The Mystery of The Great and Terrible Quest

The jacket is brownish-red. A golden lute stretches along its length. The title The Great and Terrible Quest (all in caps) is centered above "by Margaret Lovett" (also in caps). The text is reminiscent of many 1960s children's books: Arial-type letters with a touch of Garamond. A medieval crown occupies the space above the title. At the bottom of the jacket, slightly off-center, is a hand. Shorn of its jacket, the book is a solid blue hardcover, bearing an embossed golden crown with swords.

The Quest's appearance is not as pretentious as, perhaps, it sounds: golden lute, crown, capital letters. If anything, the effect is one of understatement. Except for that hand. I loved the book as a child, but the hand gave me shivers. It seemed to push the book over the edge of adventure/suspense into something worse: horror or Grimm (which terrified me when young).

The hand belongs to Huon, a seemingly old man with young man's hands. Huon is the adult protagonist at the center of this tale which is, in some ways, like every adventure tale--a lost prince, wicked nobles, ambiguous villains—and, in some ways, unlike any of them. Huon finds the prince, Trad, early in the book. The quest is his effort to bring Trad to the capital before sunrise on a certain date. The suspense is enhanced by Trad's ignorance. Like all good princes, he cares more for Huon's fate than his own, but the care is not at all sanctimonious. Trad believes Huon to be the rightful heir; he is reacting like a true king, placing the kingdom's needs before his own safety.

The Quest is not a well-known book. In fact, it is out-of-print. My personal history with it involves a number of odd twists as well as a number of non-definitive answers, especially those concerning the book's readership. I will explore the book's history and then its readership in turn.

The edition I grew up with appears to have been bought by someone in our family (probably my mother), used, for $1. My edition was printed in 1969 (the first edition was printed in 1967) by Holt, Rinehart and Winston in America (Lovett is a British citizen). My mother read the book to me as child, and when my parents moved from upstate New York to Maine, I managed to snag it. Most of the other books from my childhood ended up with my sister, Ann, who is a librarian. But I wanted The Great and Terrible Quest just as I wanted the 60s hardcover editions of C.S. Lewis' Narnia series. (Those I didn't manage to snag.)

My desire for The Quest wasn't precisely nostalgia or, perhaps, it was a specific type of nostalgia. I remember my mother reading the story to me, although I can't recall the year or season. It was one of the most exciting books of my childhood. I clamored for her to read more and more. One of the endearing things about my mother was that she would get as caught up in the story as I and agree to chapter after chapter well past my bedtime.

I read The Quest myself a few years later. It became, like so many books from my childhood, a talisman, an indication to me of what is worthwhile. I approve of this. This object is one of the commendable things about the world. I retained a similar attitude through college. I would save up to buy hardcovers of C.J. Cherryh, Archibald MacLeish, Conall Ryan's House of Cards, Faulkner (I got The Bear used). Now, age, money worries (ah, those college days) and moving have defeated that particular hobby. Hardcovers are just so darn heavy.

The Great and Terrible Quest has survived several moves; it is tucked away in my crate of fantasy/medieval books amongst Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (Douglas Adams) and Connie Willis' Doomsday Book. I didn't remember, for sure, that I owned it until the book was brought to my notice by a strange series of events.

I had remembered The Great and Terrible Quest enough to place it on my Amazon.com list "Fantasy No Matter What Your Age," which list also includes Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones, The Riddle-Master of Hed by Patricia McKillip and J.R.R, Tolkien (naturally). In July 2003, I received an e-mail from a writer at the Economist's London office, asking me what I knew about the book. He was doing an article about a facsimile edition of The Quest printed by a company, Sonlight Curriculum. He was having trouble locating any information about the book's background. I was one of the few readers he had come across.

I was unable to help him. I did some research of my own and learned that the book was rare, selling somewhere in the $200 range. I contacted my family. My mother had read Lovett's other book Jonathan but couldn't remember much about it. We were at a collective loss. However, the writer collected enough material to print an article in the August 30, 2003 Economist.

