Beowulf starts with the history of the royal Danish family for several generations. “So. the Spear-Danes in days gone by and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.” But it is mostly about the life of Beowulf himself. It is more than just the history of the Danes though. It is about the right way for a warrior to live and die.
The poem starts with Shield Sheafson, who was a great king. He was a foundling, who became a great king. When he died, he was given an elaborate funeral. His son, Beow inherited the throne, followed by his son Halfdane. Then Hrothgar became king and built a mead hall call Herot where the men would get together and drink mead and listen to songs. That woke up a demon named Grendel who started to attack them at night. Beowulf was the son of the Geatish king Hygelac, who Hrothgar helped at one time. When Beowulf hears about Grendal he goes to help his father’s friend.
When he get there they throw a big feast and Beowulf starts bragging about how great he is. Unferth gets jealous and taunts him so Beowulf fights Grendel without his sword. He wins tearing off Grendel’s arm in the process. Grendel crawls off into the swamp to die. The warriors, with Beowulf and the king, take the arm, hang it up in Herot and have another feast. In the meantime, Grendel’s mother finds out and comes to get revenge for her son. She kills the kings good friend Aeschere, then goes back to her swamp. She is even fiercer than her son so Beowulf uses a giants sword to kill her, then brings back her head.
After another big feast the king give Beowulf a great treasure and Beowulf goes back to Geatland. Beowulf gives the treasure to his king who rewards him. Eventually Beowulf becomes king of the Geats and rules well for fifty years. When he is old, a thief disturbs a barrow and the dragon in it starts tearing up the country. He senses that he is going to get killed; and he does it anyway. He kills the dragon but the dragon bites him in the neck and its venom kills him. The people make a big funeral pyre and then bury him with massive treasure in a big barrow by the sea.
The story is about more than just battles and fighting, kings and warriors, it is also about the right way for a warrior to think and act. One of the themes is how important it is for the warrior is to be remembered. Another theme is that life is short and should be lived well. This quote from lines 1758 to 1768 describes that.
Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part,
eternal rewards. Do not give way to pride.
For a brief while your strength is in bloom
but it fades quickly; and soon there will follow
illness or the sword to lay you low,
or a sudden fire of surge of water
or jabbing blade or javelin from the air
or repellent age. Your piercing eye
will dim and darken; and death will arrive,
dear warrior, to sweep you away.
Wisdom like this makes this poem more than a history of kings and warriors. It also is about the honorable way for warriors and kings to live their lives.