The Quest In Classical Literature: Structuralism And Databases

Paul Barrette
Department of Classics
McMaster University
1-241 Hunter Street West
Hamilton, Ontario L8P 1R9

What is a quest? After a close reading of Ovid's Metamorphoses and other Classical texts, I have developed a working definition of the mythological quest:

The quest begins with an initiator who is in need of something or someone import.[1] This object requires a substantial effort to obtain. The initiator calls or imposes upon someone to undertake the quest, or he may plan to go on the quest himself. A long and substantial journey follows, on which the quester may journey alone or with companions. The quester usually faces some difficulty during the course of the journey either before the destination is reached or after the object is obtained. During this journey the quester may be forced to suspend the quest for various reasons. Upon resolution of these reasons, the quester may continue the quest. Upon arrival at the destination, the quester may seek the possessor and/or the object. The quester may or may not face some sort of test and/or challenge before obtaining the object. Should the quester fail the test and/or challenge, he or she might not obtain the object. The quest is usually complete when the quester returns with or without the object of the quest. Usually the quest is orbital in form, where the quester returns to the point of inception. However, under some circumstances the quest may be considered complete if, before the inception of the quest, the quester has no intention of returning, e.g. when the object is a new homeland.

In order to systematically analyze the quest in detail I located a manageable number of quests (35) according to the definition above in both classical and non-classical authors from different genres of literature (e.g. epic, comedy, prose, epitome), from different chronological periods and languages. In addition, I included different versions of several mythological quests so that variant versions of the same quest could be compared more closely.

Inspired by Propp's[2] structuralist approach to folktale, I decided to use the narrative function as the basic unit of quest structure and to develop a system of functions with which to describe the quest. Since my work is primarily concerned with the quest, and not with larger and more complex myths or tales, I developed a specialized definition of the function, which is based on Propp's:[3]

An act of a dramatis persona,[4] or an event, which has a significant impact on the course of action during a quest.

With this definition of the function, I developed a set of seventy-two functions specifically for the quest. By allowing for variant and inverted functions, I am able to describe most quests[5] according to function. I have included an abridged list of functions here, but a full list will be available at the web site mentioned above.

List of Functions

A. Inception of quest (3 variants).
B. Quester accepts quest (2 variants).
c. Quester gathers companion(s) to accompany him/her on the journey (3 variants).
D. Departure
e. Quester receives help (5 variants).
f. Quester's progress is hindered (8 variants).
g. Quester suspends quest (10 variants)
h. Quester resumes quest (2 variants).
i. Quester overcomes hindrance(s) (2 variants).
j. Arrival at destination (1 variant).
k. Quester encounters the possessor[6] and/or the object of quest (8 variants).
l. Quester completes difficult task(s) and/or condition(s) are met (2 variants).
M. Quester obtains the object of quest (8 variants).
n. Quester departs from destination (1 variant).
o. Quester returns (1 variant).

In order to clarify what a function is, I have included three examples of functions from Aeneas' quest to the underworld in Ovid's Metamorphoses (14. 101-147):

  1. A clear example: ƒe1, Aeneas asks the Sibyl for help and she helps him.
  2. A marginal example: ƒh1, Aeneas resumes his quest. We are not told explicitly that Aeneas resumes his quest, but it is clear from the context that he has.
  3. A difficult to classify example: ƒA3/A1, we are not told explicitly that Aeneas was pondering the quest, but his stop off at Cumae and his actions when he arrives there, i.e. straight away he seeks the Sibyl and begs for permission to visit his father in the underworld, may suggest that he had contemplated this quest of his own accord. But, at Virg. Aen. 5. 731 ff., we are told that Anchises' shade visits Aeneas and urges him to travel to the underworld to see him.

    [NB ƒ = function; superscript numbers are variants]

Before entering the data into a database, I found it useful to break down the quest into four natural parts which would make it easier to refer to different sections[7] of the quest:

  1. Initial sequence
  2. Journey outward sequence
  3. Destination sequence
  4. Journey homeward sequence

The sequences themselves do not overlap, but some functions may occur in all of them, while others may only occur in a particular sequence.[8]

There are several advantages to organizing quest-functions according to these four sequences. For example, function-data can be easily grouped according to sequence so that queries could be made for all the functions that occur in a particular sequence. By making such queries I was able to establish a set of functions that one could expect to find in a particular sequence. Another advantage is that by organizing my data in this manner it was very easy to enter data into a database. Each of these sequences could become a field in the database, or a table in a relational model. I decided to use a single table database and parse the output of the query on-the-fly to extract and format the data as needed. My database contains the following fields:

  1. Number, unique integer.
  2. Title of quest, type text.
  3. Source of quest, type text.
  4. Initial sequence, type text.
  5. Journey outward sequence, type text.
  6. Destination sequence, type text.
  7. Journey homeward sequence, type text.

The next step was to extract a list of functions for each quest and store this data in a database with the intent that the data would be searched and viewed in a web browser. Since the user interface would be a web browser, I was able to add formatting HTML tags so that different aspects of the quest-functions could be visually distinguished from the others; e.g. I used superscript and subscript tags to designate functions and inverted functions respectively.


By developing a set of narrative functions for the quest and analyzing each quest according to function it is possible to separate form from context, with the result that the narrative structure of themes such as the quest can be analyzed regardless of the language of the text. This data can then be added to a database which can be searched. Then, by querying this database, we may not only get swift and accurate access to our data, but we may also ask different questions of a text which could not be easily asked using traditional means.


  1. I shall refer to the "need of something or someone important" as the object of quest.
  2. See Propp, V. Morphology of the Folktale. Trans. Scott, L. Second ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968. pp. 19-24.
  3. See Propp, pp. 19-24.
  4. See Prince, G. A Dictionary of Narratology. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987. p. 23. Prince defines this term as follows: in Proppian terminology, a fundamental ROLE (in a fairy tale) assumable by a character.
  5. i.e. those that fit my definition above.
  6. NB the "possessor" may be a "keeper of the object". There may be more than one possessor; under such circumstances the reader is advised to read "possessor(s)".
  7. See Propp, p. 92, who speaks of tales in terms of moves. A move is the development of functions which makes up a tale.
  8. For example, only the functions A, B, c, e, f, g, h and i may occur in the initial sequence.