A common theme running in fiction, mythology and even in Western religious accounts is the idea of orphan heroes and superheroes. Moses is abandoned in a basket, Hercules grows up without his father, and Buddha rejects his family life for a life of poverty. Fairytales introduce us to children of absent fathers and cruel caretakers who have replaced their mothers: Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, and Snow White. Fiction makes much of the parentage of David Copperfield, Pip from Great Expectations, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Anne Shirley, Jane Eyre, and of any account of King Arthur. Comic books offer orphaned heroes like Batman, Spiderman, Superman, many of the X-men, or you’ll notice characters in more modern fiction from films and books like Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, the Baudelaire Children, and Luke and Leia Skywalker.
What is the purpose of creating so many orphan heroes and superheroes, and what is the idea of children raised in less than ideal circumstances supposed to impart to the audience? There are a number of interpretations of this archetype. One is the traditional Joseph Campbell and Jungian interpretation of the hero’s journey.
Lacking parents, orphan heroes and superheroes are considered “children of the world.” When you think of the complex relationship of children to family, it’s fairly easy to understand how lack of one or both parents free the child from familial obligations that would perhaps not create the best drama. The examples above give a sense of the different types of journeys these children or adults may be on, but one consequence of serving the world rather than a set of parents is that pleasing “the parent world” may mean to save it. Having raised themselves, and having been freed from much of the complex relationship of child to parent, orphan heroes and superheroes are at much greater liberty to interact with the world on a larger scale, and they may look at the world as parent and all its inhabitants as family. Due to this, many heroes and superheroes end up with a huge family they must save.
Some orphans seek only a home and a family. David Copperfield finds this with his aunt, Jane Eyre with her cousins and then with her marriage to Mr. Rochester, and Anne Shirley finds family and love with her adopted parents, Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. Cinderella and Snow White escape evil stepmothers by marrying. Others, especially of the superhero “cast” are never really given family in the traditional sense. In fact, though they may have strong bonds with friends, or with caretakers, they are constantly attempting to prove worthiness to the world, and are desperate to save the people in it they do care about. Think of Peter Parker’s desire to save his Aunt May, especially after losing his last father figure, Uncle Ben.
Some orphan heroes and superheroes out of necessity of continuing storylines become so entrenched in saving the world they can’t ever create a dependable family unit. This is especially true of most comic book superheroes. The world needs constant saving, and this creates inability to have families or children of their own. Others, such as Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker are able to shed their child of the world status to become deeply involved in families of their own making, but only when the danger is past.
You can also evaluate orphan heroes and superheroes as a means by which angst, loneliness, and independence are emphasized. The comic book type superhero is usually one who suffers always, or at least most of the time. Particularly when such a hero must deal with the death of murdered parents, his mission in life may be to create a world safer for other children. Loss of even one parent can be intensely traumatic and forever alter a child’s life, and superheroes may do all in their power to prevent this fate for other children. Empathy for suffering and a desire to end or prevent it for others is magnified.
There’s additionally the factor of how heroes and superheroes may be isolated from common existence through parental loss. They don’t have the experience of growing up with loving parents, and thus are not totally participatory in their world. Instead they are outside of it, and often have the rare insight of observing the world from a completely different perspective.
It’s a good idea to consider why we see this theme expressed so commonly. Perhaps we view these orphans or poorly parented children as ultimately our own. They may not just be children of the world, but may belong to each reader.