Hrothgar, king of the Danes, with whose ancestry the poem opens, in the pride of his success in war builds a great hall, Heorot, for feasting and the giving of treasure (ll. 1—85). But a monster named Grendel, enraged by the daily sounds of revelry, attacks the hall, makes a meal of fifteen thanes, and carries off fifteen more, returning with similar intent the next night. Thus Heorot is deserted, and remains so for twelve years (ll. 86—193). Then Beowulf, a mighty warrior of the Geats famous for the strength of his grip, hearing of Grendel’s ravages crosses the sea with fourteen comrades, keeps watch in Heorot, and, after seeing one of his men killed and eaten, grapples with the monster and pulls off his whole arm. Grendel escapes to his haunts, and dies (ll. 194—852). The following night, when the Danes are again in possession of the hall and Beowulf is lodged elsewhere, Grendel’s mother breaks in, and revenges the death of her son by slaying Aeschere, a noble Dane (ll. 853—1309). Beowulf undertakes the pursuit and revenge; he tracks the she-monster to her lair in the bottom of a mere, and slays her there. Seeing Grendel’s corpse, he severs the head from the body, and bears it back with him in triumph to Hrothgar’s court (ll. 1310—1798).
Loaded with rich gifts, the hero returns to his own land, and recites his adventures to Hygelac, his uncle, the king of the Geats (ll. 1799—2199). On the death of the latter, Beowulf refuses the throne for himself, and acts as guardian and adviser to the young king Heardred, who is, however, slain in battle.
Then Beowulf becomes king of the Geats, whom he rules wisely for fifty years, until a dragon begins to lay waste the land (ll. 2200–2400). The old hero’s spirit is undaunted as ever, but deserted by all his chosen warriors save one, although he succeeds in quelling the fiery “drake”, he himself meets with his death in the terrible encounter (ll. 2401—2820). With the burning of his body the poem ends (ll. 2821—3182).
Of the several episodes, the chief are the swimming-match with Breca (ll. 506 ff.), Sigemund and the dragon (ll. 874 ff.), and the Finn-episode (ll. 1068 ff.).
For the connexion between “The Fight at Finnsburg” (Appendix) and the Finn-episode in “Beowulf” see Finn in the index of Persons and Places.