The poem's narrator calls for the attention of his audience and introduces his topic with a brief genealogy of the Scyldings (Danes). The tribe has taken its name from Scyld Scefing, a mythological hero who, many years earlier, reached their shores as a castaway babe on a ship mysteriously laden with treasure. Through industry, courage, and character, Scyld Scefing became a great leader and honored king. His son, Beow (sometimes called Beowulf but not to be confused with the epic's central hero), continued the successful reign after Scyld's death and sea burial. Beow ruled long and well, "beloved by his people" (54). Beow's son, Healfdene, sired four offspring, the most notable of whom is Hrothgar, king of the Scyldings as the story unfolds. Hrothgar has been a great king and won many victories for his people. As a symbol of his success, he has built a great mead-hall, called Heorot, the finest of its kind. In Heorot, Hrothgar's men celebrate with joyful laughter and songs from the king's bard. The Scyldings prosper.
An ogre named Grendel lives in the nearby moors and takes exception to his neighbors' excessive happiness. A descendant of Cain, he envies and resents mankind. One night he attacks without warning and slaughters 30 of Hrothgar's men. He returns the next night and soon drives the Scyldings from the great hall. His ruthless dominance lasts 12 years.
It is often said that Beowulf begins and ends with a funeral, and that is very nearly the case. The narrator sets the heroic tone and introduces the setting through the founding character of Scyld Scefing; his most detailed early description is saved for Scyld's parting after death. The king's body is placed on a ship, surrounded by treasure and "war-dress" (39) to accompany him into the unknown. Gold, silver, jewels, and the finest swords and armor are placed aboard with the corpse and then set afloat in the sea. The idea is to honor the king but also to provide him with objects that might prove useful in the afterlife.
Hrothgar's great hall (Heorot, "Hall of the Hart") functions as both symbol and setting. Symbolically, it represents the achievements of the Scyldings, specifically Hrothgar, and their level of civilization. It is a place of light and warmth in the dark, cold winters. Here Hrothgar celebrates his victories and rewards his thanes (warriors) with various rings and treasures. Heorot is no common beer hall; it is more of a palace, towering high like a cliff. Significantly, this is where Beowulf's first great battle for the Danes takes place. The hall also symbolizes the concept of comitatus, the honor code that exists between the king, or feudal lord, and his warriors. Thanes swear devotion to their leader and vow to fight boldly, to the death if necessary, for him. If the leader should fall, his life must be avenged. For his part, the leader rewards his thanes with treasure, protection, and land. His generosity often is mentioned as one of his strengths of character.
When Grendel invades this setting, he strikes at the very heart of the Scyldings. Grendel's heritage is essential to his enmity. He is a descendant of the biblical Cain, the eldest son of Adam and Eve who killed his brother Abel out of jealousy (Genesis 4). Cain's name in Hebrew is Qayin, meaning "creature," and the legend is that the monsters of the earth are his descendants. Grendel resents the joyful beauty of Heorot and its inhabitants. The scop's Song of Creation (90-98) especially enrages him because it tells of the beauty and light of God's creation, which Grendel can never recover for himself.
The modern reader might think it odd that the poem's narrator interrupts his description of the glories of the hall to foreshadow (82-85) the hall's eventual destruction by Hrothgar's son-in-law, but such digressions are common in Beowulf. Throughout the epic are the reminders of the sometimes grim whims of fate and the mutability of human existence. The world of Beowulf is harsh, and joy is never permanent.
There is considerable scholarly discussion concerning the concept of Christianity in Beowulf. The epic makes no mention of Jesus, and references to one omnipotent God are more Old than New Testament. Harold Bloom (Bloom's Reviews: Beowulf, 1999, p. 5) says that the epic is a Christian poem but "just barely." Hrothgar and Beowulf sometimes refer to a single, all-powerful God; there are instances of symbolic rebirth in the epic. Grendel and his mother are described as descendants of Cain. The Beowulf poet may have been an educated Christian, and his audience in eighth-century England had been exposed to the religion. But the poem is more heroic than Christian. Sometimes it seems as if Christian terms have simply replaced heroic. For example, occasional mention of God's determination regarding man's fortune, throughout the poem, sounds very much like the Anglo-Saxon concept of fate (wyrd).
This heroic/Christian world is the context for Grendel who "grieved not at all / for his wicked deeds" (136-37) as well as the thanes who "were ignorant of God, / knew not how to worship our Protector above" (181-82). Grendel is too deeply engrossed in sin to consider repentance. He is beyond hope. The thanes are pagan and near despair themselves as Grendel decimates them. They offer sacrifices to heathen gods and speak old words designed to ward off evil. Some scholars argue that the warriors are Christian but "backsliding" to pagan ritual under stress. At any rate, nothing works. Hrothgar and his men abandon the glorious hall at night, and it becomes Grendel's lair. Only the "gift-throne" (168), Hrothgar's seat of power, cannot be touched by Grendel because it carries God's blessing. Hrothgar has grown old and is helpless against Grendel. He needs "the strongest of all living men" (196) to rescue him.
Spear-Danes Scyldings, the tribe of Scyld Scefing.
waif a forsaken or orphaned child, such as Scyld.
whale-road ocean or sea, from the Anglo-Saxon hron-rade. This is one of the poem's best known kennings, descriptive metaphors that identify a person or thing by a chief characteristic or use.
ring-giver ruler, king, feudal lord.
mead an alcoholic drink made from fermented honey and water.
middle-earth a land between Heaven and Hell, inhabited by mankind as well as a variety of good or evil creatures with origins in legend, mythology, or fantasy.
scop a bard or singing (chanting) performer who often accompanies himself on a lute or harp, presenting historical or legendary stories of interest. He might be attached to a court or travel on his own. Preferred pronunciation is "shop."
walking dead similar to zombies, cursed to roam the earth after death.
thanes warriors who serve a king or feudal lord in exchange for land or treasure.
warlock a male witch or demon.