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Epic Heroes of Beowulf and the Four Branches of the Mabinogi

Updated on October 7, 2011

The epic poem Beowulf and the tales of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi share elements of kings, warriors, and magical creatures. Both works feature heroes, ideal figures who, despite their flaws, embody the values of their cultures. Beowulf represents the Anglo-Saxon world that values loyalty, community, and honor. Warriors are highly esteemed in this culture that views battle as glorious and honorable. Beowulf fits the role of the warrior hero well, but Hrothgar also deserves a look as a hero figure.

The assorted heroes of the Four Branches, such as Pwyll, Manawydan, and Gwydion, also embody the ideals of the Welsh world. Some of these ideals vary from those of Beowulf; reconciliation, negotiation, and friendship are sought before war breaks out. The Welsh do not glorify battle as in Beowulf, but rather recognize the destruction, hostility, and even xenophobia it wreaks. The Anglo-Saxons and the Welsh respect the heroes of Beowulf and the Four Branches not only because they are the cream of the crop, but also for their representing the worldviews of their respective cultures.

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Comparing Beowulf and Hrothgar

Beowulf is the obvious hero of the famous epic poem. He certainly fits (or perhaps helped create) the stereotype of the fearless and mighty warrior who slays monsters. He also shows courtesy to his host Hrothgar when offering his “hero’s resume,” asking the king’s permission to kill Grendel for him instead of merely boasting about his strength and ability. In fact, Beowulf is not arrogant when he offers his services to the Danes, but rather straightforward and tactful. He does not insult Hrothgar for being unable to stop Grendel himself and even defers to him by waiting for permission to take on the task. Beowulf reveals some graciousness as he seeks peoples’ respect instead of just assuming it. Beowulf inspires the loyalty of his war-band Dugoth, which proves that he is a good leader (compared to Gronw Bebyr from Math Son of Mathonwy, whose war-band will not fight in his stead). Beowulf’s mighty deeds illustrate the Anglo-Saxons’ high regard for the warrior, with battles portrayed as larger-than-life and glorious.

Hrothgar may be an overlooked hero of Beowulf, overshadowed by the magnificent title character. Hrothgar builds Heorot, a great meadhall, indicating the Danes’ appreciation of community. The question of whether Hrothgar is a weak king often comes up, as he fails for years to do anything to stop Grendel from slaughtering his men. Indeed, Hrothgar appears to be the antithesis of Beowulf, perhaps a wiser ruler but certainly not as great a warrior as the younger Geat. However, when Beowulf tells Hrothgar that he can defeat Grendel, Hrothgar brings up the story of how long ago he helped Beowulf’s father Ecgtheow, who had killed a Wylfing. Hrothgar soothed the Wylfings by paying Ecgtheow’s wergeld (a cash payment for someone’s death). Hrothgar mentions this debt that Ecgtheow owes him to imply that Beowulf can settle his father’s debt by conquering Grendel.

Hrothgar reveals an important value of the Anglo-Saxon culture, that of maintaining honor and dignity. If Hrothgar can avoid feeling beholden to Beowulf, he can save face and maintain some pride. The whole careful and courteous exchange between Hrothgar and Beowulf shows how the Anglo-Saxons placed great importance on honor and loyalty. Settling debts is just one way that characters can show humility and respect.

It is perhaps too simple to laud Beowulf as the greater ruler and dismiss Hrothgar as the weak king, but both characters have their strengths and weaknesses. There is no doubt that Beowulf is a brave warrior; he wrestles Grendel with his bare hands and pulls off his arm. Beowulf also shows his sense of honor by declining weapons because he knows Grendel does not use them. In the beginning of the poem, Hrothgar is said to be swift in battle and staunch in strife, and his people follow him freely. Clearly he is a good enough leader to earn the respect and loyalty of his men. When Beowulf dies after slaying the dragon, he leaves his kingdom without a king. The relationship between the king and his followers is very important in the Anglo-Saxon culture, so to lose a leader like Beowulf is a grave matter.

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Friendship before conflict

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi have various heroes who exemplify the Welsh culture, which differs in many ways from the world found in Beowulf. The heroes of both works promote honor and loyalty, but the Welsh tales have a different take on war and conflict. Pwyll is the first hero to appear, in the tale Pwyll Prince of Dyfed. At the beginning of the story, he unintentionally offends Arawn king of Annwn. Instead of coming to blows, Pwyll agrees to switch places with Arawn to make up for his discourtesy. Already the hero displays the importance of reconciliation and making things right without violence. Characters seek friendship before conflict.

