The Quest is one of the most common plot forms through which storytelling imagines relationships between human and nonhuman beings. Nonhumans most often appear in storytelling generally as an ‘environment’ surrounding and subordinate to the more important human characters, a nonhuman background to the human foreground. Yet in the Quest nonhumans enter the foreground in many different forms: the strange and perilous wastelands heroes must traverse; the monsters heroes must battle and overcome; the uncanny beings who help heroes to cope with strange challenges; and the objects of quests, which are often nonhuman (the Golden Fleece, the Holy Grail, the One Ring in Lord of the Rings) or else worlds in which nonhuman beings play significant and visible roles (Odysseus’ Ithaca, Aeneas’ Italy, the Shire in Lord of the Rings, the Earth itself in recent ecological Quests). The Quest may even involve the human hero becoming somehow nonhuman, as when Odysseus pretends to be a ram in order to escape the Cyclops, or Peisetairos in Aristophanes’ Birds acquires wings, or the narrator of Apuleius’ The Golden Ass turns into a donkey.
The prominence of nonhuman beings in the Quest would seem to invite study from the perspective of ecocriticism, a kind of literary and cultural criticism that takes the imagination of nonhuman beings, especially plants and animals, as its central focus. (Some critics prefer the term ‘environmental criticism’, believing that, as Lawrence Buell writes, ‘“environmental” approximates better than “eco” the hybridity of the subject at issue–all “environments” in practice involving fusions of “natural” and “constructed” elements–as well as the movement’s increasingly heterogeneous foci, especially its increasing engagements with metropolitan and/or toxified landscapes and with issues of environmental equity that challenge early ecocriticism’s concentration on the literatures of nature and preservationist environmentalism’ [Future of Environmental Criticism, viii]. I use the two terms ‘ecocriticism’ and ‘environmental criticism’ interchangeably.) Several kinds of of modern Quests have indeed interested ecocritics, in particular the colonial adventure Quest, in which the hero seeks to extract some object of fabulous material value from some distant land; the technological Quests of science fiction, in which new technologies rewire both human-nonhuman relations and humanity itself; the ecological Quests of modern science fiction and fantasy, in which heroes connect with some kind of ecological power (often figured as a mysterious life force) in order to defeat a destructive technological threat; and the story of the journey into the wilderness (found mainly in North American fiction and autobiography) that is a quest to escape the devastations of technological modernity and find physical and spiritual renewal in a new kind of relationship with the Earth. However, the ancient antecedents of these modern Quests–the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, the Argonautica, the Aeneid, and so on–have as yet garnered scant attention from ecocritics.
I am currently at work on a book called The Ecology of the Quest: Ecocritical Readings of Quest Narratives in Greek and Latin Literature. This is the first in a series of posts that I hope will evolve into that book. In the remainder of this post, I build on and adapt two major interpretive models of the Quest–the Jungian psychological model popularized by Joseph Campbell and the more materialist, outward-looking model developed by the science fiction scholar Istvan Csicsery-Ronay–in order to construct a broad ecocritical framework for the close readings of ancient quest stories that will follow in future posts.
The psychological model
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) Joseph Campbell introduced what proved to be a very popular and influential general theory of the Quest. In fact he offered not just a general theory of the Quest but a general theory of world mythology, for he saw nearly all myths as variations on the basic Quest structure he called the ‘monomyth’. Campbell’s theory has had only modest appeal among academics, who have criticized it for employing a problematic universal model of the human psyche and ignoring the differences that make myths and traditions unique. Yet it has won many admirers among non-academic readers and creators. As Rogers writes (‘Heroes
Campbell’s theory gained popularity with The Power of Myth, both a book and a television documentary, produced for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 1988 and recorded in part at Skywalker Ranch, the home of Star Wars creator George Lucas. Due to the PBS series and Lucas’s support, the Hero’s Journey is treated in the popular consciousness not as a theory but as a cross-cultural given. Writers and critics familiar with Campbell’s theory consequently produced hero narratives and critical readings that reproduce the theory.
One testament to the enduring popularity of Campbell’s theory is Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004), which became a bestseller. Although Booker identifies seven basic plots (of which the Quest is one) instead of a single monomyth, his method of interpreting each plot closely resembles Campbell’s interpretation of the monomyth. What is more original about Booker’s book ‘is the extent to which it looks at all kinds of storytelling on the same level […] from the myths of ancient Mesopotamia and Greece to James Bond and Star Wars; from central European folktales to E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (6). Booker thus extends Campbell’s general theory of mythology into a general theory of storytelling.
The first premise of Campbell’s theory is that every mythic quest story exhibits the basic structure he calls the ‘monomyth’:
The second premise is that the monomyth describes allegorically a psychological process that all humans must undergo during the course of their lives in order to achieve psychological maturity. As Campbell puts it, ‘Mythology […] is psychology misread as biography, history, and cosmology. The modern psychologist can translate it back to its proper denotations and thus rescue for the contemporary world a rich and eloquent document of the profoundest depths of human character’ (Hero, 238). The key to this translation of mythology into psychology is the equation ‘the metaphysical [or supernatural] realm = the unconscious’ (240). The hero’s journey ‘from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder’ and back thus represents the ego’s ‘descent into unconsciousness and return’ (241). The boon the heroic individual wins through this journey is an integration of the conscious ego with the unconscious that Campbell terms ‘superconsciousness’: ‘The hero is the one who, while still alive, knows and represents the claims of the superconsciousness which throughout creation is more or less unconscious’ (241).
The psychological process that the Quest describes allegorically is what Jung calls ‘individuation’. According to Jung, this proceeds in two stages, one that occurs during ‘the first half of life’ and one during ‘the second half of life’. As Booker writes (Seven Basic Plots, 565),
The overriding task of “the first half of life” is for us to establish a secure sense of our individual identity while at the same time learning how to accommodate that to the demands of society around us. […] Eventually, however, comes a point where, if we are going to continue on the road of personal development, we must embark on the tasks belonging to “the second half of life”, which are quite different because they require us to look within. They require us to develop much greater Self-understanding. We must learn to see ourselves objectively, recognising not just our strengths but also our deficiencies, our “shadow”, and to work to amend them. Only through such conscious Self-knowledge can anyone develop that inner strength based on emotional and spiritual understanding which is essential to true maturity.
