Food for Thought: The Quest

Hey folks and welcome to another exciting bit of “Food for Thought!” A few weeks ago we attacked a pretty cool point to tack onto your next critical theory essay–the reverse Bildungsroman–and this week we’re going to take a glance at another key staple of literature, movies, comics, and beyond. I’m talking about the quest–a journey towards a specific goal.

This quest can, of course, be riddled with symbolism, strange sort of subliminal messages and other attempts at authorial intent. I mean, let’s think of a pretty classic example, The Quest for the Holy Grail, which isn’t actually about some knights who say “Nee”. Oh no, the actual quest for the Holy Grail is all about saintliness; it’s a journey with a set goal which ultimately encompasses a not-so-subtle moral message that is supposed to inspire its audience to work towards their own “quests” to become better people.

A young hero ready to go on an epic quest -- but is there another  message here?

A young hero ready to go on an epic quest — but is there another message here?

And this tradition of making quest stories still carries on today with journeys of dashing young men seeking out an ultimate goal.  What comes to mind are stories such as Hayao Miyazaki’s stunning Princess Mononoke with the young prince in exile, Ashitaka, as he seeks out a way to uplift his curse… I mean, it sounds pretty good, right? You go on this journey and you get a reward of some sort that should, somehow, make you a better person.

But is there, in some way, a problematic message that also is transmitted through the epic quest and the perceived rewards the hero receives at the very end?

Now I find nothing wrong with quest stories. I love them, and in fact find that they do teach a lot of things and are–in general–rather heart-warming tales with a great ending for its heroes and its heroines. Because no, the quest isn’t a “boy’s only” deal. We have wonderful quests undertaken by brave young women, with characters such as Chihiro from Spirited Away using her hard-work and determination–instead of brute force–to rescue her transformed parents from becoming the next meal for some high-rolling spirits. And in a more melodramatic view there’s Homura from Madoka Magica and her constant struggle to reverse time and save her best and dearest friend, with each new timeline another thousand miles towards her ultimate goal.

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Heck, you can even see how some of the most famous Disney princesses go on their own quests with these terrific endings and life-lessons for them and their audience. Princess Jasmine is pretty gutsy, dreaming up a life beyond the palace walls and she finds it; then there is Mulan who through the love of her family journeys to take her father’s place and succeeds in her ultimate goal of protecting him from the horrors of  (a terribly inaccurate) invasion–and she also saves the rest of China, too.

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Or we can go to the classics — The Wizard of Oz is all about Dorothy finding her way back home, and she does so with a flair and a flourish that demonstrates her abilities. Sure she may be kind of a derp in a land that’s a giant allegory, but she navigates that land, makes a few good friends, defeats a great evil, and then gets to go home once she’s done almost everything to set the Land of Oz back to rights. It’s pretty boss, yanno?

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And Roald Dahl’s Matilda is all about a young spit-fire psychic and her longing to be accepted–as well as able to read her books in peace. She’s got wit and a strong streak for mischief that helps her defeat her demons and find that loving home that she always dreamed of; as well as a few well-deserved cracks at C.S Lewis and his writing style but that’s a story for another day. What matters is the journey–of a young hero who must find their grail–and the trials and tribulations that they face and overcome to ultimately succeed and voila, we have our happy ending and a nice little moral about all kinds of things (Friendship, dedication, perseverance, etc.) to boot!

But, and I hope you all noticed a Thing during this account of typical quest examples. One, I hope you noticed that the quest always leads to a reward–the ultimate goal is a wanted thing, as well as an expected thing that the hero is denied, at first, but finds resolution in receiving it at the end. Let’s take Mulan for example: She is anxious about having her father’s approval, as well as bringing honor to her family. We, the audience, know that she will get this reward at the end; I mean, it’s a Disney movie, we know it’s going to work out well. We the audience expect her to get her reward in the end– the fun of watching the movie is seeing how she gets that reward.

But there is that subliminal message over here: that expectation of getting something after a journey.

Two, I hope you noticed that these quests are, in many ways, divided by gender. Like. Okay.

