Orphan Back Stories and Foundling Lineage In Popular Culture

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“‘I think that’s why I spent most of my early life drifting, y’know? I didn’t have anything to look to ‘cos I didn’t know who I was, where I came from.’”

Lister in RED DWARF, written by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor

The Orphan Back Story in Popular Culture

In modern stories and fiction there are numerous plotlines where a character’s orphan status or unusual childhood history continue to feature in their story. This is the case, for example, with David ‘Dave’ Lister in RED DWARF, whose apparent tale of abandonment is movingly revealed in a causal loop time travelling story. And then there’s ‘Grasshopper’, or Kwai Chang Caine to give him his proper name, the orphaned son of an American man and Chinese woman who was trained and raised by monk to be a Shaolin master who was the central character in the 1970s television series KUNG FU. Nor must we forget Clarice Starling in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, who perhaps still hears in her dreams the beating of those poor lambs about to be slaughtered from her days when she was sent to live on a farm with her mother’s cousin.

The orphaned Vito Corleone returns with a vengeance in THE GODFATHER: PART TWO, as does Inigo Montoya’s in THE PRINCESS BRIDE – “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!” And GAME OF THRONES, the television series created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and based on A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, the fantasy novels by George R. R. Martin, has numerous orphan back stories that still haunt the present, as do many Anime and Manga tales.

Related to the orphan back story are those plotlines in soaps (or, as they are now called, ‘continuing drama series’) where it is revealed that the person you always thought was your elder sister is in fact your birth mother (Zoe and Kat Slater in EASTENDERS), or the man you believed to be your uncle is really your father (Ashley and Uncle Fred in CORONATION STREET) or that your brother had a different father (Rodney and Del in ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES). Discovering hidden and unexpected ‘roots’ under the ‘family tree’ is always fertile ground for dramatists.

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Perhaps the best known orphan back story in soaps is the Sally Fletcher history in HOME AND AWAY, Australian drama series where the premise was a fostering family. Sally Fletcher, played by Kate Ritchie, had a truly difficult childhood. Following the impossibility of living with her alcoholic father, the subsequent death of her mother when she remarried and her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s Disease, Sally is by the Fletcher family. That is Sally’s history as told, but it wasn’t quite the whole story. Sally as a young girl in the series would often talk about an imaginary friend she had called Milco, but many years later in a dramatic flashback it is revealed that this imaginary friend was actually her twin brother Miles. ‘Milco’/’Miles’ – compare perhaps the confusion in the mind of Tom Cruise as Charlie Babbitt between ‘Raymond’ and ‘Rain Man’ in the movie RAIN MAN. Flashbacks are rare in soaps, but not unknown, and in its early days HOME AND AWAY used the technique regularly in order to give context to behaviour and actions of the fostered children in the present day. However, in this particular storyline, Sally has now grown up and the revelation that she had a twin from whom she was separated makes her reassess everything she has ever known.

“Families are like fudge – mostly sweet, with a few nuts.”

Les Dawson

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“Perhaps there are those who are able to go about their lives unfettered by such concerns. But for those like us, our fate is to face the world as orphans, chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents. There is nothing for it but to try and see through our missions to the end, as best we can, for until we do so, we will be permitted no calm.”

From Kazuo Ishiguro’s WHEN WE WERE ORPHANS

Lineage and Dynasties  

When the lineage of the orphan is unknown, part of the storyline may become a search for the real parents. This, for example, is a key part of the plot of the musical ANNIE. The quest for true parents in orphan tales often leads to a world of secrets where stories twist and turn on sudden moments of revelation. Just ask Luke Skywalker in the original STAR WARS trilogy. And, of course, the ill-fated Oedipus.

The British television series LONG LOST FAMILY is a real life documentary series that has aired since 2011 and its aim is to reunite close relatives after years of separation. The programmes are presented by Nicky Campbell, himself a boy who was adopted, and Davina McCall. Not all episodes feature people who were adopted, many family stories involves estrangements and falling outs, but the show’s popular appeal is always those emotional scenes where people are brought together again, often for first time since childhood.  Lineage and identity matter beyond mere certificates.

A word here about the WHEN WE WERE ORPHANS by the British author Kazuo Ishiguro.  The book is essentially a detective story about an Englishman named Christopher Banks whose early life was lived in China in the early 1900s. The back story is that his father and mother disappeared within a few weeks of each other when Christopher was about ten years old and as a result of this loss, Christopher is sent to live with his aunt in England. When he grows up he becomes a detective and so then uses his skills and contacts to solve the mystery of his parents’ disappearance.

In an anthropological sense, the orphan or lost child can be instrumental in establishing a mythos around a new society, especially one seemingly created from nothing. Orphans in such stories become the founders of dynasties, cultures and even countries, as we have seen with Romulus and Remus and, to a degree, with Moses. It’s not exactly clear in The Book of Exodus how Moses discovers his Hebrew identity, but in many of the movie retellings it’s Moses’ realisation of his true history that spurs him on to take his people from Egypt to the Promised Land.  In the mythology of Ion, Athena tells Creusa to establish the orphan Ion, child of the god Apollo and eventual eponymous forefather of the Ionian people, on the ancient Athenian throne and as a result it is Ion and his half brothers who eventually establish the Ionian, Dorian, and Achaean races.

“A new dynasty is never founded without a struggle. Blood makes good manure. It will be a good thing for the Rougon family to be founded on a massacre, like many illustrious families.”

Said by Monsieur de Carnavant in Émile Zola’s THE FORTUNE OF THE ROUGONS

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