The ego’s engagement with the unconscious that occurs during the second half of life is often represented in dreams and stories as a descent into an ‘underworld’, either a land of the dead familiar from myth (such as the Greek realm of Hades) or any place associated with death, wherein reside the core archetypes that structure the unconscious, the Shadow and the Anima/Animus. The Shadow represents those aspects of a person that have been repressed during the formation of a social persona in the first half of life, ‘dark’ aspects that would elicit social disapproval. The Anima/Animus represents qualities that the gender norms of a person’s society associate with the opposite gender: in the case of the Anima, feminine qualities that a man represses or fails to develop in the process of forming a social identity as a man, and vice versa in the case of the Animus. By confronting and integrating the Shadow and the Anima/Animus, the ego gains access to ‘that archetype which is at the centre of them all, “the Self”: that which is both most completely ourselves, yet not ourselves, because it represents the ultimate state of reintegration between the conscious ego and the selfless objectivity of the unconscious’ (565-6). Booker regards the Quest as ‘the plot which more explicitly than any other presents human life as a journey towards the distant goal of Self-realisation’, pointing out that it ‘is preoccupied with that process of final Self-realisation which really belongs to “the second half of life”’ (566).
The psychological interpretation of the Quest offered by Campbell and Booker would seem to have little to offer to ecocriticism, given that it typically ignores the embodiment of human minds in ecological contexts and views the Quest’s nonhuman beings as symbolizing aspects of the human mind. (Nor do partisans of the psychological interpretation tend to be particularly animated by ecological concerns; Booker, in fact, published a book called The Real Global Warming Disaster  arguing that global warming is nothing but a costly fantasy.) There is one place, however, where ecological awareness flickers in the psychological interpretation: the notion of a link between the human unconscious and nature. (Rowland’s The Ecocritical Psyche, analyzes and draws inspiration from the connection between the unconscious and nature in Jung.)
Booker tries to answer the question of ‘why we tell stories’ with an evolutionary story that turns on a crucial psychological distinction between humans and all other animals. Booker allows that animals such as dolphins and chimpanzees show ‘conscious intelligence’ (548), but he claims that except in the case of humans, ‘the conscious part of any animal’s mind […] remains automatically in harmony with that much larger part of its mind which operates below the level of conscious awareness, and which is governed by all the framework of instinct’ (548). Humans likewise are driven by instinct, but in them has arisen an ‘ego-consciousness’ with ‘the unique power […] to separate human beings from each other and from nature’, resulting in ‘the breaking down of that natural state of integration between their ego and their deeper unconscious’. Storytelling, Booker claims, originates in the human desire ‘to re-establish the lost unity between the two parts of their psyche: to live at peace with each other, with nature and with themselves’ (551). This claim recalls Friedrich Schiller’s influential idea that poets always ‘will either be nature or seek the lost nature’; he calls the former ‘naive’ and the latter ‘sentimental’ poets (‘On Naive and Sentimental Poetry’; on this text and its influence in ecocriticism, see Garrard, Ecocriticism, 49). However, Booker argues that there are, in Schiller’s terms, only sentimental poets, for the poetic impulse itself arises from the need to ‘seek the lost nature’. Human societies tend to define humanity in opposition to nature, yet the ego remains linked with nature; hence, those links become part of the ego’s Shadow. And because sympathy with and care for nature tend to be gendered as feminine, they become part of the male ego’s Anima.
The ecocritical potential and limitations of Booker’s approach emerge in his reading of the Epic of Gilgamesh (601):
This great Sumerian epic brilliantly reflected how far mankind had travelled since it began the long process of emerging from unconscious dependence on instinct and nature. It tells the story of a man who begins at the mercy of his egocentric physical appetites, without any controlling discipline or self-understanding. To reach maturity and self-awareness it is first necessary for him to begin an inner dialogue, which is what is represented by the arrival of his shadowy alter-ego Enkidu. Just as Enkidu has emerged from the state of nature, so the two-in-one hero now overcomes Humbaba, further representing the unconscious state of nature which has to be subdued to make the self-advancement of mankind possible. This is repeated in their victory over Ishtar. But all these victories for ego-consciousness, marking an ever greater emancipation from unity with nature, also bring with them an awareness of the inevitability of death. Gilgamesh then has to set out on his lonely quest, symbolised as an outward journey, in fact an inner journey, in search of that lost connection with the totality of life.
The ecocritic Robert Pogue Harrison likewise reads the episode of the slaying of Humbaba, the guardian of a great cedar forest, as a story about the relationship between humanity and nature. However, Harrison argues that what Booker calls ‘an awareness of the inevitability of death’ precedes and motivates Gilgamesh’s attempt to ‘project his own personal fate on to the forests’ (Forests, 17-18):
Gilgamesh peers over the walls and sees human bodies floating down the river in funeral processions. The sight of these bodies inspires in him the idea of a forest expedition. It is a visionary moment for Gilgamesh. In revolt against the scene of finitude, Gilgamesh has a vision: he will go to the forests, cut down the trees, and send the logs down the river to the city. In other words, he will make the trees share the fate of those who live within the walls. Logs will become the cadavers.
Whereas for Booker the slaying of Humbaba represents a necessary step forward in ‘the self-advancement of mankind’, for Harrison the same event is a deplorable gesture that humans, in their perennial enthusiasm for deforestation, ‘have never ceased reenacting’ (18). But Booker also implies that this ‘self-advancement’ turns out to be problematic, and his reading of the end of the epic as a quest for ‘that lost connection to the totality of life’ sounds more in tune with Harrison’s ecocritical perspective: perhaps humanity, in its continual reenactment of Gilgamesh’s primal act of deforestation, has (like a lazy student) simply failed to read the second half of the epic.
