Skip to main content

Quests

QUESTS

QUESTS . The Ojibwa Indians tell the story of the boy Wunzh and his vision quest. Having reached the appropriate age for the ritual search for totem spirits, Wunzh is left alone in the great forest. After several days of fasting, he retires exhausted to the lonely hut provided for him and waits for the dreams he hopes his guardian spirits will send. There he prays for advice on how his family and tribe might more efficiently obtain food. Wunzh takes to his mat and soon has a vision of a strange young man dressed in yellow and green with feathers on his head. As he descends from the sky, the young man announces that he comes from the Great Spirit to answer Wunzh's prayer. "I will teach you to help your people," he says, "but first you must wrestle with me." Weak from fasting, the boy nevertheless does as he is told and holds his own in the match. "Enough!" cries the spirit. "I will return tomorrow." On the next day the spirit returns. The boy is of course weaker than before but feels that he has gained an inner strength, and he fights well. Again the spirit cries, "Enough! I will return tomorrow." On the third day the boy is weaker still, but his inner strength has grown proportionately. He fights so well that the spirit concedes defeat and begins to instruct him. "Tomorrow, because it will be the seventh day of your fast, your father will come and offer you food. You must not eat until you have wrestled with me one more time. Then, if you defeat me, strip me and bury me in the ground after clearing a spot and loosening the earth. In the weeks that follow, you must remove the weeds from my grave and keep the earth soft. If you do exactly as I say, you will learn something of great value to your people." Wunzh's father does bring food and begs the boy to eat. The boy asks his father to leave him and promises to return home by sundown. The spirit appears at the usual hour, and the boy, now full of supernatural power, easily defeats his adversary, kills, strips, and buries him as instructed, and returns to his father's lodge to eat. During the spring Wunzh visits the grave of the spirit regularly and tends it with care. Soon the green plumes of the sky visitor's headgear begin to push through the ground. In late summer, the boy asks his father to accompany him to the spot of his fasting, and there he reveals the grave from which has sprung a fine plant with great yellow tassels. "This is my sky friend Mondawmin, the spirit of maize. If we do as the spirit has taught, we can have food from the ground. The Great Spirit has answered my prayer; my fast has been rewarded."

The story of Wunzh and Mondawmin is but one mask of a basic pattern to be found in the stories of any number of culture heroes and in the rituals of various cults. The story would not be foreign to the young San or Australian Aborigine initiate. The newly confirmed Christian, the Jew who has just become bar mitzvah, or the newly circumcised Muslim might feel inklings of familiarity with it. The process by which inner strength grows at the expense of physical strength during a period of self-denial and searching is as familiar to the reader of Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, or Jewish Scripture as it is to the American Indian on his vision quest.

Structure of the Quest

At its most basic level the quest is a phenomenon inherent in existence itself. In a universe in which all things must ultimately be defined in terms of their relation to the dominant pull toward energy dispersal or entropy, simply to exist is to be part of the great quest for survival. For the human being another dimension is added by virtue of the existence in humans of consciousness, specifically, consciousness of linear time. To see a beginning, a middle, and an end is to see a "road of life," and to see such a road is to see a potential quest. One cannot in fact be human without being to some degree questers, and this fact is the source of the power of the quest story to speak to humans wherever and whoever they are.

Not surprisingly then the quest myth is inexorably associated with the figure of the hero, the human metaphor for the all-encompassing chaos-to-cosmos creation process by which entropy is held at bay. The quest of course takes many forms. The hero's nature, motives, and goals derive from the particular legend of which he or she is a part and the society he or she represents. The hero might be a knight, a sage, or a prince and the goal a golden fleece, a princess, or a pot of gold. The earliest quest stories, like the earliest religious systems, must have reflected a society concerned primarily with fertility and physical survival in the face of a hostile environment. One senses the vestiges of this in the many tales in which a prince seeks and finds a princess and through union with her brings prosperity to a kingdom.

