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"Soria Moria" by Theodor Kittelsen: a hero glimpses the end of his quest.

A quest is a journey towards a goal used in mythology and literature as a plot. Quests can be found in the folklore of every nation (Josepha Sherman, Once upon a Galaxy p 142 ISBN 0-87483-387-6). In literature, the objects of quests require great exertion on the part of the hero, and the overcoming of many obstacles, typically including much travel.

This travel also allows the storyteller to showcase exotic locations and cultures, which may, indeed, be the writer's objective if not the characters (Michael O. Riley, Oz and Beyond: The Fantasy World of L. Frank Baum, p 178-9, ISBN 0-7006-0832-X)

Quest objects

The Knight at the Crydonias by Viktor Vasnetsov

The hero's normal aim is to obtain something, or someone, by the quest and with this object return home (W. H. Auden, "The Quest Hero", Understanding the Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism, p35 ISBN 0-618-42253-6) The object can be something new, that fulfills a lack in his life, or something that was stolen away from him. It can also be a lack in the life of, or something stolen from, someone with authority to dispatch him (Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folk Tale, p 36, ISBN 0-292-78376-0)

Sometimes the hero has no desire to return. Sir Galahad's quest for the Holy Grail is to find it, not return with it. A return may, indeed, be impossible: Aeneas is questing for a homeland, having lost Troy at the beginning of Virgil's Aeneid he does not return to Troy to refound it but settles in Italy, to become an ancestor of the Romans.

Even if he does return after the culmination of the quest, he may face false heroes who attempt to pass themselves off as him, (Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folk Tale, p60, ISBN 0-292-78376-0) or his initial response may be a rejection of that return, as Joseph Campbell describes in his critical analysis of quest literature "The Hero With a Thousand Faces."

If dispatched, the claim may be false, with the dispatcher actually sending him on the difficult quest in hopes of his death in the attempt, or in order to remove him from the scene for a time, but the story often unfolds just as if the claim were sincere, except that the tale usually ends with the dispatcher being unmasked and punished (Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folk Tale, p77 ISBN 0-292-78376-0). Stories with such false quest-objects include the legends of Jason and Perseus, the fairy tales The Dancing Water, the Singing Apple, and the Speaking Bird, Go I Know Not Whither and Fetch I Know Not What, and the story of Beren and Lúthien in J. R. R. Tolkien's Silmarillion.

The quest object may, indeed, be only a convenient reason for the hero's journey. Such objects are termed MacGuffins. When a hero is on a quest for several objects that are only a convenient reason for his journey, they are termed plot coupons.

Literary analysis

The quest, in the form of the Hero's Journey, is central to the Monomyth described by Joseph Campbell; the hero sets forth from the world of common day into a land where adventures, tests, and magical rewards are found.

Historical Examples

An early quest story is the quest of Gilgamesh, who seeks a secret to eternal life after the tragic death of Enkidu, including the search for an emerald.

Another ancient quest tale, Homer's Odyssey, tells of Odysseus, who is cursed to wander and suffer for many years before Athena persuades the Olympians to allow him to return home. Recovering the Golden Fleece is the object of the travels of Jason and the Argonauts in the Argonautica. Psyche, having lost Cupid, hunted through the world for him, and was set tasks by Venus, including a descent into the underworld.

Many fairy tales depict the hero or heroine setting out on a quest, such as East of the Sun and West of the Moon where the heroine seeks her husband, The Seven Ravens where the heroine seeks her transformed brothers, The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was, or The Golden Bird where the prince sets out to find the golden bird for his father. Other characters may set out with no more definite aim that to seek their fortune, or even be cast out instead of voluntarily leaving, but learn of something that could aid them along the way and so have their journey transformed from aimless wandering into a quest (Maria Tatar, The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales, p63, ISBN 0-691-06722-8) Other characters can also set forth on quests — the hero's two older brothers commonly do — but the hero is distinguished by his success.

