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The Hero’s Quest

I’m curious. 
You know how it is, when you learn a new word, or hear of someone who is suffering from some condition, soon after you see or hear that word everywhere or you hear about several other people who have the same problem?

For me, I have the mythological hero’s quest on the brain. I find the journey being enacted in books all the time. And it has me wondering: Do the writers know they’re reinterpreting the mythic hero’s quest or does it just happen quite naturally? Is there some sort of Jungian collective unconsciousness at work here? Or am I imagining things?

Let me describe the hero’s quest (in as few words as possible). As mapped out by mythologist Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, the hero’s quest has three main stages: the departure, the initiation, and the return. Each stage is further broken down into additional steps (much condensed here):
Stage 1: The Departure
1. The call to adventure: Something is happening and the hero must act.
2. Refusal of the call: The hero may be afraid and decide not to go on the quest. But something more happens to propel him or her regardless.
3. Supernatural aid: The hero meets others along the way that are there to help.
4. The crossing of the first threshold: The hero travels into a new world.
5. The belly of the whale: The hero is reborn.
Stage 2: Initiation.
1. The road of trials: The hero undergoes various tests.
2. The meeting with the goddess: The hero, if male, meets with a mother-like figure to help him along.
3. Female heroes may meet with a father-like figure. 
4. Woman as the temptress: Another obstacle is encountered—this time it is callings of the flesh.
5. Atonement with the father: By understanding his father (or mother, if the hero is female), the hero gains a greater understanding of himself.
6. Apotheosis: A transformation of some sort happens.
7. The ultimate boon: A gift, perhaps, or some other sign that the hero is ready to complete the quest.
Stage 3: Return
1. Refusal of the return: The hero may not want to go back to her old world.
2. The magic flight: The hero may have more obstacles to cross before she can return home.
3. Rescue from without: This rescue comes from someone from her home, helping to convince the hero to return.
4. Crossing the return threshold: The hero returns home.
5. Master of the two worlds: The hero knows much more about life and herself than she did before.
6. Freedom to live: The hero’s quest benefits everyone.

For a modern-day example of how one storyteller used the quest format, look at Star Wars. George Lucas has said that he studied Campbell’s work and based the original Star Wars trilogy on the hero’s quest. You can trace Luke’s journey through each of Campbell’s stages very easily. The quest novel is often easiest to find in science fiction and fantasy stories. One of my favorite fantasy novels with the quest element is Flora Segunda by Ysabeau Wilce (heck, it’s one of my favorite novels period).

Flora Fyrdraaca has a special gift: She is a girl of spirit, meaning she can do magic. Unfortunately, magic is forbidden in her house because her mother, while a member of the ruling houses that can do magic, is also Commanding General of the Army and the Army believes magic is useless. Also forbidden to practice magic in her house—the 11,000-room Crackpot Hall—is a magical butler. Flora is about to turn 14 and must prepare for her grand debut—including writing all the invitations and making her own dress. But something else is happening to Flora: She is fading away and she must discover how to save herself before she disappears entirely (what an interesting analogy for a teenager struggling to find herself).

Flora traverses all nearly all the steps of the hero’s quest, if not always in the order Campbell laid out. To find out how to stop fading she gets help from Paimon, another supernatural butler, who sends her to ask another creature of spirit for aid. Paimon garbs her in beautiful clothes and shows her how to present herself to the other being (a god-like figure in Flora’s world). It’s not an easy task for Flora and her friend Udo to get to these places. Over the course of the novel, they rescue a pirate from certain death, ride horses over stormy surf and nearly drown, believe at one point that they are going to be eaten alive by Paimon, and then find the method that will restore Flora—not to mention get everything done for her debut party. By the end of the novel, Flora has returned home and talked some sense into her drunken father, who sobers up for her debut. In the next novel in the trilogy, Flora’s Dare, Flora undertakes another quest to save her city and finds out more about her magical heritage. (The third novel has not yet been published.)

The Silver Bowl (which I just finished) by Diane Stanley also has a somewhat magical heroine. Although in this case, if anyone knows that Molly has visions, she will be treated as an outcast or even a witch. A wretchedly poor girl, Molly goes to work for the local castle after her father kicks her out of his house, and it is while scrubbing the king’s silver bowl that she receives visions about how the royal family has been placed under a curse.  One fateful night, nearly the entire family is killed, but Molly, warned by the bowl, is able to rescue one of the princes. It falls upon Molly to destroy the silver bowl and the curses placed upon it. While in the magical world of the bowl, she encounters a father figure, whom she calls Uncle, and together they battle the curses. Outside of the bowl, she helps the prince recapture his kingdom and is duly rewarded.

I could write about quest fantasy novels for days, I think. For other fantasy examples, check out: The Book of Tormod: A Templar’s Apprentice by Kat Black; CounterClockwise by Jason Cockcroft; Savvy by Ingrid Law; Trouble Twisters (also the first in a new series) by Garth Nix (small admission here: I didn’t like this book much, but that review perhaps will come in another blog post); “The Keys to the Kingdom” series, also by Garth Nix; The Farwalker’s Quest by Joni Sensel; the new trilogy “The Books of Beginning,” by John Stevens, which starts with The Emerald Atlas. Of course, you can’t forget about The Hobbit or “The Lord of the Rings,” by J.R.R. Tolkien, and “The Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the quest novel is found outside of the science fiction and fantasy genre. I love discovering these (like I said, hero’s quest on the brain). Here are a few:

Defining Dulcie, by Paul Acampora: Dulcie is uprooted from her Connecticut home when her father dies. But she misses him and her old home too much not to venture into a cross-country trip back to where she belongs.

Rules of the Road, by Joan Bauer (one of my favorite examples of quest novel): Jenna Bolla takes on the task of driving the imposing Mrs. Gladstone from Chicago to Texas, stopping at various Gladstone shoe stores along the way. Once in Texas, Jenna undergoes a transformation and learns stand up for herself and her beliefs.

Chasing Redbird, by Sharon Creech: Zinnia comes to terms with her beloved aunt’s death by clearing an overgrown trail that once connected two Appalachian towns. During the course of uncovering the trail, she also recalls a sorrowful event from her childhood and manages to discover what’s most important to her.

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green: Child prodigy Colin believes he’s washed up when he’s dumped by for the 19th time by a Katherine. To cheer him up and get his life back in order, Colin’s friend Hassan suggests a road trip. 

Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee: Maybe runs away from an abusive relationship with both her mom and her mom’s fiancé, hoping to find her “real” dad. Luckily, she finds much more in the California home of one of her former stepdads.

I have a feeling one of the next books I’m going to read--Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Jacobson--is also a quest novel, but I’ll just have to wait and see. 


  1. Would love to know what you think of the Jacobson book



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