The Final Ordeals

At last the heroes of our Quest stories come to the edge of the great goal towards which, through as many perils and ordeals, they have been journeying so long. Odysseus at last reaches the island of Ithaca. Aeneas reaches Italy where is to make his new home. Jason arrives in Colchis, home of the Golden Fleece. After forty years in the wilderness, the Jews at last cross over the river Jordan and arrive in the promised land. The rabbits reach Watership Down, which they decide is the perfect place to settle and to make their new home.

We now discover one of the most surprising things about the Quest plot. Most people, if one talks about a quest will say, Oh yes, a story about a journey. The very word quest from the Latin quaere, to seek, after all means a search. But in fact the journey in a Quest only makes up half the story.

It has taken Odysseus twelve books of the Odyssey to get back to Ithaca: but there are still twelve books to go before the story is finally over. Aeneas has reached Italy by the sixth book of the Aeneid: but the poem has twelve books in all. When the Jews reached their promised land flowering with milk and honey or the rabbits reach Watership Down, there is still a huge part of the story left to unfold. In almost all the quests we have been looking at the journey turns out to have been the first part of the tale. The second art, which begins when the hero is actually within sight of his goals, sees him having a final great ordeal or series of ordeals, which may take as long to describe as everything which has gone before. It is this final struggle which is necessary for the hero to lay hold of his prize and to secure it.

The entire second half of the Odyssey, for instance, describes what follows when Odysseus arrives incognito back on the island, to find his kingdom in near-total disarray, overshadowed by the arrogance, greed and dissipation of the infesting army of suitors. We see him travel across the island to arrive at his palace, disguised as a beggar, treated by the suitors like dirt. His queen Penelope has finally despaired of ever seeing him again, and decreed that she will marry anyone who can bend Odysseus mighty bow, and shoot an arrow through a row of axe-heads. The suitors all try and fail miserably. Finally Odysseus reveals himself in all his kingly majesty (in a way we have not seen at any time before in the story). He seizes the bow, passes the test with ease (the test which only the true hero can pass) and he and his son Telemachus then turn on the suitors and massacre them. Thus is he finally reunited with his loving Penelope, and thus does he triumphantly reclaim is kingdom.

No sooner has Aeneas returned from his visit to the underworld in the Aeneid than the Trojans recognise that they have at last arrived at the very place, the mouth of the river Tiber, where the gods intend they should settle. And at first all seems set for a quick and happy ending to the story. They are warmly welcomed to the local king Latinius, because prophecy has long foretold that strangers would arrive, bringing great honour to his land, and that their leader would marry his daughter, the beautiful Princess Lavinia, who has been vainly wooed by every prince in Italy, above all by the great Turnus, king of the nearby Rutulians.

But when the Princess is promised to Aeneas, black jealousy seizes Turnus heart and gradually the storm clouds gather for Aenas last and most terrible ordeal. The entire second half of the poem is taken up with describing how the tribes gather from all over the surrounding countryside, to hurl the Trojan interlopers back into the sea; the mustering of two great armies; the first skirmishes a tremendous battle, which the Trojans survive only by the skin of their teeth and finally the titanic single combat between Aenas and his dark rival, which at first it seems the hero will lose. But it ends at last, with his protective goddess Venus hovering over him, in his total victory.

Again, when the Argonauts arrive in Colchis to claim the Golden Fleece, the evil King Aetes tells Jason that he must face three tests, far worse than anything the Argonauts had met on their journeyings. First he must yoke two monstrous, brazen-hoofed, fire-breathing bulls, which live in an underground cavern, and plough a great field. Then he must sow the field with dragons teeth, from which will spring up an army of fierce warriors, and slay them. Finally, if he survives all this, he must somehow slip through the defences of the fearsome, unsleeping dragon which is coiled round the tree on which the shining fleece hangs, guarding it night and day.