Yet if the goal, according to Booker, is a ‘lost connection with the totality of life’, why is Gilgamesh’s final quest only ‘symbolised as an outward journey, in fact an inner journey’? Is it not rather an inner journey that can only take place via a physical journey beyond the walls of human society? Here we see the tendency of the psychological interpretation of the Quest to leave ‘nature’ (and environmentality more generally) safely ensconced within the hermeneutic unconscious and to act as if the human mind were all that matters. An ecocritical approach to the Quest must pay more attention to the outside world. Clues to how to do this may be found in Susan Rowland’s The Ecocritical Psyche (2011), which builds on the Jungian connection between the unconscious and nature in an explicitly ecocritical way, and in Istvan Csicsery-Ronay’s interpretive model of the science fictional Quest, to which we now turn.
The Handy Man’s Quest
In The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (2008) Istvan Csicsery-Ronay argues that many works of science fiction share a plot template he calls the ‘Technologiade’. This is the SF version of the Robinsonade of earlier adventure fiction, which in turn, as Csicsery-Ronay emphasizes, has roots in ancient quest stories, notably the Odyssey (a point made earlier by Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment ; see Cooper, ‘Speculative Fiction’). Csicsery-Ronay analyzes this plot in terms that recall the Jungian psychological interpretation of the Quest discussed above. However, Csicsery-Ronay views the Robinsonade/Technologiade not as an outward journey that symbolizes an inner journey, but rather as a story that explores the psychology of physical actions that are especially characteristic of modern western societies: exploration and colonization of distant parts of the Earth and of outer space, technological transformation of the physical world, and so on. In its historically dominant form, the Robinsonade/Technologiade tends to glorify such actions, enabling colonizers or industrialists to see themselves as modern versions of the great heroes of ancient Quests. This historically dominant form may, however, be transformed so as to produce stories that criticize such actions and glorify resistance to them.
Csicsery-Ronay’s term for the Robinsonade/Technologiade’s hero figure, the ‘Handy Man’, highlights skill in manipulating the physical world and masculinity as his key characteristics. The Handy Man represents the kind of ego privileged by modern, patriarchal, technoscientific cultures. Not content with the limitations of his place in his Homeworld, the Handy Man undertakes a journey beyond the boundaries of his society to an Otherworld he views as a ‘Fertile Corpse’. From a Jungian perspective the Fertile Corpse looks rather like a projection of the Handy Man’s Anima: ‘metaphors […] associate it with natural processes, indicating a supersensible link with female reproduction: fertility of the soil, childbirth, analogical topography mimicking female bodies, association with feminine allure, “virgin land”’ (Seven Beauties, 228). The Handy Man’s egocentric goal is to transform the ‘unconscious feminine body’ of the Fertile Corpse ‘into a responsive, productive field’ through his masculine technical agency.
In order to do this, he must confront the Shadow Mage, typically a sorcerer, sorceress, sentient monster, or powerful alien indigenous to the Otherworld. Like the Jungian Shadow (and particularly the figure Booker calls the Dark Rival), the Shadow Mage is ‘an inverted reflection of the Handy Man himself’ in that he or she ‘often displays a control over the conditions of nature that is similar in many respects to the technological control of the Handy Man’ (230). But whereas the Handy Man’s technological control relies on a view of nature as inanimate matter that he can manipulate as he desires, ‘the Mage’s technique relies on an animate and sentient nature’ (232). The Shadow Mage represents the repressed unconscious of the modern, patriarchal, technoscientific ego insofar as he or she is at once ‘a manifestation of a world interpretation—in fact, a form of rationality—of more ancient pedigree than technoscience’ (230), queer in relation to the Handy Man’s gender norms (231), and ‘an expression of resistant nature’s purposes’ (232). From an ecocritical perspective, we might say that the Fertile Corpse is nature as the Handy Man wishes it to be, whereas the Shadow Mage is nature as the Handy Man fears it to be.
The successful Handy Man, in Csicsery-Ronay’s account, ‘gains his dominance ultimately by representing his superior technique as a form of superior magic’; thus, ‘technology is assimilated to magic, legitimacy derives from shamanic displays of power, and the Handy Man assimilates the powers of the Shadow Mage’ (231). This sounds like a kind of Jungian integration of the Shadow and the Anima that fulfills the Handy Man’s egocentric quest for dominance–a far cry from the ‘Self-realization’ that Booker envisions as fulfilling humans’ desire ‘to live at peace with each other, with nature and with themselves.’
But the Robinsonade/Technologiade does not always end in success for the Handy Man; quite often, in fact, the resistant powers of ‘an animated and sentient nature’ ultimately prevail to some extent. In such cases the Handy Man may employ his technological skills to escape from the Otherworld, determined to try again in future adventures to successfully complete his colonial quest. A more complex situation occurs when nature responds to the Handy Man’s technological interventions by transmuting them in ways that defy his expectations and goals, thereby colonizing, in a sense, the Handy Man’s technology. Such is the case in stories built on the model of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), in which Victor Frankenstein’s quest to enliven through technology a being made from corpses produces a Shadow Mage (the Creature) who destroys Victor’s life and turns the woman he loves into a corpse.
Like every good villain, the Shadow Mage has always tended to eclipse the story’s hero, the Handy Man, in fascination. Even when the Handy Man’s modern, phallocratic, technoscientific values are ultimately validated, the story encourages readers to imagine vividly and to take more seriously than they might otherwise the alternative values represented by the Shadow Mage (Seven Beauties, 232). Yet there is also an inversion of the Robinsonade/Technologiade–one that has gained in popularity alongside dissatisfaction with modern, phallocratic, technoscientific culture–in which the Shadow Mage becomes the hero. Such stories are particularly interesting from an ecocritical perspective because they tend to validate a view of nature that ecocritics share; hence I will call this inversion of the Robinsonade/Technologiade the ‘Ecologiade’. The Ecologiade typically casts in the role of the villain a figure who shares the Handy Man’s view of the physical world as a resource to be exploited through instrumentalizing technology; let us call this figure the Exploiter and the physical world as he or she sees it the Resource. (The Exploiter may or may not be a white human male; it might be a phallocratic woman, or colonizing aliens or machines). The Exploiter competes for control of the Resource with a version of the Shadow Mage reimagined in a positive light as what we may call the Resistance, which relates to the physical world not as a resource but as the animated and sentient environment we may call its Ecosphere.
