by Terri Windling
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. Think of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter, Philip Pullman's Lyra Belacqua, Garth Nix's Lirael, and Jane Yolen's White Jenna. Think of the orphaned protagonists at the heart of Diana Wynne Jones's Chrestomanci books, Isobelle Carmody's Obernewtyn Chronicles, Lian Hearn's Tales of the Otori, and countless others.
The orphaned hero is not, however, a mere fantasy cliché; it's a mythic archetype, springing from some of the oldest stories of the world. This archetype includes not only those characters who are literally orphaned by the death of their parents, but also children who are lost, abandoned, cast out, disinherited by evil step-parents, raised in supernatural captivity, or reared by wild animals. 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. I discussed changeling and stolen child stories in a previous article, so I'll leave these tales aside for the moment and focus on the orphan archetype.
One story we find repeated in myths and sacred texts the world over is the birth–story of a great prophet or leader abandoned in infancy. Moses, for example, was born in Egypt at a time when the Pharaoh had commanded all Hebrew males to be drowned in the Nile at birth. When his mother could hide the infant no longer, she made a small boat of bulrushes and sent him sailing off down the river. The baby was found by the Pharaoh's daughter and grew up to become her adopted son, all the while watched over by his original mother, who'd been appointed to be his nurse.
According to Persian legend, Cyrus the Great's grandfather, Astyages, dreamed that his grandson would one day claim his throne and so he ordered the child killed. His steward was unable to murder the baby and gave him to a herdsman instead. The boy was raised as the herdsman's son, but as he grew older his looks and behavior betrayed his noble origins. Astyages recognized the youth, relented, and accepted him -- but the merciful steward was punished by being forced to kill and eat his own child. Eventually, Cyrus took the throne, and founded the Persian Empire.
In Greek myth, it had been twice foretold that Paris, the son of Priam and Hecuba, was destined to cause the fall of Troy. Priam instructed his herdsman to give his son a quick and painless death, but the man found himself unable to draw a weapon against a baby. Instead, he left the infant exposed on a mountainside where he'd surely die. Nine days later, the herdsman returned and found the babe alive and well, for a mother bear had been suckling him. The herdsman took pity, gave the boy to his wife, and presented a severed dog's tongue to Priam as evidence that the child was dead. When Paris grew up, his abduction of Helen of Troy sparked the Trojan War.
Similar birth-stories about legendary women are told, but much less frequently. In one old Assyrian myth, for example, the sea goddess Derceto dallied with a mortal youth and found herself pregnant by him. Though taking mortal lovers was common, giving birth to a half-mortal child was shameful -- and as soon as her daughter Semiramis was born, the sea goddess took her own life. Semiramis was fed and kept alive by doves until a shepherd found her and gave her to his wife to raise. She grew up to become a warrior queen who conquered large swaths of Asia.
The most famous story of infants abandoned is the legend of Remus and Romulus. In this tale, the good King of Alba Long is overthrown by his wicked brother -- who also forces his niece to become a vestal virgin in order to end the true king's line. The niece becomes pregnant anyway (by Mars, god of war) and gives birth to Remus and Romulus. The false king has the twins exposed on the banks of the Tiber, assuming they'll perish. Instead, the twins are suckled and fed by a she-wolf and a woodpecker; a herdsman finds them, takes them home, and raises the pair as his sons. They grow into noble, courageous young men and discover their true heritage - whereupon they overthrow their great-uncle, restore their grandfather to his throne, and then, just for good measure, go on to found the city of Rome.
In Savage Girls and Wild Boys: A History of Feral Children, Michael Newtwon delves into the mythic symbolism inherent in the moment when abandoned children are fed and saved by wild animals. "Restorations and substitutions are at the very heart of the Romulus and Remus story," he writes; "brothers take the rightful place of others, foster parents bring up other people's children, the god Mars stands in for a human suitor. Yet the crucial substitution occurs when the she-wolf saves the lost children. In that moment, when the infants' lips close upon the she-wolf's teats, a transgressive mercy removes the harmful influence of a murderous culture. The moment is a second birth: where death is expected, succor is given, and the children are miraculously born into the order of nature. Nature's mercy admonishes humanity's unnatural cruelty: only a miracle of kindness can restore the imbalance created by human iniquity."
In myth, when we're presented with children orphaned or suckled by animals, it is generally a sign that their true parentage is actually a remarkable one and they'll grow up to be great leaders, warriors, seers, magicians, or shamans. As they grow, their beauty, or physical prowess, or magical abilities betray a lineage that cannot be hidden by their humble upbringing. Rarely do we encounter a hero whose origins are truly low; at least one parent must be revealed as noble, supernatural, or divine. After a birth trauma and a miraculous survival always comes a span of time symbolically described as "exile in the wilderness," where they hone their skills, test their mettle, and gather their armies, their allies, or their magic, before returning (as they always do) to the world that is their birthright.