To me, the writer, Edward, wrote:
There are several puzzling things about this book. One is that although it is, as you say, a very good book, the original publishers (Holt) never reprinted it. Second is that it _has_ been reprinted by a small Christian home-schooling publishing house in Colorado, called Sonlight, in 2001 but without their managing to track down Margaret Lovett (who is, I found out without too much difficulty, still alive). Thirdly it is not clear whether they obtained permission from Holts (the flyleaf just says that they "sought" permission). Fourth, Holts won't comment on this. Fifth, the book does not appear on Amazon as a new issue (only as out-of-print). Sixth (and less strange) Margaret Lovett (now aged 88) doesn't reply to my letters. (E-mail from Edward to Katherine Woodbury, July 2, 2003)
He continued, "[It is puzzling also] because she is rather harsh on the church, and it is a Christian publishing house that has reprinted it. And also stealing money from old ladies isn't nice in any sort of moral universe."

I agreed but differed from his assessment of the book as "harsh on the church." Lovett's book pits a lost prince and knight against corrupt nobles and clerics, par for the course stuff for anyone who has grown up on medieval fantasy (including C.S. Lewis). I was also surprised at his failure to recognize that the corrupt "church" of Lovett's book would be associated, rightly or wrongly, with Catholicism by a company like Sonlight, not with Protestantism. Since Protestants in England were referring to the Catholic Church as the "scarlet whore of Babylon" as late as the 1900s, I thought his bemusement a trifle obtuse. And I said so, only much nicer, of course.

However, the Economist was not interested in the literary analysis of English majors. It was, as befits the Economist, more interested in copyright laws.

As the comprehensive yet succinct article attests, Sonlight had not obtained permission (really) but ended up paying Miss Lovett her royalties (once the Economist pressured them about it). Miss Lovett was thrilled but surprised that her book had been republished, a book "she had believed long gone and quite forgotten" (Economist article).

What I took away from the article was not Sonlight's poor understanding of copyright law. Most people, including law professors, are downright equivocal on the subject. What impressed me about the Economist article was that Sonlight was using the book for the same reason, the 1969 flyleaf attests, that Lovett wrote it in the first place. "She continues writing," states the flyleaf, "partly, she admits, to have something to read to a class of twelve-year-olds," and informs us that Ms. Lovett teaches "disabled boys of high intelligence," a job she finds "totally satisfying and absorbing." The Economist tells us that Sonlight "specializes in providing teaching materials [to home schooleds] . . . by providing them with cheap editions of improving works of literature."

How, I wondered, did Sonlight decide that The Great and Terrible Quest was an improving work of literature? Or rather when? Did someone like myself keep the book as a souvenir of a good reading experience and then pull it out for a discussion on reading needs? Did someone remember the book from years earlier and pay the $200 to obtain it from an on-line dealer? Did they come across it in a library, the last copy of the second printing? Did a child read it and pass it on to another child or to a parent? For that matter, how did the Economist writer come across it?

Perhaps those are the wrong questions. Perhaps the real question is the one posed by the Economist (in passing): Why did it go out-of-print at all? It is excellently written, and was published in the same time period as Tolkien's fantasies, books which engaged students on both sides of the Atlantic. The Quest is a rollicking adventure story that my mother enjoyed reading to me as much as I enjoyed hearing it. Was it too much like other fiction at the time? Yet J.K. Rowlings' success has rolled over into successful reprints of British authors like Eva Ibbotson. Why did the same not hold true for Tolkien and Lovett? Perhaps, the age group was wrong. College students were reading The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, not youngsters. Dark children's literature has been much more prevalent in recent years (e.g. Lemony Snicket) than in the past. Perhaps, twenty years later, Lovett would have found she had a best seller on her hands.

