Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Quest Artifact

One of the common tropes in medieval literature is the quest for a certain artifact.  In this case, I mean artifact loosely; that is, something that characters venture after.

Some examples of this include:
  • The Quest for the Holy Grail -Possibly the most famous of all of these examples, it is a prominent tale of the knights of the Round Table featured in Chretein de Troyes' work and, of course, Sir Thomas Malory's Le Mort d'Arthur.  Only the best of the best can achieve the quest--only the most pure, strong, and valiant knights can gaze upon the legendary cup used at the Last Supper.  Knights of wobbly character (like Lancelot) are unable to achieve this quest making the Grail the most elite of medieval artifacts.
The Quest is achieved 
  • The Questing Beast -Yet another example of a questing item from the Round Table (can you tell I am currently rereading Le Mort d'Arthur?).  King Pellinore chases after this beast for close to twenty years for (honestly) no apparent reason.  Yet it is a goal of his and he wants to see it through.
  • The Silmarils -These are the precious gems which cause the Sons of Feanor in The Silmarillion to do a lot of things that cause a lot of problems (yes I know that was vague, but really, I have a million posts about this topic so if you're interested, check them out.).
  • The Long Forgotten Gold -"Far over the misty mountains cold/ to dungeons deep and caverns old/ we must away ere break of day/ to find our long forgotten gold."  The gold of the dwarves of Erebor is what causes them to go on quest in The Hobbit.  Of course there are some other tropes at play such as vengeance and the reclamation of their homeland, but they themselves cite the gold as their primary inspiration.
  • In the book Redwall, Matthias the mouse wants to find Martin the Warrior's sword.  Though he does have some other motives in mind, he is convinced that the sword is the key to his success and it represents his prowess as a warrior and his inheritance of Martin's role at the abbey.
  • The Golden Fleece -In the Greek myth, Jason goes through many dangers and perils to recover the legendary Golden Fleece.
  • A Way Home, A Heart, a Brain, and Courage -These are the four items the characters in The Wizard of Oz search for and what ultimately instigates the story and creates the conflict.
These are just some samples of this extremely common plot.  If you think about it, the loss of a certain artifact or desire to see it is a good catalyst for any story and is used in even some modern stories today.

Tolkien kind of reinvented this trope in his pseudo-medieval world of Middle-earth.  We have two examples of this trope clearly displayed, namely in The Hobbit and The Silmarillion (see above) but we also can see the sort of inverse properties of this idea as Frodo ventures to Mordor not to reclaim or find something, but to destroy something.


This is yet another instance of Tolkien innovating and expanding upon already existing and deeply valued ideas.

The first poem I ever wrote, called Centerpiece, was about a girl who wanted to find something she could use as a centerpiece on her dinner table for when her grandmother came over.  It was not the best poem, but it did have a conflict as she struggled to find something suitable, her own "quest item".

3 Quick Tips for Using Quest Items in Writing
I haven't written an actual novel in quite a long time, but I do have lots of thoughts about this topic after reading so many instances of both the success and failure of author's to use this trope.  Here are some of the things I have come to appreciate and despise when using the Quest Artifact.

     1. Have the artifact represent something.
If the artifact the character is searching for is simply just an object, chances are, readers won't care whether or not they find it.  As in The Quest for the Holy Grail, it is always effective to have the artifact represent something, like how the Grail represents holiness and worthiness.  Similarly, the Ring represents Power and it's destruction.  It is always more intriguing to have your characters look for something bigger, like their place in the world, their purpose, or knowledge.

     2. Come up with meaningful motives for the search.
Why does the character want to look for this item?  How will it benefit them and how do they even know about it's existence or importance?  Who tells them where to find it?  I can't tell you how many times I have read about someone searching for something that in reality they should not even realize is missing.  It seems phony and too contrived and bothers me as a reader.

     3. Think of realistic obstacles.
Why can't the character easily achieve their goal easily?  What is holding them back?  A good thing to think about when considering this is: why doesn't the character have this in the first place?  For example, why doesn't Galahad already possess the Holy Grail?  Answer: because he needs to prove that he is pure enough to behold it.  Therefore, he is put to many tests that prove his purity and worthiness which make up the story of the quest.

Those are the three main problems I find when people try to adapt this trope of medieval literature into their own writing.

The Quest Artifact is a very good place to start in a story line.  It was used very effectively by Tolkien himself, and while challenging to do well, can really add to any story.
"X" marks the spot of the pirate treasures which is another common example of a quest item.
Image from navigatemaps.com

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