The Hero's Journey: 12 of the Best Books about Quests
Updated: Sep 26, 2018
The quest narrative is one of the oldest and more enduring types of stories. It has played a prominent role in folklore and myth around the world and continues to appear in fiction and film. Closely tied to the monomyth of the Hero’s Journey, the quest narrative is centred on a character who must set out on a journey in order to achieve a goal. This journey usually takes the character and the readers through exotic or fantastical landscapes, as well as through a series of obstacles and perils. The object of the quest typically centres on the search for a person, place, or thing, as seen in the stories of The Wizard of Oz, the hunt for El Dorado, and the quest for the Holy Grail, respectively. The desire, or wish to return home after the object is found also plays a prominent role in many quest narratives.
Quests have appeared in literature throughout the ages, usually in the most popular genre of that era. They came to prominence in the chivalric romances of the Middle Ages, and the figure of the knight-errant has remained closely tied to the conception of quests ever since. This is particularly notable in the adventure fiction of the 19th century, which saw not only a resurgence of quest stories, but also of novels set in the medieval era, such as Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. This medievalist approach has continued into modern fantasy literature where the quest continues to play a prominent role in some of the most popular books of today. Here we have listed some of the great examples of quests in literature across the ages.
The Odyssey by Homer
Homer’s epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey are among some of the oldest
surviving examples of Western literature. While the story of the Odyssey happens chronologically directly after the events in the Iliad, in that it charts the journey home of a group of soldiers involved in the Trojan War, the two poems have a very different tone and style. Where the Iliad is tragic, the Odyssey has much more of an adventurous feel. The Odyssey’s quest is unusual in that it is centred on the ‘returning home’ aspect rather than the going out. Within this overarching quest however is a series of smaller quests and adventures that take Odysseus and his comrades into the lairs of cyclops, through the waters of sirens and into the underworld. An enduring classic for a reason, it’s hard not to get swept up in the trials and exploits of Odysseus and his comrades in their quest to return home.
Le Morte Darthur by Thomas Malory
While The Odyssey remains one of the most iconic quests in the literary canon, as already noted the conception of quests is often much more associated with medieval courtly romances. Of these, the Arthurian legends are perhaps the most enduring. Completed in 1470, Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur is considered the definitive English account of King Arthur’s life, from his ascent to the throne and his founding of the Knights of the Round Table, to the fall of the golden age of chivalry culminating in his death. Although not the only quest described, the greatest part of the text is given to the individual efforts of the various knights to find the Holy Grail. In this Le Morte d'Arthur is perhaps the quintessential quest story.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Where Le Morte d’Arthur takes a serious look at the expectations of heroism and the need for true chivalry, another medieval Arthurian story, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight takes an altogether more light-hearted approach. It is an outlandish and playful tale and the quest in this case is an unusual one, as it is a journey towards death. Set on New Year’s day, an unexpected guest, in the form of the Green Knight, appears at the Camelot festivities. He
challenges any of the knights to strike him with their axe, on the condition that he may return the blow in exactly one year. Sir Gawain agrees, striking the green knight on the neck, but the beheaded knight simply picks up his own head and walks away. Gawain must then set out to find the castle of the Green Knight and receive his agreed blow. The story which was recorded in the 14th century, here receives a modernized rendering by J.R.R. Tolkien, who will be
returned to later in this list for his own quest stories. This edition also contains another medieval quest story, Sir Orfeo, in which a knight must enter the fairy world in order to retrieve his stolen wife, making this particular edition an excellent place to explore medieval quests.
The White Company by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
In moving on to the adventure fiction of the 19th century, we find ourselves right back in the medieval world, with Arthur Conan Doyle’s knightly historical tale The White Company. While Doyle is most famous for creating the iconic detective Sherlock Holmes, he himself found much greater pride in his carefully researched and lovingly crafted historical fiction adventures. Set during the Hundred Years War, The White Company follows two young men, Allenye and John Hordle, who both leave their lives in the abbey for very different reasons, but find themselves united in joining the mercenary regiment known as The White Company. They set out for France on a quest to fight for England, a journey which takes them through many perils and adventures. The length of this novel, in comparison to the serialised Holmes stories, gives Doyle space to demonstrate his truly masterful talent. He balances a romantic and rose tinted perspective of the medieval era while carrying the wealth of carefully researched knowledge and detail.
The Man who would be King by Rudyard Kipling
Kipling is iconic for his evocative stories set in the Indian subcontinent. His writing, blending exoticism with verisimilitude, captures the reader’s imagination almost instantly, making it perfect for adventure. In this novella, Kipling describes the exploits of two men, Dravot and Carnehan, who make the audacious claim that: “India isn’t big enough for such as us.” They embark on a quest to set themselves up as kings in Karifistan. While they find initial success, their quest ultimately ends in disaster. Kipling’s work is often critiqued now for it’s positive views on colonialism, however The Man Who Would Be King also serves as a reproach to self-interested rulers and the dangers of implanting yourself as the leader of a culture you don’t understand. It’s an atmospheric and unsettling story of the dark side of a quest.
