The Darker Side of the Life of an Orphan
“It is easier to fix a broken man, than a fatherless man.”
Scars that Heal and Scars that Don’t
An obvious reason why writers explore the story and character of the orphan child is that loss or a sense of abandonment leaves people with psychological scars. And people with ‘emotional baggage’ are always far more interesting than those without. In the more modern era, the back story of an early bereavement of a character (now sometimes called ‘origin story’) is often used to explain what it is that makes them who they are today. And no more so than in the tragic childhood histories of many a twentieth century comic book hero. Spider-Man (Peter Parker) is raised by his Aunt May and Uncle Ben after his parents Richard and Mary Parker die in a plane crash, Superman (Clark Kent) discovers that his real parents were killed when their planet Krypton exploded and Batman (Bruce Wayne) at the tender age of eight years old witnesses his parents gunned down in a street robbery. And to these you could add Deadpool, The Hulk, Daredevil, Robin, Aquagirl, and countless other action heroes and superheroes who also grew up as orphans. Of course, it wasn’t being an orphan that gave them their super strengths, yet the two have now become somehow interconnected. And we all know that beyond the world of comic superheroes, there are two classic characters from a bestselling book series and a blockbuster movie franchise who became orphans in tragic circumstances. And they are, in case you haven’t guessed, Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter.
People who lose both parents early in life tend to be emotionally independent and this can lead to the loner or the anti-hero. In psychological terms, such protagonists are cut off and closed to feeling. They maybe outwardly strong, but they live with inner demons of loss, rejection and even sometimes guilt. This aspect of the lost child character you can see particularly in Batman, whose later actions and motives can hardly be said to be black and white in a moral sense. Yet this ambiguity creates a fascinating dynamic of its own in all the Batman tales. And the same might also be said for the character of the morally ambiguous Heathcliff in WUTHERING HEIGHTS by Emily Brontë.
Heathcliff was a foundling discovered on the streets of Liverpool who was then taken in and raised in Yorkshire by the Earnshaw family. Heathcliff’s past is only ever hinted by Brontë and, in keeping with the supernatural themes of the novel, and is speculated in the book that Heathcliff might be some sort of hellish soul. Literary academics have also suggested that from the description of his dark hair, dark eyes, and dark skin that Heathcliff might actually be of Romany origin or an America castaway, after all, he was found on the streets of Liverpool, the first port of call in Europe for many American ships. Whatever his origins, Heathcliff is a tortured anti-hero, a Byronic figure whose rage and jealousy ends up destroying himself and those around him.
At the other end of the spectrum is the orphan as healer. THE SECRET GARDEN is the prime example. Mary is bitter and lonely after the death of her parents, yet she finds happiness in friends such as Dickon and Colin, and, via a mysterious robin, the discovery of a wonderful hidden garden. And it’s this secret garden which in turn revives the spirit of life in her grieving uncle. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s THE SECRET GARDEN is filled with psychological complexities and metaphors and is perhaps the closest of all orphan stories to the magical tradition of the classic folklore tale.
Although Tom in Philippa Pearce’s TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN is not an orphan, he is nevertheless sent away to live with his aunt and uncle when his brother catches the measles. Tom is not allowed to play outside and so finds himself isolated and friendless in a room at the top of the house. But at night, when the clock strangely strikes thirteen, he investigates downstairs and finds a mysterious Victorian garden not there in the daytime. Here he meets Hatty, who, it turns out, is really the elderly and reclusive landlady Mrs Bartholomew when a girl. Is this magic? Time travel? Living inside a dream? Well, whatever it is it results in a wonderful reawakening of memory, love and happiness in the previously withdrawn and lonely landlady.
“‘He ran up to her, and they hugged each other as if they had known each other for years and years, instead of only having met for the first time this morning. There was something else, too, Alan, although I know you’ll say it sounds even more absurd… Of course, Mrs Bartholemew’s such a shrunken little old woman, she’s hardly bigger than Tom; anyway: but, you know, he put his arms right round her and he hugged her good-bye as if she were a little girl.’”
Aunt Gwen describing the parting of Tom and Hatty (Mrs Batholomew) in TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN by Philippa Pearce
“I see through the lies of the Jedi. I do not fear the Dark Side as you do. I have brought peace, freedom, justice, and security to my new empire.”
Anakin Skywalker in REVENGE OF THE SITH
The Dark Side
Anakin Skywalker was born on the desert planet of Tatooine, the son of a slave, Shmi Skywalker. It was said he was conceived without a father as a result of a vergence in the Force, that is a nexus where an unusually large amount of the Force’s energy converged on one person. In other words, a virgin birth, a common occurrence in many mythological stories of gods and goddesses (the ancient Egyptian god Ra was born of a virgin mother, Net, as was Horus of the virgin Isis, plus there’s the Phrygo-Roman god, Attis, born of a virgin, Nana, and in ancient Greece, Dionysos was the son of either the virgin Semele or the virgin Persephone). However, since Anakin was the son of a slave, Anakin too was a slave, and he and his mother had cruel owners. Shmi Skywalker was later horrendously tortured and died in her son’s arms.
