The Hero’s Journey: Quest Literature for Tweens

A quest, by a simple definition, is a journey to find something or someone and bring it/him/her back. Most often it is a physical journey, but it can also be a journey of the mind. What the hero, or heroine, might find during the journey is more about his or her own inner self. For this project, I am going to give a list of the books chosen for discussion. I will  tag them with quest or journey and put them in the category of Quest Literature on the Blog, in the hope that you can search them in that way. I have also set up links to five trailers on quest books for teens: for Keys to the Kingdom, for Knee Deep in Thunder, for The Hunger Games, for Matilda Bone, and for The Lost Years of Merlin.

If you try to think of some quest stories, some that probably come to mind first are books about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the search for the Holy Grail, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, Jason and Argonauts and the search for the Golden Fleece, and perhaps fairy tales such as “East of the Sun, West of the Moon”. One of the oldest known quest stories is the Gilgamesh epic. A more modern quest trilogy is Star Wars. George Lucas admits being heavily influenced by readings of Campbell. Campbell was a scholar who divided the quest story into seventeen major parts. More references to his stages will appear later.

As a graduate student at Harvard in the 1980’s I was privileged to take a course in Slavic Folk Tales with Dr. Albert Lord. My research paper was a comparison of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” across several slavic and russian traditions and languages. At the time, I knew Lord was a cool elderly professor with snow white hair who spoke at least twenty languages. Only later did I discover how prominent he was in his field of study. I thank him for encouraging my love of folklore.

Campbell came up about 17 stages of a quest of which some or all may appear in any given story. Here were some of the stages that struck me as interesting. The hero starts at home or in the real world (Dorothy at her farm in Kansas in The Wizard of Oz). She crosses a threshold into a magical world, often by crossing water, or in Dorothy’s case, having her whole house lifted by a tornado and deposited in Oz. In Harry Potter, the students are transported by train and cross the lake to Hogwarts. In T.A. Barron’s books on the young Merlin, he floated across on a raft from Wales to the mythical isle that connects the worlds of humans and the gods.

The hero meets a wise man or woman who often gives them advice or a talismen or amulet that will be needed on the journey. Glenda the Good gives Dorothy the Ruby Slippers. Luke Skywalker meets Obiwan and later Yoda. The Hogwarts students have their teachers, especially the wise old headmaster Dumbledore.

The hero goes through trials and tribulations, fights monsters, overcomes obstacles and searches for something — the wizard who can get Dorothy back to Kansas, the way to dispose of the Ring in Lord of the Rings, Them in Knee Deep in Thunder, and the Golden Fleece in Jason and the Argonauts.

An interesting stage was that at some point the hero meets a powerful, often evil, man, defeats him in battle, and finds that they are the same. Think of Luke in his battle with Darth Vader. He discovers Vader is his father and discovers that he Luke has his own dark side he must fight against. In the Arthurian tales, Sir Galahad does battle with Sir Lancelot, his father. His father doesn’t realize he battled his son until later as Galahad is not carrying his own shield. Galahad is referred to in the tales as being very like his father, but without his flaws.

In many epics the hero falls in love. Think Luke and Princess Leia (before they discover they are twins). Lancelot and Guenivere. Tristan and Isolde. They also may need to battle against lust and dangerous women. Think of Odysseus and the Sirens and Circe on her enchanted isle. Sir Lancelot tried to overcome his desire for Guenevere, the Queen of the King he has sworn loyalty to. Sir Gawain struggles to resist the charms of the Green Knight’s wife as she slips into his bed chamber each morning while her husband is off hunting. This reminded me of the scene in Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail where the knight arrives at the castle full of women in white. The one woman says, “Wicked Zoot, she turned on the Holy Grail beacon again.” They try to convince him to stay with them and beg for spankings (enough said)( 11). Of course, the Monty Python movie is a farce on King Arthur and quests. In some cases, the attractive woman or girl becomes the hero’s love or one he subliminally desires, as in  the forest girl in Lost Years of Merlin, Katniss and the baker’s son in Hunger Games, Renn in Wolf Brother, and Keys to the Kingdom (Susie Blue Turquoise).