One of the best known of the European quests is that of the Holy Grail. It was Jessie Weston in her classic From Ritual to Romance: An Account of the Holy Grail from Ancient Ritual to Christian Symbol (1957) who pointed out that, although the grail legend was an outgrowth of medieval Christianity and chivalry, it had deeper roots in ancient fertility cults. The ostensible quest of the grail knights is for the cup used by Christ at the last supper. A less conscious but more profound objective is the renewal of a society represented not only by the infertile kingdom of the Fisher King but by the somewhat complaisant order of the Round Table. The quest of the knights for the Holy Grail is analogous toand a metaphor forthe Christian's quest for the kingdom of God in life and in the ritual of the holy elements. Life renewal is always the ultimate goal of the quest, and life renewal is both a spiritual and a physical process.

For example, one of the world's greatest quest stories, one that influenced nearly all narratives that followed it, is Homer's Odyssey. Whereas Odysseus's goal seems to be a purely secular onehe wishes to return to his wife and his childit is also true that his adventures depict a process by which a "lost soul" is reconciled with the cosmos, which is represented by the gods. The trials he undergoes, culminating in a visit to the land of the dead, are the means by which, with Athena's help, he is able to regain his proper place in the gods' order of things. Odysseus's quest is not altogether unlike that of another famous Greek, Oedipus, who can release Thebes from the bondage of infertility only by discovering himself, by finding an answer to the ultimate spiritual question: who am I?

The spiritual aspect of the quest is perhaps most obvious in those traditions that stress mystical values. The image of the Buddha under the bodhi tree or that of the Hindu ascetic in deep contemplation are as much true masks of the quest as is the story of the Holy Grail, the myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece, or the account of the magi seeking the Christ child. Literal movement from one place to the other is not necessary to the quest; the point is that the Buddha under the bodhi tree seeks enlightenment as actively in his own way as Gawain seeks the Holy Grail. Whether the hero gallops off to faraway lands or sits under a tree, the quest involves a journey to and often beyond the boundaries of human experience and knowledge. In this sense the story of the quest is always what the Hindu might call a search for the Self or what the psychiatrist Carl Jung (18751961) called the process of individuation. In short, the quest is a metaphor for the spiritual journey, one's own potential spiritual journey represented by that of the hero.

The ur-hero and the ur-myth that emerge from a comparison of the world's many quest stories then reveal what can be called a universal ritual of re-creation. The ritual requires certain steps. First, like the priest in any ritual, the hero must be properly vested, made clearly recognizable and ordained for the task, a taskthe realization of one's humanitythat is a matter of life and death for all. So it is that the quester's heroism has been preliminarily established by a miraculous conception or birth, a divine sign of some sort, or by an extraordinary childhood deed. Before his ordeal, Oedipus is recognized as a savior-hero by virtue of his defeat of the Sphinx that had plagued Thebes. His abandonment in the wilderness as a child marks him as well, placing him in a sacred order as it wereone that includes Moses, Siegfried, and the Indian Karna as well as the Phrygian Cybele (the Great Mother) and Attis. Herakles and the avatāra Ka are marked by their defeat of evil monsters while still in infancy. Jesus' nature is indicated by the circumstances of his conception and birth and by his extraordinary intelligence, as demonstrated in the Temple when he is twelve. He also receives a sign from God at his baptism. The Buddha, as a white elephant, is the agent of his own conception and, like the Toltec-Aztec Quetzalcoatl, further proves his nature by possessing adult qualities at birth. Sir Gawain and the other Arthurian questers are eligible for the Grail search by virtue of past "adventures" and because of their association with Arthur as knights in the sacred society of the Round Table.

The hero, having been proclaimed, is ritually called to the quest. The call might come through a natural object: Moses is called by Yahveh in the burning bush; the magi are called by the star; and the Grail knights by the Holy Grail itself, appearing in their midst at Pentecost. Angels or other supernatural heralds are common, and often the herald remains as a guide. The Buddha is called when, driven about by his charioteer, he is made to witness several forms of suffering humanity "fashioned" magically by the gods. Another important charioteer-herald or guide is found in the Bhagavadgītā, part of one of the great Indian epics, the Mahābhārata. In this work the god Ka in the guise of a charioteer urges Prince Arjuna on to battle and to higher values.