While I am sure that many fans of Hayao Miyazaki can relate to the struggle of gentle-hearted Ashitaka, how many boys are willing to make a leap of faith to find themselves in characters such as Dorothy, or even Mulan? It doesn’t help that for many of these “girl power” quest movies there is the tendency to advocate them as movies just for girls.

So what happens when already there is some sort of dismissal of a woman’s quest over a man’s quest? The man’s quest is a universal thing that can be understood by all, while the woman’s quest is you know, a girl thing.

At this point you may be wondering: So Fenrir where are you going with this, I thought you liked the idea of quest stories; are you trying to tell us that male quest stories are bad?

To which I respond: No, I’m not saying that at all. But what I am trying to get at is perhaps summarized neatly by Colin Stokes during his TED talk: The Hidden Meaning in Kid’s Stories, in which he reminds parents to be a little more critical about the media that kids ingest, and how he notes that the “quest”–although a beloved story-line–can in many ways lead to some problems.

What are the kids getting out of watching, or reading, about these quests? Do they see the journey, or do they see the reward, and learn to expect a reward at the very end of whatever quest they encounter? And is that reward all about destroying evil and then gaining a hot chick on the side who doesn’t do much?

We shouldn't always expect some sort of reward

We shouldn’t always expect some sort of reward

Because let’s face it, the quest can come with its own bonus romantic subplot, which aren’t bad persay, but can become problematic when we learn to expect a reward at the end of our struggles. And as Stokes poignantly notes, what do we see most often in these epic quest tales made for our consumption?

Stories where: the boy is a hero, who defeats the villain through violence, and collects his reward, which is a woman with no friends and who doesn’t speak.

As of late there’s been a bit of an Internet movement to bemoan the “Nice Guy”, the kind of person who expects that by being an okay human being they are entitled to something or other–most often the case seems to be the love of a target woman. And while these cases can maybe reach Denko proportions, more often than not there comes the outcry of “Why?” when the aforementioned Nice Guy fails to attract the woman of his dreams. Didn’t he go on a quest and do all these things to win her affection? Where is the reward?

Now, it’s a stretch to correlate the problems of things such as Nice Guy-ism to childhood stories about epic heroes going on epic journeys and getting cool stuff at the end of it. Even I am a bit leery of attributing expectations for things to one source of entertainment, and I feel that it takes more than watching a lot of James Bond to become–pardon my French–a lout when it comes to dating.

The quest stories of our youth still have the power to make us better people when we see by example–from both male and female protagonists–how one can conquer their obstacles. In the end, it boils down to what I think people get out of it–and when it especially comes time for young parents to sit down their children and watch their old favorites with them, there should be an emphasis on watching these quests. Just as long as people remember the importance of the journey, maybe a little more than the anticipated reward. Because let’s face it, life’s not like the movies, and even though our favorite heroes and heroines get what they wanted in the end — that’s just not how real life is going to work out.

Treasure the journey and the struggle it takes to overcome it–and watch how it’s possible for both men and women to do so.

Princess Mononoke is not just Ashitaka's journey, nor is it only about rescuing a certain wolf princess and wining her heart--but how they both grow to be better people

Princess Mononoke is not just Ashitaka’s journey, nor is it only about rescuing a certain wolf princess and wining her heart–but how they both grow to be better people

That, I think, is a journey worth setting out on, and maybe something that even some over-grown adults who are fond of watching these stories, should remind themselves too.

Annnnd that’s all there is to this sort-of long and rambly look into genres that are kind of a big deal in our lives as media consumers! (YAY!) Tune in next time for another bit of Food for Thought to chew on, next weekend!

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Fenrir

A would-be anthropologist, writer, food historian, and professional glutton hoping to combine fandom with her love of food. Ever wondered what a nug tasted like? Is butterbeer alcoholic? If you've asked such questions and are already drooling at the thought of a big old plate of lembas bread, then you're in the right place

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Fenrir

A would-be anthropologist, writer, food historian, and professional glutton hoping to combine fandom with her love of food. Ever wondered what a nug tasted like? Is butterbeer alcoholic? If you've asked such questions and are already drooling at the thought of a big old plate of lembas bread, then you're in the right place

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