Seek and Ye Shall Not Find
September 27, 2021 7:03 PM   Subscribe

I want to know of any mythological/fictional characters that are doomed to search for something and never find it.

Or perhaps they find it, immediately lose it, and search again (ad infinitum).
Kinda like Sisyphus but searching instead of pushing.
Any culture, age, medium, whatever, nothing it out of bounds
posted by falsedmitri to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
King Pellinor of Arthurian myth.
posted by justkevin at 7:32 PM on September 27, 2021 [6 favorites]

La Llorona:

In a typical version of the legend, a beautiful woman named Xochitl marries a rich ranchero / conquistador[2] with whom she bears two children. One day, Xochitl sees her husband with another woman and in a fit of blind rage, she drowns their children in a river, which she immediately regrets. Unable to save them and consumed by guilt,[3] she drowns herself as well but is unable to enter the afterlife, forced to be in purgatory and roam the earth until she finds her children.
posted by ejs at 7:39 PM on September 27, 2021 [6 favorites]

A few examples that may not be quite what you're looking for but just throwing them out there in case they knock someone else's brain cells in the right direction (meanwhile I'll continue trying to think of more):

Diogenes famously had an endless "search for an honest man." A bit more of a philosophical trick but it's a quest!

In the Ray Bradbury story "The Man" in The Illustrated Man, a group on a spaceship arrive only hours after a figure implied to be Jesus has been there, and the captain, a skeptic, leaves to the prophesy that he will next time arrive only one hour...then half an hour... then a few minutes, and eventually only a fraction of a second behind him. Again... a metaphor or something, but it fits a bit. (I count it as mythology because of JC)

I haven't read this but my partner informs me that Melmoth in the book Melmoth the Wanderer, himself based somewhat on the myth/story of the Wandering Jew, is looking for someone to replace him in his immortal role. (A bit like Atlas in that)

More on target (my partner now filling me in from the couch) is King Arthur himself and the pursuit of the White Stag. (Shades of Moby Dick)
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 7:47 PM on September 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

Ahab famously finds the white whale he's looking for, but Moby Dick does include the incident where Pequod meets the ship Rachel, whose captain has lost his son in a whaleboat, and wants the Pequod's help to search:
Hurriedly turning, with averted face, he descended into his cabin, leaving the strange captain transfixed at this unconditional and utter rejection of his so earnest suit. But starting from his enchantment, Gardiner silently hurried to the side; more fell than stepped into his boat, and returned to his ship.

Soon the two ships diverged their wakes; and long as the strange vessel was in view, she was seen to yaw hither and thither at every dark spot, however small, on the sea. This way and that her yards were swung round; starboard and larboard, she continued to tack; now she beat against a head sea; and again it pushed her before it; while all the while, her masts and yards were thickly clustered with men, as three tall cherry trees, when the boys are cherrying among the boughs.

But by her still halting course and winding, woeful way, you plainly saw that this ship that so wept with spray, still remained without comfort. She was Rachel, weeping for her children, because they were not...
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:51 PM on September 27, 2021 [2 favorites]

Trapped along with Sisyphus in Tartarus is Tantalus, who is doomed to eternally hunger and thirst, with fruit and fresh water at hand, but every time he reaches for the fruit or tries to drink the water, it will evade him. Not exactly searching, since it's within sight, but he can never actually obtain it.
posted by subocoyne at 7:57 PM on September 27, 2021 [6 favorites]

Banchō Sarayashiki - a classic tale of a servant's ghost trying to find a missing plate.
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:05 PM on September 27, 2021 [2 favorites]

The Flying Dutchman
I kinda like Tom Holt's treatment of it.
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:08 PM on September 27, 2021 [4 favorites]

Quantum Leap!
posted by Melismata at 8:18 PM on September 27, 2021 [6 favorites]

The Stith-Thompson Motif Index of Folk Literature is pretty much the sovereign remedy for this type of thing.