I am not one to believe that book sales are manipulated entirely by marketing. I believe that popular books and movies become popular, more or less, due to word of mouth. Yes, dead white Western men promoted Shakespeare, but why Shakespeare and not, say, John Webster? (A question I'm hoping to answer in my thesis.) A work's survival appears to hinge on a congruence of market, culture, need and the problematic arena of reader-response. The history of many works can be explained by tracing these various elements, yet the unpopularity of The Great and Terrible Quest remains a puzzlement.

What is clearer, if disconcerting, is the book's readership: myself, a London writer from the Economist, Protestant home schooleds in Colorado, "disabled boys of high intelligence" (flyleaf). It is an oddly assorted community, to say the least. And perhaps it explains the book's elusiveness. The community is too scattered, too disparate. To read The Quest is like proclaiming, "I'm a C.J. Cherryh fan" to a Maeve Binchy book club. Every now and again, I meet a Cherryh fan. It's an awesome and unusual occasion. Everybody knows about Asimov; what about the less aggressively prolific sci-fi writers?

Since she is a sci-fi writer, Cherryh belongs to a large subculture and, consequently, has many more readers than Lovett. But perhaps if I and the London writer and the home schooleds and the disabled boys (older now) could find the right door, the right portal, the correct club, we would find the other four or five people in the world who have also read The Great and Terrible Quest. And perhaps, once we found each other, we would discover some thread of similarity: a proclivity, perhaps, for honor and romance, which, despite the Economist's reservations, even Protestants can share. "Stealing from old ladies isn't nice," the Economist writer told me and Lovett and the Protestants would agree.

At the end of the book, Trad (held in Huon's arms) feels that he and Huon (also called Lord Hilarion) will lose the race to the capital:
Tears were pouring down Trad's face . . . how, after all that, could any man do this even if it must be done?

"For the Kingdom," said a ghost of a sound above his head . . .

So it was that as, by the ancient tradition, the waiting trumpets were raised to signal the first glimpse of the sun's rim above the horizon and the hushed crowd . . . pressed forward in almost unbearable tension, the Lord Hilarion stumbled through the Gate of the City with his King in his arms. (The Great and Terrible Quest, 186, Lovett's italics)
Even now, it can bring me near tears. The slim volume, with its brown, off-key jacket, ends on a note of high, religious heroism. Like the imaginary chivalric knights of old (oh, surely, there were some), we Quest readers can feel part of a private group, seekers after chivalry, even in a 1969 forgotten novel.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

I found this book on an old shelf in my parents' room. I had very fond memories of my mother reading it to me as a child, and I immediately sat down to read it myself. I enjoyed it quite as much as I did the last time. It is well-paced, well-worded, and well-plotted. It seemed such an epic story that I was surprised I had never seen it in bookstores, or libraries, or even heard mention of it before. I decided to google it online, and yours was the only article I could find on the book. I'm very glad to see I'm not the only one who has found this great novel and thoroughly enjoyed it. A reprint would be wonderful, wouldn't it?

Richard

Kate Woodbury said...

I'm glad to know there's another Great & Terrible Quest fan out there! I know--it amazes me that the book hasn't been reprinted or that no one has tried to make a movie out of it. It contains so many classic and timeless elements and the ending is so heart-wrenching. Perhaps, it will be one of those books that is "discovered" years after its first publication (in which case, we will have to say, "Hey, we were there first!").

Kate

MargieInDTX said...

Great & Terrible Quest is my all-time favorite book. I would really love to know how you tracked down Ms. Lovett. It would be so special if I could correspond with her and learn a bit more about her. If you have any ideas how I might contact her (or her representatives) I would be so grateful if you would pass it on.
Many thanks.
Margie@hijklm.org

chomiji said...

I am lucky enough to have an ex-library copy of this. It was a favorite of mine as a child and I still enjoy re-reading it now, as the parent of a teen. This story deserves its wide audience, but also certainly deserves to be better know that it is. You are so right about the ending - I get teary eyed myself that point. Earlier, when Trad realizes the identity of the archer who is shooting at them - And Tawny never missed - I am similarly overwhelmed by exhilaration and joy. The writing is amazingly vivid and affecting.