However the call is made, it signals the necessity of an awakening to destiny in the face of an individual or societal malaise. A renewal is called for, and the hero either responds to the call immediately or at first refuses it. A natural enough reaction of any individual faced with a serious psychological, spiritual, or physical task is to withdraw from the field. Prince Arjuna at first refuses the call to battle; Ka must convince him to fight. Even the most "religious" of heroes express their common humanity by their reluctance. "No, Lord, send whom thou wilt," is Moses' answer to God's call. And Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane on the eve of his Crucifixion, prays to God, saying, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by." A particularly dramatic example of this category is the story of Jonah, whose refusal results in an unwanted voyage in the belly of a whale. The Buddha's father might be said to have attempted to refuse the call for his son when he so desperately tried to isolate him from the real world. Occasionally the call itself is a test and the refusal one of omission rather than commission. For instance, Parzival fails to ask certain ritual questions while being entertained at the castle of the Fisher King and misses his chance to free the king and his land of the ancient curse.

In ultimately accepting the call, however, the hero undertakes a series of trials; these adventures reflect the agonies involved in confronting the inner realities that one glimpses in dreams or periods of disorientation. In the context of the spiritual journey, the monsters, demons, and impossible tasks that confront the hero are all those factors that would imprison one in the barren world of egocentricity. They would prevent one from attaining renewalthe spiritual vitality represented by the attainment of the Golden Fleece, the elixirs of life, the Holy Grail, and the rescued princesses toward which the heroic adventures lead.

So it is that in the Hindu epic the Rāmāyaa, the demon king Rāvaa kidnaps Rāma's wife Sītā, setting up a quest that is a struggle between the forces of love and union and those of violence and disintegration. And the figures that stand between Odysseus and his reunion with the faithful Penelope are such nightmarish beings as the one-eyed Cyclops; the witch Circe, who turns men into beasts; and the bewitching Sirens. The Babylonian-Sumerian epic hero Gilgamesh must overcome Huwawa, the monster of death, and Inanna-Ishtar in her form as seductress. Jesus is tempted in the wilderness by the devil, who offers tangible worldly achievements as a substitute for the intangible ones inherent in the quest for the kingdom of heaven. The Buddha is tempted similarly by Māra the fiend, who attempts to dislodge the Great One from his position under the tree by reminding him of the more ordinary values of human life. Māra assumes the form of a messenger who informs Siddhārtha that his father's kingdom has been usurped and his wife taken and that he must return home. When this approach fails, he resorts to violence, to theological argument, and finally to sexual temptation, all to prevent the renewal of life that is the hero's goal.

The penultimate test of the hero is the descent into the underworld and confrontation with death itself. Only by, in some sense, dying to the world can the hero be resurrected as "eternal man" renewed. Only by going down can the sun hope to arise. Odysseus, Theseus, Herakles, Jesus, the Egyptian Osiris, Dionysos, and the goddess-heroine Hainuwele in Ceram all journey to the land of the dead. And the more mystical questers such as John of the Cross (the Spanish poet-monk of the sixteenth century) and Julian of Norwich (an English mystic of the fourteenth century) or "psychological" ones such as Carl Jung take equivalent journeys, "night journeys" or "dark nights of the soul," which are characterized by agonies and fears that necessarily mark a journey into the spiritual or psychic underworld. In such journeys as these, one senses the real purpose of the descent in general as one having to do with the retrieval of a lost self. Odysseus and Aeneas seek their destinies among the dead. Jesus, the "second Adam," descends to retrieve the "lost" Adam. The sun king Gilgamesh descends to find eternal life but also hopes to retrieve his friend and double Enkidu. In one of the oldest quest storiesif not the oldestknown, the Sumerian goddess Inanna takes the hero's role by descending into the underworld to find her lost lover Dumuzi; the lost lover of course is the other half without which significant wholenesswhat the Chinese would call the oneness of yin and yangis not possible.