While the Resistance is in a sense the hero of the Ecologiade, the drama focuses on a final figure we may call the Mediator. The Mediator combines characteristics of both the Exploiter and the Resistance, and it is the Mediator’s quest to reconcile the conflicts generated by this hybridity. This reconciliation provides the key to the successful preservation of the Ecosphere by the Resistance that the Ecologiade aims to dramatize. In James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), for example, the disabled soldier Jake Sully begins as an agent of the Exploiter (the militarized corporation mining the planet Pandora for a mineral called ‘unobtainium’) but converts to the side of the Na’vi and ultimately leads their successful Resistance.
In Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997), a human boy contaminated by a forest demon and a human girl raised by wolves as one of them act as Mediators who attempt to save the forest, and in particular the Great Forest Spirit (the embodied Ecosphere), from an industrializing Exploiter, Lady Eboshi. Here the Resistance is only partly successful. The Forest Spirit is killed but not successfully exploited, as his death threatens to drown Lady Eboshi’s Irontown in a sea of toxicity. Only by converting, at least in part, to the perspective of the Resistance, can Lady Eboshi and Irontown survive; their conversion causes the Ecosphere to begin to regenerate.
Csicsery-Ronay’s method of analyzing the Robinsonade/Technologiade, to which I have added the Ecologiade, indicates that nature, ecology, and technology–issues of central concern to ecocritics–are all more central to many modern Quests than the Jungian psychological interpretation suggests. But is the same true of ancient Quests? We consider that question in this next section.
Reading ancient Quests ecocritically
The figures of the Handy Man, the Fertile Corpse, and the Shadow Mage all have recognizable antecedents in ancient Quests, but the latter are so various and differ sufficiently from their modern counterparts that a framework broader than the Robinsonade/Technologiade is needed to discuss them. Because every story I consider a Quest involves a physical voyage, and because this common characteristic is ecocritically significant, I will base my discussion on the trope of the voyage. In the following sections, I adapt Csicsery-Ronay’s figural analysis and amplify his focus on nature, ecology, and technology in order to pinpoint some features of ecocritical interest in the Quests of ancient Greek and Latin literature. I first consider the Quests of epic and tragedy, then those of comedy and the novel.
The Quest in epic and tragedy
The hero of the ancient Quest, the Voyager, is almost always human, though epic and tragic Voyagers, who belong to a world of the distant past, may have a divine parent or ancestry. The epic and tragic Voyager is typically a king or a man with a claim to kingship, a leader who commands a band of followers who accompany him on the voyage. He is Greek or Roman, like his story’s anticipated audience, and his characteristics and capabilities reflect the norms and ideals of Greek and/or Roman culture. Typically he does not undertake his voyage willingly but under some kind of compulsion, a reflection of the deep-seated Greco-Roman fear of travel by sea (and of long-distance travel by land). However, over time epic and tragedy incorporated historical voyages of conquest voluntarily undertaken by people like Xerxes, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar. Tragedy sometimes reverses the trope of the voyage so that the male, human leader does not travel but instead receives visitors from another world, as in Aeschylus’ Suppliant Women and Euripides’ Bacchae.
Regardless of how the voyage begins, once it is underway the Voyager displays considerable curiosity to experience and to learn about the various places he encounters along the way, even when these divert him from the goal of his Quest. I will refer to these places as Otherworlds. Like the ‘other natures’ described by Greek ethnographers (see Clara Bosak-Schroeder’s Other Natures)–which we might also call, using Donna Haraway’s term, ‘other naturecultures’ (see Haraway’s Companion Species Manifesto)–the Otherworld is a place where nature, ecology, technology, and society are structured in ways unfamiliar to the Voyager and to the audience. But whereas ethnographic writing presents itself as an objective description of other natures and peoples (saying little about the ethnographer’s quest to obtain information), the Quest focuses on the Voyager’s physical and social interactions with the Otherworld. These interactions direct the attention of the Voyager (and of the audience) to the physical world, for they revolve around the Voyager’s attempt to fulfill basic physical needs (the need to eat, find shelter, move about, and so on). In the familiar environment of the Homeworld these needs go largely unnoticed, but in the strange environment of the Otherworld they demand the Voyager’s full attention.
Like the Fertile Corpse, the ecology of the Otherworld may be characterized by feminine appeal and apparent openness to the Voyager’s use and enjoyment, but like the Shadow Mage, it also queers the his patriarchal gender norms, for it contains powerful females or non-normative males who resist his attempt to exercise masculine physical agency. The main agents of resistance are the Monster, the Sorceress, and the Shadow Ruler, all of whom, like the Shadow Mage, possess powers linked to the unique local ecology of the Otherworld and to an extent express ‘resistant nature’s purposes’.
Monsters defy ordinary distinctions between categories such as human and animal, male and female, etc., and possess physical characteristics that give them great power. The Monster’s power, like that of the Shadow Mage, often derives from links to a more archaic state of the cosmos and from a connection to the local ecology of the Otherworld, of which it acts as a solitary guardian. (Think of the Cyclops, Scylla, and other such monsters in the Odyssey; of the fire-breathing bulls, the men that grow from dragon’s teeth, the huge serpent that guards the Golden Fleece, and the bronze giant Talos in the Argonautica; and so on.) The Monster’s relation to the Voyager is that of a predator to its prey; it typically threatens to eat the Voyager, and in so doing both to emasculate and to dehumanize him, displacing him from his position at the top of the food chain and transforming him into inert matter. (On the predatory and other functions of the Monster, see Sistakou, Aesthetics of Darkness, 65).
