Welcome to the January 2013 edition of the Great Fantasy Traveling Roundtable Guest Blog.

This month we are pondering that mainstay of fantasy literature, the Hero and the Quest, with thoughts on unlikely heroes, what a hero is and isn’t, how authors such as Frank Herbert have used this trope, and how we interpreted said  Hero and said Quest in our own fiction. Enjoy and reactions and responses are always welcome!

Warren Rochelle

My Heroes

According to the online version of the American Heritage Dictionary, a hero is:

1. In mythology and legend, a man, often of divine ancestry, who is endowed with great courage and strength, celebrated for his bold exploits, and favored by the gods.
2. A person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life: soldiers and nurses who were heroes in an unpopular war.
3. A person noted for special achievement in a particular field: the heroes of medicine. 
4. The principal male character in novel, poem, or dramatic presentation. 

The word hero should no longer be regarded as restricted to men in the sense [of] “a person noted for courageous action,” though heroine is always restricted to women.

 Two of my favorites heroes are Russell and Jeff, who happen to be two of the four protagonists in my novels, Harvest of Changelings (Golden Gryphon Press, 2007, paperback, 2008) and The Called (Golden Gryphon Press, 2010). They are rather unlikely heroes. Briefly, Russell and Jeff are the Fire and Water of their tetrad, their found family. Tetrads are the basic social unit of Faerie, and come in all kinds of gender combinations; their tetrad has three boys and one girl, Hazel, the Earth. Malachi, the other boy, is the Air. Often there are couples within the tetrad with the couple as primary bond, the tetrad as secondary. Except for Malachi, who is half-fairy, these children are the descendants of changelings left in our universe centuries ago. In Harvest, their long-dormant fairy DNA is awakened and they became to change, and become more magical, acquiring such abilities as flight and glamour-casting. At first they are dealing with these changes alone, then they find each other, and of course, they find themselves fighting Evil, human and otherwise, and on a Quest.

 When the reader first meets Russell Avery White he is 12 and in the 5th grade, having had to repeat two grades earlier. The school system has classified him as learning disabled. Red-haired, he has grass-green eyes and is living with his father and pregnant stepmother. His birthmother ran away years ago, taking with her his little brother, and leaving Russell to be verbally and physically abused by his dad. As he tells the other three: “I don’t remember him ever not doing it, now that I think about it” (Harvest 214). Russell’s body and soul are scarred and wounded. He is angry and thinks of himself as dark. He has learned to keep secrets, including his growing awareness of his attraction to boys. He dreams of centaurs—dreams sent by Faerie.

Harvest cover.4-18-12

 Jeffrey Arthur Gates is 10, a 5th grader and in Russell’s class. He has dark brown hair and sea-green eyes, and suffered “aggravated and protracted sexual abuse” from age 6 to 10. His father was the perpetrator; his mother abandoned him. Like Russell, he has been classified learning disabled. Like Russell he is scarred; Jeff’s are invisible. Now in foster care and fearing returning to his father, Jeff dreams of dragons.

 With Malachi, Hazel, they will fight demons, monsters, evil people, as, with the help of Malachi’s father, they search for the gate to Faerie.

 In The Called, the two boys, now lovers, are older, emotionally and mentally in their late teens, their physical aging slowed from their years in Faerie. They are called home to Earth to reunite their tetrad, to fight in another war against evil.  And they are still haunted by their pasts: the abuse, the pain, and the anger. They are still Outsiders.

 They carry no swords or spears. Their births seem ordinary, their rearing, with the abuse, less so. They are called to adventure, to the Quest—but it is more that adventure and the Quest finds them. Helpers, animal and wise souls, yes, and as they encounter evil and discover how to deal with it, they are tried and tested. There are monsters, yes, but the evil is often interior—the shadows of their pasts, and the damaged adults who sort of care for them. Russell’s anger is not easy for Jeff to deal with, no matter how much he comes to love him. Russell’s darkness, his disbelief in his own goodness, is not easy for anyone to deal with. For Jeff, the Somebody in the dark who came for him is still there, a ghost that is always present. They make awful mistakes again and again.


