Orphan Folklore and its Influence

“For most of human history, ‘literature,’ both fiction and poetry, has been narrated, not written – heard, not read. So fairy tales, folk tales, stories from the oral tradition, are all of them the most vital connection we have with the imaginations of the ordinary men and women whose labour created our world.”

Angela Carter, author of THE MAGIC TOYSHOP and WISE CHILDREN

Folklore Tales and their Influences

Folklore can be summed up as the common culture of ordinary people that is found in their shared proverbs, rituals, beliefs and jokes. Following on from that, folktales could be said to be all forms of prose narrative, whether written or oral, that have been collected or passed down across the generations. A classic collection is the tales of the Brothers Grimm. Some stories even go back thousands of years. The tales Hans Christian Anderson, though more literary, are still written within the folklore tradition and so stories such as The Little Mermaid and The Little Match Girl are included here. But let’s start with the most famous collection. That of the Brothers Grimm.

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In 1811, when the Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, were faced with the French occupation in Germany and even Napoleonic oppression of the German language, their minds turned to ways of fighting back. And the collection and publication of folktales in the German language that came direct from the people – the volk – became their means. “Our Fatherland,” they wrote in their nationwide appeal for tales, “is filled with this wealth of material that our honest ancestors planted for us, and which, despite the mockery and derision heaped upon it, continues to live unaware of its own hidden beauty.” Well, on publication of CHILDREN’S AND HOUSEHOLD TALES by the Brothers Grimm that hidden beauty was now there for all to see and read. And stories such as Snow White, The Frog King, Little Red Riding Hood, The Girl Without Hands, The Golden Goose, The Three Feathers and dozen more have been with us ever since.

Folktales of course have always been more than just fantasy horror entertainment for adults and children, for they are born out of our collective human psychology. In other words, these tales come from the deep primeval forest of our unconscious minds. Not surprisingly then they often carry warnings and cautions, and have embedded in them certain moral and social codes. And these have been explored by Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Marina Warner and Bruno Bettelheim among others.

From a storytelling point of view, folktales often follow certain set patterns and repeat particular story tropes. Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp’s seminal book THE MORPHOLOGY OF THE FOLKTALE, first published in 1928 but not translated into English until 1958, indentified the basic structural elements of Russian folktales and in doing so analysed how they worked. Propp did not specifically examine orphan tales as such (many were actually animal tales), but, using his basic methodology, it’s possible to see that there are certain reoccurring story elements in the tales of lost children. For example, in folktales the orphan is nearly always mistreated in some way. The classic case is Cinderella. In some accounts, Cinderella is completely orphaned and in others her widower father simply doesn’t care what happens to her. Yet in all versions, Cinderella has to endure serious neglect and even abuse at the hands of her stepfamily.

Another element of the orphan story is that some stage in the tale the child will become a wanderer (Propp uses the term absentation), and what they seek maybe a sense of belonging as much as a specific home or dwelling in which to live. The folklore tale of Dick Whittington comes to mind. The lost child will, in their story, encounter helpers (Propp refers to this character as the donor). The helper can be human, animal or something or someone more supernatural – Snow White encounters all three, whereas for Cinderella it’s primarily the second and the third. What these donors/helpers usually offer the orphan is some sort of gift, often magical, that will aid them on their adventure. And where the donor/helper/guide becomes more of a constant in the life of the child, what we have then is a more traditional Mentor figure. Think Merlin and the young Arthur.

As the story progresses, the orphan child will be required to fulfil a task of some sort and when it is completed she or he will receive a reward, which usually involves some sort of transformation (Propp refers to a transfiguration). Dick Whittington, for example, is given the chain that represents the office of the Lord Mayor of London. As for the villain or villains of the tale, well, they will get their just deserts and receive some sort of punishment. In some versions of the Cinderella folktale, the stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by the very same birds which helped Cinderella pick out the lentils from the ashes.

