The Quest is a traditional literary device. In literature, a quest is a journey towards a goal and can serves as a plot device or as a symbol. In a quest, the hero must overcome many obstacles and the quest usually requires extensive travel and a series of trials to test the knight's valor and piety. One of the most famous quests in literature is that for the Holy Grail in Arthurian legend.
The first quest the novel describes is King Pellinore's search for the 'questing beast.' Although this is not greatly expanded upon, King Pellinore has been searching for the questing beast for years and has never found it. The 'questing beast' is symbolic; it represents the elusive quest itself: the journey to locate something that cannot be found and the aimlessness it entails, a journey that mirrors Arthur's own ultimately unsuccessful journey throughout the novel to harness tyranny and use justice as a mode of rule.
Although this is one literal depiction of a quest, the quest plays a fundamental role in Wart's education and his transformation into King Arthur. Throughout The Sword in the Stone, Wart undergoes a series of his own quests—mini adventures that form the central part of his education under Merlyn. For example, his transformation into an ant. Each of these journeys are not the traditional form of quest, in that Wart is unaware of the specific goal or purpose of the adventure, but each journey serves as a lesson about how to lead and govern, so that the later King Arthur will use non-traditional (at least, non-medieval) methods of rule. With the example of the ant, Wart witnesses how ants follow the dictatorial rule of their queen unquestioningly. Although these 'citizens' are orderly, they do not question the morality of the battle the ants engage in—the reasons given for war are, by Wart's questioning of them, shown to be illogical and purely propaganda.
The Holy Grail is, as already mentioned, a central component of the Arthurian myth: it is the search by King Arthur and his Knights for a copper cup or plate used by Jesus at the Last Supper. In The Once and Future King, the Holy Grail is Arthur's last resort, the ideal he turns to when his attempt to 'harness Tyranny' fails with the collapse of the Round Table and the continued domination of force over justice. However, this attempt once more proves unsuccessful; those who are successful in the Quest are too perfect, and therefore cannot exist in King Arthur's world of injustice; and those who fail do not change or improve.
In traditional literature, quests are almost always successful. However, in The Once and Future King, quests are unachievable—they are ideals that almost always collapse when you move closer to them: the questing beast is forever elusive, and the Holy Grail requires an impractical level of perfection. Indeed, the only quests that do not prove unsuccessful are Wart's lessons as a child; these quests are non-traditional because they do not have a specific goal and are thus about the 'journey,' or what is learnt throughout. Thus, in The Once and Future King, the quest itself becomes an illusion when it generates false and unattainable ideals, and can only prove useful when the quest is an end in itself rather than a means.
Quest and The Holy Grail ThemeTracker
Quest and The Holy Grail Quotes in The Once and Future King
Although nine tenths of the story seems to be about knights jousting and quests for the holy grail and things of that sort, the narrative is a whole, and it deals with the reasons why the young man came to grief at the end. It is the tragedy, the Aristotelian and comprehensive tragedy, of sin coming home to roost.
"Arthur," he [Lancelot] said. Then he gave a loud shriek, and jumped straight out of the window, which is on the first floor. They could hear him crash into some bushes, with a crump and crackle of boughs, and then he was running off through the trees and the shrubbery with a loud sort of warbling cry, like hounds hunting.
Half the knights had been killed—the best half. What Arthur had feared from the start of the Grail Quest had come to pass. If you achieve perfection, you die. There had been nothing left for Galahad to ask of God, except death. The best knights had gone to perfection, leaving the worst to hold their sieges.
Nobody knows what they said to each other. Malory says that "they made either to other their complaints of many diverse things." Probably they agreed that it was impossible to love Arthur and also to deceive him. Probably Lancelot made her understand about his God at last, and she made him understand about her missing children. Probably they agreed to accept their guilty love as ended.