BTW, I am also a Cherryh fan.

Joy said...

I found "The Great and Terrible Quest" through Sonlight when I purchased their curricula to homeschool my daughters. I now teach 4th grade in a classroom, and I read this aloud to my students each year. We study The Middle Ages, so it is a nice add-on. I build up the mystery aspect, put on dramatic voices, and urge the kids to take notes for clues. As we get further into the book, I allow them to write me notes with their guesses about the mysteries. There is SO much to teach children from this book...character, perseverance, goodness, loyalty, and purpose. The only problem I have is that I cannot get through the ending without sobbing. I usually have to have one of the students take over. Wouldn't this make a wonderful movie???

Anonymous said...

This has always been one of my favorite books. My mother read it to me when i was about seven. I am sixteen now, and i read it at least once a year. I recommend it to anyone i can. I pray that this book will live on forever.

Nikki said...

I've been searching for the title of this book for almost 8 years. I read it in junior high and loved it; it has been haunting my reading list for so long. Luckily, I remembered a line from the riddle just the other day, and that's all I needed for the Google search box. Thanks for writing this article to help me track down a beloved book.

Tim said...

Thanks for this post. It's nice to know there are other fans of this book around. I wish I could get a copy of this book, but no library in my country has it, and I certainly can't shell out what it's going for now.

Margie said...

Tim - you can buy it for $10.50 through Sonlight.com
http://www.sonlight.com/6R28.html
Enjoy.
Margie

Kate Woodbury said...

Margie:

It's great that Sonlight is selling this awesome book!

Just to keep in mind: the Sonlight version is abridged.

As you point out, Tim, the "original" prices on Amazon are a bit pricey. Amazon can sometimes surprise you, though! I tried for several years to track down Nicholas Stuart Gray's A Wind from Nowhere. Every time I went on Amazon, the price range was $50 or more. Then, suddenly, one day, there were several used copies for under $20. Now I own it. Hurrah!

Good luck!

Kate Woodbury said...

I have to take back my previous comment. It appears that the Sonlight version is NOT abridged.

If anyone knows differently, please send me a line! The winding process by which this book has drifted in and out of publication and public knowledge is a testimony to the power of a faithful readership.

In any case, it would make a great movie!

Margie said...

I don't know whether the Sonlight version is abridged. But, I found a couple of "first edition" hard cover copies on Amazon from $25 - $50.

Margie

Anonymous said...

I just read the sunlight version. Hate the book. But I will try to read it again.

Jen said...

Loved the book from my Public Library. I must have been a teenager but could not remember the title. Used the rhyme (remembered perfectly) in search engine and so found out title and author about 2 years ago. would definitely like to read the book again as an adult

Anonymous said...

there are thousands of sonlight readers all over the world, so don't dispair. this book is out there.

Anonymous said...

In an end-of-the-year activity where I volunteer as a reading tutor, I was asked to list my three favorite books. This book was at the top of my list.

Shieldmaiden said...

My family did the sonlight curriculum when I was a child (bought used since we never had much money) and this was my favorite book out of the readings. I have the sonlight reprint, but it's still sitting on my shelf. One of my favorite books.

Julie said...

I do need to admit that this book led to one of my few dishonest acts of my childhood. I checked it out of my grade school library and loved it so much, I couldn't bear to return it. So I told the librarian I lost it. But I did pay for the book. This story along with The Seven Swans are my absolute favorites from when I was young. And even now, 45 years later, I will bring them down from my bookcase and read them. I know exactly where Quest is located on the top shelf. For me, this book was a passport from fairy tales and stories of giants and magic to the writings of C.S. Lewis, Tolkein, Piers Anthony, etc and I still find it somehow comforting to return to Quest and the point where, for me, my love of fantasy novels began.