Personal Enactments

It should be pointed out that what heroes do in the old quest stories, flesh and blood human beings act out or in some sense imitate through the medium of religious ritual and related disciplines. The Muslim who journeys to Mecca is given the special title of ājj for having followed in the steps of the Prophet. The shaman, whether American Indian or Siberian, journeys ritually and psychically to the "other world" to confront the spirits who would deprive an individual or tribe of health or life. And tribal initiation at puberty often involves a quest, as the story of Wunzh and Mondawmin indicates. Even the ordinary worshiper becomes a real quester in the physical realm. A Hindu, Buddhist, or Christian who enters a place of worship undertakes a re-creative journey in microcosm from the chaos of the world to the cosmos of ultimate reality or primal cause. Reminders of the hero journey are frequently in evidence in these temples of worship. Gargoyle monsters guard the doorwaysthe thresholdsas if to say, "Enter here at risk." Indeed the true religious quest, like the shaman's descent, can be a dangerous affair.

The symbolism of the quest sometimes literally determines the place of worship. Such is the case with the traditional church building. Having passed by the monsters over the doorway, the Christian voyager in the great medieval cathedral confronts the font that represents baptism, the spiritual rebirth that is now reaffirmed by the making of the sign of the cross with holy water. The initiate enters the church proper to participate in the Mass, itself a complex representation of the journey of Christ through death, descent, and resurrectiona journey that the worshiper shares and literally acts out by moving eventually to the altar at the far end of the church in order to experience the Eucharistic sacrifice before reentering the world as a renewed being. A secular modern version of this spiritual journey takes place on the psychiatrist's couch, where renewal involves a quest of self-discovery by means of a process of recallingliterally remembering.

The most obvious expression of the quest is in literature. As has been suggested, anything that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, in the manner that plot does, is likely to be in some sense a quest. Gilgamesh seeks eternal life, Rāma goes in search of the abducted Sītā, Odysseus seeks reunion with Penelope, Aeneas looks for a new Troy, Dante Alighieri's and John Bunyan's pilgrims journey toward the kingdom of God, Tom Jones hopes to become worthy of his Sophia, and Anton Chekhov's three sisters long for Moscow.

Geoffrey Chaucer's great work The Canterbury Tales (fourteenth century) is among the finest examples of quest literature in the West. In their pilgrimage to Canterbury the pilgrims seek something spiritual that will carry them beyond their mundane and often corrupt lives. In the East the most famous of pilgrimage tales is probably the sixteenth-century Xiyouji (The journey to the west), the ancient Chinese story of the journey of a monkey, a pig, a white dragon horse, and a monk who travel from China to India in search of Buddhist sūtras. This fantasy tale has a strong historical basis in the actual Silk Road journeys to India of monks, such as the seventh-century bce monk Xuanzang (Hsüan-Tsang), who brought back sacred manuscripts to China.

A type of literature in which the quest motif is particularly unveiled and therefore particularly open to observation is the fairy tale. A good example is one that appears in many parts of the world and takes its most familiar form as The Water of Life in the Grimm brothers' collection. As the title indicates, it is a story in which the spiritual goal of life renewal is only barely masked. "Once upon a time, there lived a king who was desperately ill"; the beginning of this taleand of most fairy talesinvolves the ritual placing of a situation in time. It is one-half of a framework that will be completed in the "happily ever after" ending, releasing the hero of the tale from his or her temporal trials by placing him or her in a state of wholeness that is eternal. In the first image of The Water of Life, the king, like nearly all kings, represents the kingdom of humans on earth brought into conflict by the universal nemesis, mortality. That which was once wholein harmony with the absoluteis now unwhole. The king's mythical and literary relatives are such figures as the Fisher King of the Grail romance and Shakespeare's Lear. The sick old king constellates the theme of salvation or renewal, which is the religious essence of the quest.

The king has three sons, who weep in the palace garden at their father's plight. As potential saviors, the children must remind us of the knights of the Round Table. The symbolic nature of numbers in fairy tales, as in religious ritual and theology, is such that the presence here of three children is significant. The number four represents the quaternity, which symbolizes balance and wholeness, and four brothers would mean a common effort. Three, on the other hand, tends to suggest the discord of two against one.

