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.R.R. Tolkien's Frodo Baggins, 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. 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.
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) 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.
Michael Newton (author of the fascinating book Savage Girls and Wild Boys: A History of Feral Children) 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's 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.