 And Russell and Jeff are two of my favorite heroes.


 From pain comes strength?  Yes, sometimes, but not always. Pain and anger can break someone; it breaks Russell; Jeff surrenders to it. Perhaps part of the answer can be found in these words by Jane Bowles*: “Your first pain, you carry it with you like a lodestone in your breast because all tenderness will come from there. You must carry it through your whole life but you must not circle around it.” That pain can bring tenderness, is, I would argue, the real source of the strength of my problem children. If they had not suffered and survived and grown from this, Jeff and Russell would have found their Quest-given tasks far more difficult.  As Fred Chappell said in the blurb he wrote for Harvest: “Perhaps a new beatitude is discovered: the broken shall mend the earth.

 But aren’t heroes the characters with whom the reader is to identify? The Hero is the archetype of the Self, right? The Hero and the Quest is the archetypal journey of coming of age (yes, I know it is problematic in its privileging of the public and the masculine)? But are there people who have not been hurt? We all were children once. And surely Heroes are Outsiders. I do identify with these two boys who grow into young men: they are telling part of my own story; they represent parts of my Self.

 The potential for heroism is present in all of us. The pain and hurt that comes to us can break us, but it also has the potential for ultimately bringing us greater strength of character and a truer sense of Self.

 The Quest is an ongoing journey.

 *Jane Bowles, 1917 – 1973, is an American writer and playwright considered by Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and John Ashbery to be “one of the finest and most underrated writers of American fiction.” She has “long had an underground reputation as one of the truly original writers of this century.”


Warren Rochelle has taught English at the University of Mary Washington since 2000. His short story, “The Golden Boy” (published in The Silver Gryphon) was a Finalist for the 2004 Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best Short Story and his novels include The Wild Boy (2001), Harvest of Changelings (2007), and The Called (2010. He also published a critical work on Le Guin and has academic articles in various journals and essay collections. His short story, “The Boy on McGee Street,” was just published in Queer Fish 2 (Pink Narcissus Press, 2012).



Deborah Ross

Hero on a Quest

Once upon a time, a hero represented a very particular character, an archetype if you will. He was invariably male, either a youth or in the prime of life, neither a child nor infirm with age; he was physically powerful and if not morally irreproachable, clearly a “good guy.” It was fine for him to have a flaw or two, so long as it did not interfere with his ability to accomplish great deeds and conquer mighty foes. Occasionally, the flaw would prove his downfall, as in the case of Achilles. The tradition that stretches from Odysseus, Beowulf, and Gilgamesh continued through King Arthur and his knights, to Tarzan, the superheroes of comic books, Doc Savage, and James Bond. True, there were occasional female-heroes in this mold, but mostly they imitated the men, only with brass bikinis, improbably high heels, and better fashion sense. What made them heroic, men and women alike, were physical prowess, lofty ideals, and larger-than-life goals. In other words, they were Worthy of The Noble Quest.

 The Quest was always something beyond the reach of the ordinary person. No average plowman or shop-keeper could aspire to find the Grail or slay the dragon. The Quest usually involved what Joseph Campbell called “the hero’s journey,” meaning that the central character must leave behind the familiar, venture into unknown terrain fraught with danger, and then return home. Sometimes he is changed by his experience, sometimes he merely puts himself back on the shelf until the next plea for help.

The function of this kind of Hero is not only as a Campbellian agent – that is, to guide the reader through a transformative journey – but as an agen instrument of Order and of The Triumph of Good. (Notice how the topic lends itself to unnecessary capitalization?) The world has veered toward Chaos, if not actually toppled headlong into the abyss, and the task of the Hero is to set things right. (I suspect that one modern incarnation of the classical Hero is the detective, who restores right social order by solving puzzles that lead to the apprehension of wrong-doers.) One of the implications here is that only those of noble birth, etc., and who are favored by the gods have the capacity to do great deeds. Aforementioned nobles undoubtedly relished stories that demonstrated them how superior they were and didn’t mind the peasantry being reminded of it. This propagated a hierarchical power structure in the same way as did the notion of the divine right of kings. It reinforced the notion that those with political power were inherently better (stronger, luckier, sexier, purer of thought, beloved by the gods) than those who had none.