Pwyll is overly courteous to Arawn when he rules in Annwn in his place, not sleeping with Arawn’s wife (even when Arawn expected he would). As the ruler of Dyfed, Pwyll is content to just be with his wife Rhiannon and does not try to have children until the nobles demand an heir. Pwyll may not be the greatest leader if he does not consider his country’s need for an heir, but he still beloved by his people. Honor is still a great issue for the Welsh, as Pwyll must keep his rash promise to grant Gwawl whatever he wishes. And despite the nobles’ insistence that Rhiannon be “put away” for supposedly killing her baby, Pwyll refuses and instead has her perform a harsh, bizarre penance. Despite his occasional mistakes, Pwyll generally means well and is beloved enough by his people that a countryman dutifully returns his missing son.

War and xenophobia

Bendigeidfran represents the leader reluctantly pushed into war to defend his sister who is being wronged by the Irish. In this case, Bendigeidfran has no real choice to avoid a bloody conflict. Nearly all the characters in the tale of Branwen Daughter of Llŷr meet a grim fate, and both the Welsh and the Irish are almost completely wiped out in the war.

Sadly, xenophobia appears often in the Four Branches, often against the female characters. Rhiannon and Branwen, both wives of kings, are viewed as outsiders and punished as scapegoats. Gwydion of Math Son of Mathonwy also instigates a war, but this one for less honorable reasons than protecting a sister. In fact, Gwydion is one of the least honorable characters of the Four Branches, betraying his uncle the king and helping his brother commit a rape, but he redeems himself somewhat through his devoted care of his adopted son Lleu Llaw Gyffes. Gwydion uses his wits to outsmart Aranrhod, Lleu’s mother, to ensure his son has a name, arms, and a wife. Redemption is possible in the Four Branches, albeit usually after horrific punishment.

Avoiding conflict

Manawydan is another hero who uses brains over brawn, like Gwydion. However, unlike Gwydion and Bendigeidfran, Manawydan is extremely pacifist and passive, almost seeming cowardly. At the beginning of Manawydan Son of Llŷr, Manawydan does not fight for his rightful place on the throne, which has been usurped. Instead, he becomes a permanent guest at Pryderi’s kingdom. When Manawydan and Pryderi are forced into working as craftsmen, demeaning for nobles, they nevertheless do the work well. When they are repeatedly threatened by the other jealous craftsmen, Manawydan suggests they move on rather than fight.

Pryderi is the man of action who would rather defend himself, but Manawydan always avoids conflict, which seems weak and cowardly. However, Pryderi’s rash nature leads him right into a trap, while the more cautious Manawydan uses his wits to restore his kingdom to normal. Manawydan proves to be a shrewd negotiator with the culprit behind the cursing of his kingdom; he restores his lost friends Pryderi and Rhiannon and protects them all from Llwyd’s vengeance. Manawydan proves not to be a coward, just unwilling to start another war like the one Bendigeidfran did not survive. He demonstrates the Welsh ideal of avoiding conflict when possible and using smarts instead of violence.

Different values of the Anglo-Saxons and the Welsh

The heroes of Beowulf and the Four Branches of the Mabinogi in many ways embody the ideals and principles of their cultures—honor, justice, and loyalty to the leader. The Anglo-Saxon warrior culture is apparent in Beowulf’s story, as his mighty battles and feats of strength are celebrated and glamorized. Being a good leader is just as important as being a great warrior, and Beowulf fulfills both roles, as does Hrothgar to a certain extent. Beowulf contains a sense of community, which is necessary to foster brotherhood and devotion among the warriors and between the warriors and their king.

The heroes of the Four Branches have a different view of the warrior culture. They strive for amicable solutions before resorting to battle, which always yields destructive and tragic results. While Pwyll and Manawydan look for peaceful solutions to problems, Bendigeidfran is forced into a bloody war and Gwydion even instigates one. Manawydan and Gwydion demonstrate the ideal of using brains over brawn by outsmarting their opponents. When possible, the heroes of the Four Branches chose single combat over a full-scale war. Obviously, the Welsh do not share the same warrior culture of the Anglo-Saxons as revealed in Beowulf. Nevertheless, the heroes of these two works are revered for illustrating the best their cultures have to offer. They strive to uphold the ideals of their different worlds.

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    • Painted Seahorse profile imageAUTHOR

      Brittany Rowland 

      7 years ago from Woodstock, GA

      I was curious about the movie when it first came out, to see how they handled it, because I'd been studying Beowulf in at least 2 college courses. I was overall pleased with its approach, and like you, glad it wasn't silly or cartoony. Thanks for reading!

    • bethperry profile image

      Beth Perry 

      7 years ago from Tennesee

      Beowulf was one of my favorite books as a kid. The film was almost worthy of it, and I enjoyed the fact they made it with maturity instead of Disney-like silliness and PC.

      Very interesting hub!

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