“I’ve been on a journey,” has to be one of the most well-worn phrases of the 21st century. Every week it trips off the tongues of T.V. reality show contestants and, I hasten to add, mere mortals busying themselves in schools and offices the length and breadth of the nation.
There was a time in the past when the weekly T.V. journey consisted of watching a heroic German Shepherd (Hobo) trekking his way across North America solving crimes and doing good deeds on his way. Now that, as The Jam said, is entertainment. It also leads very nicely into a consideration of stories that use the plot of a journey to structure their narrative.
The quest is one of the oldest story structures in the world. Just mention of the word quest summons thoughts of Greek gods, mythical creatures and magical weapons. It brings to mind a long linear narrative of highs and lows; hopes raised and then dashed and a long and winding series of unfortunate events.
During the time of the National Strategies there was a Year 4 unit based on quest myths. Teachers dutifully sought out copies of Greek myths that would inspire their children to write their own epic tales. And therein, for some teachers, lay a problem. The epics are just that – epic. And Year 4 children are not renowned for their staying power. Furthermore, laying your hands on good quality adaptations of the epic quest myths is not always that easy. Add into this mix a problem that was presented to me in one school, “Our children are new to English and they just can’t access the language in the Greek quests.” and you can appreciate that for some teachers the thought of quests was akin to a heroic challenge.
Why, then, do we study quests with our children? I’ve written before about s inspirational book “The ‘Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories” and it’s to this that I turn again. The quest is listed by Booker as one of the seven basic plots. Not just the quest myths of ancient literature but quests across books and films that we know and love. If, as teachers, we can recognise the structure of the quest then we can find it in a variety of texts, share it with our children and ultimately give them another structure to use when writing their own narrative – and it doesn’t have to be set in Ancient Greece.
So, what is it that makes a text a quest? Booker identifies the following features:
- The call (to action)
- The hero’s companions
- The journey
- The helpers
- Arrival and frustration
- Final ordeals
- The goal
For a detailed analysis of the quest I recommend you read “The Seven Story Structures” in brief. Here we can see that the call is frequently urgent and makes it impossible for the hero to remain at home. No matter how much Bilbo Baggins wanted to stay in his Hobbit hole, the pull of the quest was too great. The companions that the hero takes on the quest play a significant part in the story. Would Harry Potter have found the Philosopher’s Stone without Hermione and Ron? And Hazel may have been the leader of the rabbits in Watership Down but, as Booker says, where would he have been without Bigwig, Blackberry and Fiver? Now if only we could say that the journey is just that. It is of course littered with peril and multitudinous barriers to completion. Characteristic of the journey are: monsters – think trolls, Harpies, or giant snakes; Temptations – such as Sirens. And, in the ancient quests, an expectation that our hero will have to take a trip into the underworld. Fortunately, help is generally on hand during a quest and ancient wizards such as Gandalf, Yoda and Dumbledore (whose wisdom guides the hero towards their prize) are familiar figures of support. Arrival at the destination is rarely the end of the story. There will be more tests to overcome such as games of wizard chess or battles with stormtroopers so that the quests can be completed and peace restored.
There’s a lot here. And, if you’re a teacher of EY or KS1 children, you may wonder about the relevance of the quest for the children you teach. The journey, though, is a familiar structure used in literature for younger children, where we see characters engaged in a simple quest. Think of the fox going on a journey for a juicy chicken to eat in Rosie’s walk, or the family setting off on a Bear Hunt. What about Mr Bear in Peace at Last or Handa in Handa’s Surprise? In all of these books the main characters are on a quest, for chickens, bears, sleep or fruit. On their way they face numerous obstacles including farmyard equipment; long grass; noisy clocks and hungry wild animals. In ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ the family even have to face the danger of a real bear. Scary stuff. The structure of the quest is introduced in these early texts for elaboration as children experience more complex texts in KS2.
So, next time you need to take your class on a journey, who’s coming along with you? Bilbo Baggins, Harry Potter, Lyra Silvertongue, Mr Bear, Handa, The Littlest Hobo…
We have a Journeys and Quests Pinterest board to support this blog post and if you are looking at Journeys with younger children you may also want to take a look at our KS1 Transport Books Pinterest board.
Rachel Clarke, Coventry Primary English Consultant