Northrop Frye identifies the central myth of literature, in its narrative aspect, with the quest myth. He sees the significance of quest myth “in its vision of the end of social effort, the innocent world of fulfilled desires, the free human society.” Perhaps the most complete form of this utopian vision is found in the combined Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Together they comprise the archetypal story of loss and recovery of identity. Greek mythology has the same general framework, though not as complete as the Bible. There we also find the story of man’s creation, his relationship to the Gods, and his loss of the Golden Age. The Golden Age is recovered in Ovid’s
(parallel to the structure of the Old and New Testaments) with the establishment of the ideal Kingdom, in this case the Roman Empire.
Since it is from Classical (Greek and Roman) mythology that the Western literal tradition has evolved, I would at this point have my students read one of the four great hero quests of Greek mythology—the stories of Perseua, Heracles, Jason, or Theseus. Any one of the stories presents us with all the basic elements of the quest pattern in classic form. So basic is the quest pattern to narrative, that Joseph Campbell, in his
The Hero with a Thousand Faces
, labels it the “monomyth”.
Campbell’s description is an enlargement on the basic formulae represented in the rites of passage: separation-initiation-discovery-return. The quest of the hero is an
for something that has been lost or taken away from him, something that ought to have been his birthright. He
encounters fabulous forces
wins a decisive victory
. The successful completion of this search reveals to the hero the secret of his
and enables him to
from his mysterious adventure and take his rightful position in society.
If Perseus is the prototypical hero-quester of Classical heroic literature, Superman certainly fulfills that role in modern society. He is the perfect “middle class” hero. His history closely duplicates that of Perseus. Not only is his birth special, but he updates the tradition by coming from outer space. Like Perseus, Superman was orphaned shortly after his birth, and brought up in obscurity. When he reaches his majority he sets out on his journey to recover his rightful inheritance. For Superman, this takes the form of knowledge of his true identity and purpose on earth, which he gains before taking his place in the world. Like Perseus, Superman undergoes trials, battles powerful opponents, and rescues maidens in distress. Both Perseus and Superman are model heroes; their goals are noble, and their values, at least for Superman, are not complex. Superman is always on the side of goodness; his enemies are always evil, monsters in the sense that their malignant motives have rendered them inhuman. The one important difference that exists between the two is the matter of romance. One of Perseus’ triumphs was to win Andromeda, after slaying the dragon. Superman, on the other hand, for all his conquests, never wins Lois Lane. His sexual purity remains intact, with all his energies directed toward his single-minded purpose of preserving the American way. One wonders whether Lois would settle for less preservation and more pursuit. The notion of a sexual union between Lois and Superman gives rise to some naughty speculations. One is naturally led (isn’t one) to think of the last two lines of Yeats’ “Leda and The Swan,” to see what I mean. “Did she put on his knowledge with his power before the indifferent beak could let her drop?” Is Superwoman really the wishfulfilled fantasy of Lois Lane? I wonder!
Of course, not all quest myth stories contain every feature of the Perseus story. In fact, the variations that can be played on the major elements are almost as many as there are hero-quest stories. However, what does recur in all individual stories is the search for something that man has lost, his true inheritance. Think of the poignant longing of Ratso Rizzo for Florida in the movie
(based on the novel by James Leo Herlihy) to see how persistently this memory or dream of Eden remains alive in the human imagination. Ratso, deprived of a truly human environment, at war with monsters of poverty outside and the demons inside him, is kept alive by the sheer force of his imagination. He dreams of his return “home” to Florida, a home he had never seen but which was as imaginatively real for him as any Biblical Eden or Classical Golden Age.
Popular music lyrics are a rich source of material for the quest pattern of imagery, especially in their call for a return to a Golden Age. The two songs that best captured the sixties sensibilities, “Aquarius” by James Rado and Gerome Ragni, and “Woodstock” by Joni Mitchell both send out a call to recover the Goldan Age. A look at the imagery of each song presents the quest as fulfilled. In “Aquarius,” the first verse offers images of the harmony of the spheres, the perfect order of the universe, propelled by love and peace. The second verse sings of “harmony,” ”understanding”, “sympathy,” and “trust.” The song presents a vision of a time when man’s dreams were not only “golden,” but living. Likewise, the singer of “Woodstock,” distressed by what she sees in the world, sings “We are stardust, we are golden,” and need to escape the polluted, corrupt world and “get ourselves back to the garden.” Both songs, in the pattern of their imagery, present pictures of a lost kingdom that is still meaningful and desirable.
In the song “Wooden Ships” by Crosby, Kantner, and Stills, the narrative structure of the quest myth can be seen in the pattern of imagery. We are presented in the poem with the grim picture of a group of survivors of an atomic holocaust who have set sail in wooden ships in an attempt to recreate a community of citizens who would live in harmony with each other.
One final example, E. E. Cummings’ “Pity This Busy Monster, Manunkind,” will serve to illustrate the variations played upon the quest pattern. The hero in the poem is the poet-narrator. The monster that he confronts is the human race, “manunkind.” The heritage that the poet, together with the rest of mankind, has lost is the original “world of born.” Contaminated by the rampages of technology, man has fallen from his state of grace into a “world of made.” Satiric targets aside, the poet-hero wants to set things right, to be born again, to regain his rightful kingdom. With the trenchant solution he proposes—to move to the universe next door—the poet not only scores with his satiric thrust, but also sets off to complete his quest, to recover the “world of born.”