The books I chose for my collection of quest books include

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer,

The Fairy Tale Book, especially the tales “The Wild Swans” and “The Seven Crow Princes,” translated by Marie Ponot and with glorious illustrations by Adrienne Segur,

The Fires of Merlin by T. A. Barron,

The Grey King by Susan Cooper,

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins,

The Keys to the Kingdom: Mister Monday by Garth Nix,

Knee Deep in Thunder by Shiela Moon,

The Lost years of Merlin by T. A. Barron,

Matilda Bone by Karen Cushman,

Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper,

Stoneheart by Charlie Fletcher,

Tales of King Arthur by James Riordan, illustrated by Victor Ambrus,

Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander,

Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus by R. L. LaFevers, and

Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver.

and additional references to fairy tales such as East of the Sun — West of the Moon, legends such as King Arthur, Merlin, the Knights of the Round Table, the Search for the Holy Grail, Odysseus, Aeneas , Jason of the Golden Fleece, Gilgamesh, and more contemporary works such as Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, the Wizard of Oz, and movies such as Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Librarian movies (this link is to a trailer for The Librarian: Curse of the Judas Chalice, the Star Wars trilogy and three Star Wars prequels, and most recently, the movie Inception.

If you go to Posts on this Blog and View All, you will find individual posts for each of the books listed above. Please see also my post on this site, “Quest Literature or ‘the Hero’s Journey'” and side comments on Inception, posted 7/20/2010. As I was looking through my list, I wondered if some of the tween books I listed would actually fit the quest criteria, or were they actually adventures or fantasy with adventure (as in Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus) or more a historical novel (Matilda Bone). I included Matilda Bone because she does go out from her home to a new place, meets wise women and wise men, goes through trials and tribulations, and at the end finds a new home and undergoes maturation and changes in her inner self. I find when I read the modern quest work (those written in the last twenty years or so), they seem to go more into the internal motivations of the hero, his or her childhood, and so on, rather than the older works which seem to hinge more on what society expects of one, such as loyalty, bravery, and persistence. I think this might be because we, as a culture or society, in recent decades, place more emphasis on the importance of the individual than on the individual’s worth to society. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” stated by President John F. Kennedy–Ask-Not-What-Your-Country-Can-Do-For-YouAmerican-Presidents-John-F-Kennedy

may seem old fashioned to many of our tweens who only seem to ask “What can you do for me?”

I had an interesting discussion yesterday with my neighbor who is a Boy Scout leader. He just took a bunch of boys on a tough backpacking trip in the Sierras. We talked about the worth of letting tweens make mistakes and then have to live with the consequences. This contributes more to their growth in maturity than doing everything for them. As an example, he told a group of boys to load the tents and cooking equipment into the truck that was to meet them at the camping site far uphill. The boys sat around and talked instead and the truck left without the equipment. OK, secretly the scout master talked with the camp maintenance staff who were driving to the camp later in the day and arranged for them to bring the gear, but for hours the boys thought that as a consequence of their actions they would be without tents or cooking equipment. Now, had this taken place in the 1940’s, would the scout master have really left the equipment behind to teach even a bigger lesson?

I recently attended a memorial service for Fletch Young, the father of Chris Young, a man I look up to in Contra Costa Search and Rescue, I was moved by the younger people who spoke of Fletch’s influence on their lives. He taught them how to be self sufficient, how to tinker and make things with their hands, and to be ethical human beings. One might wish all young people would have chance to have a Fletch to mentor them. Perhaps as a librarian, one might help in the growth process by encouraging the search for knowledge and the pursuit of a good tale with a moral message in our tweens.

What are today’s quests for our young people? Or are they largely only found on video games where they can be surmounted with “cheats” found on the internet?


Campbell, Joseph. Monomyth: Hero with a Thousand Faces, first published in 1949. This is a seminal work. If you type in some of these term in Google you will get a plethora of university courses on the subject, and papers on how Star Wars and the Matrix relate to his theories. The body of work is huge and probably a few doctoral theses have already come out of the ideas generated by his work. Obviously, my project has only been able to touch on a few of his ideas. I have a couple links for the better short summaries of his ideas below.

This is a good summary of Campbell’s stages in the quest, apparently developed for a course at UC Berkeley

This is a link to a site with a good graphic of the Hero cycle as laid out by Joseph Campbell:

Most of the other works I read or consulted are listed in the body of this blog.

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