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Going to See the Elephant

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"It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end."

Somewhere, not too far from the hero's hometown, there is something new and exotic to go see or do. The hero is fascinated with the idea of checking out this new thing, and he and his friends set out on a journey to do just that. Their journey drives the rest of the plot. This differs from characters on a quest, because there's no overarching need for them to take the trip, other than "let's go take the trip". They're tourists, not heroes out to destroy The One Ring. In addition, the actual object at the end of the journey is utterly unimportant, other than as a prod for the character to take the journey in the first place.

The name of the trope is from a 19th-century expression that meant "to take a trip to see or do something exotic." In The American Civil War era, it was sometimes used to refer to going to war. Sometimes used as a MacGuffin, making the character go in order to drive the plot, but not always, as it lacks the interchangeability of a true MacGuffin. Often, It's the Journey That Counts. Other times, this will be how the main characters get roped into a larger, more high-stakes quest.

Compare with The Homeward Journey and Humble Goal. Also see Road Trip Plot, where the story is about the journey itself. No relation at all to the Elephant in the Living Room, which everybody is pointedly trying to ignore. Also has nothing to do with going to see a man about a horse...


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     Anime and Manga 
  • Doraemon: Great Adventure in the Antarctic Kachi Kochi: Nobita finds a bracelet in the middle of Antartica, which Doraemon's gadgets identifies as an artifact from 100,000 years ago. On a whim, he managed to convince his friends to travel to the past and seek its owner, which somehow leads to the gang fighting an ancient Eldritch Abomination elemental monster in order to save the earth.
  • Samurai Champloo has the girl Fuu hire two Samurai, Mugen and Jin, to help her find the Sun Flower samurai. This Samurai in question does not show up until the last episode and the show regularly admits that he is nothing more than MacGuffin, with both Mugen and Jin regularly pestering Fuu about knowing nothing about the Sun Flower Samurai (except that he smells like sunflowers, but she doesn't even know what those smell like). She has a good reason for keeping quiet about what she knows - the samurai is her father.
  • Carried by the Wind: Tsukikage Ran: This particular trope is taken literally in one episode.
  • One Piece:
    • The Grand Line is presented as a sort of elephant in early arcs. Also, the island containing the titular "One Piece", the treasure of Gold Roger.
    • This is basically Luffy's reason for becoming a pirate. It's not so much as finding a great treasure or beating up the local dictators, wannabe or official, it's having the best, most awesome adventure ever. When discussing how to enter the Grand Line, Luffy insists on entering through Reverse Mountain instead of going in from the sides as "It wouldn't feel right." He also refuses a chance to learn more about Gold Roger's One Piece, as he doesn't want to be spoiled on whether or not that there's a treasure.
  • UQ Holder!: Touta's stated goal is to climb the Space Elevator at the capital. It's quickly revealed that he cares less about the elevator itself and more about what he could accomplish once he gets there.

     Comic Books 

     Films — Animated 
  • Tangled: The entire reason Rapunzel leaves her tower is to go see the lights that appear on her birthday every year. They're more important than most examples though, as they are sent by her parents, the King and Queen of Corona, who want her to return more than anything.

     Films — Live-Action 
  • Losin' It: Each of the boys has a different "elephant" he wants to see during their trip to Tijuana, Mexico. One character wants to see a donkey shownote , another wants his car seats re-upholstered and the third just wants to get some cool fireworks.
  • The Straight Story is about a man who takes a cross-country trip on his riding mower, so he can reconcile with his dying brother.
  • Lost in America is about a couple who quit their jobs in order to "discover America". They do so by traveling around in a Winnebago on the back roads, looking for new things to see and do.
  • Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle: Harold and Kumar go on an epic, all-night quest to get White Castle burgers, and have many adventures on the way.
  • Gerry: It is never revealed exactly what Gerry and Gerry went to see, as they decide before getting there that "it's just a thing, at the end of a trail" and they don't need to see it.