In the garden an old man appears to the sons to tell them that their father might be cured by the water of life: "One drink of it and he will be well, but the water is difficult to find." As shown above, the guide is a familiar figure in quest tales. His function is to point to the solution of the insoluble problem, to establish the means of salvation by interjecting the "other" into the limited world of time and space. His way invariably involves a difficult quest.

The oldest son goes to his father to request permission to attempt the search for the water of life. Refused at first, he perseveres so that the king finally agrees, the prince thinking all the while, "If I find the water, my father will give me his kingdom." Soon after setting off, the prince meets a dwarf, who inquires as to his destination. When he answers back in an insulting manner, the dwarf imprisons him on horseback between two mountains that magically converge upon him. When the first son fails to return, the second son makes the same request of his father, is answered in the same way, and like his brother, dreams of inheriting the kingdom. Upon meeting the same dwarf, he is asked where he is going, and he gives the same insulting answer. Needless to say his punishment is the same as his brother's. The identical formula used in connection with the first two sons suggests a ritual purpose: the two older sons act out the negative aspect of a pattern in which the son who is an honest and unsullied quester for Self contrasts with the sons who embody a corrupt unreceptiveness to the call.

When his brothers fail to return, the youngest son begs for and obtains his father's reluctant permission to set out on the same quest. But unlike his brothers, he thinks only of the welfare of his father. Where the others are motivated by hope for material gainby egotismand are appropriately punished by their imprisonment in a narrow ravine, the young son is motivated by love, which is the proper attitude on the path to salvation. His meeting with the dwarf is therefore different from that of his brothers.

"Where are you going?" asks the dwarf, following the ritual pattern. "I am seeking the water of life to cure my ailing father" is the humble reply. The dwarf, pleased, instructs the boy on how to achieve his goal: "The water runs from a fountain in an enchanted castle. Take this iron wand, and knock three times to open the castle door. And take these two loaves of bread to quiet the lions who guard the door. Only be sure that you obtain the water and leave the castle before the clock strikes twelve, or you will be imprisoned there for life."

The dwarf, like the old man in the garden, is a personification of the spiritual guide. Here he takes the form of the shaman-teacher, who trains the good prince in magic and provides the paraphernalia necessary to release the healing forcesthe water of life. The instructions he gives make no rational sense but, as in the case of all rituals, must be performed on faith, just as the ugly little dwarf himself must be accepted on faith. Only the young son has such faith; only he passes the test. The old dwarf is to him what the fairy godmother is to Cinderella or Athena to Odysseus. As an agent of the other world, the dwarf is not subject to mere physical law; for this reason, he possesses the magic that can lead to wholeness.

Arriving at the castle, the young prince follows the ritual instructions. The iron doors are overcome by the iron rod; the lions are quieted with the bread. Inside the castle, the prince finds a sword and a loaf of bread and several enchanted princes. A beautiful princess greets him as her liberator and promises to give herself to him in marriage if he will return in a year. The princess now leads the prince to the water of life and reminds him to be sure to leave the castle before the clock strikes twelve.

Many of the elements of the hero's descent into the underworld and of the psychological and spiritual process it represents are operative in these events. The prince embodies, as do all heroes of the quest, the potential journey into the unknown, which is the locked and enchanted castle. The hero always descends to redeem those imprisoned by the darkness. Jesus brings back Adam and Eve; Orpheus almost liberates Eurydice. In this case the retrieved one is the princess, who, like the enchanted Sleeping Beauty, is the deeper, lost half of the unredeemed Self longing to be released, an embodiment of the divine wisdom, or Sophia, apart from whom the Logos cannot be made flesh. The lions, overcome by the magic of supernatural power, are the bestial deterrents to the journey within.

