An early quest story tells the tale of Gilgamesh, who seeks a secret to eternal life after the death of Enkidu, including the search for an emerald.
Another ancient quest tale, Homer's Odyssey, tells of Odysseus, whom the gods have cursed to wander and suffer for many years before Athena persuades the Olympians to allow him to return home. Recovering the Golden Fleece is the object of the travels of Jason and the Argonauts in the Argonautica. Psyche, having lost Cupid, hunted through the world for him, and was set tasks by Venus, including a descent into the underworld.
Many fairy tales depict the hero or heroine setting out on a quest, such as:
- East of the Sun and West of the Moon where the heroine seeks her husband
- The Seven Ravens where the heroine seeks her transformed brothers
- The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was
- The Golden Bird where the prince sets out to find the golden bird for his father
Other characters may set out with no more definite aim that to "seek their fortune", or even be cast out instead of voluntarily leaving, but learn of something that could aid them along the way and so have their journey transformed from aimless wandering into a quest. Other characters can also set forth on quests — the hero's older brothers commonly do — but the hero is distinguished by his success.
Many medieval romances sent knights out on quests. The term "Knight-errant" sprang from this, as errant meant "roving" or "wandering". Sir Thomas Malory included many in Le Morte d'Arthur. The most famous—perhaps the most famous quest in western literature—centers on the Holy Grail in Arthurian legend. This story cycle recounts multiple quests, in multiple variants, telling stories both of the heroes who succeed, like Percival (in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival) or Sir Galahad (in the Queste del Saint Graal), and also the heroes who fail, like Sir Lancelot. This often sent them into a bewildering forest. Despite many references to its pathlessness, the forest repeatedly confronts knights with forks and crossroads, of a labyrinthine complexity. The significiance of their encounters is often explained to the knights—particularly those searching for the Holy Grail -- by hermits acting as wise old men -- or women. Still, despite their perils and chances of error, such forests, being the location where the knight can obtain the end of his quest, are places where the knights may become worthy; one romance has a maiden urging Sir Lancelot on his quest for the Holy Grail, "which quickens with life and greenness like the forest."
So consistently did knights quest that Miguel de Cervantes set his Don Quixote on mock quests in a parody of chivalric tales. Nevertheless, while Don Quixote was a fool, he was and remains a hero of chivalry.
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