A Modern Telemachus by Charlotte M. Yonge
The writings of Charlotte M. Yonge are sadly forgotten by most modern readers, but she was widely read and well-respected during her life in the nineteenth century. Her admirers included many famous literary figures including George Eliot and Lewis Carroll. She was prolific in her work, producing over 50 novels in a range of genres and settings. Her novel The Lances of Lynwood may be the most obvious recommendation for this list, however we feel we
can move away from courtly romance for a moment and instead embrace the perils of the high seas in A Modern Telemachus. When the Countess of Bourke set out to sail from France to Spain in order to see her husband, her ship is attacked by pirates and wrecked on the coast of North Africa. A young man on board, Arthur Hope Maxwell, rescues the Countess’ young son Ulysse but both are swept further down the coast by the current. The two then set out on a quest to rescue the survivors of the shipwreck, who they learn have been captured by natives. Yonge’s gripping details of the conflicts and dangers make this a bombastic and entertaining tale of adventure and heroics.
In Search of the Castaways by Jules Verne
Verne’s writing is almost synonymous with adventure fiction. While we could talk about some of his more famous titles, In Search of the Castaways is a regrettably overlooked story that encompasses some of the best elements of quests and adventure fiction. After finding a letter in a bottle, retrieved from a shark’s stomach, the story’s protagonist, Lord Glenarvan, goes on a quest across three continents in order to find the shipwrecked author of the letter, Captain Grant. The only clue is Grant’s last known latitude, and so Glenarvan and his companions set out to circumnavigate the world along the 37th parallel south. Verne lets loose on all the expected adventure fare, his characters experience piracy, cannibals, and earthquakes. Parts of the story are certainly of its time, but then so is that spirit of adventure.
Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien
So far, our suggestions have stayed within the classic expectations of quests, but there have been plenty of stories that play with the expectations. Turning to a more modern example, O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato is a quixotic quest that blends hallucination and reality. In the middle of the Vietnam War, Cacciato announces to his squad that he plans to walk from Vietnam to Paris. When he subsequently goes missing. his squad must then set off on their own quest to find and capture Cacciato for deserting. Drawing on his own experiences as a soldier in Vietnam, O’Brien draws the reader into the world with great immediacy, managing to balance the graphic realities of his characters, with the fantasy world the characters slip into in order to deal with their surroundings.
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
Going After Cacciato shows the way in which quests can figure in contemporary literature, but for the most part, modern fiction has seen the quest move into genres such as fantasy. Perhaps most famous for this is Tolkien. He created his fantasy world with the hope of crafting a truly English mythology. This means that his fiction features many of the elements we have already seen in the classical and medieval stories, including that of the quest. Some people may consider Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy as his ultimate quest narrative, however it is his first novel The Hobbit that actually ties closest to the genre, with its light-hearted tone and Romantic setting. The Hobbit takes the protagonist Bilbo Baggins through the landscapes of Middle-Earth in order to help his friends reclaim their dwarven kingdom. There are many perils but the story stays jovial and adventurous.
Rumo and His Miraculous Adventures by Walter Moers
Walter Moers is famed for his exuberant and hare-brained fantasy stories, filled with eccentric creatures and bizarre landscapes. While most of his novels involve long and meandering journeys of some kind, Rumo and His Miraculous Adventures best fits the characteristics of questing literature. The eponymous Rumo is a Wolperting, a canine creature with small horns, famed for their intelligence and strength, and the first half of the book follows Rumo as he discovers a town of fellow Wolpertingers, trains to become a warrior and falls in love. The second half of the book however, sees all of Rumo’s companions disappear into the Netherworld. Rumo sets out on a quest to traverse the Netherworld in order to rescue his friends from the despotic underworld king, Gornab the Ninety-Ninth. There are a host of joyously outlandish characters to be met along the way, from Dandelion, the sentient sword, to General Tick-Tock, the mechanical and maniacal commander of Netherworld’s forces.
The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt
Tonke Dragt is recognised as one of The Netherland’s greatest children’s authors. Her most famous work The Letter for the King, set in an enchanted version of the Middle Ages, is one of those classic children’s stories that are eminently readable for adults. The story opens with 16-year-old Tiuri sitting vigil the night before he becomes a knight when he hears a desperate knock on the chapel door. He is forbidden to answer it but he feels compelled to help. On the other side of the door Tiuri finds an old man with an urgent letter that must reach King Unauwen. Tiuri finds himself drawn into a secret mission, where he must abandon his dreams of becoming a knight, travel across the dangerous lands and keep both the letter and his identity hidden. Pursued by vengeful knights and overcoming daunting trials Tiuri’s quest is a delightful modern fairy tale.
Momo by Michael Ende
Michael Ende is perhaps most famous for The Neverending Story, but before writing that series he wrote the also excellent and sadly neglected Momo. Ende’s main character Momo is an orphan who lives in the ruins of an amphitheatre where many people come to see her for her incredible power of listening. One day sinister men in grey arrive and persuade the city’s inhabitants to part with their time, only Momo is able to resist. With the help of the administrator of Time, Master Hora, and his strangely gifted tortoise, Cassiopeia, Momo sets off on a quest to restore time to her community. She must travel into the underground lair of the grey men to find and retrieve their hoards of stolen time. It’s an enchanting and intricate story that plays with the role that time plays in society.
As we mentioned in the beginning of this article, stories about quests appear the world over, in a variety of different forms and contexts. This list is but a brief introduction to some great examples of questing narratives. If there are any other examples you feel are sorely missing, please feel free to mention them in the comments below. As any hero will tell you, there’s always more to explore.
This article was originally written for Bookwitty.com and published on April 6th, 2017.