The poem begins with a brief genealogy of the Danes. Scyld Shefing was the first great king of the Danes, known for his ability to conquer enemies. Scyld becomes the great-grandfather of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes during the events of Beowulf. Hrothgar, like his ancestors before him, is a good king, and he wishes to celebrate his reign by building a grand hall called Heorot. Once the hall isfinished, Hrothgar holds a large feast. The revelry attracts the attentions of the monster Grendel, who decides to attack during the night. In the morning, Hrothgar and his thanes discover the bloodshed and mourn the lost warriors. This begins Grendel's assault upon the Danes.
Twelve years pass. Eventually the news of Grendel's aggression on the Danes reaches the Geats, another tribe. A Geatthane, Beowulf, decides to help the Danes; he sails to the land of the Danes with his best warriors. Upon their arrival, Hrothgar's thane Wulfgar judges the Geats worthy enough to speak with Hrothgar. Hrothgar remembers when he helped Beowulf's father Ecgtheow settle a feud; thus, he welcomes Beowulf's help gladly.
Heorot is filled once again for a large feast in honor of Beowulf. During thefeast, a thane named Unferth tries to get into a boasting match with Beowulf by accusing him of losing a swimming contest. Beowulf tells the story of his heroic victory in the contest, and the company celebrates his courage. During the height of the celebration, the Danish queen Wealhtheow comes forth, bearing the mead-cup. She presents it first to Hrothgar, then to the rest of the hall, and finally toBeowulf. As he receives the cup, Beowulf tells Wealhtheow that he will kill Grendel or be killed in Heorot. This simple declaration moves Wealhtheow and the Danes, and the revelry continues. Finally, everyone retires. Before he leaves, Hrothgar promises to give Beowulf everything if he can defeat Grendel. Beowulf says that he will leave God to judge the outcome. He and his thanes sleep in thehall as they wait for Grendel.
Eventually Grendel arrives at Heorot as usual, hungry for flesh. Beowulf watches carefully as Grendel eats one of his men. When Grendel reaches for Beowulf, Beowulf grabs Grendel's arm and doesn't let go. Grendel writhes about in pain as Beowulf grips him. He thrashes about, causing the hall to nearly collapse. Soon Grendel tears away, leaving his arm in Beowulf'sgrasp. He slinks back to his lair in the moors and dies.
The Danes, meanwhile, consider Beowulf as the greatest hero in Danish history. Hrothgar's minstrel sings songs of Beowulf and other great characters of the past, including Sigemund (who slew a dragon) and Heremod (who ruled his kingdom unwisely and was punished). In Heorot, Grendel's arm is nailed to the wall as a trophy. Hrothgar says thatBeowulf will never lack for riches, and Beowulf graciously thanks him. The horses and men of the Geats are all richly adorned, in keeping with Hrothgar's wishes.
Another party is held to celebrate Beowulf's victory. Hrothgar's minstrel tells another story at the feast, the story of the Frisian slaughter. An ancient Danish king had a daughter named Hildeburh; he married her to a king of theFrisians. While Hnaef, Hildeburh's brother, visited his sister, the Frisians attacked the Danes, killing Hnaef and Hildeburh's son in the process. Hengest, the next leader of the Danes, desired vengeance, and in the spring, the Danes attacked the Frisians, killing their leader and taking Hildeburh back to Denmark.
After this story is told, Wealhtheow presents a necklace to Hrothgar while pleading withher brother-in-law Hrothulf to help her two young sons if they should ever need it. Next she presents many golden treasures to Beowulf, such as necklaces, cups, and rings. Soon the feast ends, and everyone sleeps peacefully.
In the night, Grendel's mother approaches the hall, wanting vengeance for her son. The warriors prepared for battle, leaving enough time for Grendel's mother to grab one...
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