 In an interesting twist, if one wants to praise someone in the People’s Republic of China (or the old Soviet Union), one says he or she is a Hero of the Revolution.

One of the most interesting changes to come about with the development of the novel was the notion that stories about people of ordinary stature and circumstances could be interesting, and that such characters, however humble, might behave in admirable ways. Of course, “ordinary” is in the eye of the beholder and people who were illiterate due to poverty had little opportunity to see themselves in novel characters. Jane Austen wrote about her own fairly comfortable social class, people whose circumstances were familiar to her. One might consider her a Hero of the Novelistic Revolution.

 With the shift to non-Heroic characters came the concept of a protagonist – one who acts — rather than a hero, and the blurring of lines between a person who may do extraordinary deeds but is not of the aristocratic, chosen-by-God mode. We might encounter protagonists-of-noble-birth who are heroic in spite of  rather than because of their dynastic sociopolitical standing. Eventually, we also had anti-heroes, reluctant heroes, villains-with-hearts-of-gold, and women heroes (to distinguish them from the typical wailing wilting damsel-in-distress heroines). We had central characters who represented ordinary people who rise to extraordinary heights, people that could be you or me. We stopped calling them heroes for a while, but now often do so again.

 Sometimes ordinary-people heroes go on quests, sometimes they get dragged kicking and protesting into adventures, and sometimes they simply ache with dreams until they wake up one day and take a small step toward realizing those dreams. In some ways, they carry us with them on their quest more readily because they are more like us. But with the specificity of character comes a different sort of distance from the reader. Many of the old-style Heroes were pretty bland as characters; they didn’t need quirks and failings and insecurities because they were, after all, Heroes. We now appreciate that in the hands of a skillful storyteller, superficial similarities (gender, race, socioeconomic status, nationality) fade in importance compared to the common human experience and aspirations. A sympathetic character trumps one who is “like me.” Added to that is the value placed on diversity and “exoticism” (which is another way of saying, the romantic aspect of strange lands and people).

 I wonder if the shift from superhuman/aristocratic Hero to ordinary person acting in heroic ways also reflects a shift in empowerment. Once upon a time, not only could the people who comprised the vast majority of the work force hope to achieve anything notable, they dared not draw attention to themselves. I think now of the people who jump into rivers to save children, or land disabled airplanes under near-impossible circumstances, or place themselves between gunmen and the students in their care (or talk those same gunmen into laying down their weapons). These are true heroes and what they accomplish – often without planning or forethought – may not fulfill the classical definition of a quest. But to the children who are still alive and to everyone who hears these stories and gets tears in their eyes, these spontaneous acts of courage shine all the brighter.


Deborah J. Ross began writing professionally in 1982 as Deborah Wheeler with Jaydium and Northlight and short stories in Asimov’s, F & SF, Realms Of FantasyY and Star Wars: Tales From Jabba’s Palace. Now under her birth name, Ross, she is continuing the” Darkover” series of the late Marion Zimmer Bradley, as well as original work, including the fantasy trilogy The Seven-Petaled Shield, forthcoming from DAW. She is a member of Book View Cafe. She’s lived in France, worked for a cardiologist, studied Hebrew, yoga and kung fu, plays classical piano, loves horses, and is active in the local Jewish and Quaker communities.



 Chris Howard

Frank Herbert and the Quest without a Hero

Like any writer I have many stylistic influences spanning classical, romantic, and contemporary authors from Homer, Hugo, and Dostoyevsky to Terry Pratchett, Richard Morgan, and Caitlín Kiernan.  But if I had to pick an author whose work influenced me to the core–and at a young age–it would be Frank Herbert.  For a particular work it would be Dune. 

 One of the things Dune taught me was that the protagonist of the story can go on the quest, suffer at the hands of an oppressor, struggle through and around the obstacles enemies lay out for him, and he can even complete the quest and emerge victorious.  And he can do all of this without being a hero.

