What is a literary quest and how can it help us understand the world?

Reading. Writing. Literature. Blogging. Quest.

I thought we would take a break from the novel today to look at the definition of a quest. Certainly, Dorothy and her friends from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz are on one as they track down the Wicked Witch of the West, and they are also all on another, as they track down the one thing that will make them happy, whether that’s Kansas, finding a heart, a brain, or just some courage.

Defining a Quest

A quest is a journey taken by the protagonist (or hero) of a story to meet some end, which could be defeating an evil villain and rescuing a maiden (Sleeping Beauty) or just getting back home (The Odyssey, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz). Quests are extremely important to literature, too, as they define the motivations of our heroes and present challenges to them in an organic environment.

They also create “cultural awareness,” show us “the boundaries of ethical conduct,” and even define “the necessity for leading a good life” (Hughes).

In an article for The Guardian, author Robert Irwin states:

“A quest is a journey in the course of which one advances spiritually and mentally, as well as physically travelling miles. The quester leaves the familiar for the unknown. The nature of the goal may not be clear at first and may only become fully apparent at the end of the quest. It is an excellent plot device and ideally everyone’s life should have a plot.”


As with all stories, we can not downplay their value to our own lives, just as the oral tradition of storytelling has had a huge impact on cultures and how they understand the world—how we understand the world. The tradition of storytelling, and telling stories about quests, helps emancipate ourselves from the unknowable, and they provide us with a moral compass to navigate the tumultuous waters of moral dilemma.

Think about The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Dorothy has to make a lot of choices in the book that calls her morality into question, whether that be to help the Scarecrow down from his imprisonment on a stake, or help the Tin Woodman escape from his rusted prison…or to murder a Wicked Witch in order to guarantee a ticket home to Kansas. We as the reader have no choice but to think about what we would do if we were in her ruby slippers (or silver slippers), and thus we are thinking about how Dorothy’s fictional quest impacts our lives in reality, which is a great way to learn and grow as a person.

So, while quests are often swashbuckling fun, think about them on a deeper level. How does Dorothy change from the beginning of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to the ending? How did you see the world differently after you read about her journey through the world? Hopefully, the quest, whatever it is and in whichever book, has an impact on how you see the world and how you understand your place in it.


Here is a short list of examples of books featuring quests undertaken by a protagonist:

  • Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • A Wrinkle in Time (1962) by Madeleine L’Engle
  • The Princess Bride (1973) by William Goldman
  • The Neverending Story (1979) by Michael Ende
  • The Talisman (1984) by Stephen King and Peter Straub
  • Percy Jackson and the Olympians (2005-2020) by Rick Riordan

Works Cited

Hughes, Joseph. “LLT 180: The Heroic Quest as Katabasis.” Missouri State. Web.

Irwin, Robert. “Robert Irwin’s Top 10 Quest Narratives.” The Guardian, 22 Feb. 2018, theguardian.com/books/2011/apr/21/robert-irwin-top-10-quest-narratives.