III. Theory of Quest
Throughout recorded history, men have attempted to make sense of their lives, to give it meaning through external means. These may be physical, philosophical or religious in nature. Many are the tales of adventures in search of stones of magical ability, fountains of youth, golden amulets of fantastic power, the grail supposedly possessing spiritual and life giving properties, and thousands of other objects that have fired man’s imagination and desire. Even in our own time, men continue to search for these same things. These quests are about mankind’s search for itself, the immortality of the flesh and spirit.
There may be no profound and grand relationship relating the grail, gold, quests, and the characters and themes found in Columbus’s exploration of the New World. Yet I think that a connection exists; a common thread running through each. The knights who quested after the grail, the many adventurers who have searched for treasure and magical things, and Columbus and his crew sailing across the Dark Sea in search of the West Indies and Japan. All these people have essentially been looking for similar things. For some of these men, these things would simply be on the level of material acquisition, such as wealth or power. For a few, these things would transcend material wealth and ascend to a level where the search becomes, as for some of the knights, a Journey of the soul”(2) and for some of the characters “a quest For identity, dignity, and individual freedom.”(3)
Throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, there was written a large body of adventure literature dealing with the quest for and attainment of an object of some supposed mystical and religious power. This object was the grail or Holy Grail. This grail was thought to be endowed with food and life-giving properties, wrought with gold and precious stones and emitting a brilliant light. The grail was also thought to be a Reliquary: the dish from which Christ and his disciples ate at the Last Supper, the Cup of that meal or the Vessel in which Joseph of Arimathea received the blood from the wound of Christ. This grail also possessed the mysterious power of being able to appear and disappear automatically. “Ultimately, anyone who succeeded in fulfilling the Quest by obtaining the Holy Grail would obtain much more than the mere possession of an object, they would obtain spiritual enlightenment and the understanding of the deep things of God.”(4) Scholars fairly well agree that the grail has come to represent the search for the source of life, life physical, life immortal. That the grail was never located and in fact may never have existed is secondary to efforts, imaginations, dreams, and quests in search of this object. It was the nature of the quest itself that transformed men more than only actual discovery.
Gold, in its real monetary value and in its symbolic representations, has historically served to open literal and “figurative gates”.(5) B. Traven’s characters in “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” in their search tar gold were consciously and unconsciously looking to open these very gates. There are reasons to believe that faith in enchantments was connected to the rise of the power of gold. Gold intrinsically was no more nor less value than many other metals. What then is the force of gold’s appeal? How has gold come to represent value’? Gold was originally connected in men’s minds with magic. It rose to prominence as a charm, a favored method of control of the dreaded, unseen world. The very color of gold became associated with the sun. To most early peoples the sun was an object of worship, as evidenced in Egypt, Assyria, Peru, and by the early inhabitants of our own land. The sun was considered to have magical, life perpetuating properties and gold, sharing with the sun color and brilliance, became closely associated with these.
“That gold was pleasing to look at was secondary; the important consideration was that it was connected with the sun god.”(6) Gold would, when worn as jewelry, act as a charm and guarantee the wearer good luck, long life and protection against devils and demons. Men would go to any lengths and endure almost any sacrifice to secure gold’s magical protection. This mentality of valuing gold as something sacred and magical carries through even to our own time. The acquisition of this yellow metal has been the motivating spirit behind countless adventures, gold rushes, trade and gold wars. Gold operated like a magnet, an enchantment, even an addiction. The stories of the Spanish conquistadors are filled with revelations of how incredibly strong gold was in acting as an agent of imagination and adventure. Columbus, Pizarro, Ponce de León, and Coronado all gave themselves up to the insatiable quest for gold. In Columbus’s
First Letter From The New World
, he remarks that “these islands are richer than I yet know or can say and hold them all on their behalf and as completely at their disposition as the Kingdom of Castile. In this island of Hispaniola I have taken possession of a large town which is most conveniently situated for the gold fields and for communications with the mainland both here, and there in the territories of the Great Khan, with which there will be very profitable trade.”(7) The Catholic Majesties, Ferdinand and Isabella, were especially pleased with these remarks due to their depleted treasury and their interests in bringing new lands under Spanish rule.
There seems to be a parallel in all these quests throughout history. Those who believed In amulets and sun gods, those who searched for the wondrous grail, those who prospected their entire lives looking for gold, and those who plundered across Central America and the Caribbean were all caught up in this desire to find treasure; a treasure that -surely transcended mere material wealth and became a passion of dreams. This quest is what elevated the man or destroyed him forever.