  • The Canterbury Tales: The storytellers are on a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Thomas Becket, but that is essentially Chaucer's excuse to get people from all walks of life to exchange their tales.
  • The Lord of the Rings: Sam initially joins Frodo because he simply wants to see Elves, who are almost mythical for Hobbits. Along the way, Sam gets to literally see an oliphaunt, confirming the Hobbit rhyme is an appallingly realistic depiction of one.
  • In the Stephen King novella The Body (and its film adaptation, Stand by Me), the kids travel halfway across the state on foot to see a dead body.
  • This trope is referenced in another Stephen King novel, The Stand, in which the mentally handicapped Tom Cullen is triggered to enter a hypnotic state when he's asked if he "wants to go see the elephant" and instructed to take a trip to Las Vegas. This is not technically an example, however, as Tom has a very specific quest: to join the enemy forces as a sleeper agent and return with information.
  • Discworld:
    • Mentioned by name in Witches Abroad. It's even the last line, as the witches talk about how they're eager to get back home to Lancre: "But they took the long way round, and saw the elephant."
    • As indeed did Sam, Sybil and young Sam in Snuff. And after the harrowing events of The Fifth Elephant, Sam and Sybil decide to take it easy on the way home.
    • It becomes almost literal in The Colour of Magic.Rincewind and Twoflower (the Disc's "First Tourist") are in a 'spaceship that falls off the edge of the Disc... which is supported by four elephants on the back of a giant turtle. The next books explains how they get back, but not what they saw.
  • In Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small series, "going to see the kraken" is used as a substitute idiom... sort of. In this case, "kraken" stands for the how overwhelming one's first experience with open battle is.
  • Another one that mentions the concept by name, "The Man Who Saw the Elephant" by Avram Davidson is about a farmer who goes in search of a rumoured travelling show featuring an elephant, because he's spent his entire life within a few miles of his farm and wants just once to go somewhere and do something out of the ordinary.
  • Starlight and Shadows trilogy. A young, talented and fun-loving drow wizard chanced upon a book about some forgotten surface people that mentioned an obscure tradition — rune magic. She thought it may be interesting to investigate the matter. Not that she expected to find a great power in it, just because it's unusual enough. The rest of three books cover some consequences of her curiosity.
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh: One of the literally oldest quests in the book is this trope — Gilgamesh decides to celebrate his new friendship with Enkidu by going to the Forest of Cedars and killing the guardian Humbaba for absolutely no logical reason, even in context. note 
  • From Space Viking by H. Beam Piper, regarding Lucas Trask's first experience of being part of a Viking raid on a more-or-less helpless planet: "Well, you saw the elephant, Lucas. You don't seem to have liked it." Spoken by veteran Viking Captain Otto Harkaman.
  • The Honor Harrington short story "Let's go to Prague" starts out as being about a vacation. Of course it gets complicated from there, given the travelers are Manticoran intelligence agents and the destination of a planet controlled by Haven's primary enemy at the time, the People's Republic of Haven.
  • Robert A. Heinlein's "The Man Who Traveled in Elephants" is a literal inversion of sorts. A traveling salesman and his wife don't want to settle down in retirement. They need some nominal reason to justify roaming around the country, so imagine themselves to be selling elephants. (They figure they don't need to take an actual sample elephant to show, because, heck, everyone knows what an elephant looks like.)
  • Literally inverted in Around the World in Eighty Days. During one leg of his journey, Phileas Fogg literally goes to see an elephant, but he's shown zero interest in sightseeing; he just wants to hurry up and get past a gap in the train routes. The broader quest itself also qualifies; Fogg is making the journey around the world simply to prove that modern technology and globalization have advanced to a point where it can be done within a mere eighty days.
  • In The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo, the protagonist goes with a group of people to see the title elephant to first find out if his sister is still alive and secondly to get it home.
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is initially about going to see a motorcycle show, but the main characters quickly lose interest and instead get into a much more nebulous search for "the American Dream" somewhere in Vegas.
  • The Jean Shepherd short story(and the latter half of the movie of the same name) Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss is about the family's annual trip to the titular vacation spot.

