One of my favourite words is the word quest. To go on a quest. To be called to a quest. The quest begins.
It is a question, it is a search, it is a mission. It is an impulse in the human spirit to go further, to move beyond; on a quest, to seek is more important than to find.
In childhood in particular, the sense of quest is keen and necessary, which is why so many folk tales involve the young person setting off, often through forests, following their inner path to grow into their identity, beheading trolls along the way, perhaps, or seeking the castle East of the Sun and West of the Moon.
Of course, this sense of quest never leaves us and as adults, we may be on a quest for a partner, a job, a work of art, but it is in childhood that we learn about the core idea of questing. The literature of childhood, meanwhile, gives us golden advice, describing the qualities of the quester, which the child (and later adult) needs to learn. The typical folk tale hero or heroine is canny, curious, courageous and kind. The quester is true to himself or herself and ruggedly irrepressible.
The qualities of the quester include being tenacious to your quest, holding to your own path, being observant, open-hearted, and open-minded, ingenious and generous. Crucially, the quester must also listen to the voices of nature, and find a rapport with the animal world, observing it and respecting it. Cultivate those qualities in yourself, and your quest will be fruitful.
A while ago, a teenager, in an agony of long-term depression, told me how he longed to go to the woods, sleeping in a ditch if necessary, but to go to the woods. He was a city child, and had never spent time alone in nature, but at this point his instincts were guiding him—the instinct of every folk tale hero. Start by leaving the house “hard by the great forest,” and let the quest begin. In the forests, alone, facing his own demons, he would have to rely on those inner qualities, and to do so with profound courage.
I knew a small hut in the forests where he could stay and we arranged that he would be there twenty-four hours alone, as a kind of rite of passage. Every society seems to have understood that young people need this rite—as a right. That in the solitude and difficulty of the quest, they will find the truest treasure, which is their own strength.
The quest as a form of rite of passage is perhaps most famously understood in the Native American Vision Quest, but European fairy tales honour the same principles. The young person must undertake this alone, they must begin in the purification of ashes (Cinder-ella, called in German Aschenputtel, or the Ash Lad in Norwegian folk tales), and they must use their own intelligence and, crucially, must use their inter-intelligence within the natural world, listening to the voices of birds or animals, noticing the wind, the moon, and the trees. Fairytales are full of animal-helpers, teeming with the vivacity of all of nature speaking itself and being heard, in turn.
For me, the hardest part of this particular teenager’s quest was the moment I left him there. Without a doubt I was worried that he would be unhappy or lonely, but I also had less serious concerns that he might have an accident. That night was the only night in my whole life where I have slept with my cell phone switched on and in the pocket of my jeans. I didn’t take my jeans off when I went to bed, because I wanted to be able to get to him rapidly if he needed me.
What happened for him? He found his own courage, in other words, his cour-age, from French coeur, the heart. He had found the heart-root of courage within. But courage is an interesting thing.
For when young people are out in nature, perhaps alone, perhaps with others, perhaps finding their courage by acts of bravery, like climbing a tall tree, or by acts of endurance, such as staying alone in the woods, they are learning many different kinds of courage.
For we learn with our bodies as well as our minds and when we see our physical selves modelling bravery, our sense of moral courage, political courage, or intellectual courage may be heightened.
He told me later that he had indeed nearly phoned me in a 2 a.m. crisis, but he had weathered it himself, he had held on to the strength he found within. He beheaded trolls that night, trolls of the psyche, and he began, in tentative, shaky, stumbling steps, to walk towards the castle East of the Sun and West of the Moon.
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