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The first verse tells us about the line of Danish kings. Beo, maintaining the same standard of success set by his father, begets a son, Healfdane, who inherits the throne when Beo dies. Healfdane, "a fierce fighter," fathers three sons-Hergar, Hrothgar, and Halga the Good-and a daughter,- Yrs, who later becomes wife of Onela, king of Sweden.
Historical sources claim that Hergar and Halga the Good died when they were young. This explains why Hrothgar, the second son, assumes the throne upon Healfdane's death.
Hrothgar is described as possibly the most successful Danish king so far. As he grows older, after a happy and successful life, he yearns to build a hall to house his vast army of warriors. Like most people, Hrothgar desires some outward show of his greatness, a monument that will live on after he dies. The building of this hall, called Herot, is one way of achieving immortality.
Notice the way the poet comments on the story, foreshadowing events in the distant future. Herot is completed, but to think that it will last forever is an illusion:
That towering place, gabled and huge, Stood waiting for time to pass, for war To begin, for flames to leap as high As the feud that would light them, and for Herot to burn.
Eventually another war will break out, the poet says, and Herot, like everything else, will be destroyed.
The great hall is built. Hrothgar prepares a festive banquet for his warriors. The court poet entertains the warriors with songs of the creation of the earth, recalling how the Almighty shaped "These beautiful plains marked off by oceans,/Then proudly setting the sun and moon/To glow across the land and light it" (93-95). All is well-or seems to be. Then, as now, we live in a time of contrasts, where the best of times, as Charles Dickens wrote, is also the worst of times. As the festivities at Herot continue night after night, a powerful monster named Grendel is awakened by the carousing of Hrothgar and his men. Grendel hates the idea that people on earth can be happy, and the sound of the men celebratingespecially the poet playing on his harp-stirs him into action.
Notice the Christian motifs that run through the poem, and how they contrast with the pagan system of values that underlies the actions of the kings and the warriors. The influence of Christianity was just beginning to make its mark in this world, and most of the characters are torn between their newly discovered religious feelings and their old, heathen way of perceiving things. The idea that there's a higher being that controls one's actions revolutionized people's concepts of themselves, and infused their day-to-day lives with a sense of wonder.
We see Grendel lurking in the shadows, a creature in exile, banished by God.
The poet leaves it up to your imagination to supply your own image of a monster. You might compare him to other "monsters"- like King Kong-who have become part of recent American folklore. Grendel walks, thinks, and has a hand and a mouth. He has human qualities but he's also larger than life, capable, as we'll soon learn, of tearing men into pieces and devouring them whole.