     Live Action TV 
  • Doctor Who: The Doctor just wanted to see the universe. In spite of all of the regenerations and battles with the forces of evil, this remains their core goal. This also plays out frequently at the episodic level with the Doctor and company arriving at a planet/time period with the intention of sightseeing.
  • On How I Met Your Mother, when Ted and Marshall were in college they used to make 21 hour road trips to visit a Chicago restaurant that served delicious but incredibly disgusting pizza. They do it again in their thirties when they find out the restaurant's about to close.
  • In The Drew Carey Show episode "New York and Queens", the gang travel to New York City to see the Yankees play the Indians. While driving cross country, they decide to take a side-trip into Hershey, Pennsylvania, just because they can smell the chocolate from the highway.

  • "Weird Al" Yankovic's "The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota" is a parody of similar Going To See The Elephant songs.
  • The old kids' song "Miss Mary Mack" mentions this trope as written.

  • In Anyone Can Whistle, a large number of pilgrims appear once the mayoress and her cronies have their alleged Rock of Limitless Water in operation, and then at the end, they all (and a number of people from the town) leave when they hear that there's another miracle in the next town over.
  • Thornton Wilder's:
    • The Matchmaker, the clerks Cornelius and Barnaby take advantage of their overbearing boss going on an overnight trip to give themselves the day off and go to New York City to see what wonders it has.
    • The same happens in Hello, Dolly!, the musical adaptation of The Matchmaker, with Barnaby specifically having the fixed desire of seeing the stuffed whale in Barnum's museum.
    • Maggie Antrobus wants to see a whale before she dies in his The Skin of Our Teeth. The Barnum Museum really was a tremendously popular place in the mid- to late-1800s, and the whale was a notable exhibit.

     Video Games 
  • The story of Ecco Jr. is "going to see the Big Blue". The amount of its relation to the actual gameplay also makes it an Excuse Plot.

     Web Original 
  • Charlie the Unicorn: Candy Mountain, Charlie, Candy Mountain! Of course, unlike most depictions, Charlie doesn't want to go to Candy Mountain; his friends (?) just annoy him into going.
  • From Roomies!, Danny and Billie see Mount Rushmore. Because.
  • A Penny Arcade strip shows Gabe and Tycho seeing the "World's Largest Grape" and "World's Oldest Cat" on a road trip. They decided to skip the museum of sodomy.

     Western Animation 
  • A series of Big City Greens shorts revolve around the family going on a road trip to Breakfast Land after Tilly wins free passes. After the expected road Trip shenanigans, the final short ends with the family realizing they accidentally went to Breakfast World.
  • Bob's Burgers: "Stand By Gene" has Gene taking his sisters and their friends from school on a hike into the country to a farm where a goat with two butts supposedly lives.
  • Rocko's Modern Life: In "Road Rash", Heffer and Rocko go on a road trip to see Phlegm Rock (a rock formation shaped like a runny nose, where the "mucus" is algae-ridden water spewing from a spring) before it closes and gets paved over.
  • In the final Nickelodeon-era episode of Doug, the Funnies are taking a road trip to see the Great Painted Gorge. Phil tries to make good time, but Doug and Judy keep getting distracted by tourist traps due to boredom over the long drive.
  • In Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Vacation, Plucky and the Pig family visit a theme park called Happy World Land, and Plucky is clearly excited for the attractions. To Plucky's disappointment, however, after a long and harrowing (well, harrowing for Plucky, at least) journey to get there, Hampton and his family just wanted to ride the monorail around the park (because Mr. Pig doesn't want to overdo it on their first visit), after which they promptly leave (and Plucky goes into a stupor).

     Real Life 
  • In his personal memoirs, Civil War veteran Elisha Hunt Rhodes wrote that, after his experiences in the Civil War, he was no longer interested in aggression, belligerence, or anger, and would no longer own or use a firearm, because "I have already seen that elephant." He'd gone off to war thinking it would be a grand adventure, and it turned out to be just what war is: a horrible, terrifying, life-changing experience.
  • Many of the gold seekers who went west during the Gold Rush hoping to hit pay dirt or the young trailhands going from Texas to the wild Kansas cowtowns described their journeys as "going to see the elephant."
  • Until 1896, there was a building literally shaped like an elephant on Coney Island which housed a brothel. The phrase "going to see the elephant" was (and still is in some pockets of New York City) used as a euphemism for visiting a prostitute.
  • Lucy the Elephant in Margate, N.J., is another literal elephant shaped building that's a well known historic landmark and tourist attraction.