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Characteristics and Requirements of the Medieval Quest
Quests are high adventure, often magical expeditions full of strange beasts. Quests usually star a heroic figure who overcomes great odds to achieve glory and immortality. A quest is an allegory of and an extended metaphor for human life, because the story of the quester illustrates and symbolizes all human struggles. As we read quests, we live vicariously through the main characters’ adventures as they travel to far-off lands, fight monsters and madmen, fail often and even become wounded, and emerge against all odds either undaunted in victory or magnificent in defeat. Quest literature is generally epic in scope and often lasts the lifetime of the quester.
Characteristics of the quester:
- generally young and immature
- confident of power
- may have supernatural gifts
- unaware of limitations
- most likely “innocent” and unsullied by the world
- faces an insurmountable problem
- usually has a “sidekick” for moral support
- grudgingly admits defeat
- eventually confesses weaknesses
- calls for help at the last moment—if at all
- learns that great courage and force alone do not lead to greatness
Quester: Luke Skywalker
Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars saga has many of the characteristics of a quester. He is young and cocky, innocent of the true dangers around him and in the universe. His mentor, Obi Wan, helps him to improve his gifts (the use of the Force and the light saber), but he is still unable to be victorious—at least in the first two episodes. With the help of his trusty sidekick R2D2, Luke learns to rely on C3PO, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Yoda, and the Ewoks to defeat the evil Empire and become a universal hero.
Quester: Don Quixote
The epic novel Don Quixote, on the other hand, is an example of an “anti-quest” because its quester does not fit the profile. Don Quixote is old and foolish, barely and badly equipped for battle, and is generally oblivious to reason and the real world. Despite the sage advice of his sidekick Sancho Panza, Quixote creates his own insurmountable problems (tilting at windmills, fighting sheep) and consistently fails in his quest for glory, fame, and the love of Dulcinea. All he ever wins is endless humiliation. In the end, after his final defeat by the Knight of the White Moon, Don Quixote "retires" and regains most of his sanity.
Requirements of the quest:
- the quest must be a pursuit, though a series of adventures or trials, of something (e. g., the Holy Grail) or someone (e. g, a damsel in distress, saving a town) of special importance
- the object of the pursuit must have spiritual or personal significance for the quester
- the quester has to voyage far, often into unknown lands
- the quester has to face monsters and evil villains
- the quester must attempt to vanquish foes with special powers (purity of heart and/or supernatural gifts)
- through the quest, the quester matures and becomes worthy
In Beowulf, Beowulf is a heroic yet selfish braggart who sails to a distant land to save a kingdom first from the monster Grendel and later from Grendel’s mother. His victories give him glory, riches, a kingship, and eternal fame. In his final quest, he finally becomes worthy by sacrificing his own life to save his kingdom from a fire-breathing dragon with the help of his sidekick, Wiglaf.
In The Song of Roland, Roland is a soldier in Charlemagne’s army. With his enchanted sword Durendal and his sidekick Oliver, he feels invincible. Outnumbered 100-1 by his enemies, however, Roland refuses to blow his horn so Charlemagne will come to his rescue. Roland loses the battle, dies a “glorious” death, and becomes a martyr.
“The Search for the Holy Grail” is one of a group of quests undertaken by Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. Given the task to find the Grail, the cup Christ used at the Last Supper, Percival travels far and wide. After meeting the Fisher King of the Grail castle, Percival finally sees the Grail, but he is too polite to ask about it—or for it. His quest fails because he becomes tongue-tied and fails to act. Later, Percival helps Galahad find the Grail castle, and they retrieve the holy relic.
Writing a quest
If you want to write a quest, you could follow the general outline below. You may set your quest in the present, but do your best to keep your quester “pure of heart” in these perilous times. And since most if not all literary questers have been male, why not create a female quester? I am certain the shelves of bookstores and libraries would welcome such stories.
- Introduction of quester: name, background, and special powers (if any)
- Introduce quest: to save/rescue/find/destroy … what?
- Complications for the quester: travels to/searches for/survives/fights/fails to
- Climax: finds/defeats/rescues/saves
- Conclusion: dies (optional) or lives to quest again
In many ways, the Eragon series by Christopher Paolini follows these guidelines, though I’d like to think the dragon is much more than the average sidekick is. Perhaps you will write the next great epic quest—dragon and enchanted sword optional.