Some medieval perspectives on the traditional heroic quest : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in French

Thumbnail Image
Open Access Location
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Massey University
The Author
The purpose of this thesis has been to examine certain features of the quests of selected heroic characters in three significant literary periods. As worthy heroes tend to represent the noblest features of man, the heroic quest can be expected to reflect man's deepest yearnings and his fundamental experiences. The principal authors who have been selected for this study are Homer, Vergil and Chrétien de Troyes, as they all occupy a conspicuous place in literary tradition. For in Homer's epics is the climax of a lengthy Greek oral tradition; Vergil looks back to Homer, and in doing so, adapts the older epics to the portrayal of the achievements of Augustus and the glory of the new Roman empire; Chrétien de Troyes, in his turn, is conscious of many aspects of antiquity as well as Celtic influences and reflects both secular and spiritual aspirations of twelfth-century France. Thus the works of these three authors, together with the Roman d'Eneas show in different ways man searching for the good. There is a basic similarity in the heroes' experiences. The hero is, initially, a man of great promise who, to some extent, is distinguished from the rest of his society. Through pride, excessive self-love, blindness or failure to understand his vocation, he commits a sin of üβρis or excess, or sometimes fails in his duty. This fault is generally associated with a false quest where the hero sees personal gain and personal glory as the principal object of his quest. In most cases, however, his fault enables him to see himself as he really is, and forces him to embark upon a quest for 'wholeness', his true quest, which is directed to restoring a sound balance between the physical, rational and spiritual aspects of his nature. In order to do this, the hero sometimes has to assume a role where, for a time, he has to 'stand outside' himself in order to know himself better. This quest frequently necessitates a journey of renewal where the hero expiates his fault and is tested through suffering. Although this journey is sometimes identifiable in geographical terms, the focus is on the hero's spiritual progression. The hero's successful confrontation with Other World forces proclaims not only his uniqueness and his election; it also proclaims the extent of his achievements and the degree of goodness he has attained. Finally, in different ways, the heroes are all portrayed as men capable of a high degree of loving and indeed, the perfection of love is frequently a sign that the hero has fulfilled his quest. Some of the heroes experience conflict with their society. As the quest progresses, they reject, in different ways, the false values with which society may be contaminated and are forced, instead, to choose true and lasting values. The hero thus becomes the man who can be looked up to, the liberator from enslaving forces. Although, inevitably, there are many differences in the portrayal of heroes of three such distinctive literary periods, the heroes of Homer, Vergil and Chrétien de Troyes have many features in common. This is due, in part, to a translatio studii, but more particularly to the tendency of honest human beings to discern the truth and to pursue the good.
Heroes in literature, Achilles (Greek mythology) in literature, Roland (Legendary character) in literature, Aeneas (Legendary character) in literature, Saint Brendan the Voyager, Saint Alexius