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The Epic Quest [Writing]—1/2/2006 2:15:00 AM

by Bob Kruger

I hadn't realized before becoming a father, and subsequently reading a lot of bedtime books to my daughter, how formulaic classic children's books are. In the most popular books, the hero is almost always, literally or figuratively, an orphan, for instance. The quest plot in children's books like The Hobbit got me thinking about the quest story as an externalization of the character's personal issues. I thought I'd write up the pattern here, since it seems a good summation of the points I made in earlier postings.

The epic begins when a character is derailed from his or her situation at the beginning of the story by an inciting event – the character gets a distress call; the character's family is killed, setting him or her on a course of vengeance; etc. The inciting event has larger implications for the character's attempt to define him or herself, one that is revealed through the course of the story.

At the end of the story awaits a point of major decision that shows what the character is about. Until the character reaches this point, what the character thinks he or she wants and needs both to gain fulfillment and to attain the ultimate goal is not what he or she thinks it is. So the epic is characterized by obstacles that lead the character on side-quests to gain tools, knowledge, or wisdom necessary to continuing the main quest.

In practical terms, the character thinks that he or she must proceed in a straight line toward the goal and perceives it as a setback when he or she must take a detour, but unbeknownst to the character the detour is the only true route. Consider The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. To begin with, Bilbo thinks he wants to stay at home and avoid adventure, but near the end of the story, he must make up his mind to descend alone into the dragon's lair. Between those two points, he follows a winding path that turns out to be the straightest path he can take, toward both the dragon and a new definition of himself. A detour off the path to scout a campfire leads him to trolls who nearly kill him and his companions but also wins them magic swords; being kidnapped by goblins brings him to a magic ring that will likewise be indispensable; getting ambushed by spiders and imprisoned by elves leads him to a prison break by way of a river, which, in addition to being his only avenue of escape from the elves, turns out to have been the only path toward the original goal at all, the various other roads having been blocked by massing goblins and spreading swamps.

Any story that works, works because it seems to have something to teach us that might have survival value, even the most advertently escapist. Though the path of the quest looks straight, it's circumscribed by a maze of invisible walls. That maze reflects the collective unconscious; evolution has gifted and cursed us with minds that often become stuck in neurosis or depression on the way to some goal and push us toward a higher understanding, a broader perspective, than the one we'd consciously pursued. The quest story reflects and illuminates this. Though perhaps Tolkien had something more spiritual in mind than the collective unconscious, Gandalf hints at the working of an unseen power of essentially the same function in the The Hobbit's penultimate lines: "Surely you don't disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all."