answered Magan//that summons divine.
Ðæt wæs g?d fæder!//He was a good father!
So, in that earthly hall//of Heorot fame
Was Helga made //to work at menial tasks
In scullery and kitchen//and often called upon
To serve at mead bench//the maudlin men
Fuddled in their boasting//full of foolishness.