In the princess's promise of marriage there is no question of realistic love. The relationship is ritualistic; the hero and heroine act in a way that is archetypal and symbolic rather than sentimental. The marriage of the future is established as the prince's ultimate goal after the curing of his father. The sword and the bread, symbols of power and nourishment and potential good deeds, are to be magical aids to that goal. It is the princess who leads the prince to the magical water, because, as Divine Wisdom, she is the proper guardian of the symbol of eternal life to be gained from the eventual emergence of the Self. Her repetition of the dwarf's interdiction concerning the hour of the prince's departure from the castle is an indication that she and the dwarf are of one and the same power, the universal creative impulse by which the continuing evolution symbolized by the quest itself is made feasible. In terms of the Christian culture in which the Grimms discovered this tale, the princess takes on meaning in the context of the Virgin cult. The Virgin is the earthly form of the mother of God, but as the churchthe castle freed from enchantmentshe is also God's bride. In this role as both mother-guide and wife, she reaches back to the most ancient traditions of the Great Goddess herself.

When the princess leaves him, the prince comes upon a fine bed that he finds irresistible, and he lies down to sleep. In so doing he conveys ritually his brotherhood with all the offspring of the primordial fallen parents. Like Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, he demonstrates his human nature. Only the sound of the clock striking midnight awakens him. He quickly draws water from the fountain and escapes through the closing doors, losing only a piece of his heel, which signifies his having almost ignored the interdictions of the dwarf and the princess. In this incident one is reminded not only of Cinderella and her glass slipper but of the fact that the journey is fraught with many temptations and dangers, any of which could prevent success. Perhaps the loss of a part of the body also ties the prince to the many dismembered man-gods of the Middle Eastern fertility cults. It seems evident, as the prince's mishap is never mentioned again in the story, that this is a ritual event with symbolic rather than narrative significance.

The prince is now ready for the trials that, if accomplished, will lead him back to a final reunion with the princess. Journeying homeward, he again meets the dwarf, who informs him of the magical powers contained in the sword and the loaf of bread found in the castle. The sword can be used to defeat whole armies; the bread can feed the hungry indefinitely. The religious significance of the sword as God's righteous justice and of the bread as the bread of life is clear. Much of this symbolism is traceable to the Christian tradition, in which much is made of the Christ's coming with both bread and the sword. But the ultimate source of the symbolism very likely lies in much older traditions.

The young prince now emerges more clearly as a savior figure when he begs the dwarf to release his sinful brothers. The dwarf, in his ancient wisdom, warns the boy of the danger in this course but to no avail. The attempt to redeem them must be made; the road to reunion with the Self must involve direct dealings with the dark forces represented by the brothers. And when the brothers are released, the princefoolishly from a practical point of viewtells them of his quest and of his prospects for the future. The three brothers travel on together, and three kingdoms are saved by the sword and the bread. It is not surprising that the older sons betray their brother at the earliest possible opportunity. One night as he sleeps, they steal the magic fluid and substitute saltwater for it. The betrayal by siblings is an ancient and recurring motif found, for example, in the biblical story of Cain and Abel, the Egyptian story of Seth and Osiris, and any number of familiar fairy tales. Goodness in its mercy is by nature vulnerable to evil, which is itself by nature aggressive. It is as if the hero must, as a part of his trials, allow himself to be placed in the position of the ritual sacrificial victim.

The king is given the false water by the young prince, and his health worsens. The older sons accuse their brother of attempting to murder the king and produce the real water, claiming that it is they who have found it. The father is immediately cured. The young son, remaining silentagain as if this were necessary for the inevitable ritual processis exiled, and an old hunter is given instructions to slay him in the forest. The hunter, like the one in the story of Snow White, cannot bear to carry out his orders: the simple man can recognize innocence where the king cannot. He releases the prince to wander in the woods. Mythically this period points to the hero's withdrawal into the wilderness, a symbolic death during which he must undergo the ultimate separation that will render him transcendent. It is the period of preparation for the final step in the discovery of Selfan initiation rite that will transfer him from a state of mortality to one of immortality, from immaturity to wisdom.

