“We find them everywhere in fantasy fiction: the “orphaned heroes,” young men and women whose parents are dead, absent, or unknown, who turn out to be the heirs to the kingdom, the destined pullers of swords from stones, the keys to the riddles, the prophesies’ answers, the bearers of powerful magic.” – Terri Windling in Lost and Found: The Orphaned Hero in Myth, Folklore, and Fantasy
“The hero, Tristan, is a conventional orphan-hero. Mythic heroes are typically orphans and/orfoundlings of some sort. This symbolic convention was first discovered by psychoanalyst OttoRank (1914/1964), described in his classic work, ‘The Myth of the Birth of the Hero.'” – Ronald L. Boyer in “Key Archetypes in the Celtic Myth of Tristan and Isolde: A Brief Introduction”
Orphans in literature and in fact are portrayed as beginning life behind the figurative 8-ball. In novels and classic myths, they grow up in an uncertain world, often without love and often with cruel or other substandard conditions. Sometimes we find them in institutions, sometimes with relatives or foster families, and sometimes as street-smart children living on the fringes of society in major cities.
Variously, society often pities them, mistrusts them, intrudes into their lives purportedly in their best interests and views them as broken children who will have a long, hard climb back into the normal world of commerce, relationships and other traditional forms of success. We also see them as underdogs and, in spite of whatever else we may feel about their birth and circumstances, we root for them in literature and life.
In J. K. Rowling’s series of Harry Potter books and movies, Harry is the unwanted orphan forced to live in a cupboard beneath the stairs. In Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games, the fatherless and –practically speaking–motherless Katniss Everdeen struggles to support the family in a coal mining district. Do they have an extra axe to grind? Has their childhood made them more suspicious and/or more resourceful than children in happy families? Perhaps.
The first real help they get comes from outside their families. Harry is mentored by Hagrid. Katniss is mentored by Haymitch Abernathy. Harry leaves his everyday world when he goes to Hogwarts and Katniss leaves her everyday world when she takes the train to the capital city.
In their stories, Katniss and Harry follow a long literary tradition. According to John Granger (aka, the Hogwarts Professor), their “hero’s journey — one in which the principal character plays the part of what the Bible calls ‘the heart’ and their story is about their apotheosis or spiritual illumination, something like divinization — has a tradition of its own in English literature we can call ‘literary alchemy.’” Twilight, The Hunger Games and Rowling’s series contain similar tropes and symbols.
Whether we consciously know what those themes and symbols are, we resonate to them when we read myths and modern fiction that contain them. One way or another we know what it takes to turn lead into gold and to turn an orphan into a heroic figure.
We have seen this story in many forms with many characters. As Windling writes:
“We can trace the archetype back from the popular fantasy books listed above to the literary orphans of the 19th century (Dickens’s ‘Oliver Twist’, Mark Twain’s ‘Huck Finn,’ Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre,’ to name just a few), and then further back through “foundling” stories such as Henry Fielding’s ‘The History of Tom Jones’ and William Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale,’ to a world–wide body of folk tales and myths about children orphaned and abandoned. Alongside these stories is another deep cache of tales on the “stolen child” theme: children whisked away by fairies, trolls, djinn, gypsies, Baba Yaga. . .sometimes reappearing many years later and sometimes never seen again. We discussed changeling and stolen child stories in a previous article, so well leave these tales aside for the moment and focus on the orphan archetype.”
Stories about orphans in the storm can be powerful because of the authors’ art and craft in creating memorable plots and characters. They’re also powerful because such stories are part of a long literary tradition than rings a bell, subconsciously perhaps, when we pick up a book about an orphan on a larger-than-life journey.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy novels.