A Literary Analysis of Quests in Literature Hercules in Greek Mythology

From Greek mythology’s Hercules, to the American’s Paul Bunyan, myths perpetrating

the quest can be found in all cultures and societies. Stories of the mythic quest express

knowledge that is complete and coherent,1 thus the mythic quest exists to teach an idea

or principle to its audience.

Quests can be identified by several distinct elements that occur in all myths of this type,

these characteristics are: a hero, the journey and the reward. The hero is the central

protagonist character, (generally a male) who will attempt to complete the quest.

Because he is often the son of a god, the hero usually has the benefit of superhuman

powers to assist his struggle, however he could have a crucial character flaw, a type of

Achilles heel, that he must overcome to complete his journey. The journey, is the series

of obstacles that the hero must endure to achieve his goal. It is the path upon which the

hero must walk to complete in his quest. It is on this journey that he will face challenges,

battle enemies or make allies who may assist him. Upon successful completion of his

journey, the hero will receive a reward, retribution for his struggles in the form of

intellectual, spiritual or material gain.

Through comparison of King Arthur’s legendary quest for the Holy Grail and Jay

Gatsby’s quest for the American Dream in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby,

it is discovered that human existence is essentially a quest; a frivolous quest for idealistic

dreams that rewards its heroes with superficial achievements or failure.

Careful examination of the ambitions, personal attributes and histories of both King Arthur and Jay Gatsby reveal that the hero can take on many different forms, yet

similarities will exist. Each hero that embarks on a quest, whether he be King Arthur or

Jay Gatsby, hopes to achieve a reward, the goal of his quest. The value of these rewards

and there cost to the hero or others effected by the quest must be examined to help

establish the validity of the quest.

In both the myth of the Holy Grail, and The Great Gatsby, very distinct, central

characters can be labeled as the hero. In the myth of the Holy Grail, it is King Arthur

who fits the heroic role. Having been raised by Merlin, a magician with superhuman

wisdom and great occult powers after the death of his biological father, Arthur was given

the guidance necessary to become a powerful King. Arthur ruled the Kingdom of

Camelot in Britain with his wife Guinevere, and it was there that he established his knights

in the fellowship of the Round Table. 2 This organization consisted of a group of

seemingly honorable, selfless men who existed to seek glory in Arthur’s name. Thus it

was through the knights that Arthur carried out his quest for the Holy Grail. In the

novel The Great Gatsby, the hero is Jay Gatsby, a man born to Ishiftless and unsuccessful

farm people (99) who was reinvented as a Platonic conception of himself (99) at the

age of seventeen when he changed his name form James Gatz and hopped aboard the

yacht of a wealthy man named Dan Cody.

Jay Gatsby

had something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the

promises of life… This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby

impressionability which is dignified under the name of the creative

temperament – it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic


which drove him to take control of his destiny and attempt to procure a better life for

himself. Jay Gatsby was a manipulative, idealistic hero. King Arthur and Jay Gatsby

demonstrate the importance of a strong hero in a quest. Both men seemed destined to

heroism, King Arthur for his strong upbringing by Merlin and Gatsby for his incredible

desire for a better life. Both heroes created for themselves goals of improvement, for

Arthur it was the Grail, for Gatsby it was the acquisition of the American dream.

However, both men demonstrate a distinct flaw in their characters. Arthur selects men for

his knighthood who prove to be dishonorable; one knight, Sir Lancelot even betrays

Arthur through an adulterous affair with Guinevere. Gatsby’s flaw lies in his

overzealous nature for one goal, he becomes obsessed with winning the love of Daisy

Buchanan and this love eventually destroys him. Both men demonstrate strengths and

weaknesses that any ordinary man could possess and therefore demonstrate the plight of

common people (or common heroes) trying to complete their specific quests.