Another key quality of the orphan is goodness and how that goodness is eventually rewarded. A simple story from the Brothers Grimm collection is The Star Money (or The Star Talers, from the German Die Sterntaler) concerns an orphan girl named Amelia who has only the clothing and bread a kind soul has given her. Amelia in her wanderings gives her bread to a beggar, three items of clothes to three cold children and then, when she goes into the woods and sees a naked girl in the dark, she even gives away her own ‘shift’, which is a long undergarment. Suddenly stars fall to earth in front of her and turn into talers (silver coins) and she finds herself wearing a new dress of the very finest linen. Virtue has indeed been rewarded.

And what we have here are just some of the tropes and themes of orphan folklore tales that writers and particularly novelists from the eighteenth century onwards have developed and reshaped for their own stories. Especially, in the nineteenth century, a chap called Charles Dickens.

Shakespeare may be said to be the poet of Mankind, but it’s Charles Dickens who writes about People. Dickens’ tales don’t concern themselves with the nature of kingship but rather they involve men, women and children you might easily imagine meeting in the pub round the corner. That said, many of his stories are really domesticated fairy tales, especially those involving orphans. Think of Oliver Twist and Little Nell. And even in his more mature writings, Dickens reflects the fairy tale tradition. For example, the eventual happiness that is the reward for virtue found by Esther Summerson in BLEAK HOUSE and even the redeeming self-sacrifice of Sydney Carton in THE TALES OF TWO CITIES.

“The words of the bards come down the centuries to us, warm with living breath.”

Pádraig Pearse

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“And what an example of the power of dress young Oliver Twist was! Wrapped in the blanket which had hitherto formed his only covering, he might have been the child of a nobleman or a beggar; – it would have been hard for the haughtiest stranger to have fixed his station in society. But now he was enveloped in the old calico robes, that had grown yellow in the same service; he was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once – a parish child – the orphan of a workhouse – the humble, half-starved drudge – to be cuffed and buffeted through the world, despised by all, and pitied by none.”

Charles Dickens

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The Classic Orphan Child

In lost child stories, the outsider status of the orphan can result, not surprisingly, in cruelty, neglect and bullying. Famously this is the case when Oliver Twist lives under the roof of Mr Sowerberry, the undertaker. The apprentice Noah Claypole, himself a charity boy, becomes Oliver’s tormentor, constantly reminding Olivier that he’s from the workhouse – ‘Work’us’ he even calls him. Noah also mocks Oliver’s mother – ‘a regular right-down bad ‘un’. Yet Sowerberry took on the boy because he sees something different in Oliver. “There’s an expression of melancholy in his face… which is very interesting,” says Sowerberry. “He would make a delightful mute… I don’t mean a regular mute to attend grown-up people, my dear, but only for the children’s practice.” (A mute being a symbolic mourner in a funeral procession). What we have here is the mistreatment story trope, but also the idea that there is a quality in the orphan not fond elsewhere. The specialness of the ‘Other’.

One issue with the character of Oliver Twist is just how passive he is. Yes, he asks for more, but that comes from peer pressure and the fact that he picked the short straw (“A council was held; lots were cast who should walk up to the master after supper that evening and ask for more; and it fell to Oliver Twist”), and yes, he fights back against Noah, but on the whole, events and incidents in the story happen to or around Oliver rather than it being him that instigates them. Still, it’s a traumatic journey for Oliver and must have had some effect on his character development. Any twenty-first century authors fancy writing the sequel where we see the psychological consequences of his bizarre childhood?

orphan oliver

Cosette in Victor Hugo’s LES MISÉRABLES is the illegitimate daughter of Fantine and Félix Thomolyès. Her birth name is Euphrasie but throughout her life she is known just as ‘Cosette’. When just a small child, she is left with the Thénardiers, who horribly mistreat her while indulging their own daughters, Éoinine and Azelam. On Christmas Eve in 1823, Cosette, alone in the forest, meets Valjean, who befriends her and accompanies Cosette back to the inn run by the Thénardiers. Valjean watches and sees how Cosette is mistreated and how Madame Thénardier wants to throw her out on the street. The next morning, Christmas Day, the Thénardiers essentially sell Cosette to Valjean, who takes her to Paris in the hope of a better life. Later she grows up into a beautiful young girl and marries Marius Pontmercy.