 Or maybe Paul Atreides was just a different sort of hero, one I had never come across before.  With Dune Frank Herbert made me look at heroes and their quests in a different way.

 I think many fantasy writers would automatically stick Tolkien on the list, but although I have read the Lord of the Rings dozens of times—and The Silmarillion at least ten—I can’t say Tolkien affected me the same way—or as deeply.  Certainly Tolkien showed me the wonder of maps, invented languages, an excitingly deep world, and how a big story—Lord of the Rings—can become just one insignificant fragment of a far longer and more complicated story.  These are the things I still love about The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.  I probably would have said Tolkien was my favorite author when I was a teenager, but when I hit twenty or so, after four or five readings about Paul Atreides and all the craziness he gets up to with the fremen, I sort of felt like I had graduated from The Lord of the Rings to Dune.

 Dune was also exotic, non-traditional.  It had European roots without being entirely European, and that drew me in.  There was also a very familiar parallel with Paul’s move from Caladan with its broad oceans to the faraway and very different desert world of Arrakis.  I had moved around a lot and I thought that gave me insight into Paul’s plight—typical teenager. I was living in Japan, going to high school, when I first read Dune, but I had also lived just outside Paris, and in Idar-Oberstein, Germany.  I had been up and down South Korea, Italy, and through East Germany by train to Berlin.  I had lived on both American coasts, and I was living in Silicon Valley.  In my seventeen- or eighteen- year-old mind there was definitely something that connected the changes shaking up Paul’s life and the constant moving around when I was young.

 If the unfamiliar and striking backdrop of Arrakis lured me in first, that was quickly followed by Herbert’s push and play with the concept of a hero.  Paul Atreides wasn’t your typical innocent kid with a quest thrust on him, with everything he counted on pulled from under his feet.  He wasn’t just a pawn struggling to find his way in a universe of space-folding guild navigators and galactic-scale trade and political manipulation.  He was a significant piece in the Bene Gesserit breeding program.  He took the terrible risk—basically gambling everything—to gain god-like powers, which he used to gather and train thousands of fanatical soldiers.  He defeated the emperor’s forces, killing armies and princes, the whole time maneuvering himself onto the throne, marrying the emperor’s daughter purely for political gain.  And he ends the last chapter with less control over his life than when the story started. 

 Paul was a man playing god,” said Herbert.

 That idea hooked me at the first reading—that the hero could take on powers that he would not be able to control, that he could end up flawed so deeply he wasn’t a hero anymore. 

 None of the main characters in The Lord of the Rings had an evolution like Paul Atreides.  Frodo, Aragorn, and the others were heroes in the traditional sense.  Even if Frodo didn’t come home whole, he came back a true hero, having lost a finger and defeated the greatest evil of his age.  Paul Atreides didn’t come home from his long journey a hero.  He was a messiah at the head of a monster of religious ferocity he created.  Anything that monster did would be done in his name, and he didn’t really control it.

 Then he unleashed it on the universe.

 In Herbert’s own words, “The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes. Much better to rely on your own judgment, and your own mistakes.”

 Paul had the quest.  He made the journey.  He was victorious.  There’s a clear apotheosis stage—literally.  Paul Atreides is deified.  He passes through the stages of the hero’s journey.  He just isn’t a hero.  Not in the usual sense. 

 I haven’t read Dune in ten or fifteen years, but I can still feel the affect that book and the following two—Dune Messiah and Children of Dune —had on me.  I loved the culture clashing in Dune, the court intrigue, the power and plans of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, the dinner parties with codes and signals and conversations being carried on at several levels at the same time—and only understood by a few.  But it was the protagonist wielding power beyond his control that pulled me back into that universe again and again.  It was Paul-Muad’Dib driving his followers, his family, the guilds, the Bene Gesserits, and the entire empire toward a doom he could not escape.