While the Voyager is physically robust, physical strength alone is never sufficient to defeat a Monster; this can only be achieved through technical skill, divine aid, or magic. The technical skills of the epic and tragic Voyager are mainly those of a military leader, and in this respect they, like the Handy Man’s technology, reflect an exploitative and instrumentalizing view of nature. His are the Promethean skills that the Greeks and Romans imagined as the source of humans’ considerable measure of dominance over nature, and their victory over the Monster confirms that dominance. However, the Voyager of epic and tragedy possesses a limited repertoire of technical skills more comparable to that of the Handy Man of European adventure fiction than to the prolifically inventive Handy Man of science fiction. The Voyager’s skills are also of limited efficacy, often requiring the support of divine aid from an Olympian or a more local deity. Olympian support may do little more than grant a divine blessing to the Voyager’s own technical skills, but it also suggests that those skills would not be as effective were their practitioner not reverent towards and favored by the gods (as is also the case with the Handy Man’s Christianity in European adventure fiction). Local deities that embody parts of nature (rivers, groves, etc.) occasionally aid the Voyager, indicating an animist element (albeit a relatively minor one) in his relationship with nature. While the Monster never kills the Voyager, it may emerge from the confrontation largely victorious or harm the Voyager significantly, indicating the limitations of the Voyager’s power to dominate nature (Hopman, Scylla, makes this point about Scylla in the Odyssey).
The Shadow Ruler and the Sorceress, the Otherworld’s other agents of resistance, have more complex relationships with the Voyager than the predatory Monster. The Shadow Ruler is the Otherworld’s local equivalent of the Voyager, a leader, usually male, possessing technical skills and connections with divinity. Often he exercises control over the ultimate object of the Voyager’s quest, as Aietes controls the Golden Fleece in the Argonautica or Turnus the land of Italy in the Aeneid. (On Aietes as the quest’s ‘dark lord’, see Sistakou, Aesthetics of Darkness, 83-7.) The Voyager usually attempts to negotiate with the Shadow Ruler but finds these efforts rebuffed, compelling him to resort to violence. Because the Shadow Ruler commands greater resources in the Otherworld, along with special powers linked to the local environment, the Voyager must establish some alliance with local forces in order to be successful: Jason must enlist the help of the indigenous Medea; Aeneas must enlist the help of the quasi-indigenous Evander.
The Sorceress may help the Voyager to defeat the Monster and/or the Shadow Ruler, but her help is dangerous. She is invariably female or has strong feminine qualities, for the Greeks and Romans imagined magic as a power deriving from a uniquely female relationship with nature and divinity. Magic often involves plants, whose normal passivity as objects of consumption, construction, etc., mirrors the passivity that Greco-Roman culture regarded as the proper condition of women. In the context of magic, however, plants acquire a queer agency that reflects the queer agency of the Sorceress herself. Magic typically operates through illusion and metamorphosis, vividly expressing the ontological instability the Greeks and Romans viewed as characteristic of female physicality, a view canonically articulated in the myth of Pandora. We might say that magic actualizes the queer potential latent in female physicality. (On the gendering of nature in antiquity, see Holmes, Gender).
The Voyager may gain indirect access to the power of magic through an erotic liaison with the Sorceress. This is the most intimate kind of relationship the Voyager can form with the Otherworld, and it may be necessary for him to achieve his goals. It is also dangerous, however, for it may divert him from his quest or create serious complications if (as in the case of Jason’s alliance with Medea) the relationship or its effects persist beyond the point of instrumental usefulness to the Voyager. The Sorceress invariably resists being instrumentalized, and her resistance, expressed through the power of magic, may be seen as a reflection of ‘resistant nature’s purposes’.
From an ecocritical perspective, then, the epic and tragic Quest, like the Robinsonade/Technologiade, is essentially a story about a human man’s attempt to dominate and exploit nature through normatively masculine characteristics, values, and skills as well as a story that imagines nature and/as the feminine as extraordinarily resistant to domination. In epic the hero is ultimately successful, but his success requires that he assimilate aspects of the ‘other natures’ he seeks to dominate (as in the process of Jungian integration), albeit without compromising his ego too severely. This assimilation–as it occurs through the Voyager’s interactions with the Monster, the Shadow Ruler, and the Sorceress, and with the fauna, flora, and landscape/seascape of the Otherworld–provides a focal point for ecocritical reading, as do the stories of secondary human characters whose interactions with the Otherworld differ from those of the main Voyager in interesting ways. Unlike epic, tragedy tends to focus on the limits of the Voyager’s power to dominate and the psychology of his encounter with those limits. The tragic hero finds himself compelled under great duress to regard ‘resistant nature’s purposes’ as divine powers greater than his own.
The Quest in ancient comedy and novels
The Quests that we find in ancient comedy and novels echo, parody, and play in various ways with the patterns of epic and tragic Quests considered above. In this section I offer a brief overview of the Quests that appear in Old Comedy, the Latin novel, the Greek romance, and Lucian’s True Story, focusing on potential jumping-off points for ecocritical interpretations. Comic Quests are more difficult to discuss schematically than their epic counterparts, so in this section I analyze a number of works individually (and the Greek romances more schematically). One common thread that will emerge is that whereas epic heroes try to dominate nature (and tragic heroes fail to do so), comic Voyagers more often find themselves on the side of nature.
The plays of Aristophanes, the only complete surviving examples of Old Comedy, are all in a sense Quest stories that focus on an attempt by the comic hero to solve a problem created by urban life in the city of Athens. Whereas the epic and tragic Quest takes place in a legendary or (more rarely) a historical past, the comedies of Aristophanes are set in the audience’s present. Three plays are of particular ecocritical interest because of their focus on the relationship between nature and technology: Clouds (423 BCE), Peace (421), and Birds (414).
The hero of Clouds, Strepsiades, is motivated to undertake a quest because of the crushing debts he has incurred through the extravagant spending of his wife, who is addicted to urban luxuries, and his son, Pheidippides, who is addicted to buying expensive horses. Before his marriage Strepsiades was a farmer, and he remembers his life as a farmer with fondness and longing as one of wholesome and abundant sensory gratification. Instead of trying to flee the city, Strepsiades decides that his best hope for salvation lies in a voyage to a novel urban building called the Thinkery. The Thinkery is an Otherworld at the heart of the Homeworld, a place whose inhabitants, led by Socrates, devote themselves to studying the physical world as well as techniques for defrauding and exploiting other humans. Strepsiades hopes that the Thinkery can transform him into a kind of Handy Man capable of using the technology of manipulative rhetoric to cancel his debts.
