Who is Scyld-Scefing?
Beowulf starts as a grand epic of history, similar to the Old Testament, with lists of important people, their heritage, and their lineage. In this vein, the story does not start with Beowulf himself, or even with Grendel's attacks; instead, it sets the background of King Hrothgar's ancestor Scyld, the great king of the Scyldings. Scyld (Skjöldr, a figure of disputed origin) was a legendary figure, traveling from Asia (possibly with a retinue, possibly alone as a child) to become the first king of the Danes, and a figure akin to gods. Beowulf begins with a recount of his exploits, and finally his funeral.
So the carle that is young, by kindnesses rendered
The friends of his father, with fees in abundance
Must be able to earn that when age approacheth
Eager companions aid him requitingly,
When war assaults him serve him as liegemen:
By praise-worthy actions must honor be got
'Mong all of the races. At the hour that was fated
Scyld dies at the hour appointed by Fate.
Scyld then departed to the All-Father’s keeping
Warlike to wend him; away then they bare him
To the flood of the current...
(JNO: Lesslie Hall, Ph.D. (J.H.U.) from gutenberg.org)
Scyld is notable in the story because of the examples he sets for the other major characters. Scyld is an undefeated king of his people, a champion among his vassals, and a man of valor and chivalry. He fights for his people, defends his lands and his honor, and when the gods appointed his time, he died and was buried at sea. Hrothgar, his descendant, strove to the same ideals, as does Beowulf, who more closely resembles Scyld in manner and deed. Scyld's presence in Beowulf serves to set the stage and familiarize the reader with the type of story as well as its scope.
Scyld-Scefing is considered to be the first legendary Danish king. He was a foundling or an orphan but was able to rise to success and royalty, and this made his life impressive because he started off in life as a disadvantaged individual. He had a son Beow who was heir to the Scylding throne. Beow had a son, Healfdene, who was his heir. Healfdene also fathered Heorogar, Hrothgar, Halga and Elan. Therefore Scyld-Scefing was a great grandfather to Hrothgar and his siblings. He is said to have arrived in a boat and began his conquest in Danish lands. Other chieftains were afraid of him because of his skill in battle. Through his conquest he was able to establish his leadership and access to wealth. When he died he had a royal send off on a boat that was adorned with plenty of jewels, weapons and armor.
Scyld is an aged king who was known for his strength in battle and his fearless leadership. The beginning of Beowulf begins with a complete description of his accomplishments in battle and the unknown journey he is embarking on since his death. He is aboard a ship, sitting upright (symbolic of his journey into the unknown afterlife and the things awaiting him), awaiting his arrivial into the afterlife. The poem has circular structure as it begins and ends with the story of an aged king, and it sets the tone for what type of leader Beowulf must be in order to defeat Grendel. He must be a man who is also fearless and powerful in battle as well as a man free from greed and pride.