Elements of Fantasy #2 – The Quest

Welcome to the second in the Elements of Fantasy series! Last time, we talked about Wizards, Warlocks and Witches (and magic users in general). In this episode, we look at the Fantasy Quest…

I want to start off by talking about, what is for me, the quintessential fantasy quest. I’m talking about The Hobbit. I know, I know, I must mention Tolkien in one way or another in many of my posts! I love Middle-earth and I love the stories set there – it’s as simple as that.

So, The Hobbit. One of the first ever fantasy books I read as a child, I remember being captivated from the first page. Essentially, it is the story of a man who lives in a secluded and somewhat xenophobic community and is taken out of his comfort zone when he is dragged along on an epic journey to the other side of Middle-earth to face off against a dragon. As expected, Bilbo Baggins is not a very willing participant in this quest, nor is he the kind of hero who enjoys being away from his home comforts. But as the story progresses and Bilbo has to face ever more terrifying enemies and difficult obstacles, he slowly grows into his new persona and even finds himself enjoying the adventure. After the quest, he returns home a changed hobbit and the rest is history.

The Hobbit

It’s the stuff that great childhood fantasy is made of. Little people with hairy feet? Check. Little people with beards (and most likely hairy feet)? Check. Wizard? Check. Dragon? Check. I could go on. But at the heart of the story, when you strip it back to basics, there lies the simple tale of a reluctant and unlikely hero on a quest to steal a dragon’s treasure.

The inherent structure of the Fantasy Quest/Monomyth/Hero’s Journey usually looks like this:

  1. Hero living their mundane/comfortable life.
  2. Hero is called/pressed into adventure by either an event or other characters.
  3. Hero meets a mysterious wizard/wise old man who lends his aid.
  4. Hero encounters many obstacles of increasing danger and overcomes them.
  5. Hero almost falls at the last hurdle.
  6. Hero fights back with renewed determination and prevails.
  7. Hero returns home completely changed by their experience and their life is usually better as a result.

Here’s the visual interpretation for the list-averse (cleverly adapted for our purposes):

Hobbit's Journey

Countless other stories follow this same structure. Some of them are pretty obvious about it, such as The Lord of the Rings (essentially a grown-up’s The Hobbit), Star Wars or Eragon (The Inheritance Cycle). Others are a little more discrete with it. It’s been done literally thousands of times and there is a reason why…

The Hero’s Journey is basically an expression of human endeavour and experience. Seriously. Look at these quotes and see which part of the story structure they directly correlate with:

  • “Oh well. You win some, you lose some.”
  • “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again.”
  • “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
  • “No man is an island.”
  • “Fortune favours the bold.”
  • “There’s no place like home.”

Every day, whether you’re solving a problem at work, fighting through traffic to get home or even writing your novel’s first draft, you are undertaking an epic journey. It’s the reason why every time you watch X Factor or American Idol, there’s always someone who has “been on a journey”. It’s the reason why after the adventure of a holiday abroad, you’re always glad to be home, if a little sad that the adventure is over.

This is why we identify so easily with this type of story and it’s the reason why authors will continue to adapt it over and over and over and…

Joe Abercrombie (another favourite of mine) skewed the classic fantasy quest, keeping much the same structure but changing up the character archetypes and their roles in the plot. As we move ever further into the 21st century, we find audiences who like more nuance in their characters and who look out for that “inner darkness” or “shades of grey” approach. Just look at Peter Jackson’s second Hobbit movie and you’ll see Bilbo struggling to conceal his discovery of the ring and wrestling with his new-found inner demons. It links nicely with LOTR and Frodo’s own struggles, but none of that was in the Hobbit book.

Percy Jackson

In conclusion then, the Fantasy Quest is one of the genre’s most defining and enduring characteristics. Fantasy itself grew out of folklore, fairy tales and the old epics, many of which featured similar story structures, so it’s an art form which has always featured in human storytelling. Theseus and the Minotaur, Beowulf, Odysseus’ Descent into Hades.

For a long time, there was a push away from this kind of fantasy tale, primarily because it had been so overdone (often poorly), but I think now we need to celebrate this type of story for what it is and think of new ways to play with it.

I’d love to see an author create a really good, modern story with a purely “good” hero. Perhaps it’s the next big challenge? Perhaps it’s already been done? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Until the next instalment, I’ll leave you with this…

Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though we pass them by today,
Tomorrow we may come this way
And take the hidden paths that run
Towards the Moon or to the Sun.
­- The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

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3 thoughts on “Elements of Fantasy #2 – The Quest

  1. bejamin4 24-Feb-2014 / 18:19

    Really like how you related the quest back to everyday life, and even some reality shows. It just shows that the concepts that make up fantasy permeate throughout many aspects of society.

  2. James 26-Feb-2014 / 13:38

    Oops, looks like I missed out the truly excellent visual interpretation of the Hero’s Journey! Should be included now…

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