The quest as a pervasive element in storytelling is not exclusively a feature of contemporary fiction but, in fact, goes back to some of the very earliest stories known to Western civilization. For example, in Greek mythology, Jason and the Argonauts go on a quest for the Golden Fleece. In Arthurian legend, we encounter the quest for the Holy Grail. Tolkien uses this ancient and powerful storytelling element to drive the plot of The Hobbit. Why does it work so well? The reader comes along for the adventure, and there is no telling what surprises, both pleasant and frightening, are waiting around the corner. Skillfully told quests produce page-turners—books that one cannot put down. If told aloud, these stories can captivate listeners.
The plot of The Hobbit is structured around the idea of a quest. As the story opens, Bilbo Baggins is surprised by unexpected guests who are already on a mission to take back stolen treasures from their ancient enemy, Smaug the dragon. Unaware at first that Gandalf the wizard has put a special mark on his door identifying his home as that of the “burglar” who is essential for the quest, the hospitable Hobbit has no idea that he has already been pre-selected for this unlikely role.
The quest to regain stolen treasure represents the deepest wish of the dwarves, who have lost not only gems, but livelihoods, ancestral homes, status, and loved ones due to Smaug’s self-indulgent and brutal activities. The tale unfolds as Bilbo agrees to take part in the quest and the group confronts one challenge after another during their travels. Some challenges are benign, but others are terrifying.
A quest is also a geographical journey, and along the way to Smaug’s lair, the reader visits both the loveliness of Rivendell and the horror of the enormous spider webs in dark Mirkwood. A quest invites the possibility of staying in “queer lodgings” and meeting curious characters—and who more so than Gollum?
The quest resonates deeply as a theme because it is so much like life itself. We are all on a quest of some kind even though we do not always know exactly what it is we seek. As a universal theme, the quest is a very engaging and powerful storytelling element that leads to the satisfaction of an accomplishment waiting at the end of the tale. As readers, we never know for sure that the quest will succeed, but our hope is part of what keeps us turning the pages.