What Is a Journey Motif?

The journey motif, where a story’s protagonist must complete a quest in order to satisfy honor, is one of the oldest in storytelling. Usually, there is a prize or reward promised, but often the true reward is different and more valuable, as the protagonist both proves and humbles himself.

Most readers are familiar with journey motifs from Greek myths like the legend of Hercules and medieval stories of knights and pilgrimages, as in “The Canterbury Tales.” As the basis for quest myths, the journey motif leads protagonists through a series of successively harder and more dangerous trials, during which they prove themselves heroes.

Although a protagonist may start his journey with only selfish motives, often his hubris leads him into error that teaches him humility and grace. In addition to being entertaining, tales of successful journeys encourage people to behave well and attend to civic duty by reminding them of their place in larger society.

As a literary trope, the journey motif serves many functions: to teach about geography and people in remote places, to reinforce political and trading ties and to teach and reinforce the religious significance of shrines and other sacred landmarks. As a mnemonic device, the journey motif also serves to help storytellers memorize details and itineraries for actual trips.