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" and "Allerleirauh," or the horrifying tale of "The Armless 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 culturalization 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.