It seems like mission impossible. But fortunately for Jason, just as happened when Theseus arrived in Crete to challenge the Minotaur, he has already won the love of a helper of supernatural powers, the tyrants beautiful daughter the Princess Medea. Just as Ariadne provided Theseus with the magic thread, so Medea provides Jason with a magic salve, which enables him to withstand every onslaught of the mad bulls. When he has sown the field with the dragons teeth, and is confronted with the mass of armed warriors, he is again saved from seemingly inevitable death, this time by his own ingenuity, when he throws a rock into the middle of them, so that they all turn on each other. Finally, when Medea learns that her enraged father is treacherously planning to murder Jason and all his companions while they are sleeping, she secretly leads him by night to the sacred grove where the Golden Fleece hangs, armed with a magic drug which renders it unconscious. At last he can seize his prize.

When the Jews arrive in the Promised Land (without Moses or Arron, whom God has decreed should die before the goal is reached, for allowing their faith in his protection to waver), they face a series of final ordeals just as great as those confronting the other Quest heroes: a series of tremendous battles with the tribes who already live there, beginning with the great siege of Jericho, and culminating in their victory over the Thirty One Kings.

Halfway through the story of the Holy Grail, when it is clear that only three knights, Galahad, Percival and Bors, are worthy to undertake the final stages of the Quest, there is a kind of complete scene shift to mark the second part of the story from the first. We leave the Waste Forest and travel with the three heroes across the sea, in a miraculous ship steered by a beautiful maiden. When the heroes disembark, they face their last great series of ordeals, including the bloodiest battle of the story, the captive of a grim castle in which, as usual, a Princess has been imprisoned. All this prepares them for the mystical climax when they arrive at another mysterious castle, to see the Holy Grail itself borne in by angels, with a vision of Christs presence hovering above them.

When Allan Quatermain and his friends finally cross over the great mountain barrier, they have similarly reached the halfway point of their story. They have at last left behind the torturing heat of the desert, and they find themselves looking down on the breathtakingly beautiful, lush countryside of Solomons lost kingdom, ringed by blue mountains. They are greeted by the natives as gods, and led along a great, ancient highway to the capital, where they find that the country is under the evil sway of the tyrranical King Twala and his hideous old henchwoman, the witch Gagool, hundreds of years old.

They discover that their mysteriously regal companion on the journey, Umbopa, is in fact the true king of his land, returning to claim his throne from the usurper Twala; and again, like other heroes, they have to face three ordeals. In the first they fall into Twalas power, while attempting to rescue the beautiful Foulata, a local girl who has become attached to them. By cunning use of the almanac predicting a lunar eclipse, they terrify Twalas followers and make a thrilling escape from death. Second is the great battle between the followers of Twala and those of Umbopa, which culminates in the tyrants death. Thirdly, the climax to the whole story, is their journey with Gagool into the series of vast, mysterious caves in the heart of the mountains, which turns into a combination of visit to the underworld, overcoming the monster, liberating the treasure from the dark enclosing space and thrilling escape from death all in one. In one cavern they find the petrified corpses of the kings of the land, sitting round a stone table. In the last they come across the legendary treasure of Solomon, the richest hoard of diamonds the world has ever known, shining in the darkness. At this point, Gagool, the guardian of the treasure, creeps back like a snake and with a look of fearful malevolence swings shut the great stone door – but in the process crushing herself to death. The heroes are trapped in the eternal darkness and prepare to die. Only in the nick of time, like Aladdin trapped in his treasure cave, do they miraculously find a way out: threading their way like Theseus, through the labyrinth of secret passages which lead them at last up and out into the cool, fresh air of the mountainside.

When the little band of male rabbits arrives on Watership Down, they are at much the same halfway point of their story as Aeneas and the Trojans when they arrive in Italy. They have reached their goal, but they must face now the task of finding some female rabbits with whom they can found a lasting community; and the rest of the book tells of their tremendous struggle with the fearful Efrafa, a warren some way off which is run like a totalitarian prison by the grim tyrant General Woundwort, where it just happens that a group of young female rabbits are imprisoned, led by the beautiful and intelligent Hyzenthlay. There is a thrilling escape when their young rabbit princesses are liberated. General Woundwort, as Avenger, comes hot in pursuit with a band of Efrafan thugs, to reclaim his own. There is a great battle back on Watership Down, with Hazel and his friends seemingly trapped in the dark enclosing space of their warren. But just when all seems lost, Hazel ingeniously manages to enlist the help of a nearby farm dog, which puts Woundwort and his army to rout. The new warren is at lat safely and securely established.