Middle English, from Anglo-French queste, Vulgar Latin *quaesta, from Latin, feminine of quaestus, past participle of quaerere
- Date: 14th century
- 1 a : a jury of inquest
- b : investigation
- a : pursuit, search
- b : a chivalrous enterprise in medieval romance usually involving an adventurous journey
In mythology and literature, a quest, a journey towards a goal, serves as a plot device and as a symbol. Quests appear in the folklore of every nation and also figure prominently in non-national cultures. In literature, the objects of quests require great exertion on the part of the hero, and the overcoming of many obstacles, typically including much travel especially over a body of water. Travel also allows the storyteller to showcase exotic locations and cultures (an objective of the narrator, not of the character).
The hero normally aims to obtain something or someone by the quest, and with this object to return home. The object can be something new, that fulfills a lack in his life, or something that was stolen away from him or someone with authority to dispatch him.
Sometimes the hero has no desire to return. Sir Galahad's quest for the Holy Grail is to find it, not return with it. A return may, indeed, be impossible: Aeneas quests for a homeland, having lost Troy at the beginning of Virgil's Aeneid he does not return to Troy to re-found it but settles in Italy (to become an ancestor of the Romans).
If the hero does return after the culmination of the quest, he may face false heroes who attempt to pass themselves off as him, or his initial response may be a rejection of that return, as Joseph Campbell describes in his critical analysis of quest literature, The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
If someone dispatches the hero on a quest, the overt reason may be false, with the dispatcher actually sending him on the difficult quest in hopes of his death in the attempt, or in order to remove him from the scene for a time, but the story often unfolds just as if the claim were sincere, except that the tale usually ends with the dispatcher being unmasked and punished. Stories with such false quest-objects include the legends of Jason and Perseus, the fairy tales The Dancing Water, the Singing Apple, and the Speaking Bird, Go I Know Not Whither and Fetch I Know Not What, and the story of Beren and Lúthien in J. R. R. Tolkien's Silmarillion.