Lost and Found: The Orphaned Hero (Continued)

by Terri Windling

Illustration by C. R. Robinson

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 "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’s 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 article about the story for a previous issue of this journal, and I was focused on "Rapunzel" as the coming–of–age tale ofa 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 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, two kids of her own. There is no looking back.

Illustration by Walter Crane

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.

Further Reading

Fiction
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

Nonfiction
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 Newton

Film
The Wild Child by Francoise Truffaut
Princess Mononoke by Hayao Miyazaki

Online
"Who the Wild Things Are," essay by Mordicai Gernstein
"From Folktales to Fiction: Orphan Characters in Children’s Literature," article by Melanie A. Kimball
"Savage Girls and Wild Boys: A History of Feral Children," article by Michael Newton
"Changelings," article by Terri Windling
Feral Children website