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What is the Difference Between a Pilgrimage and a Quest?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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In literature like the legends concerning the search for the Holy Grail or The Canterbury Tales, significant differences are made between the terms quest and pilgrimage. It helps when reading material to understand these distinctions, as they can render discussion and analysis of a work more lucid and fascinating.

A pilgrimage is a journey with a specific destination. One knows how to get to the destination, like Mecca, The Canterbury Church, or Lourdes. What occurs at the end of the pilgrimage is unknown. Will one find spiritual enlightenment? Will one witness miracles? In most cases one can call the pilgrimage destination-centered.

Conversely, a quest is a search for something that has an unknown location. One expects to find something, like the Holy Grail, at the termination of it. However, quests are primarily journey-centered. Of greatest importance is the journey, which prepares one to receive known benefits.

For example, finding the Holy Grail is God’s essential recognition of one’s spiritual qualities. One expects this. There's no road map for this, though. Clearly, the quest also is a way of testing a person for preparedness to find what he or she seeks.

This is quite obvious in Grail legends. Most knights fail on their quest to find the Grail because they lack the spiritual ability to be in God’s presence. They don’t fail because they can’t figure out how to get to the Grail. The only way to get there is to prove oneself through the journey.

Unlike a quest, a pilgrimage generally has a road map. Part of the journey of the pilgrimage does prepare the spirit for interaction with the divine. This is particularly the case with the modern Hajj, the pilgrimage many Muslims make in their lifetime to Mecca. These pilgrims are walking in the footsteps, literally, of Muhammad. They experience some deprivation, discomfort and hardship along the way. But with many other travelers alongside them, it is difficult to lose their way.

Like a quest, the deprivations of a pilgrimage can ultimately influence how one might react to reaching a destination. However, those on a pilgrimage will reach the destination. A quest may never end, and one may never be prepared to find what he or she seeks.

In critical analysis of literature, many argue that certain works represent quest or pilgrimage. For example, Dante’s Divine Comedy evokes this debate. Many critics argue that Dante is essentially on a quest to find the divine, represented by Paradise and Beatrice. Dante as a character is not certain whether he will ever achieve his goal, but each step of his journey makes him more so.

Conversely, some critics argue Dante is on a pilgrimage. He is always guided in his journey so his path is sure to achieve an end result of finding heaven and of finding his lost love Beatrice. Yet many critics counter that if Dante’s path really was a pilgrimage, the actual journey would not be given in so much detail.

Many also use the terms quest and pilgrimage when discussing the ideal ways to live a life. Work’s like Pilgrim’s Progress represent man’s struggle through temptations to reach a known destination. Single-minded focus on the goal is more important than the aspects of the journey.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By Rotergirl — On Jun 30, 2014

@Pippinwhite -- I don't think you're off base at all. That's always been my take on the difference between the two.

Also, usually, on a quest, the hero has certain tasks to perform and/or certain obstacles to overcome. He or she knows the journey will be arduous. In that sense, fully 99 percent of the fairy tales we read are quests. The handsome prince goes after the beautiful princess, but meets with an old woman. If he is kind to her, good things happen to him, or he gets good advice. If not, something bad happens.

Read Andrew Lang's fairy books. They're full of quests, but short on pilgrimages -- unless one of the characters deliberately goes on a pilgrimage and it turns into a quest.

By Pippinwhite — On Jun 29, 2014

Maybe I'm a little off base, but normally, an "official" pilgrimage is usually some kind of religious journey. It's retracing the steps of a saint, or doing something for spiritual enlightenment. Whether it's a pilgrimage to Mecca, or a pilgrimage to Lourdes, there's a spiritual element that may or may not exist on a quest.

A quest is a journey, and it's expected the hero will learn lessons along the way, but it's not necessarily religious in nature. Usually, the hero is looking for something, and it may be the Holy Grail, or it may be more like "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight."

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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