Orphans in the Hero’s Journey

It’s amazing how many heroes in archetypal stories are, for one reason or another, raised by people other than their birth parents.

I’ll have more detailed examples at the bottom of this post, but this is a classic trait going back to the Greeks (Theseus, Phaeton, Achilles, Telemachus, to name a few). In the Christian faith, we see that both Moses and Jesus were raised by people other than their parents (well, Jesus was raised by his mother and step-father—and yes, I get that God was “there” in a spiritual sense, but he didn’t change Jesus’s diapers). The orphan hero persisted with the invention of the novel (Huckleberry Finn, Tarzan, Hawkeye from Last of the Mohicans, Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, etc.) and has continued to our modern heroes (James Bond, Charles Foster Kane, Harry Potter, Clarice Starling, Hugo Cabret, Luke Skywalker). In fact, if we take a quick look at the many super-heroes that Hollywood has made so popular in the last decade, we see that Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, Green Lantern, Wolverine and most of the other X-Men all lost their parents when they were fairly young. Actually, it’s harder to find super-heroes who were raised by their birth parents. Let’s see . . . there’s Thor and . . . yeah. That might be it. Congratulations, Thor! Too bad you start off as such a spoiled brat of a hero.

Why is becoming an orphan so common in archetypal stories? Basically it is because over the course of the journey/story, the hero must learn about himself and become a new man (Transformation). If the hero doesn’t really know “who he is or where he comes from” at the beginning, then he has even more to learn, has farther to go in that journey, and the change is therefore more dramatic. I’m not suggesting that real-life orphans need to go off in search of their true parents—I certainly hope they grow up and love the people who cared for them and raised them—but in terms of fiction, the orphan has a longer and perhaps more interesting road of self-discovery.

Examples:
• Sadly, we don’t find out anything about the childhoods of our favorite underdogs in Major League.
• Everyone knows Harry Potter’s parents died saving his life when Harry was just a baby. He spends much of his seven novel series learning about them.
• Most of the boys in Stand By Me have parents. Gordy lost his older brother. Teddy’s father is crazy and, if my memory serves, is an absent father. Chris’s father is terrible and a criminal. However, the boys are all still raised by their biological parents.
• While many children are made orphans in The Godfather, the only main character who is an actual orphan is Tom Hagan who has been raised as one of Michael’s brothers. Later in the film, Michael has to leave his family for an extended period of time, but he’s already an adult at that point.
• In Lord of the Rings, Frodo is an orphan, spending most of his time with his uncle Bilbo. Aragorn rejects his heritage for most of the story, avoiding the people he should claim as his own.
• Batman/Bruce Wayne’s main motive to find justice results from the brutal murder of his parents. Young Bruce is then raised by the family butler (not sure how that works, exactly, but let’s just go with it).
• In the original Star Wars film, Luke Skywalker is raised by his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru because his true parents . . . well, I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone.
• I already mentioned that James Bond is an orphan, but in Skyfall, we find out just how devastated he was by his parents’ deaths. Actually, he’s a bit like Bruce Wayne/Batman in that it seems like his parents’ deaths eventually lead him to his life of fighting crime/terrorism. If Bond’s parents had lived, he never would have joined MI-6. As M states in the film, “Orphans always make the best recruits.”

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