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The quest theme in representative English works of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Taitt, Peter Stewart

Abstract

It is by now a commonplace notion that the dominant theme in mediaeval romance is the quest. In the English literature of the fourteenth century the quest is represented in a large number of works whose interests range from the pseudo-historical representation of courtly and romantic life to the parody of romance conventions and satire of outmoded ideals. In addition, Langland's major work, Piers Plowman, written over several years towards the close of the century, incorporates the quest theme as a metaphor of the pilgrimage of life. The term "quest" and its ramifications in such a variety of offerings serves to convey an expression of action which can be either heroic or comic as well as deeply spiritual. An examination of the romance literature immediately preceding the fourteenth century, and subsequently throughout that century, suggests that there is a twofold evolution in the artistic adaptation of the quest theme. On the one hand there is an observable shift from literature in which the quest plays an exterior and public role, leading to success for the hero and a movement towards equilibrium in society, to an interiorisation of the quest in which ambiguity and fallibility are admissible and possible in the hero's conduct of the quest. At the same time the quest theme allows us to explore a process in which the literature of the period evolved from the unambiguous presentation of the ideals to which society is presumed to have subscribed, to a point, near the close of the century, at which those very ideals and beliefs are questioned. Such a process makes demands on the reader, or listener, which the earlier works did not, and forces a particularly close attention to details which frequently affect the outcome of the quest. An examination of the quest theme itself is far more than a means of coming to a better understanding of the literature of the period, though indeed it does serve as one way of getting closer to the works. More important, its frequency in literature from the very earliest times right up to the present, suggests that the theme is seen by artists as a cogent means of expressing the varieties of human experience. In a Christian and mediaeval context one would expect quest literature to be optimistic and to mirror the possibility of heavenly rewards held out to the faithful traveller, whether knight or pilgrim. This however is not always the case. The works of the latter part of the fourteenth century, notably Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Piers Plowman, reflect uncertainties and doubts about the lasting values of the chivalric ethic and the efficacy of dogma which earlier generations seem to have taken for granted. Looked at in this way the quest device may be seen, not as a unifying element common to the literature of the period, but as an expression of the growth of an artistic sensibility which comprehends an active engagement between a work and its audience. Such an expression goes beyond mere entertainment to promote reflections and curiosity about humanity that outlasts the experience of reading.

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