Beowulf begins with the legends of the warrior kings of the Danes. The most famous was Shield Sheafson, the founder of the ruling house. He was revered by his own subjects, and outlying clans were forced to pay tribute to him. Shield had a son named Beow, who became famous throughout the region for his exploits.
Shield died while still at the height of his powers. His warriors placed his body in a boat, piled it up with treasure, weapons and armor, and sent it out to sea. No one knows, the poet says, who salvaged all the treasure.
After Shield's death, it was Beow's job to defend the Danish forts. He was well respected and ruled for a long time. He was succeeded by Halfdane, who had three sons, Heorogar, Hrothgar, and Halga, and an unnamed daughter who was married off to Onela the Swede.
Hrothgar was an extremely successful king. People flocked to his service and he created a large army. He decided to build a huge hall, and intended it to be one of the wonders of the world. He called the hall Heorot. It was a magnificent, towering building. The poet states, however, that in the future it would be burned down during a battle between members of the same family.
The poet introduces the story by giving some background information about the Danish warrior kings. This a way of introducing Hrothgar, who plays an important role in the story.
In 1939, archeologists discovered at Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk, England, a buried ship of treasure dating probably from the seventh century A.D. The find included a warrior's sword, a great gold buckle, silver serving vessels, and other items. It showed that warriors and kings from this period were indeed buried with their riches, just as the poet describes in the lines about the death of Shield.