So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
The narrator opens the poem with a discussion of Shield Sheafson, a great king of the ancient Danes and the founder of their royal line. He began life as a foundling (an infant abandoned by his parents) but quickly rose to be strong and powerful. All of the clans had to pay him tribute, and, when he died, he was honored with an elaborate funeral ceremony. His body was put into a boat, covered with treasures and armor, and cast off to sea. Shield Sheafson’s life ended as it began, with him cast adrift on the water.
Sheafson’s son, the renowned Beow, inherited the kingdom after his father’s death. In time, Beow too passed away and Halfdane, his son, became king. After Halfdane, Hrothgar stepped forward to rule the Danes. Under Hrothgar, the kingdom prospered and enjoyed great military success, and Hrothgar decided to construct a monument to his success—a mead-hall where he would distribute booty to his retainers. The hall was called Heorot, and there the men gathered with their lord to drink mead, a beerlike beverage, and listen to the songs of the bards.
For a time, the kingdom enjoyed peace and prosperity. But, one night, Grendel, a demon descended from Cain (who, according to the Bible, slew his brother Abel), emerged from the swampy lowlands, to listen to the nightly entertainment at Heorot. The bards’ songs about God’s creation of the earth angered the monster. Once the men in the mead-hall fell asleep, Grendel lumbered inside and slaughtered thirty men. Hrothgar’s warriors were powerless against him.
The following night, Grendel struck again, and he has continued to wreak havoc on the Danes for twelve years. He has taken over Heorot, and Hrothgar and his men remain unable to challenge him. They make offerings at pagan shrines in hopes of harming Grendel, but their efforts are fruitless. The Danes endure constant terror, and their suffering is so extreme that the news of it travels far and wide.
At this time, Beowulf, nephew of the Geatish king Hygelac, is the greatest hero in the world. He lives in Geatland, a realm not far from Denmark, in what is now southern Sweden. When Beowulf hears tales of the destruction wrought by Grendel, he decides to travel to the land of the Danes and help Hrothgar defeat the demon. He voyages across the sea with fourteen of his bravest warriors until he reaches Hrothgar’s kingdom.
Seeing that the newcomers are dressed in armor and carrying shields and other equipment for combat, the watchman who guards the Danish coast stops Beowulf and his crew and demands to know their business. He admits that he has never seen outsiders come ashore so fearlessly and guesses that Beowulf is a noble hero. Beowulf explains that he is the son of Ecgtheow and owes his loyalty to Hygelac. He says that he has heard about the monster wreaking havoc on the Danes and has come to help Hrothgar. The watchman gives his consent and tells Beowulf that he believes his story. He tells the Geats to follow him, mentioning that he will order one of the Danes to watch Beowulf’s ship for him.