What do Harry Potter, Tarzan, Luke Skywalker and Oliver Twist have in common?
From the age of one, Harry Potter was sent to live with an uncle. So were Luke Skywalker and Dorothy Gale. Tarzan’s parents also died when he was a baby, leaving him to be adopted by a tribe of apes. Dickens' famous orphan, Oliver Twist, was thrown into a brutal Victorian workhouse. And there are more. The virtual orphans of the kids from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe were sent to a house where they are effectively abandoned. Lyra Belacqua from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials was abandoned by both her living parents. James and the Giant Peach, Sophie from The BFG, the Baudelaire siblings from A Series of Unfortunate Events – hopefully I've made my point.
Orphans are some of our favourite characters. Why?
These characters are radically alone. They make the rest of us look like we live in a busy network of interconnecting tribes. But orphans don't. They're so isolated it's terrifying. I'd go so far as to say, it's unnatural. A young child in the face of danger is wholly responsible for their own survival. No parents, no siblings, no family. Without loving and caring parental figures, they have to learn quickly and make strong friends who can meet their needs. And we thrill when they succeed. The cost to the character is higher, but then the reward is sweeter.
In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is only a five-year-old girl, yet she is the adult of the story. Despite her young age, she leads the brainless Scarecrow, the emotional Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion and of course her pet dog, Toto. Although she is in a strange land, Dorothy demonstrates greater intelligence, compassion and courage than the other characters – even the wizard.
Orphans provide authors with opportunities to develop strong and independent characters. Orphans need to support themselves and their friends in a world that is larger and emptier and more threatening than most of us have ever experienced or ever will experience. Orphans remind us of our privileges.
We should all be learning from orphans: their ability to create strong bonds of friendship with people from various backgrounds could be invaluable at a time when politicians are picking us apart by our differences.
ORPHANS for President, anyone?