"Vision of the Holy Grail" (1890) by William Morris

Many medieval romances set the knight out on quests. The term "Knight-errant" sprang from this, as "errant" meant roving or wandering. Sir Thomas Malory included many in Le Morte d'Arthur. The most famous -- perhaps the most famous quest in western literature -- centers on the Holy Grail in Arthurian legend. This story cycle recounts multiple quests, in multiple variants, telling stories both of the heroes who succeed, like Percival (in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival) or Sir Galahad (in the Queste del Saint Graal), and also the heroes who fail, like Sir Lancelot. This often sent them into a bewildering forest. Despite many references to its pathlessness, the forest repeatedly confronts knights with forks and crossroads, of a labyrinthine complexity (Penelope Reed Doob, The Idea of the Labyrinth: from Classical Antiquity through the Middle Ages, p 177, ISBN 0-8014-8000-0). The significance of their encounters is often explained to the knights -- particularly those searching for the Holy Grail -- by hermits acting as wise old men -- or women (Penelope Reed Doob, The Idea of the Labyrinth: from Classical Antiquity through the Middle Ages, p 179-81, ISBN 0-8014-8000-0) Still, despite their perils and chances of error, such forests, being the location where the knight can obtain the end of his quest, are places where the knights may become worthy; one romance has a maiden urging Sir Lancelot on his quest for the Holy Grail, "which quickens with life and greenness like the forest ("Penelope Reed Doob, The Idea of the Labyrinth: from Classical Antiquity through the Middle Ages, p 181, ISBN 0-8014-8000-0).

So consistently did knights quest that Miguel de Cervantes set his Don Quixote on mock quests in a parody of chivalric tales. His attempt to ridicule knight-errantry into non-existence was not successful; quests remain a vital part of fantasy literature to this day.

Modern Literature

Quests continued in modern literature. Many, perhaps most, stories can be described as a quest in which the main character is seeking something that he desires, (Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, p 196-7 ISBN 0-06-039168-5) but the literal structure of a journey seeking something is, itself, still common. Quests often appear in fantasy literature (John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Quest ", p 796 ISBN 0-312-19869-8), as in Rasselas by Samuel Johnson, or The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion go on a quest for the way back to Kansas, brains, a heart, and courage respectively (L. Frank Baum, Michael Patrick Hearn, The Annotated Wizard of Oz, p 126-7, ISBN 0-517-500868).

A familiar modern literary quest is Frodo Baggins's quest to destroy the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings (W. H. Auden, "The Quest Hero", Understanding the Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism, p45 ISBN 0-618-42253-6) The One Ring, its baleful power, the difficult method which is the only way to destroy it, and the spiritual and psychological torture it wreaks on its Bearer, is used by J. R. R. Tolkien to tell a meaningful tale of friendship and the inner struggle with temptation, against a background of epic and supernatural warfare.

Some writers, however, may devise the arbitrary quests for items without any importance beyond being the object of the quest. These items are known as MacGuffins, which is sometimes merely used to compare quests and is not always a derogatory term. Writers may also motivate characters to pursue these objects by meanings of a prophecy that decrees it, rather than have them discover that it could assist them, for reasons that are given.

Role-playing Games

The quest is a basic plot in role-playing games.

A common quest in a role-playing game will announce that the heroes must assemble some artifact, which has been broken into several pieces, each of which has a challenge the heroes must overcome. The carefully designed quest may allow the heroes to shine and show the qualities that make them heroic.

In literature as well as video games, side-quests are often used to develop character depth and reveal the world setting. These miniature plots may or may not have to do with the story's focus (being hereafter called the main quest), such as a romantic interest or providing help to other characters. In Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time, for example, the major quest is the binding or destruction of the dark one, with side quests being the securing of political power, romantic interests, and the growth of personal strength or power. Often these side quests are stepping stones to the completion of the final goal.

In the beginning of the game, the player may need to learn how to effectively play the game, and the character may lack the abilities or equipment to embark on the main quest. The game may provide side-quests that are menial in nature and have little to no bearing on the main quest, and include such actions as finding a lost book, finding a lost child, or ridding a basement of rats. Luckily, the gamer quickly passes through this level. This may also be a tutorial teaching the basics of gameplay with relatively little danger to the character in contrast to what shall cross their paths when their adventure begins. In regards to the Monomyth, the player may is unlikely to have defeated the guardian at this stage.

Another form of side quest is a distraction or minigame. This includes activities such as fishing, raising pets, roleplaying social activities, buying drinks at a bar, dancing and horseback archery.

See also