Orphan Story Patterns and Tropes

“Miss Thorne said no more. Poor boy, she thought, away from his loving home and now dumped with an irritable old man, Tom”

GOODNIGHT MISTER TOM, written by Michelle Magorian

Orphans often find themselves living with emotionally detached relatives or indifferent foster parents, as seen with POLLYANNA, ANNE OF GREEN GABLES and THE SECRET GARDEN. The template for this kind of tale was arguably created by Johanna Spyri in her seminal novel HEIDI (1880). When Heidi is orphaned, she is initially raised by her aunt and her maternal grandmother, but then the grandmother dies and the aunt moves away, and consequently Heidi is forced to live with her paternal grandfather, who’s an angry and embittered man known as Alm-Uncle, in a house up the mountain from the Dörfli (‘small village’ in Swiss German). At first he resents Heidi being there, but, as with Anne Shirley, Heidi’s cheerful ways of thinking soon earn his genuine affection. As time goes on, the people who live on the mountain grow fonder of Heidi and the once curmudgeonly grandpa becomes more part of the community. He even returns to the Christian faith and accompanies Heidi to church.

A similar tale of an old man whose cold heart is melted by the unwanted arrival of a young child can be found in GOODNIGHT MISTER TOM, by the English author Michelle Magorian. The story, set in September 1939, has it that William Beech, an evacuee boy from Deptford, is billeted at the home of Tom Oakley, a widower in his sixties who lives in the village of Little Weirwold. “Mister Tom”, as William christens his new guardian, is reclusive and bad-tempered, and as so is avoided by the community. Willie has a mother back in London, but she badly abused him. When Mister Tom discovers William’s difficult background and home-life, he changes his attitude to William and begins to treats him with kindness and understanding. And under Tom’s care, Willie thrives, making new friends and proving to be a fine artist. And of course as Willie is changed by Mister Tom, so Mister Tom is transformed by Willie. Even readers fortunate enough to have a loving mum and dad can identify with both Heidi and Willie because all parents, no matter how caring and kind, have their off days.

“How could anyone not want to live, thought Will, when there were so many things to live for? There were rainy nights and wind and the slap of the sea and the moon. There were books to read and pictures to paint and music.”

GOODNIGHT MISTER TOM, written by Michelle Magorian

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“Onys upon a day…”

A phrase first used by Sir Ferumbras in 1380 in his Collection of Romance Stories

The Rapunzel Story

“Once upon a time there was a man and a woman who had, with not avail, long wished for a child.” So begins the story of Rapunzel as told by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. But their Rapunzel was an adaptation of a fairy tale by Friedrich Schulz (1790) that was itself a translation of Persinette (1698) by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force, which in turn was based on an earlier Italian tale called Petroninella (1634), by Giambattista Basile. That there have been so many incarnations of the story tells you much about its potency.

This basic narrative goes like this. A lonely couple, who long for a child, live next door to a garden belonging to a witch. When the wife becomes pregnant, the wife and the husband both steal greens from her vegetable garden, particularly rapunzel (possibly from Campanula Rapunculus, an edible green plant), that the wife now craves. However, the witch discovers the theft, but agrees to take no action on condition that she be given the baby girl the wife carries when it is born. And that is what happens. When the mother gives birth, the sorceress takes the baby girl to raise as her own and names her ‘Rapunzel’, after the plant her birth mother craved.

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INTO THE WOODS, the musical by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim, puts Rapunzel’s back story in a song, lyrics by Sondheim, which is sung by the Witch to the son of the couple who gave away their daughter:

‘In the past, when you were no more than a baby
Your father brought his young wife and you to this cottage
They were a lovely couple
But not lovely neighbours
You see, your mother was with child
And she developed an unusual appetite
She admired my beautiful garden

And she told your father
That what she wanted more than anything, in the world, was
Greens, greens, nothing but greens
Parsley, peppers, cabbages and celery
Asparagus, and watercress, and fiddleferns, and lettuce

He said, “All right”, but it wasn’t, quite
‘Cause I caught him in the autumn in my garden one night
He was robbing me, raping me
Rooting through my rutabaga
Raiding my arugula and ripping up the rampion
My champion! My favourite!
I should have laid a spell on him right there

I could have turned him into stone
Or a dog
Or a chair
But I let him have the rampion I’d lots to spare
In return, however, I said, “Fair is fair
You can let me have the baby that your wife will bear
And we’ll call it square.”‘

Rapunzel grows up to become a beautiful young woman with long golden hair, but the Witch does not want to lose her and so Rapunzel is locked away in a tall tower with no entrance.