In this case, index number Q500. Tedious Punishments is probably your jam. See Q501.1 Sisyphus and Q501.2 Tantalus.

Personal fave: Q503.1 Skull of suicide must roll in dust until it has saved a life. Man uses the skull to kill an owl that was about to kill a rabbit: thus after 777 years of rolling, it has saved a life and is freed.
posted by sourcequench at 8:46 PM on September 27, 2021 [13 favorites]

Best answer: And here's a browsable motif index. What a wonderful resource, I would never have found it if not for this question!
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 9:18 PM on September 27, 2021 [14 favorites]

Leaonard Shelby, the protagonist of the movie Memento (written and directed by Christopher Nolan), is searching for a man he only knows as “John G.” who killed his wife Catherine and caused Leonard to suffer anterograde amnesia—a condition in which he can’t make new memories, so he forgets things that have happened just minutes later.

By the end of the movie Leonard kills “John G.,” but is told by his accomplice Teddy they had already found and murdered the real “John G.” long ago. Leonard had just forgotten it thanks to his amnesia, so Teddy has been pointing him toward many more John G.’s for Leonard to murder. Leonard forgets learning that too, and ends the film setting himself on the trail to murder yet another John G., who happens to be Teddy.

So Leonard is trapped in a cycle of searching for his wife’s killer, which he will never be able to escape. (And as a bonus, it turns out that Leonard was actually the one who killed Catherine, a result of an unfortunate experiment by Catherine to snap Leonard out of his amnesia. The attack by the original John G. was real and caused Leonard’s amnesia, but Catherine survived.)
posted by ejs at 10:31 PM on September 27, 2021 [2 favorites]

Peter Rugg is always looking for the road to Boston in the early 19th Century story.
posted by wjm at 10:57 PM on September 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

La Befana, the Italian Christmas witch, must always search for the Christ child without finding him (but leaves presents for every child she visits, just in case).
posted by Pallas Athena at 2:55 AM on September 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Millennium Actress.
posted by tomboko at 5:46 AM on September 28, 2021 [2 favorites]

Did Jason ever find the Golden Fleece? I think not.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:52 AM on September 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Michael Moorcock's Chronicles of The Black Sword features the great? hero Elric's search for the fabled city of Tanelorn (and he finds it, but he's not satisfied, but is it what he was really searching for?)

Is waiting for Godot the same as not finding Godot?
posted by Homemade Interossiter at 6:33 AM on September 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Not quite the same, but you could argue that Cassandra is cursed to search for, but never find, someone who will believe her prophecies.
posted by Glinn at 7:22 AM on September 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

T.H. White's "The Once and Future King" rather neatly pastiches the Pellinore/Questing Beast of Arthurian legend by actually catching the Beast. Unfortunately, both Pellinore and the Beast fall into a decline through the boredom from the lack of the chase. Their lives are only saved by someone shooing the Beast out into the woods and giving it a few minutes' start on Pellinore.
posted by scruss at 8:49 AM on September 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

In the novel Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy, the protagonist is a linguist who gets on the wrong flight and ends up in strange city. He searches both for a key to understanding their strange language and for a way to get home.
posted by perhapses at 2:29 PM on September 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

The film Everything for Sale by Andrej Wajda. The director of a film searches for the lead actor who disappeared.
posted by perhapses at 2:36 PM on September 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

El Dorado and the various searches for it (some historical, some legendary) might fit.

Did Jason ever find the Golden Fleece? I think not.

Jason absolutely found the Fleece, and then he took it with the help of Medea.
posted by lysimache at 4:05 PM on September 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Not doomed, because she figured out to give up on it, but there is a story of the Buddha where he sends a petitioner on a quest to retrieve a mustard seed from a house that has not known suffering. And the purpose of this quest is that the petitioner discovers no such home exists.
posted by Lady Li at 11:22 PM on September 29, 2021

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