During this period several things happen. Three cartloads of treasure arrive at the king's palace from the three kings saved by the sword and bread of the good prince. The king begins to suspect that his son might be innocent: "How I wish he were not dead," he laments. Then comes the ritual cry from the huntsman: "He lives! He lives!" Meanwhile the princess of the castle has prepared one final test. A path of gold is laid before her door, and her servants are told to admit only the knight who rides to the castle upon this path. The two evil brothers, remembering what their brother has told them, approach the castle but will not allow their horses to ride over the gold path, for they value the precious metal more than the object of the quest. Hence they are turned away: evil is unable to attain to divine wisdom. Only those whose priorities extend beyond material gain can enter into the absolute. The young prince, his mind only on the princess, rides on the path without even noticing it and is greeted again by the sacred maiden. The ritual separation is ended; the goddess receives the reborn son.

Like the ascent to paradise in myth, the ritual marriage that ends this and many quest tales expresses the achieved goal of wholeness. The masculine principle is joined to the feminine, and in that union of yin and yang the Self is discovered, at which time the present becomes eternity; life can be lived "happily ever after." The joy one feels at the end of the fairy tale and other quest stories is more than a sentimental one. It results from one having gained a vision of the achieved goal of individual growth and human evolution. One glimpses oneself literally awakening into the permanent consciousness that is self-knowledge. In this sense, the quest tale is always a creation story in which the hero emerges from chaos as re-created God in man.

See Also

Heroes; Otherworld; Pilgrimage, overview article.

Bibliography

The most lively analysis of the hero's quest is still Joseph Campbell's classic study The Hero with a Thousand Faces (New York, 1949; reprint, Princeton, N.J., 1968). C. M. Bowra's "The Hero," in The Hero in Literature, edited by Victor Brombert (New York, 1969), is an important essay on the subject. A collection of mythic stories illustrating and representing the heroic mono-myth is in David Adams Leeming's Mythology: The Voyage of the Hero, 3d ed. (New York, 1998).

The best treatments of the quest motif in literature, particularly in romance, and of the motif's overall importance for literary criticism are Northrop Frye's The Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, N.J., 1957) and Frye's "The Archetypes of Literature" and "Quest and Cycle in Finnegans Wake," in Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology (New York, 1963). One of the best and most accessible versions of the Arthurian story is King Arthur and His Knights: Selected Tales by Sir Thomas Malory, edited by Eugene Vinaver (Oxford, U.K., 1975). On the Grail myth, see Henry Kahane and Renée Kahane's The Krater and the Grail: Hermetic Sources of Parzival (Urbana, Ill., 1965; reprint, 1984). The Grail myth is one important source for what is perhaps the most famous twentieth-century quest poem, T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land (1922). Eliot's Four Quartets (New York, 1943) is also a poetic quest, one that owes much to both Occidental and Oriental quest mythology.

For a psychological approach to the quest as a search for self in the modern world, see C. G. Jung's Modern Man in Search of a Soul (New York and London, 1933). For the best study of the shamanic quest, see Mircea Eliade's Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (New York, 1964). Versions of the Buddhist and Hindu quest stories are in Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and Sister Nive-dita (Margaret E. Noble), Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists (London, 1913; reprint, New York, 1967), and in Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Buddha and the Gospel of Buddhism (New York and London, 1916). Any work by Coomaraswamy on the religions of the East is likely to contain useful information on the quest as a mystical spiritual journey. Thomas Merton's writings offer a moving record of a Christian's mystical quest. See, for example, A Thomas Merton Reader, rev. ed., edited by Thomas P. McDonnell (Garden City, N.Y., 1974).

The pilgrimage of Xuanzang is treated in Sally Hovey Wriggens's Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road (Boulder, Colo., 1996). Several works devoted to secular versions of the quest myth are Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild (New York, 1996); Rowland A. Sherrill's Road-Book America: Contemporary Culture and the New Picaresque (Champaign, Ill., 2000); and David Adams Leeming's Myth: A Biography of Belief (Oxford, U.K., and New York, 2002).

David Adams Leeming (1987 and 2005)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Quests." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Aug. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Quests." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/quests

"Quests." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved August 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/quests

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.