Combined with their personal flaws, King Arthur and Jay Gatsby had to face external

forces; obstacles and accomplishments that constitute the journey. King Arthur, in his

quest for the Holy Grail, sent out his knights to fight for his prize. His knights had to

overcome seductive and evil fairies, enchanted forests and harmful magicians as they

searched for a castle that held the elusive Grail. 4 Arthur also had to overcome the affair

between his comrade Sir Lancelot and his wife Guinevere. Perceval, the young man

trying to obtain knighthood form Arthur ventured out to find the Grail and stumbled upon

a sick noblemen. This nobleman offered Perceval accommodation at his castle and when

Perceval arrived he beheld the magnificent Grail. Because Perceval was taught to be

silent, he could not ask questions about the Grail that would have cured the nobleman and

spread prosperity through out England. The castle mysteriously disappeared, and

Perceval dedicated his life to finding it again. 5 Jay Gatsby’s journey began the day he

changed his name and ended the day he died.

In between these two events, Gatsby

struggled to achieve the American Dream. Gatsby had to over come his poverty, to be

accepted into a wealthy society. He turned to undesirable business, smuggling alcohol

during prohibition. When he acquired wealth, Gatsby then had to assert his social status

to the world. Through lavish parties with orchestras, champagne and bright lights,

Gatsby defeats this obstacle. (40) Gatsby’s final challenge in the quest for the American

dream came in attaining the love that he desired from Daisy Buchanan. This last obstacle

in Gatsby’s journey proved that he [wanted] too much (133) King Arthur’s journey

was fraught with failure and tragedy, as one after another of his knights failed to grasp the

Grail and overcome the obstacles of the quest. Furthermore, Arthur had exploited the

knights, having used them to complete his quest. Similarly, Jay Gatsby abused people to

overcome the pitfalls on his journey, he used Dan Cody to obtain wealthy connections and

he exploited the people at his parties to obtain social standing. Jay Gatsby even tired to

use the girl he loved to complete his quest for the American dream. The struggles of both

men reveal the hero’s problem: the journey is a long, hard voyage with uncertain results,

often even failure. It was not just the manipulative, dishonorable manner in which King

Arthur and Jay Gatsby tried to complete their journey that eventually lead to their failure,

their failure was due to the fact that each man undertook a journey for the betterment of

their life that was far too difficult for him. Therefore, before a journey is initiated, one

must examine the difficulty and more importantly, the necessity of the quest.

After completing the journey, both King Arthur and Jay Gatsby briefly witness the

reward for which they had established their quest. King Arthur used every knight of his

Round Table to try and find the grail, but it was held only briefly in the gaze of the

would-be knight Perceval. The Grail is the cup from which Christ is said to have drank

at the last supper and which was used to catch his blood at the Crucifixion. 

It is the Grail which supposedly could have provided Arthur with the fulfillment of the

highest spiritual potentialities 7 had he only been able to capture it. Jay Gatsby is almost

rewarded with the completion of the American dream.

He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have

seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know

that it was already behind him (182)

Gatsby’s dream evaded him because he failed to recognize the value of his life, and he

instead let greed overtake him. In the end, Gatsby’s only reward was a death that freed

him of the burden of his quest. The rewards that both King Arthur and Gatsby had been

trying to achieve were enormous. King Arthur wasted the highest spiritual potentiality

and Jay Gatsby wanted the American dream. Unlike most heroes, these two men only

glimpsed their rewards, they did not get to keep them. The elusiveness of both men’s

prizes demonstrates the necessity of a quest to be realistic; a hero must strive for an

attainable, worthy goal and if his goal is too ambitious, he will fail. It was the frivolous,

unnecessary desires of Arthur and Gatsby that caused them to fail.

The quests of King Arthur and Jay Gatsby prove that the human tendency to strive for

new experiences, or a constantly improved life result in disappointment. It should not be

said that desires must be abandoned altogether, but that men must learn to be satisfied

with their existence, and partake in the quest for enrichment only when it is certain, or

probable that beneficial rewards will be reaped.

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