 That is what has stuck with me to this day.  Paul became a model for the kinds of heroes I love to write about.  Heroes who barely have the will or personal strength to hold onto the reigns of some monstrous power that is part of them, or that they have created, and sometimes they end up being consumed by it.

 In the introduction to his short story collection Eye, Frank Herbert elaborates on this theme. “Dune was aimed at this whole idea of the infallible leader because my view of history says that mistakes made by a leader (or made in a leader’s name) are amplified by the numbers who follow without question. That’s how 900 people wound up in Guyana drinking poison Kool-Aid…”

 I don’t know if it’s unusual but I love the idea of a protagonist who isn’t heroic in the traditional sense.  I love an unsympathetic hero–or a hero who starts the story without a shared compassion or a strong connection with the reader, and grows to become sympathetic.

 On the other hand I also love a good straightforward heroic quest, where the hero is good and right and fights evil.  I know Herbert has been taken as being an active opponent of the hero’s journey, the monomyth, the whole Campbell thousand-faced hero, and in the Dune trilogy it looks that way–even with Paul’s progress through the story closely following many of the steps Campbell describes.  It’s what Paul ends up becoming that disrupts the structure. 

 I don’t think Herbert’s in the same camp with David Brin, a confirmed and outspoken adversary of the hero’s journey and the Campbellian insistence that components of the myths are common among most cultures worldwide  (Read Brin’s fun and interesting “Star Wars” despots vs. “Star Trek” populists: http://www.salon.com/1999/06/15/brin_main). 

 Herbert was more of an explorer of conflict and ideas, using his heroes to work through serious flaws in leadership, on the environment and very long range planning, the power of linguistics, and down to challenging what’s considered normal and abnormal. In the Dune books at least, he did not focus on science or future technology.  His explorations frequently brought him up against traditional character structure and reader acceptance, but I don’t consider him an enemy of the popular heroic journey and story structure.  I consider him a thoughtful science fiction writer who wanted to push the boundaries of the genre in ways that focused on awareness of important issues—ecology, flaws in perception—the infallible leader, and on the dangers of accepting without examination long-held beliefs and cultural fixtures—the hero who completes the quest and returns home a better or at least a more evolved person. 

 Herbert said, “We tend to tie ourselves down to limited choices. We say, ‘Well, the only answer is….’ or, ‘If you would just. . . .’ Whatever follows these two statements narrows the choices right there. It gets the vision right down close to the ground so that you don’t see anything happening outside. Humans tend not to see over a long range. Now we are required, in these generations, to have a longer range view of what we inflict on the world around us. This is where, I think, science fiction is helping. I don’t think that the mere writing of such a book as Brave New World or 1984 prevents those things which are portrayed in those books from happening. But I do think they alert us to that possibility and make that possibility less likely. They make us aware that we may be going in that direction.”


Chris Howard is a creative guy with a pen and a paint brush, author of Seaborn (Juno Books)  and half a shelf-full of other books. His short stories have appeared in a bunch of zines, latest is “Lost Dogs and Fireplace Archeology” in Fantasy Magazine. In 2007, his story “Hammers and Snails” was a Robert A. Heinlein Centennial Short Fiction Contest winner. He writes and illustrates the comic, Saltwater Witch. His ink work and digital illos have appeared in Shimmer, BuzzyMag, various RPGs, and on the pages of other books, blogs, and places. Last year he painted a 9 x 12 foot Steampunk Map of New York for a cafe in Brooklyn. Find out everything at http://www.SaltwaterWitch.com


Carole McDonnell

The hero in stasis

Perhaps it’s the Judeo-Christian virtue of endurance. Perhaps it’s my own life. But my characters have never really wanted to go on a quest. Often they end up on one. Because the genre requires it, because the story requires it. But, for the most part, the quests of my heroes is the quest of a happy home. Home, as they have found it, is a burden to them and they generally want to leave home in order to find or create a better home — far from their own tribe or clan.

 I haven’t read up on the hero’s quest in a while so I’m not sure why the hero generally leaves home. Maybe I’ve fallen into the requirements of the trope without knowing. After all, the hero’s quest is such a part of our culture. The prince must depart his land, fight dragons or ogres, marry a woman from another clan, then bring her happily back.

