Note: The divisions that are used below do not form part of the actual poem. They have been merely used here for convenience of comprehension.
The Danish Court and the Raids of Grendel
The poem begins on an exclamatory note, reiterating the mighty deeds of the Danes, particularly that of Scyld, son of Sceaf, that the poet says his audience must already be familiar with. Scyld was a powerful warrior and won many mead halls (the symbol of independence of tribes) from his enemies. From being a poor foundling, he rose to be a threat to all and even foreign tribes beyond the ocean paid tributes to him. To Scyld, an heir Beowulf (not the hero of the poem) was born, and God seeing the problems that a nation without a king had to suffer, made Beowulf very famous. His name was respected across the Danish lands and the poet advises that like Beowulf, young men must strive to win their fathers' regards, so that people will serve them well later in life, and they will gain honor. Scyld died and as per his instructions, he was carried to the ocean shore, laid in a ship with all the treasures that he had amassed during his conquests, and the ship was set to sea. A golden standard was raised, and the mourners were heavy-hearted, knowing the dismal final destination towards which the king was headed.
Then Beowulf ruled over Scylding and was as beloved as his father. He was succeeded by Healfdeane who had four sons and daughters, Heorogar, Hrothgar, Halga and Onela's wife. Hrothgar proved to be a great warrior and won many battles. To celebrate his success, he decided to build a great mead hall. It was called the Hall of Heoret and its fame spread everywhere. The poet comments on this wide-gabled hall that now stands so firm and contrasts it with a look into the future when the hall will be burned down during an attack by Ingeld (Hrothgar's daughter's husband), king of Heothobards, on Hrothgar.
The hall was filled with sounds of revelry, and of the bard singing the song of man's creation: how God made the earth with water around it, then made the sun and the moon to provide light to men, covered the earth with vegetation, and then with living creatures. An evil spirit called Grendel, who lived in the marshes, could not endure the happiness of the warriors in the hall. Grendel was a descendent of Cain who had been banished by God for killing his brother, and who in his stead had begotten monsters and trolls. So at night Grendel comes to the hall and, finding the warriors asleep after three-days' merry-making, attacks and kills thirty men. In the morning, the disaster being made known to all, Hrothgar is pained. The next night, however, Grendel returns again, hunting even the men who were sleeping in the adjacent rooms, and thus the carnage continued for twelve years. No one in the Danish land could stop him or force him to pay wergild - a practice that entails a payment to the kin of the dead warrior to re-establish honor without shedding blood - and like Satan, Grendel continued to prey on men.
Hrothgar counsels with his men on how best to counter Grendel, but - as the Danes are heathens and offer prayers to the Devil in temples to relieve them of distress - it is of no avail. The poet comments on their mistaken belief that prompts them to look to hell for help, and cautions others to learn from this story and not expel every hope of mercy by not seeking God when in affliction.
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