The plot of Clouds unfolds like the version of the Robinsonade/Technologiade in which the Handy Man is ultimately defeated by the resistant powers of nature. Strepsiades’ own recalcitrant nature prevents him from being remolded into an effective Handy Man, so he turns over his son Pheidippides to the Thinkery to undergo the process in his place. Its success gives Pheidippides the ability to cancel Strepsiades’ debts, but it also causes the young man to lose all respect for his father. After receiving a beating from his newly Handy son, Strepsiades burns down the Thinkery with Socrates inside it.
Clouds is interesting from an ecocritical perspective as a play that considers the implications both of a depersonalized view of nature and of a cynical view of technology as a means of exploitation. Socrates believes that Zeus does not exist; he argues that thunderstorms, rather than expressing the moral judgments of Zeus, are simply physical processes with no connection to human morality. Thus Socrates ‘worships’ the Clouds, quasi-animate beings who serve as a kind of personalized representation of his impersonal view of nature. That they are female genders their apparent submission to Socrates’ control; they represent the physical world as a Fertile Corpse open to exploitation by a Handy Man. In the end, however, the Clouds claim responsibility for the process that turns Strepsiades against Socrates and the Thinkery–a process that the audience also sees as the ‘natural’ result of the acquisition of unlimited power by the egocentric Pheidippides. This double determination suggests that even an impersonal Nature may resist technological exploitation in a quasi-personal way.
The relationship between nature and technology is also central to Peace, the hero of which is a farmer named Trygaeus who, like Strepsiades, finds himself alienated from the natural pleasures of rural life. In Trygaeus’ case this alienation has come about not because of a greedy family but because of the endless war between Athens and Sparta. So Trygaeus decides to go on a quest to persuade Zeus to restore peace to Greece. He flies to Olympus on a giant dung beetle (after trying and failing to climb there on a ladder), a parodic echo of the epic hero’s technical ingenuity that highlights Trygaeus’s connection to nature (his name means ‘wine man’). Having arrived at Olympus, Trygaeus finds that Zeus has buried Peace (in the form of a statue) in a hole, and he tries to lead the men of Greece (whose sudden appearance on Olympus is not explained) in digging her up. Initially the effort fails because the men work at cross-purposes; then Trygaeus instructs only the farmers to work together, and they manage it.
The success of the farmers signals that they, as farmers, possess the qualities needed to achieve the quest for peace. These qualities include affection for plants and a view of plants as animate beings, for the chorus of farmers imagines their plants rejoicing to receive Peace (Peace 596–600) and themselves rejoicing to commune once more with their plants (1159–65). But in order to secure peace, Trygaeus must also confront the proto-military-industrial complex that incentivizes craftsmen who make weapons to support war so that they can sell their goods; he does this by refashioning their weapons into tools for farming. Thus, like the figure of the Mediator in the Ecologiade, Trygaeus aligns himself with nature and employs the Promethean technical skills of the Handy Man to redirect technology towards nurture rather than violence.
In Birds two human Voyagers, Peisetairos and Euelpides, leave the city of Athens, complaining about the Athenians’ unnatural obsession with litigation. Their quest–a most unusual one in ancient literature–is to join the society of another species, that of the birds. At first they are impressed by the beautiful simplicity of the birds’ natural way of life, but Peisetairos soon has a grand inspiration: the birds should build a single city in the sky and encircle it with a massive wall that will enable them to dominate both humans and the Olympian gods. Peisetairos argues that birds were in fact the first, primeval gods, and he points out how humans use violent hunting technologies against them. Despite their initial reluctance to listen to human advice (they didn’t need Peisetairos to tell them they needed to fear humans), the birds embrace these arguments. They establish the city; build the wall; devise their own bird-centric cosmology; and outlaw the hunting, caging, and eating of birds by humans. Peisetairos and Euelpides acquire wings so that they can be citizens of this city, and Peisetairos takes on the task of screening other human applicants, denying all of them. The plan to starve the gods into submission succeeds, and the gods send ambassadors to negotiate the terms of their surrender with Peisetairos. They find him feasting on ‘rebels against the avian democracy’, a claim no (other) bird verifies. When Zeus surrenders Basileia, the female who somehow holds the key to his supreme power, to Cloudcuckooland (as the birds’ city is called), it is Peisetairos alone who receives her.
Birds is in a way the only ancient Greco-Roman story that really resembles the modern Ecologiade, for it is the only one in which a human Mediator enables a nonhuman species to act as a Resistance against human violence. But it also strongly resembles the Robinsonade/Technologiade, for in the end Peisetairos looks less like an ally of the birds and more like a very clever colonizer, one who convinces the colonized to do most of the work of constructing for him a tyranny out of thin air.
Let us turn from Old Comedy to the Quest as it appears in the two Latin novels that have survived, Petronius’s Satyricon and Apuleius’s The Golden Ass. The Satyricon was composed during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero, most likely by the Petronius whom the historian Tacitus describes as Nero’s arbiter elegantiae or ‘arbiter of taste’ (think lifestyle guru and party planner), and it is set in the contemporary world. It is impossible to speak with confidence about the plot because most of the work, including the beginning and end, is lost; nevertheless, Jensson’s plausible reconstruction of the key events in the first two-thirds of the novel provides a basis for ecocritical interpretation of this uniquely interesting comic quest story (see Jensson, Recollections of Encolpius).
The Voyager and narrator, Encolpius, is a poor, well-educated, bisexual young man from the Greek city of Massilia (modern Marseille). The novel most likely begins in Massilia, where Encolpius falls in love with a beautiful young man named Giton. Because he is poor and has an unusually large penis, Encolpius agrees to play the role of scapegoat in a ritual honoring Priapus, a god of fertility whose signature symbol and embodiment is the erect penis. As a scapegoat, Encolpius receives free meals from the city for one year but then must go into exile. When he leaves Massilia, Giton accompanies him, as does a beautiful woman named Tryphaena who is enamored with Encolpius but soon becomes more interested in Giton. In the extant fragments, Encolpius and Giton travel through southern Italy, together with various companions whose erotic interest in one or both of them threatens their relationship but also helps them to survive. In the novel’s final section, about which we know next to nothing, they probably travel beyond Italy, perhaps to Egypt, possibly ending up in Lampsacus (on the Hellespont in modern Turkey).
