In the mythology of every nation, quest journeys abound. It may be personal – the search for identity, for a missing parent, or for an object. In the Arthurian legend of Sir Galahad it’s the Holy grail. Merlin, the Wizard, predicts the birth of a knight who will seek the grail. Sir Galahad sits in the Seat Perilous at the Round Table and survives – unlike his predecessors. A sword lies in a stone: Never shall man take me hence but only he whose side I ought to hang and he will be the knight of this sword. Sir Galahad removes it with ease, sees a vision of the Holy grail and his quest begins. In historical or fictional epics, valuables are frequently involved. Gilgamesh not only searches to unravel the mystery of life after death; he also seeks an emerald.
People’s quest journeys include a search for meaning, fulfilment, peace, happiness. The quest is frequently used in literature as a plot device, and can be a symbol for something else. Wizards set out to solve their problems with all sorts of spells and magic to aid their cause. On the way, our hero must overcome formidable obstacles, survive dangerous and mysterious locations, of geography or mind.
Virgil has Aeneid seeking a homeland. He’s lost Troy and begins a new life in Italy, the first of the Romans. Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, has his hero reject a return to his homeland.
Many stories use a false quest object, with the villain sending our hero off in the hope of his demise, or to eject him from a place or kingdom. The perpetrator is usually discovered, and punished. Examples include JRR Tolkien’s Simarillon, or Jason and Perseus, of Greek legend. When an object is used as a device to speed our hero on his way, it’s called a MacGuffin. These are objects with no importance beyond themselves, used to compare quests.
A quest hero may be seeking weapons, a cure, love, sympathy, food, his sister. Often the protagonist has to pass a number of tests before emerging as a Knight In Shining Armour to win the hand of his fair lady. Medieval literature’s tales of knights and quests, led to use of the phrase knight errant, a wanderer. Sir Lancelot fails in his quest to retain the love of Queen Guinevere. A magic ring has transformed a lady called Elaine into the image of Sir Lancelot’s one true love and he’s tricked into sleeping with her, but Guinevere doesn’t believe a word of it and he’s banished to the forest, later becoming a monk.
One pictures all the bewildered knights wandering in a labyrinth of torturous forest paths, through wild ravines and across raging rivers, pursued by enemies, overcoming dastardly deeds. Miguel de Cervantes, amused by these endless tales of chivalry, invented Don Quixote, which has been called the first modern novel. To parody the noble escapades, Cervantes puts his hero into a rusty old suit of armour, with Sancho Panza as his squire. Quixote, riding a broken-down old nag called Rochinate, tilts at windmills, mistaking them for savage giants, and bumbles his way through a variety of hilarious episodes. This tale has resonated with readers for centuries. Ironically, the mock quests Cervantes has him undertake, results in him emerging as a chivalric hero, like the others!
The Gods have cursed Odysseus, condemning him to wander for Eternity. Athena intervenes and the Olympians forgive him his trespass. Jason and the Argonauts seek the Golden Fleece. This legend is based on the old Greek custom of placing fleeces in rivers to capture alluvial gold. Jason and his cohorts are on an almost hopeless quest. Figuratively, this expedition involves a person searching against the odds, an adventure with many perils, seeking their fortune, a fruitless endeavour.
In fairy tales, quest journeys abound. The Speaking Bird and I Know Not Whither are two. In the Seven Ravens, the heroine seeks her transformed brothers. The protagonist may seek his fortune, to overcome fear, to find lost parents, to right a wrong. A quest may be figurative – to go gathering orange blossoms – the search for a wife. To pound the pavement – a quest for work.
A quest object may possess supernatural powers to help our hero succeed in fantasy worlds. The moral of a quest story is usually the changed character of the protagonist at the end of his story – sometimes, an analogy for salvation. A quest journey may be spiritual. In Peru, one may participate in ceremonies with shamans, who are said to have direct links to the ancient Inca, wisdom keepers of their cosmology.
The search for meaning and a prisoner’s ability to imagine a future, while incarcerated in places like Auschwitz Concentration Camp, affected their longevity. Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning, was listed as one of the ten most influential books in the United States at the time of his death in 1997. It had sold over ten million copies, translated into 24 languages. Viktor said those who couldn’t envisage anything beyond their misery, were doomed. He stated that life has meaning even in the most dire circumstances, his belief that God, a friend, was looking over him brought hope, the key to survival.
In modern literature, most stories involve the protagonist in a quest – the powerful desire for love, happiness, security, revenge, adventure, redemption. Obstacles must be overwhelming, whether physical of psychological. In the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, all the characters have powerful goals: Dorothy, the protagonist, longs to return to Kansas, Cowardly Lion for Courage -The Tin Man wants a heart and the Scarecrow a brain – or was it the other way around?
Anyway, it’s evident that life is one long, quest journey – whether we like it or not. It’s part of the great adventure and excitement of being human.