Our last tropes discussion talked about Chosen Ones–ironically, one of the biggest character tropes in the fantasy genre. Today, I decided to focus on one of the best-known plot tropes of the genre: the quest.
A quest is a trip that one or more characters–quite often, a group–embarks on in order to accomplish some important task. Often, it is a group, where one of the characters serves as the call to action, and all of them bring forth some skill that will be needed either to complete the task or to get from point A to point B. Failure to complete the task frequently means a destruction of the world as we/the characters know it.
This is an old trope. It is not so heavily present in fantasy nowadays, but if you ask a random person on the street what a fantasy narrative might look like to them, chances are, they might say something like, “Oh… old knights going on quests to save damsels in distress.” And while I have yet to read a modern day fantasy story footing that same tagline, there are many actual medieval stories that made the trope popular, paving the road for the likes of Lord of the Rings, Eragon, or even something more light and modern like Stardust.
While you won’t find many readers complaining about the quest in the same way they do about the chosen one, the truth of the matter is, it has faded from popularity from the genre. Authors might incorporate it as a small part of their larger narrative, or they might mimic the trope as they send their characters travelling long distances.
Warning: spoilers abound for all books mentioned below.
Lord of the Rings.
Perhaps one of the best-known “modern” quest narratives, Gandalf serves as Frodo’s call to action, where he and his hobbit friends take a long journey first to Rivendell. They are pursued by minions of the great threat. At the end of the first book, they are assigned their task: to take the Ring to Mordor and destroy it so Sauron cannot return to power. Frodo is joined by his brave hobbit friends, but the group is also comprised of several other, more experienced travelers that will help them along the way. Although the group is splintered on more than one occasion, they are all still at least partially responsible for their victory against Sauron.
Eye of the World.
Mirroring its predecessor, LotR, the book begins with a magical person, Moiraine, and her Warder calling the Emond’s Fielders to action. A dangerous force chases them, and they are even separated for part of the book. While their task–to go to the Eye of the World and stop the Dark One from breaking free–isn’t assigned until the latter half of the book, once they have been reunited, to fail the task would be catastrophic.
A far more light-hearted version of the trope, Stardust begins when Tristan offers his crush a fallen star. When she accepts, he embarks on his quest to find the fallen star, surprised when it turns out to be a person. Together, the pair of them dodge the many dangers of others in pursuit of the fallen star. Their antics inadvertently cause the downfall of each of those villainous characters, during which time they fall in love, and in the end, Tristan returns to his crush, telling her he found the star but that he doesn’t want to marry her anymore anyway.
Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief.
A run-in with a mythological beast sends Percy to Camp Half-blood, where he is given his task: Zeus’s lightning bolt has been stolen, and Zeus is blaming Percy’s father, Poseidon. Percy leaves Camp Half-blood to hazard the dangers of the mythically-infused real world, traveling across the U.S. in his quest to find Zeus’s lightning. He is accompanied by Annabeth, a fellow half-blood, and Grover, a satyr. During their adventures, tensions between Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon grow, risking a great war between them should the missing artifacts not be found. The crisis is averted when Percy manages to learn the identity of the thieves and return the items to the gods they belong to.
Katsa’s quest comes in the form of Prince Po, who wants to know who kidnapped his grandfather and why. That very question takes them on a quest towards Monsea. On the way, they begin to unearth some unsettling possibilities regarding the current king of Monsea, and once it becomes clear what King Leck is responsible for, what he is, they take it upon themselves to rescue his surviving daughter and bring about Leck’s downfall. While the whole world is not at stake, it’s clear that Leck is a monster, and a dangerous one at that.
Quests, Journeys, and Adventures: When a Trope is More Than Just One Trope
Despite their importance to the foundations of fantasy, stemming from patterns found in Medieval European literature, quests only play a small role in the genre. With an expansive setting that one usually finds in fantasy books and series, it’s no surprise that the characters make some sort of trip during the story. Sometimes, a trip is just a trip, with the characters simply needing to get from one point to the other.
Other times, however, characters find themselves on a journey or an adventure. Adventures are usually described as a trip with no destination, although this tends not to be the case. Adventures often do still have an end goal, but their plot points tend to feel episodic, with big things happening at various intervals. The Hobbit would be a prime example, with Bilbo’s confrontations of the trolls, spiders, and goblins on his way to the Misty Mountains. Yet, clearly, The Hobbit is also a quest, because ultimately his group are looking to oust Smaug from the dwarves’ homes. A more modern adventure might be Rachel Hartman’s Tess of the Road, as Tess is not walking anywhere in particular, beside away from her past.
However, Tess of the Road is better suited for the third type: the journey. This is a little different from the other two in that, while the others are more plot-driven, the journey’s primary draw is the growth it promises the character. Most journeys wind up falling in the “Hero’s Journey” umbrella, and for good reason. The Hero’s Journey allows for a character-driven story, and whether the protagonist has a job to do or they are just meandering through the land, they find themselves confronted with problems that ultimately help them grow.
Travel Times and Predictability: Cons of the Quest
Truthfully, the quest is only problematic in that it can be very easy for readers to predict. In all of the above examples, the protagonist and their companions are ultimately successful in their task. Frodo, with the help of Sam and Gollum, manages to destroy the Ring. Tristan finds the star and dispatches all threats that would have prevented them from getting home. Katsa kills king Leck, overpowering his charm and magic just long enough to do so.
But not all of them are successful in the way that might have been originally expected, and therein lies what separates these narratives apart from the others. Frodo ultimately can’t shake off the evil of the Ring, but then again, neither did Gollum, and in the end, that unexpectedly leads to Sauron’s downfall. Moiraine’s initial quest–to get the Emond’s Fielders to Tar Valon–must be set aside in favor of a new quest: to reach the Eye of the World, where Rand channels on purpose for the first time and many old, useful artifacts like the Horn of Valere resurface.
When a quest trope is just about the quest, one final problem is that of time. Many of the above books utilize the quest trope as their entire plot, requiring its characters to travel long distances for the majority of the narrative, and only reaching their destination and fulfilling their task at the climactic end. The travels are rife with danger to fill the page space between the beginning of the quest and the fulfillment of the task itself, but depending on the nature of the danger, or the tone of the book, it may read as boring and repetitive, only there to fill out the plot.
The Fellowship of the Ring reads differently from the Hobbit for this exact reason. I, for example, have read the entire series of LotR but have never been able to bring myself to do a reread, whereas the Hobbit never quite posed the same problem. That is because, although they are both quest narratives, Fellowship is a bit darker and more serious. Its dangers are also constant: the Nazgul chase Frodo and his companions all the way to Rivendell, and the conflicts wind up feeling repetitive and stale. For the Hobbit, there are several different dangers that Bilbo and his companions must face, aided by the somewhat light and humorous tone of the “children’s” book.
The quest serves an important function in fantasy’s history, and even though it has been given a smaller role in the genre, it is nevertheless still being used.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the quest trope, provided the author is aware of its two fundamental failings. The issue of timing can be solved in one of two ways: either combine the quest with adventure so that the plot is not slowed down by endless travel, or make the quest itself only part of the narrative.
Predictability is always a beast for authors to contend with, but luckily, in this instance, the solution does not need to be convoluted. When it comes to the task, it may seem that there are only two options: success or failure. In reality, even setting aside the possibility of partial-success, the best way to combat predictability is to understand where your readers are likely to expect the narrative to go, and brainstorm other potential endings that still have the capacity for plausibility and satisfaction. There is rarely one route to success, even when it comes to the completion of a Quest task, and a protagonist might find that they have been victorious… just not in the way they had planned or expected.