Encolpius’s voyage through Italy asks the implied elite Roman audience to see their own familiar Homeworld as a monstrous Otherworld. As Jensson writes, ‘Rather than taking a trip to the fabulous edges of the world, as his fellow Massaliots claimed to have done, the overeducated but unheroic Encolpius goes to the heart of civilization to face moral and esthetic monstrosities of no less fabulous proportions’ (115). The longest surviving fragment describes a dinner party hosted by Trimalchio, an immensely wealthy freedman, in which nature appears as the monstrous puppet of money: Trimalchio has his slaves prepare and present endless bizarre dishes that theatrically display his rather sadistic power over bodies of all kinds, including those of his human guests, who are sometimes repulsed but must nevertheless eat and appear happy in order to please him. This feast celebrates not nature’s bounteous fertility but the theatrical splendor that money can give to death; Trimalchio talks at length about the elaborate funeral monument he is having built, and the dinner ends in a mock funeral procession for him.
The connection between money and death occurs elsewhere in the novel. A poet named Eumolpus waxes lyrical on the theme of how human greed, Roman greed in particular, has despoiled nature, describing this as a cause of the violent civil war between Caesar and Pompey. The citizens of Croton show themselves to be so greedy that they are willing to eat the dead body of Eumolpus, who has posed as a wealthy man, in order to inherit money from him. Roman ‘civilization’ seems to be a place where the death drive manifestly underpins a view of nature as a resource for human consumption.
Unlike Trygaeus or Peisetairos, Encolpius does not try to save nature from human violence, but in a way he seems to represent the queer survival of nature in this deathly world dominated by human fantasy. The identification of Encolpius with the god Priapus suggests that we should read his polymorphic sexuality–a major focus of the novel and of scholarly debate–not as yet another sign of human unnaturalness, but rather as an imagination of natural vitality as queer survival. (This reading builds on the arguments of Jensson in Recollections of Encolpius.) The scenes in which Encolpius struggles with impotence that he and others attribute to the anger of Priapus might seem to contradict this interpretation, but as Jensson convincingly argues, his impotence probably lasted for a fairly short time and was not a major theme of the novel. Encolpius certainly does differ from the dominant hetero-Handy Man; not only is he at various times impotent, raped by a male prostitute on the order of a Sorceress (as part of a ritual to appease Priapus), and penetrated anally with a dildo by another Sorceress (in an attempt to cure his impotence), but also it seems that like Giton, he sometimes chooses to give his body to lovers who can benefit him in some way. Not having money, Encolpius, rather like the Cynics (philosophers who aspired to live like nonhuman animals), uses his body to survive and continue his quest for satisfaction.
Gender and sexuality are also major themes of the other Latin novel that survives, Apuleius’s The Golden Ass. However, the most prominent theme, as in Birds, is species, for the Voyager, Lucius, is for most of the novel a donkey. While still an ordinary human, Lucius, a young man from a respectable Greek family, travels to Thessaly in search of magic. Unlike the epic hero, he seems interested not so much in controlling the power of magic as in witnessing its wonders first-hand. He gets more than he bargained for when he secretly uses a Sorceress’s magic ointment to try to transform himself into a bird and instead finds himself transformed into a donkey. Before he can take the antidote (roses), he is captured by robbers, setting off a long chain of wanderings among various exploitative human masters.
Lucius’s experience of being a donkey is an experience dominated by passivity: he is beaten, made to carry heavy loads, tortured by a sadistic young boy, made to turn a mill by a relentless baker, made to perform tricks so his human master can make money, almost made to have sex with a murderess in the arena…and having only a donkey’s voice he cannot even verbally protest to such treatment. The Golden Ass is, among other things, an encyclopedic account of the human abuse of domestic animals from the perspective (magically adopted by the human hero, imaginatively adopted by the human author and readers) of one of the abused. But it is also an account of Lucius’s survival as a donkey through perseverance and cunning, and of his restoration to human form by the great Goddess of Nature known to the Egyptians (‘who excel in ancient learning’) as Isis, who requires as the condition of his becoming human again that he devote his human life to her service. Lucius, then, is no more a domineering Handy Man than Encolpius, and while erotic desire in The Golden Ass is strictly heterosexual, Lucius’s non-normative masculinity, like that of Encolpius, seems in its own rather different way to represent natural vitality as queer survival.
In the surviving Greek romances nature tends to remain more in the background than in other Quests, but it may come into the foreground in several ways. The basic plot of these romances involves the quest of a young man and a young woman, both of exceptional physical beauty, to be joined in a secure, monogamous union. Typically one of both of them are kidnapped by pirates or brigands, figures we may call Robbers, who seek either to sell them as slaves, to devote them as a human sacrifice to the gods, or to rape them. The Robber is a kind of degenerate version of the epic hero, a male whose power and livelihood derive from his military skills and who is motivated by greed and physical appetites. Robbers may also be decent men unjustly driven out of human society and forced to survive by the sword. Regardless, they exercise power in ecological zones that are difficult for urban powers to control: the sea, networks of caves, the marshy Nile delta. The instability of these zones tends to prevent Robbers from retaining control of the Voyagers for very long. The Voyagers do not usually fight with the Robbers but rather buy themselves time by appearing to submit; often their friendliness, innocence, and vulnerability inspire one of the Robbers to become their ally and helper. Occasionally animate forces of nature may step in to aid the Voyagers, as when the Nile saves Habrocomes from crucifixion in Xenophon of Ephesus’s An Ephesian Tale (4.2).
