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.
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.