INTO THE WOODS is a very personal show for Stephen Sondheim, mainly because of his difficult relationship with his own mother. “The only regret I’ve had in life,” she said to Sondheim in his 40s, “was giving birth to you.” Sondheim has acknowledged that he saw himself as the Witch of the tale, who, in a back story of the creators’ invention, is made ugly by her own mother as a punishment for allowing her vegetables to be stolen. The Witch in INTO THE WOODS connects not only the Rapunzel scenario but also the story of the magic beans in the Jack and the Beanstalk tale. Anyway, in another song from INTO THE WOODS, Stay With Me, the overprotective Witch warns Rapunzel of the dangers that would await her if she were set free:

‘Don’t you know what’s out there in the world
Someone has to shield you from the world
Stay with me

Princes wait there in the world, it’s true
Princes, yes, but wolves and humans, too
Stay at home
I am home

Who out there could love you more than I
What out there that I cannot supply
Stay with me

Stay with me
The world is dark and wild
Stay a child while you can be a child
With me.’

And Disney’s TANGLED has a song written by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater with similar sentiments called Mother Knows Best:

‘Trust me, my dear
That’s how fast he’ll leave you
I won’t say I told you so
No, Rapunzel knows best!
So if he’s such a dreamboat
Go and put him to the test

If he’s lying
Don’t come crying
Mother knows best.’


 Rapunzel is a complex psychological tale concerning the relationship between Mother and Daughter. The Oedipal Mother-Son story is more prevalent in drama and fiction – think of the infantilization of the men in such tales as PSYCHO, THE MANCURIAN CANDIDATE, JOKER, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN or even, to a degree, Shakespeare’s CORIOLANUS – yet the Mother-Daughter axis is equally as fascinating. Keeping a child from growing into a mature adult is a theme explored in the musical GYPSY, where the ultimate showbiz mother, Mama Rose, keeps on insisting her star daughter is only ten years old when in fact she’s already a teenager. Locking away a child is dealt with to some degree in Stephen King’s CARRIE, where Margaret White, the mother of Carrie, suspects her daughter of being a witch and so secures her away in a special ‘prayer closet’ for hours on end.  Also in the horror genre there is the bizarre Mother-Daughter tale told in RUN, a psychological movie thriller directed by Aneesh Chaganty and written by Chaganty and Sev Ohanian. The plot certainly borrows from the tropes and themes of the Rapunzel folktale. The story centres on a disabled homeschooled teenager who has limited mobility as a result of being confined to a wheelchair. As the tale progresses, the daughter begins to suspect her mother of keeping a dark secret from her. The secret that is eventually revealed is that many years ago, while in a hospital, the mother had a baby who died, and in her grief she stole a new born baby from a couple at the same hospital. In a further twist, it is discovered by the daughter that her mother has been giving her a medication meant for dogs called Ridocaine which, when taken by humans, makes them lose the use of their legs. No inescapable tower, but if you’re confined in a wheelchair as a result of drugs administered by your own mother to prevent you from walking, well, is it that much different? In a further plot twist, the Mother-Daughter dynamic is turned on its head and the mother finds herself in a wheelchair and who has the mother’s role now…?

DAUGHTER: I… don’t… need you.
MOTHER: You will.

An exchange in RUN written by Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian

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‘O don’t you remember
A long time ago
Two poor little babes,
Their names I don’t know,
They strayed far away,
On a bright summer’s day.
These two little babes
Got lost on their way.

Poor babes in the wood!
Poor babes in the wood!
Oh! Don’t you remember
Those babes in the wood?

Among the trees high,
Beneath the blue sky,
They plucked the bright flowers
And watched the birds fly;
Then on blackberries fed,
And strawberries red,
And when they were weary
‘We’ll go home,’ they said.

And when it was night,
So sad was their plight,
The sun it went down,
And the moon gave no light!
They sobbed and they sighed
And they bitterly cried
And long before morning,
They lay down and died.

And when they were dead,
The robins so red,
Brought strawberry leaves
And over them spread
And all the day long,
On the branches did throng,
They mournfully whistled,
And this was their song:

Poor babes in the wood!
Poor babes in the wood!
Oh! Don’t you remember
Those babes in the wood?’
The Babes in the Wood, Trad.

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.”

Emily Dickinson

Was Santa an Orphan?

A BOY CALLED CHRISTMAS, a British film directed by Gil Kenan from a screenplay by Ol Parker and Gil Kenan, and based on the book of the same name by Matt Haig, is an inventive Father Christmas origin story. One Christmas Eve, elderly Aunt Ruth is called on by widower Matt (Joel Fry) to look after his three young children while he goes to work. The children, still mourning for the loss of their mother, are resistant at first, but then Aunt Ruth begins to tell them a story. It’s a similar situation to the movie PRINCESS BRIDE in that the story Aunt Ruth tells is constantly interrupted by the three children asking questions.