Anakin did join the Jedi Order but, following a complicated series of event, he turns against the Jedi and even executes the Jedi younglings in an act of barbarity similar to that of the slaughter of the innocents (Matthew 2:16-18). The pain and loss inside Anakin had by then turned outwards into rage and hate.
In SIJIPEUSEU: THE MYTH, the Korean time travel series written by Lee Je-in and Jeon Chan-ho, there is mysterious character called ‘Sigma’. Sigma it turns out is a revengeful figure who learns to hate the world and everyone in it. There is a flashback to his childhood where it is revealed Seo Won-Ju (as he was then) was a former classmate of the computer genius Han Tae-sul, whose coding eventually leads to time travel. At first the young Han Tae-sul was kind to the lonely but strange Seo Won-Ju, but, when Seo Won-Ju blows up his own cruel father with sodium and water, Han Tae-sul not surprisingly tells him to keep his distance. From then on, Seo Won-Ju follows the life and career of his old classmate and grows ever more envious of Han Tae-sul’s wealth and success.
Orphans, especially those like Sigma/ Seo Won-Ju who make themselves orphans by killing their own father, perhaps not surprisingly do not always grow up to become pillars of the community. Orphans with painful and abusive back stories often feature in the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie. They become killers who seek vengeance, but to name them or the novels or plays in which they feature, would be to spoil the plot. And Dame Agatha wouldn’t have wanted that.
Perhaps there aren’t many folk who have heard of a chap called Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot, but change that to ‘The Penguin’ and then say the name of his archenemy Batman and most people will quickly picture a man of short stature, with beak-like nose, an odd way of walking and always accompanied by an umbrella even when it’s hot and dry. Several stories explain this accessory by saying that as a child Cobblepot was forced to carry an umbrella by his overprotective mother following the death of his death which she put down to catching to pneumonia while getting drenched out in the rain. As for the penguin look, well, Cobblepot makes his money in nightclubs and so always wears a tuxedo, but it is also said in the stories that as a child his only companions were birds (his parents owned a bird shop), but when his mother died, the bird shop, along with all his beloved feathered friends, was repossessed to pay her debts and so Cobblepot, now The Penguin, turned to money making crime. DC Comics are notably in giving their orphaned heroes a fascinating and often credible origin story (Bruce Wayne/Batman, Dick Grayson/Robin), but as we can see here it’s not just heroes who are given reason for their later action and behaviour but orphaned villains too. The Penguin is distinctly off it is true, but, unlike most rogues in the Batman gallery, Cobblepot is sane, it’s just that his orphaned childhood led to a strange way of dressing and a criminal mind that has a need to make a lot of money.
Sanity isn’t something you’d associate with Marina in the novel SUCH SMALL HANDS by the Spanish writer Andrés Barba. SUCH SMALL HANDS is a creepy tale set in an orphanage with an even creepier occupant. Marina, a girl who lost both her parents in a car crash, fails to fit in at the orphanage and the game she invents to play with the other children turns out to be very disturbing indeed. And let’s not forget one Tom Marvolo Riddle, or Lord Voldemont, to give him his full title, whose mother died in childbirth and so was sent to an orphanage. J. K. Rowling has described Voldemort as “the most evil wizard for hundreds and hundreds of years” who is a “raging psychopath, devoid of the normal human responses to other people’s suffering”.
There are also supernatural horror stories featuring the killer child, notably Stephen King’s PET SEMATARY, and, of course, THE OMEN, by David Seltzer. You may also want to include in this category of weird children John Wyndam’s THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS. While William Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES does not strictly speaking concern orphans, what we do have is a frightening scenario where a group of unsupervised boys stranded on a desert island slowly turn savage and murderous. And while on the subject of murder let’s not forget either what happened in the movie HALLOWEEN when Michael Myer’s parents were away or the kind of guy the orphaned Hannibal Lecter grew to become in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.
“Something’s happening. I’m not the Jedi I should be. I want more. And I know I shouldn’t.”
Anakin Skywalker in REVENGE OF THE SITH
“‘Time, you see, is a betrayer. You live in hope, then watch it slowly die. One day, they said, a new mother and father would take me from this place and learn to love me. Yet that day never came. Never, never, never! But those who spoke those lies grew old and now reside in the base of the Grandfather Clock. As dust in urns.’”
From THE TIME THAT NEVER WAS
Swidgers Turned Bad
In SWIDGERS, the Time Adventure book series, many Swidgers are foundlings. There’s one particular character from an orphanage who was promised by those who ran the institution that one day someone would come for him and he would learn what love was. But Time, that great betrayer, proves them wrong. He would wait by the window, but no one came. His pain, rejection and disappointment, as with Sigma from the time travel series SIJIPEUSEU: THE MYTH, turns to spite and cruelty. SWIDGERS is a fun and rollercoaster adventure series, yet there are serious moments too. Although what this character went on to do was brutal and heartless, it is at least possible to understand the why and what led him to his wicked ways.
“For not an orphan in the wide world can be so deserted as the child who is an outcast from a living parent’s love.”