The Hero in Quest Literature

The Characters (in the Quest Motif) THE HERO — ROMANTIC, IRONIC, TRAGIC

In stories of “the quest,” heroes are on the brink of a great change. Some heroes are desperately unhappy and experience their lives as a stultifying world, one that, in its very orderliness and familiarity, comes to seem sterile and confining: a kind of wasteland. In either case, the environment or something in it keeps the hero from changing, from growing—in short, from living. All heroes must recognize their worlds for what they are; must realize the need for change; must have the courage to try. It is possible for heroes to blunder into the quest, to make come sort of mistake and find themselves quite suddenly embarked on a difficult journey. Generally, though, something or someone calls the hero to this adventure. The summons can come from any source: a friend, a relative, a stranger, an alluring object, or an impulse within the heroes themselves. If the protagonist possesses the necessary courage and resolve, she or he is off on the quest, however fearful or arduous it may seem. Narrative romance is the oldest, simplest, most predictable and inevitably hopeful story pattern. Yet the reader questions throughout. There seems to be doubt though there is none at the end. Romance expresses the human need to fulfill wishes and to dream. Romance causes the reader to yearn for a simple moral world and the romantic ideals of the “quest”—beauty, wealth, power, wisdom. Romance offers the reader a world with a place for and meaning in a “higher order” where the world is orderly and unified in the hands of an imminent being. Romance presents a spiritually progressive, purposeful quest.

The Romantic Hero

The romantic hero is the basis from which all other “hero types” evolve. The romantic hero is usually male, though some scattering of female heroes does occur. Quite often the hero comes to the world through some sort of “divine” or “magical” birth, though this difference from his fellows is often not evident until “the call” is heard and “the journey” undertaken. His human action reflects man’s most hopeful conception of life. He is in service to an ideal through which he can find enduring meaning outside the constraints of the plausible world. His quest is progressive and culminates in success. The romantic hero’s destiny has supernatural origin. His action grows from the eternal power that reflects man’s most hopeful conception of life. In the full story of the quest, the hero dies–either physically or metaphorically–and takes on features of a god finally unified with the mysterious. He has total human freedom, infinite possibilities for significant action, limitless power. He realizes his dreams and desires and transcends his suffering resulting in a destiny that transforms him to something more than he was.

The Ironic Hero

Irony depends on romance. The reader recognizes the pattern inherent to romance and irony preys on these. The ironic hero begins as the romantic hero. Then, since irony is a negation, a twisting of romance, something or someone thwarts the hero through a mode of contrasts, paradoxes, inversion and subtleties. One set of assumptions is established, then ironic twists undercut these to produce an ironic outcome and therefore an ironic hero. Irony depicts the tension, ambiguity, inhuman or non-human nature of life where human concepts of “fairness” and “orderliness” are irrelevant. The negation or twisting is random and unpredictable, not caused by the character of the hero, but perhaps in spite of him. Often the romantic hero becomes the ironic hero through his incompleteness. In the beginning, when the hero operates as romantic, he seems as perfect, as having the capability to overcome his flaws, as bigger than life. However, as irony twists and turns the narrative, we can see his downfall coming.

The Tragic Hero

The true tragic hero is neither all good nor all bad. He is a mixture. A hero with a balance of good and bad will invoke pity or terror. The tragic effect will be stronger if the hero is better than the rest of us, of higher moral character or of higher position. This hero suffers a fall from grace or wealth or position because of a mistake. He makes this mistake, or even a series of mistakes, because of his tragic flaw—some trait that he feels is positive but in fact causes his poor choice. The tragic hero invokes pity because, since he is not evil, his fate is worse than he deserves. He also invokes fear because we can recognize similarities in ourselves and therefore see our own possibilities for disaster. And the tragic hero invokes admiration in defeat. We feel awed for his endurance rather than depressed in his defeat. We can predict his downfall because we can see his flaw.

from The Quest Motif in Literature Supplemental handout for English 215, Fantasy Fiction, Fall 2010, with Nancy Howard, Wenatchee Valley College

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