The tale itself concerns Nikolas, a young boy who lives in the forest with his widower father Joel, a woodcutter. When his father goes on a quest to bring something good into world – in one word, Hope – Nikolas is left with his Aunt Charlotte. It is possible to see that a number of tropes of the traditional classic orphan story are already in place. And there are plenty more to come. Aunt Charlotte proves to be cruel. Tick. Aunt Charlotte forces him to clean the house and makes him eat horrible food. Tick, tick. She mocks his dead mother. Tick. Nickolas runs away in search of his father. Tick. Encounters a magical creature. Tick. Meets friends who help him, including a pixie. Tick.

Nikolas finds himself with a quest of his own: to free an elf boy who was taken by humans. This he does, but along the way Nikolas’s father is killed. However, the elf people are grateful and agree to make presents that Nikolas can take with him when he returns to his own land. This he does, via a flying reindeer, and the Hope he brings are the wonderful gifts the children find the next morning. Ah, the magic of Christmas.

The twist in the tale is that Aunt Ruth is revealed at the end of the movie to be the pixie who helped the boy called Christmas. And she, in telling the magical tale, has in a way helped in giving the bereaved children some way of coping with their loss. Their mother will never return but she does live on forever in their hearts.

“Hope can be a powerful force. Maybe there’s no actual magic in it, but when you know what you hope for most and hold it like a light within you, you can make things happen, almost like magic.”

Laini Taylor

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‘A house is made of brick and mortar, but a home is made by the people who live there.”

M. K. Soni

The Problem with Grown-ups and How to Get Your Own Back

The truth is in children’s fiction parents can be a bit of an encumbrance. The last thing you want, thank you very much, is parents looking over your shoulder when you’re off on an exciting adventure. Roald Dahl certainly recognised this and so liked to dispose of mum and dad early in the story, as when James’ parents are killed by a runaway rhinoceros in JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH. But following the death of his parents, poor James ends up with two cruel aunts, Spiker and Sponge. And that’s when his problems really begin.

Unkindness and mistreatment, as with Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist, allows Roald Dahl to explore the underdog narrative that is so often a feature of his popular tales, notably CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. Characters in Roald Dahl stories may begin as victims but by the end they always emerge triumphant. But what then to do with the grown-ups who have been so cruel? Well, their punishment must be proportionate. Or funny.

problem with grownups

Adversaries in Roald Dahl stories are usually outsmarted and their eventual ends are often bizarre and macabre – Spiker and Sponge gloriously get their comeuppance by being squashed by the giant peach – but such absurdities have always appealed to children, something J. K. Rowling understood when the Dursleys eventually got what was coming to them. The key to Roald Dahl’s success, as with Punch and Judy and many Tom and Jerry cartoons, is that there is humour in the violence. And laughter is cathartic (catharsis is the Greek word meaning ‘purification’ or ‘cleansing’). And psychologically, where children are experiencing or processing adversity, a good laugh out loud can do wonders. Besides, we all experience a longing for justice when we are wronged. And, as Roald Dahl proved, a giant peach landing on your enemy’s head is as good as any court or judge could come up with.

“Oh, you know, Mr. Bumble, he must be mad,” said Mrs. Sowerberry. “No boy in half his senses could venture to speak so to you.”
“It’s not Madness, ma’am,” replied Mr. Bumble, after a few moments of deep meditation. “It’s Meat.”
“What?” exclaimed Mrs. Sowerberry.
“Meat, ma’am, meat,” replied Bumble, with stern emphasis. “You’ve over-fed him, ma’am. You’ve raised a artificial soul and spirit in him, ma’am, unbecoming a person of his condition: as the board, Mrs. Sowerberry, who are practical philosophers, will tell you. What have paupers to do with soul or spirit? It’s quite enough that we let ‘em have live bodies. If you had kept the boy on gruel, ma’am, this would never have happened.”

OLIVER TWIST, written by Charles Dickens

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Young Adult Reader Reviews

"One of the things that makes the book so original is the mixture of fantasy, sci-fi, adventure and comedy, so you never know what to expect next… I found the book exciting, entertaining and very, very funny and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to my friends." Year 10

"I loved reading the story. It was creative and different from any other books I’ve read… I could picture the events so clear. It was like I was watching a movie." Year 8

"I think that the storyline of the book was great and that there were some great characters… A brilliant book… I really enjoyed the book and would definitely read the rest in the series." Year 7

"I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book due to the amazing storyline, character, humour and general style of writing." Year 10

"I’d recommend it to my friends as I think they’d like the mystery and adventure but also find it funny." Year 9

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