When we turn to folk tales and fairy tales, we also find stories of children orphaned, abandoned, and befriended by wild animals -- but the tone and intent of such stories is markedly different from those of myth. Here, we're not concerned with the gods, or with heroes who conquer continents. Folk tales were passed through the centuries (until relatively recently) primarily by women storytellers -- and despite their fantastical form and their frequent settings in sumptuous palaces, they concern issues of life as it's lived by ordinary men and women. Abandoned children in fairy tales -- like Hansel and Gretel, or little Tom Thumb -- aren't destined for greatness or infamy; they are exactly what they appear to be: the children of cruel or feckless parents. Such parents exist, they have always existed, and fairy tales (in the older oral tradition) did not gloss over these dark facts of life. Indeed, they confronted them squarely. The heroism of fairy tale orphans lies in their ability to survive and transform their fate, and to outwit those who would do them harm without losing their lives, their souls, or their humanity in the process.
A common type of orphan in fairy tales is the young man or woman whose mother has died and whose father promptly absents himself when a heartless new wife appears on the scene. Cinderella, or the sister in The Seven Swans, or the murdered son in The Juniper Tree might as well be orphans, so little effect do their fathers have on their stories. A parent's death often sets such tales in motion, casting young people out of their homes or bringing evil right to their front door in the shape of a wicked step-mother, scheming uncle, jealous sibling or lecherous father. Calamity thus has a function in these tales: it propels the first hard step onto the road that will lead (after certain tests and trials) to personal and worldly transformation, pushing the hero out of childhood and towards a new adult life...the latter often symbolized by marriage at the story's end.
The "evil step-mother" is so common in fairy tales that she has become an iconic figure (to the bane of real step-mothers everywhere), and her history in the fairy tale canon is an interesting one. In some tales, she didn't originally exist. The vain queen of Snow White, for example, was the girl's own mother, threatened by her daughter's beauty and her blossoming sexuality. The step-mother appeared with the Grimms' re-telling of the tale and carried on to the popular Disney movie, becoming so well known that it now seems like she's always been a part of Snow White's story. As Marina Warner explains in her fine book From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, "The Grimm Brothers worked on Kinder- und Hausmarchen in draft after draft after the first edition of 1812, Wilhelm in particular infusing the new editions with Christian fervor, emboldening the moral strokes of the plot, meting out penalties to the wicked and rewards to the just, to conform with prevailing Christian and social values. They also softened the harshness -- especially in family dramas. They could not make it disappear altogether, but in 'Hansel and Gretel,' for example, they added the father's miserable reluctance to an earlier version in which both parents had proposed the abandonment of their children, and turned the mother into a wicked stepmother."
Other tales, like Cinderella and The Juniper Tree, have featured wicked step-mothers from their earliest known tellings...although in the case of older versions of "Cinderella," the original mother does not entirely disappear. When she dies, she continues to speak to Cinderella (through a magical tree, or bones, or an animal's voice, depending on the version of the story), and it is she, not a Fairy Godmother, who helps her daughter triumph against the malicious second wife who has replaced her.
Some scholars who view fairy tales in psychological terms (most notably Bruno Bettelheim, author of The Uses of Enchantment) believe that the "good mother" and "bad step-mother" symbolize two sides of a child's own mother: the part they love and the part they hate. Casting the "bad mother" as a separate figure, they say, allows the child to more safely identify such socially unacceptable feelings. While this may be true, it ignores the fact that fairy tales were not originally stories specially intended for children. And, as Marina Warner points out, this "leeches the history out of fairy tales. Fairy or wonder tales, however farfetched the incidents they include, or fantastic the enchantments they concoct, take on the color of the actual circumstance in which they were or are told. While certain structural elements remain, variant versions of the same story often reveal the particular conditions of the society in which it is told and retold in this form. The absent mother can be read as literally that: a feature of the family before our modern era, when death in childbirth was the most common cause of female mortality, and surviving orphans would find themselves brought up by their mother's successor."
We rarely find step-fathers in fairy tales (wicked or otherwise), but the fathers themselves can be treacherous, and in stories like Donkeyskin, All-Kinds-of-Fur, Allerleirauh, and The Handless Maiden, the fathers effectively orphan their daughters by forcing them to flee their homes. Such girls usually run to the wilderness, sometimes literally resembling an animal themselves...
...which brings us to a special category of orphan hero: the feral child.
Stories of feral children hover on the line between legend and fact, and it's sometimes hard to know precisely where the line should be drawn. There have been a number of cases throughout history of young children found living in the wild, a few of which have been documented to a greater or lesser degree. Generally, these seem to be children who have been abandoned or fled abusive homes, presumably at such a young age that they now know no other way of life. Attempts to "civilize" them, teach them language, and curb their animal-like behaviors are rarely entirely successful, which leads to all sorts of questions about what it is that shapes human culture as we know it.
