This blog describes my journey exploring storytelling - words, images and the sensations they generate. The lot, basically.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Story Learnings: Plot #3 - The Quest


Continuing my way through Christopher Booker's excellent tome on storytelling The Seven Basic Plots - Why We Tell Stories, we have reached the third of the seven master plots (You can find my post on the first master plot, Overcoming the Monster as well as an introduction to The Seven Basic Plots - Why We Tell Storieshere, and the second master plot, Rags to Riches, here.):

The Quest


Far away there is some priceless treasure, worth any effort to achieve. When the hero learns about this, the need to set out on the long and hazardous journey to reach this, becomes the most important thing in his life. Whatever perils and trials are in the hero's way, he must go on until this objective has been triumphantly secured. These are the stories we call The Quest and they follow these five stages:


1. The 'Call'
We meet our hero as he finds that life in some way has become intolerable. The mood is one of urgent compulsion. Something has gone terrifyingly wrong. In the midst of all this comes the 'Call'. The hero realises that he can only rectify matters by making a long and difficult journey. Even though the hero and his friends feel under intense compulsion to depart, they often have to face every kind of discouragement and opposition before they can set out.

2. The Journey
The hero and his companions set out. Their journey follows the classical storytelling rhythm of constriction and expansion; tension and release. They go through a succession of terrible, and often near-fatal ordeals, interspersed with periods of respite where they can regain their strength.


The opposition comes in two main flavours. Actually, that should be three, because in stories of The Quest variation, the acutely hostile terrain is almost an obstacle in itself; It will be wild, alien and unfriendly. The other two, more specific obstacles are: Monsters and temptations. 


The monsters follows the archetypical description of monsters from the Overcoming the Monster plot. The Temptation, on the other hand, is usually centred around a promise of some physical gratification, which stands in stark contrast to the hard nature of the task the hero has been set. Underneath the surface, the Temptation have much in common with the Monsters, except that the latter uses direct confrontation and the former uses guile and seduction to lure the hero to his doom. If the temptations are mastered or overruled in some way, they may completely change nature and their relationship with the hero, and become useful allies.


Each encounter ends with a thrilling escape. Ordeals alternate with periods of respite. Along the way the hero and his companions will receive hospitality, help and advice from 'wise old men' or 'beautiful young women'. The hero may have to make part of the journey through the underworld, where spirits from the past will give him guidance.


3. Arrival and Frustration
The hero is now within sight of the goal. However, now on the edge of the goal, a new and terrible series of obstacles surface and must be overcome.


4. The Final Ordeals
Despite the lengthy and perilous journey the hero and his companions have already travelled, they are usually only halfway through the story, when they arrive within sight of the goal. The hero has to undergo a last series of tests (often 3) to prove that he is worthy of the prize. The story culminates in a last great battle or ordeal, which may be the most threatening of all the many ordeals the hero has been through so far.


5. The Goal
After a last 'thrilling escape from death', the life transforming treasure is finally won: A final coming together of man and woman, or the establishing of a kingdom; The hero now has an assurance of renewed life stretching indefinitely into the future - or 'he lived happily ever after'.

Companions
The companions of the hero is a distinctive mark of The Quest. They come in four different varieties:

  1. Simply a large number of unnamed people. For example the main body of Jews accompanying Moses in the exodus from Egypt.
  2. An alter-ego with no particular distinguishing marks except loyalty and fidelity. Frodo in Lord of the Rings has the loyal Samwise Gamgee.
  3. An alter-ego with opposite qualities of the hero. Think of King Lear and the Fool, or Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
  4. A group of people, each with distinct qualities which together forms a 'whole'. In King Solomon's Mines the leader and hero Allan Quartermain is accompanied by the strong Sir Henry Curtis, the rational Captain Good and the intuitive and mysterious Umbopa.


The Helpers
In addition to the companions and all the negative figures the hero meets on his journey, he also encounter some very different figures - helpers. The helpers will offer him positive assistance such as periods of respite or perhaps crucial guidance. Among the helpers two very important figures predominate: The benevolent wise old man and the beautiful young (or mysteriously ageless) woman. In the story of The Quest, their roles are not so much to intervene, but to act as guides, drawing on unusual knowledge and wisdom. In Lord of the Rings we have for example the omniscient old wizard Gandalf and his ally the beautiful, ethereal queen Galadriel.

Examples
Some of the most celebrated stories in the world are quests: Just think of Homer's Odyssey, Dante's Divine Comedy, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Steven Spielberg's Raiders of The Lost Ark.


Of the other well-known examples we find: Treasure Island, King Solomon's Mines, Watership Down, Around the World in 80 Days, King Arthur's Quest for the Holy Grail, Jason and the Golden Fleece, The Firebird from Slav folk stories, Virgil's Aeneid and many others.

Further variations
From time to time we also see The Quest plot crossed with the Overcoming the Monster the monster plot. Particularly in stories inspired by the Second World War: The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen, The Heroes of Telemark, The Wooden Horse, The Colditz Story and others.

A dark version of The Quest is Heman Melville's Moby Dick. Here the central figure, Captain Ahab, sets out in an obsessive quest across the oceans to find the almost supernatural white whale. Ahab looks on Moby Dick as a prize of infinite value, worth any sacrifice to seek out. The whale is clearly a symbol for the essence of life. But there is nothing life-enhancing about the way Ahab seeks it. He is only out to destroy it at all costs. Of course such a story can only end in disaster.

The next of the seven basic plots is also based on a journey, although quite different from The Quest. It has inspired some of the most haunting and mysterious tales ever told. We'll look at Voyage and Return next.




Questions and comments are welcome.
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