 I will say, though, that my characters tend to be heroes of endurance. Whether women or men, they are mired in stasis — usually by well-meaning parents or clans. It is as if, my muses are not so much concerned with the quest but with exploring the brief imprisonment the hero endures. In most fantasy books, the hero has his little encounter with the jail/dungeon/dark prison then he moves on. In my books, the enduring of the dungeon is the entire novel. The hero or heroine is mired in waiting. This waiting involves hope, remorse, existential questions to God, deadly routine, and the determination to hold on to their personality, character, and/or will.

 Thus, the quest is to leave the state of being mired and to return to a normalcy the typical hero takes for granted. To merely have a happy home. Perhaps that is why many of my characters are princesses or wives in unhappy marriages or damaged children of kings and warriors. Men and the healthy have a certain freedom that women, the sickly, and young children do not. 

 There are moments when they seem to have an apparent chance to leave their dungeon —whether by suicide, flight, or concession to the powers that be— but their love for another character, hope in Divine Intervention or a possible change of  mind of their prisoner, or a holding on to their will prevents them from leaving.  I suspect this kind of  hero stasis can only be understand by those readers who, like The Godfather’s Don Corleone, are constantly being reeled back in —-in spite of every attempt to flee the clan.

 So my new soon-to-be published novel, The Constant Tower, is not for happy middle class kids who want an adventure in order to grow, but for kids in bad neighborhoods, poor kids who wish to run away from home, kids who don’t want to be in clans, women married into hateful clans. Folks who just want to be happy with the normal. The Christian worldview of battling for a regular life in the face of suffering, sickness, and the fact of others controlling our lives changes the Hero Quest trope a bit — because of that Christian virtue of Endurance. 


Carole McDonnell is a writer of ethnic fiction, speculative fiction, and Christian fiction. Her works have appeared in many anthologies and at various online sites. Her first novel, Wind Follower, was published by Wildside Books. Her forthcoming novel is called The Constant Tower.   http://carolemcdonnell.blogspot.com/  



Sylvia Kelso

When is a Quest Not a Quest?

 “Quest: a journey towards a goal,” quoth the ubiquitous Wikipedia. “Hero” – one of the few words that descends but doesn’t translate from Classical Greek or Latin. “Heros” in Greek means exactly the same as “hero” in English. Whatever that may be.

The usefully succinct Wikipedia once again:

hero (male) and heroine (female) came to refer to characters who, in the face of danger and adversity or from a position of weakness, display courage and the will for self sacrifice—that is, heroism—for some greater good of all humanity.

Key-words, courage, philanthropism, self-sacrifice. Says something about the general run of homo sap. sap. that these last two qualities should be the benchmark for heroism, doesn’t it?

 Outside literature, heroes don’t need a quest. They can fulfill the Wikipedia criteria without warning or training, on a surf beach, at a bushfire, beside a stormdrain. Inside littracha, everybody from Joseph Campbell up or down has produced endless lists of quest and hero variations. “’Bilbo went to find a treasure, there and back again, but I go to lose one, and not return’” (FOTR, 3 75), says Frodo to Gandalf, in That Book, citing just two possibilities. And every type of hero or quest studs modern fantasy, with the exception of one. The true anti-hero doesn’t appear.

 An anti-hero usually loosely means, a hero who doesn’t look heroic: he’s unwilling, or ugly, or cowardly, or immoral. But in fact, a real anti-hero wd. be the opposite of a hero: when the crunch came, instead of fronting up like all the unlikely heroes, from Sam to Beau Mains, the anti-hero would turn and run. And without a hero who can meet the Wikipedia criteria, the whole “heroic” storyline  would collapse.

 But suppose that even if the hero/es behave/s in good heroic fashion, the Quest turns out not to be a Quest? Does that violate the spirit of both terms?