The specialness of the ‘Other’ here is not only the goodness of Cosette (despite living with the Thénardiers she never takes on their cynical view of the world), but also the fact that Cosette is one of the few characters in LES MISÉRABLES who survives the entire course of the story. It’s also worth noting in this tale the precedence and indulgence of the birth children over the adopted sibling, a story trope which goes back to Cinderella and which will, of course, feature heavily in the early Harry Potter novels. There is as well the role of the benefactor which brings us to Jane Eyre.

Charlotte Brontë’s JANE EYRE is a nineteenth Cinderella story in many ways, albeit one with a far more determined heroine and unlikely prince. Resilience and fortitude are ultimately key to Jane’s success. Jane’s mother belonged to the upper classes but was castoff by her father when she chose to marry a poor clergyman. When Jane’s mother and father died, there was no money and as a result Jane was subjected to a difficult and cruel childhood. However, eventually our heroine emerges as a fiercely independent adult with a rich inner life who, in Mr Rochester, finds a man she can love on her own terms. The reward for the lost child comes in many forms.

It’s worth noting that Charlotte Brontë, born 21 April 1816, was in Victorian terms herself an orphan. Her mother Maria died of cancer on 15 September 1821, leaving her five daughters, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, and a son, Branwell to be taken care of in part by her sister, Elizabeth. Charlotte’s father Patrick Brontë, a parson, later sent Charlotte, Emily, Maria, and Elizabeth to the Clergy Daughter’s School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire. But the school’s poor conditions affected their health and physical development, and hastened, it is argued, the deaths of Maria (born 1814) and Elizabeth (born 1815), who both died of consumption in June 1825. After the loss of his young daughters, Patrick removed Charlotte and Emily from the school. Back at home in the Haworth Parsonage Charlotte became the motherly friend and guardian of her younger sisters, which was not an unusual situation for an older sibling whose mother had died.

It is thought that Charlotte Brontë used the Cowan Bridge institution as the basis for her fictional Lowood School in JANE EYRE, where Jane Eyre’s school days are as cruel as cruel can be. At the Lowood Institution, said to be a school for poor and orphaned girls, Jane soon finds that life is mercilessly harsh. The rooms are cold, the meals meagre and the clothing thin. Not surprisingly, many fall ill when a typhus epidemic strikes. The mistreatment of the orphan as found in folklore and folktales is nearly always domestic but by the nineteenth century, that neglect and cruelty had become institutionalised within educational establishments. Charles Dickens’ NICHOLAS NICKLEBY features Dotheboys Hall in Yorkshire, a miserable school for unwanted children run by the very unpleasant Wackford Squeers. Interestingly, the back story of Scrooge in A CHRISTMAS CAROL hints that the motherless Ebenezer had an unloving father who didn’t want him and so sent him away. Christmases were unhappy times for the young Scrooge for he was the only boy not invited home for the holidays and so had to stay at his school all by himself. In childhood scenes presented by the Ghost of Christmas Past, Ebenezer is seen as the epitome of loneliness and isolation, with only story books for comfort, explaining in part perhaps Dickens’ description of Scrooge when an adult ‘as solitary as an oyster’.

“They went, the Ghost and Scrooge, across the hall, to a door at the back of the house. It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be. Not a latent echo in the house, not a squeak and scuffle from the mice behind the panneling, not a drip from the half-thawed water-spout in the dull yard behind, not a sigh among the leafless boughs of one despondent poplar, not the idle swinging of an empty store-house door, no, not a clicking in the fire, but fell upon the heart of Scrooge with a softening influence, and gave a freer passage to his tears.”

A CHRISTMAS CAROL, written by Charles Dickens

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