I. What is a Quest?
A quest (/kwest/) is a journey that someone takes in order to achieve a goal or complete an important task. Accordingly, the term comes from the Medieval Latin questa, meaning “search” or “inquiry.” Quests are heroic in nature, usually featuring one protagonist who goes on a dangerous mission against all odds to save a group of people or society. Sometimes, the hero sets out on a quest to find a symbolic object or person and bring it or them back to his home. Quests are the foremost element of the epic (see Related terms). They also have a particularly large presence in medieval romance, folklore, and Greek and Roman mythology, and have been playing an important role in fiction since the earliest examples of English literature.
II. Example of a Quest
Read the following short passage:
He had long days ahead of him before he would reach his destination. Everything was riding on the success of his journey—his family, his home, his land—his whole life. If he didn’t make it, if he didn’t find the jewel, he would lose everything. He couldn’t be afraid, or hesitant, or uncertain about the road he was about to embark upon. He had his old but trusty horse, his weathered shield, his father’s sword, and his courage. Failure was not a consideration or an option.
The above passage introduces the audience to a man about to embark on his quest. It identifies three important things—a hero, a journey, and a goal (finding the jewel). Furthermore, it reveals that many things are relying on the man’s success, and warns that there will be significant consequences should he fail.
III. Importance of Quests
Authors have been creating imaginative tales about heroes embarking on quests since the beginnings of English literature. They play a central role in epics such as Beowulf and Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, as well as in medieval romance works like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Sir Thomas Malory’s tales of King Arthur. Since it so closely follows a hero, a quest provides powerful characterization, revealing the hero’s morals, strengths, weaknesses, and struggles, and successes. By the end of a quest, the audience feels that they know the hero well. It is also a way for authors to introduce the audience to foreign settings—a writer and his readers can explore exotic places with the hero that they’d likely never hear about otherwise (especially in ancient or medieval times). For these reasons, quests are valuable plot devices for fiction authors and that have endured the test of time for literally thousands of years.
IV. Examples in Literature
One of the most important pieces of English literature is the medieval epic poem Beowulf, which tells the story of a warrior’s quest to save a faraway kingdom. The hero and protagonist Beowulf sets out from his own kingdom to try to defeat the monster Grendel, who has been tormenting the kingdom of Herot and killing it’s people. In the passage below, Beowulf explains the reason for his arrival in Herot to the king:
This was my thought, when my thanes and I
bent to the ocean and entered our boat,
that I would work the will of your people
fully, or fighting fall in death,
in fiend’s gripe fast. I am firm to do
an earl’s brave deed, or end the days
of this life of mine in the mead-hall here.
Here Beowulf explains that when he and his men set out on their journey, it was with the thought that he would save the people of Herot, or die fighting Grendel. He asserts that he is up for the challenge of carrying out a brave deed, knowing he could fail—but Beowulf is determined to complete his quest or die trying.
One of literature and film’s best-loved quests can be found at the heart of J.R.R.Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, which tells the tale of Frodo Baggins and his quest to destroy the Ring of Power. Unlike many quests, Frodo is no hero or warrior when he begins his journey, but this makes him special. Despite being a simple Hobbit and against all odds, he sets on a quest to Mount Doom in the dark lands of Mordor. His goal is to destroy the Ring, the only way to end evil and the Dark Lord Sauron’s reign in Middle Earth. Spolier alert! The clip below shows what happens when Frodo and the Ring finally reach the inside of Mount Doom.
The clip shows the members of the Fellowship who helped Frodo on his journey, and their reactions as they watch Mount Doom and Sauron fall to ruin. The Ring is destroyed, but not directly by Frodo—it is actually the creature Gollum who falls into the fires with it in his hand. In the book The Return of the King, just after the scene depicted in the clip above, Frodo reflects upon the journey, admitting that in truth he couldn’t have destroyed the Ring without Gollum—
But do you remember Gandalf’s words: Even Gollum may have something yet to do? But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end. So let us forgive him! For the Quest is achieved, and now all is over.
Frodo has now reached the end of his quest to save Middle Earth, but his melancholy tone asserts that he will never be the same again.
V. Examples in Pop Culture
In the film version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, a teenage Harry Potter spends the school year taking special lessons with Professor Dumbledore, where he learns about the Dark Lord Voldemort’s past and the creation of the Horcruxes, dark magical devices that split the soul so that one can keep living if they are killed. Dumbledore is guiding Harry because in order to defeat Voldemort, all of the Horcruxes must be destroyed—a task the young wizard will eventually have to complete on his own. In the clip below, the two set out to a secret cave where Dumbledore believes a Horcrux is hidden; the first of many parts of Harry’s quest:
Harry’s mission continues in the next and final book of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The Deathly Hallows follows Harry’s quest to destroy the remaining Horcruxes, and end Voldemort’s power forever.
Quests don’t always have to be serious—they can be made into comedy as well. The film Monty Python and the Holy Grail by the British comedy group Monty Python is a parody of traditional tales about “the quest for the Holy Grail,” a legendary quest taken by medieval knights. In the infamous clip below, King Arthur has to defeat the Black Knight in order to cross the bridge, and a duel ensues:
Battles occur all the time in quests, but the one in this clip is mocking a traditional duel by making light of the Black Knight’s injuries. Rather than overcoming a difficult obstacle, King Arthur easily defeats his opponent and continues with his quest.
VI. Related Terms
An epic is a legendary tale about a great hero on quest, usually with some form of divine intervention. Epics have a particularly large presence in medieval English literature and often feature aspects of mythology. Quests and epics do go hand in hand, but people often make the mistake of using the terms interchangeably—a quest is a plot device found within an epic, but is not an epic itself.