 Quests are trickier than heroes. In littracha, you need them because without a goal, the hero/es’ wanderings wd. degenerate into a picaresque novel, a train of adventures with no coherent end. With a goal, there’s motivation for the story arc. There’s a  visible reason to keep going somewhere.

 I have done my share of starting-a-book-with-a-Quest, but for some reason the Black Gang, aka the creative part of the writing crew, chose to end my second  Amberlight book at the start of a Quest. It was complete with dream omens, the gathering of a company, and an unknown but apparently desperately urgent goal.  Deprived of their magic McGuffin at the end of Book 1, the main cast has been struggling to maintain their small Utopian community of Iskarda in the turbulent vacuum left by the fall of the city of Amberlight.  At the end of book two, the McGuffin is suddenly restored – but now it’s no longer the basis of their former power, it’s a literal “seed,” powerless to protect even itself.


 Only one solution, says their chief strategist. Get it out of here: the River knows it exists, the power-wolves will be after it. So make a public, heavily visible departure in hopes this small indefensible community will be ignored. Take it where? The answer is already supplied, perhaps by the McGuffin itself: the dreams’ goal, the image of a place their own lore identifies as the River’s source.

 The novel turned out a two-fold story, told in letters between the chief Quester and her community’s newest foreign member, back in Iskarda.  The Quest section proceeded in the proper mode: obstacles, traumas, self-discoveries and harrowing interpersonal conflicts, moments of wrenching loss, exotic new environments, uncovered secrets, and a tail of cataclysmic events, as the McGuffin’s  presence disrupted or outright overthrew River states. All kosher by Quest list-rules. The “heroes” also met helpers as well as enemies, they transcended their ordinary selves, their actions were meant to benefit many others. Eventually, they reached the place that had been their goal.

The Questers had come to assume they would find not merely the River’s Source, but a solution to all the problems of a world by then convulsed in war, threatening to destroy Iskarda along with the precious new states founded in the McGuffin’s wake. Whatever it was, the goal would give them the means to save everything.


 And it didn’t happen.

 The Questers dealt, in some sort, with the shock. They picked themselves up, realized that their world was still dissolving behind them and set off, empty-handed, to fight and if necessary fall with their friends. As they very nearly did. In a sense, the return journey was far more heroic, in the general sense, than the one toward the goal, because unlike Frodo with his treasure lost, the return journey offered only probable immolation for its end.

 Of course, this being a fantasy novel, the eucatastrophe that Tolkien first articulated eventually intervened. But the question remains: if the hero goes through the motions of the Quest, heroic and otherwise, but reaches his goal to find it – well, not what he expected – can that journey still be called a quest?

 And if it isn’t a quest, though the journey remains motivated, is the goal-seeker a hero, in the most rigid and basic sense? That is, can you have a quest without a hero, even if you do have heroes without a quest?

 The Black Gang consider the whole Q and A a critical trivium. Who cares, they say, if it’s “really” a quest or the heroes were “really” heroes? if it looks like a hero, and talks like a hero, and acts like a hero, it’s a hero, isn’t it?  And if it looks like a Quest, and sounds like a Quest, and produces a story like a Quest, who cares?  Nobody said the goal had to be more than a purpose or an aim. If you want a list-maker’s version, they sniff, then puff out your chest and claim it as the ultimate variation – the Quest that looked like a Quest and sounded like a Quest, and wasn’t technically a Quest at all.

 And on this one, I think I’ll let the Black Gang have the final word.

* * * * *

Sylvia Kelso lives in North Queensland, Australia, and writes fantasy and SF set mostly in analogue or alternate Australian settings. She has published six fantasy novels, two of which were finalists for best fantasy novel of the year in the Australian Aurealis genre fiction awards, and some stories in Australian and US anthologies. Her latest short story, “At Sunset” appears in Luna Station Quarterly for September 2012.





One Response to “The Great Fantasy Traveling Roundtable Guest Blog, January 2013: The Hero and the Quest”
  1. Reading everyone else’s posts always makes me feel so self-involved. You gives give such academic researched commentaries on your posts and I fall into navel-gazing. I really ought to start reading more fiction. Love to you all. -C

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