One of the most famous of these children was Victor, the Wild Boy of Avignon, discovered on a mountainside in France in the early 19th century. His teacher, Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard, wrote an extraordinary account of his six years with the boy -- a document which inspired Francoise Truffaut's film The Wild Child and Mordicai Gerstein's wonderful novel The Wild Boy. In an essay for The Horn Book magazine, Gerstein wrote: "Itard's reports not only provide the best documentation we have of a feral child, but also one of the most thoughtful, beautifully written, and moving accounts of a teacher pupil relationship, which has as its object nothing less than learning to be a human being (or at least what Itard, as a man of his time, thought a human being to be)....Itard's ambition to have Victor speak ultimately failed, but even if he had succeeded, he could never know Victor better or be more truly, deeply engaged with him than those evenings, early on, when they sat together as Victor loved to, with the boy's face buried in the man's hands. But the more Itard taught Victor, the more civilized he became, the more the distance between them grew." (You'll find Gerstein's full essay here; scroll to the bottom of the page.)
In India in the 1920s two small girls were discovered living in the wild among a pack of wolves. They were captured (their "wolf mother" shot) and taken into an orphanage run by a missionary, Reverend Joseph Singh. Singh attempted to teach the girls to speak, walk upright, and behave like humans, not as wolves -- with limited success. His diaries can be read online here, and are fascinating if occasionally horrifying. Several works of fiction were inspired by this story, but the ones I particularly recommend are Jane Yolen's novel Children of the Wolf and Karen Russell's story "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves" (in her collection of the same title).
More recently, in 1996, an urban Wild Child was discovered, living with a pack of dogs on the streets of Moscow. He resisted capture until the police finally separated the boy from his pack. "He had been living on the street for two years," writes Michael Newton. "Yet, as he had spent four years with a human family [before this], he could talk perfectly well. After a brief spell in a Reutov children's shelter, Ivan started school. He appears to be just like any other Moscow child. Yet it is said that, at night, he dreams of dogs."
When we read about such things as adults and parents, the thought of a child with no family but wolves or dogs is a deeply disturbing one....but when we read from a child's point of view, there is something secretly thrilling about the idea of life lived among an animal pack, or shedding the strictures of civilization to head into the woods. In this, of course, lies the enduring appeal of stories like Kipling's The Jungle Book and Burroughs's Tarzan of the Apes. Explaining his youthful passion for such tales, Mordecai Gerstein writes: "The heart of my fantasy was leaving the human world for a kind of jungle Eden where all one needed was readily available and that had, in Kipling's version, less hypocrisy, more nobility. I liked best the idea of being protected from potential enemies by powerful animal friends."
And here we begin to approach another aspect of orphan hero tales that makes them so alluring to many young readers: the idea that life without one's family might be a better or more exciting one. For children with difficult childhoods, the appeal is obvious; such stories provide escape, a vision of life beyond the confines of a troubled home. But even children from healthy families welcome escape from time to time. In the guise of the orphan hero they can shed their usual roles (the eldest daughter, middle son, the baby of the family, etc.) and enter other realms in which they are solitary actors. Without adults to guide them (or, contrarily, to restrict them), orphan heroes are thrown back, time and time again, on their own resources. They must think, speak, act for themselves. They have no parental safety net below. This can be a frightening prospect, but it is also a liberating one -- for although there's no one to catch them if they fall, there's no one to scold them for it either.
For young readers, there is a distinct brand of pleasure in inhabiting the skin of the orphan hero, tasting both the joys and terrors of operating as a fully independent being without the protective cushion (or burden, depending on the child's circumstance) of parents standing between them and the wide, wide world beyond. And, as Francis Spufford notes in his lovely memoir, The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading, "the situation of abandonment seems to be a necessary one to image, to hug to oneself in the form of story. It focuses a self-pity that everyone wants to feel sometimes, and that perhaps helps a child or an adolescent to think through their fundamental separateness. The situation expresses the solitude humans discover as we grow up no matter how well our kinship systems work." I do not think we outgrow our need for such stories, accounting for their continuing popularity among adult readers as well -- for who among us does not feel orphaned in this vast, strange world sometimes? Through Harry Potter, Jane Eyre, and Cinderella we experience the orphan within ourselves.
But let's speak now of readers who bring to these tales an experience that is all too germane -- for we still have orphans in the world; there are still foundlings left at hospital doors; and some of us have been foster kids, or adopted, or otherwise abandoned by one or both parents. I discussed this subject with a friend of mine who had been a foundling child, left on the doorstep of a children's charity almost fifty years ago, a note saying only "Please take him" pinned to his hand-knitted baby blanket.