Exotic animals are sometimes described in some detail as notable features of foreign places, often Egypt, and in Heliodorus’s An Ethiopian Story, Ethiopia. In Heliodorus the male, Greek Voyager Theagenes’ conquest of the sacrificial bull spooked by the terrifying ‘camelopard’ (giraffe), like his defeat of a giant Ethiopian human in a wrestling match, shows he has the dominant masculinity it takes to marry Charikleia and inherit the Ethiopian throne. In Achilles Tatius’s Leukippe and Cleitophon, descriptions of exotic animals and other natural phenomena are more disconnected from the plot but provide analogies for human behavior and physicality, in particular for female submission to the physical power of eros (see Morales, ‘Taming of the View’). In Heliodorus the union of Isis and Osiris, as expressed in the flooding of the Nile, provides an analogy for the union of the human heroine and hero (9.9). In Daphnis and Chloe the human hero and heroine learn how to love by observing the plants and animals among whom they dwell; the animate forces of nature also aid them through dreams and other means. In all the Greek romances, if in different ways, the erotic desire of the hero and heroine for each other is represented as an exceptional manifestation of an erotic force that pervades the ecosphere, and their quest for union may be read as nature’s ideal self-realization in the triumph of idealized heterosexual human desire. Their quest, then, is neither to dominate nature (like the Handy Man) nor to defend nature (like the hero of the Ecologiade), but rather to express a certain view of nature as seamlessly incorporating humanity.
The final ancient comic Quest that I will consider here is Lucian’s True Story. The Voyager-narrator of this story is like the epic hero, a male leader with military skills, except that he willingly undertakes a quest for knowledge. Sailing beyond the Pillars of Heracles, a boundary not breached by any previous Voyager, he encounters myriad ecologically unusual Otherworlds. His technical skills sometimes enable him to dominate the Otherworld despite the odds, as when he and his men colonize the land contained in the belly of a giant whale and ultimately kill the whale. But for the most part he simply survives and experiences each bizarre Otherworld (a land with a river of wine, on whose banks dwell beings that are partly grapevines and partly human women; the moon, whose inhabitants are all male and include men that are partly trees; an island made of cheese; the island where dreams dwell; and so on) before moving on to the next.
In one sense, then, True Story imagines nature as unexpectedly diverse, fascinating, and potent, susceptible to human exploration but not necessarily exploitation. However, the novel also serves as a metacommentary on the human imagination of ‘other natures’ in Quest stories and ethnography, for in a preface the work’s author, identifying himself with the narrator-Voyager, says that in fact he never visited any Otherworlds but only read about such places. Regarding what he read as nothing but fantastic products of the human imagination, he decided to let his own imagination run wild. True Story reminds us that Quest stories are just that–stories that humans tell each other about nature and about themselves.
Ecocriticism is often defined as a critique of ‘anthropocentrism’, the human tendency to focus on and to value humans above all other things. Humans cannot help but be anthropocentric to some extent; being humans, any perspective from which we view things will remain fundamentally a human one. But there are many different forms of anthropocentrism–just as there are many different forms of racism, sexism, ableism, nationalism, religious discrimination, and so on–with quite different implications for the relations between humans and nonhumans that are so crucial for both parties. Ecocriticism tries to understand these forms and their implications as part of its quest for more egalitarian perspectives that recognize human-nonhuman interconnectedness and value nonhuman beings.
Quest stories reflect a certain baseline anthropocentrism in that their protagonists are almost always human (and of course the author is always human even if the protagonist is not). Myths that tell of a human hero’s triumph over various freakish forces of nature might seem to be anthropocentric in an especially narrow and domineering way. However, as Callaghan points out (‘Myth as a Site of Ecocritical Inquiry’, 80),
Myths as a genre often invite us to read the spaces around the protagonist by giving the natural world itself agency and identity and complexity; in this way, our most ancient stories, read ecocritically, can provide an antidote to the anthropocentrism that might be said to motivate, perpetuate, and aggravate the ecological crises of our time.
We have seen that what Callaghan says about myths is true of ancient Quests generally, not only those of epic and tragedy but also those of comedy and the novel. We have also seen that different genres, and indeed different works, provide antidotes to anthropocentrism in different ways. Epic and tragedy test the limits of the elite, male desire to dominate, whereas comedy and the novel heroize humans who express a kinship with the natural world and desire mainly, like other animals, to survive, to eat and drink well, and to love.
Future posts will examine particular ancient Quests in more detail along the lines sketched out here.
Booker, Christopher. The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. London: Continuum, 2004.
Bosak-Schroeder, Clara. Other Natures: Environmental Encounters with Ancient Greek Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2020.
Buell, Lawrence. The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.
Callaghan, Patsy. ‘Myth as a Site of Ecocritical Inquiry.’ Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 22.1 (2015): 80-97.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004 .
Cooper, Samuel. ‘The potency of the past in comic science fiction: Aristophanes and Philip K. Dick.’ Classical Receptions Journal 10.1 (2018): 86-107.
Cooper, Samuel. ‘The “Modern” Prometheus in Antiquity: Aristophanes and Lucian.’ American Journal of Philology 140.4 (2020): 579-611.
Cooper, Samuel. ‘Speculative Fiction, Ecocriticism, and the Wanderings of Odysseus.’ Ramus 48.2 (2019): 95-126.
Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan. The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008.
Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Haraway, Donna. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Harrison, Robert P. Forests: The Shadow of Civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Jensson, Gottskálk. The Recollections of Encolpius: The Satyrica of Petronius as Milesian Fiction. Ancient Narrative Supplementum 2. Groningen: Barkhuis Publishing, 2004.
Holmes, Brooke. Gender: Antiquity and Its Legacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Hopman, Marianne. Scylla: Myth, Metaphor, Paradox. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. [Kindle ed.].
Morales, Helen. ‘The Taming of the View: Natural Curiosities in Leukippe and Cleitophon.’ Groningen Colloquia on the Novel 6 (1995), 39-50.
Rogers, Brett M. ‘Heroes
UnLimited: The Theory of the Hero’s Journey and the Limitations of the Superhero Myth.’ In Classics and Comics, edited by George Kovacs and C. W. Marshall. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 73-86.
Rowland, Susan. The Ecocritical Psyche: Literature, Evolutionary Complexity and Jung. London: Routledge, 2011.
Schiller, Friedrich. ‘On Naive and Sentimental Poetry.’ In German Aesthetic and Literary Criticism: Winckelmann, Lessing, Hamann, Herder, Schiller, and Goethe, edited by H. B. Nisbet, 180-232. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Sistakou, Evina. The Aesthetics of Darkness: A Study of Hellenistic Romanticism in Apollonius, Lycophron and Nicander. Leuven: Peeters, 2012.