I am surprised that it has taken me so long to get around to reading this book, particularly since it isn't all that long, and also that I have been a long time fan of the fantasy epic. In fact this was one of Tolkien's major inspirations for his Lord of the Rings trilogy (and I do emphasise one, since he drew on lots of sources in crafting his fantasy epic – in particular the Nibelungenlied). Anyway, as I suggested this is pretty much your typical fantasy novel. In fact when you read about how bards will sing about a hero's exploits, this is the type of song that they would end up singing (and the greater the hero, or should I say the greater the story, then the longer the song will remain in the consciousness of the listeners).
Mind you, the story itself is pretty basic: a monster comes and terrorises a king and eats his men during a banquet so the King asks for help and along comes Beowulf, cuts off the monster's arm, and leaves it for dead. They all then get together and start celebrating Beowulf's bravery in defeating the monster – bare handed nonetheless – when the monster's mother comes along and gatecrashes the party, namely because she is really upset that somebody went and ripped the arm off of her child (as you would expect from any mother). Anyway Beowulf then kills the mother and becomes king.
Mind you, the poem (or should I say song because the bards had been singing this for centuries, telling everybody the story of Beowulf's bravery) doesn't end there because Beowulf then goes off to fight a dragon, but this time he isn't so lucky because even though he manages to land a killing blow upon the dragon, the dragon replies in kind resulting in Beowulf not surviving the battle.
So, there we have it, a guy goes out, kills a monster, has a party, kills a monster, so on and so forth. Actually, that sounds like your everyday Dungeons and Dragons game – you know, enter a room, kill the monster in there, take all the treasure, and then go into the next room and do it all over again. Granted, there is this part of the game where you are supposed to role play your character, but on the other hand there isn't anything all that wrong with the good old fashioned dungeon crawl (though if you wanted a real dungeon crawl there are plenty of computer games that offer just that experience).
The other thing was that for some strange reason I thought the monster (that happens to have the name Grendal, though his mother doesn't have a name – she is only known as Grendal's mother) was like a hippopotamus, though I have no real reason why I would think such things. As it turns out Grendal is more like a troll, though I think he would be a troll in the vein of the Three Billy Goat's Gruff type of troll rather than the Dungeons & Dragons type of troll which I sometimes wonder who actually came up with the idea, and what drugs he (or she) was smoking at the time they decided to settle on this rather bizarre creature. Anyway a troll is probably more appropriate since you do get the impression that it has some form of intelligence (though not all that much), and it does break into the king's hall to carry away his men.
So, this is another of the handful of true epics, though it is nowhere near as long as the Odyssey or the Illiad. However, both of those other ones (as well as The Song of Roland and the Nibelungenlied) were all originally sung and also passed down by word of mouth. It is also interesting to note that these songs are songs of the deeds of heroes that have been passed down from generation to generation, though it does make me wonder what causes the actions of one particular hero to be passed through the generations to eventually be written down, and others to fade into insignificance. Considering, at least with our western culture, the bulk of these stories came from the Greeks, though we do seem to have a smattering from the Norse regions (such as Beowulf and the Nibelungenleid). In the end I guess it is probably luck, or more likely popularity. I guess it is like these days – popular books get reprinted and popular movies get replays. Those movies that flopped generally pass away into obscurity (though some of them, for some bizarre reason, go on to become cult classics). I guess it is the same with epic poems – the popular ones continue to be told, and continue to be passed down, while the ones people simply don't like (like the story of how Wulfgung was chased around the paddock by a rabid cow, but managed to overcome it) get forgotten.