"I would have loved Harry Potter when I was young," my friend told me. "The orphans I knew were Dickens' characters: Oliver Twist. David Copperfield. I didn't want to be a Dickens character! Harry Potter would have suited me much better. But in all the orphan fantasies and myths, you always find out who the parents are...and lo and behold, they always turn out to be heroes and kings, not the maid pregnant by the stable boy or the poor couple down the lane who have simply had one child too many. Orphan stories satisfied my need to read stories I could identify with, and with endings more satisfactory than mine. But perhaps they also gave me the idea that there's something wrong about my own life story, even though I have made a perfectly good life for myself. There will always be a chapter missing: the one where my identity is finally revealed."
This conversation was in the back of my mind when I recently re-read the fairy tale Rapunzel. I was writing an essay about the story, focused on Rapunzel as the coming-of-age tale of a young woman's sexual awakening. (She's impregnated by her prince, after all, despite Mother Gothel's attempt to keep her locked in the tower of childhood.) On this re-reading, however, I suddenly found my attention focused on a different part of the story: the opening. And I realized that there was an aspect to this tale that I'd not fully considered.
In some versions of Rapunzel, it's the father who trades his unborn child for a bowl of parsley or lettuce, in other versions it's the mother herself. They accept this fate, hand over their daughter, and the tale never mentions them again. Later versions of the story often soften this part and the baby is given reluctantly. In older versions, it's a curt and cowardly transaction, the child handed over to their fearsome neighbor in order to save their own skins. The witch becomes Rapunzel's mother now. (The Grimms' version names her "Mother Gothel," which is a generic name for godmother, a role which can also be viewed as a kind of adoptive mother or foster mother -- albeit, in this case, an adoptive mother of the very worst kind.) When Rapunzel gets pregnant and flees from the tower, the witch, too, disappears from the tale. Rapunzel comes to her royal marriage as an orphan. We don't know if she even remembers her original parents. She has a new life, a new family, a new child (or two) of her own. There is no looking back.
The orphan heroes of fairy tales tend to differ from the orphan heroes of mythology in this significant way. Fairy tales, grounded in the stuff of real life, acknowledge that sometimes the orphan heroes might never learn (or chose not to reveal) their original identities. Papa is not necessarily a king. And some homes are best never returned to.
Despite this clear lesson from fairy tales, some years ago I went in search of the birth-father I had never known as a child. What happened next? The usual thing. I discovered I wasn't the heir to a throne, a faery changeling, or a child of the gods. Life seldom gives us tidy or satisfactory endings. That's what stories are for, and why we read them.
Some Further Reading
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
Giles Goat–boy by John Barth
Wild Child by T. Coraghessan Boyle (novella in McSweeny's #19)
The Truth About Celia by Kevin Brockmeier
The Pack by Elisa Carbone
The Obernewtyn Chronicles by Isobelle Carmody
Wild Boy by Jill Dawson
Wild Children (poems) by John Fairfax
Mother Was a Beast, edited by Philip Jose Farmer
Wise Child by Monica Furlong
Julie of the Wolves by Jean George
Victor by Mordicai Gerstein
The Witch's Boy by Michael Gruber
Tales of the Otori by Lian Hearn
The Music of Dolphins by Karen Hesse
Second Nature by Alice Hoffman
Liar's Moon by Philip Kimball
Troll Fell by Katherine Langrish
Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin
Wolf Tower by Tanith Lee
Through Wolf's Eyes by Jane M. Lindskold
An Imaginary Life by David Malouf
The Pirate's Son by Geraldine McCaughrean
The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip
Wild Angel by Pat Murphy
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell
Lirael by Garth Nix
The "His Dark Materials" Trilogy by Philip Pullman
The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowland
St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell
The Dark Horse by Marcus Sedgwick
The Safe–keeper's Secret by Sharon Shinn
Glass Town (poems) by Lisa Russ Spaar
The Ill-Made Mute by Cecilia Dart-Thornton
The Orphan's Tales by Catherynne M. Valente
Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh
The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner
The Chronicles of Chrestomanci by Diana Wynne–Jones
Passager: Young Merlin Trilogy Book 1 by Jane Yolen
Sister Light, Sister Dark by Jane Yolen
Children of the Wolf by Jane Yolen
The Wolf Girls by Jane Yolen and Heidi Elisabet Yolen Stemple
The Wolf Pit by Marly Youmans
Nobody's Child, a memoir and cultural history of foundlings by Kate Adie
Savage Girls and Wild Boys: A History of Feral Children by Michael Newt
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The text above first appeared in The Journal of Mythic Arts and Realms of Fantasy magazine, copyright c 2007 by Terri Windling. It may not be reproduced without the author's permission. For information on obtaining permission, please go here.