In conversation with an acquaintance of mine, I was a little surprised when he described himself as an orphan. What was surprising about the description was the fact that he is a man in his sixties. It seemed rather old to be an orphan. But does the term have an upper age limit?
The word orphan derives from an Ancient Greek word, which translates as ‘without parents’, and is thus somewhat timeless.
However, common usage has come to define the term as a ‘child’ who has lost their parents, and UNICEF make this more explicit, as someone under the age of 18 years.
This narrowing of the criteria of how an orphan is classified means that, in developed countries at least, orphans are actually quite rare. Although you would never think so if you are a reader of fiction. In fiction, orphans are rife. Particularly in Fantasy and YA fiction. It would seem that it is only by being bereft of the boring restrictions of any form of parental control that any self-respecting YA protagonist can be released to embark on any kind of noteworthy adventure. “Make sure you’re home by eight o’clock” is inclined to be a bit of a dampener to a good plot line.
So, top five fictional orphans? Well, given the vast range of possible candidates, I am going to cheat and create two separate lists: one vaguely literary; the other more fantasy-orientated. And I am not even going to begin to venture into the realms of Marvel Universes; DC Comics; Superheroes; TV and movies. Bruce Wayne, Han Solo and Daenerys Targaryen can start another long list somewhere else.
BEWARE – SOME SPOILERS.
TOP FIVE LITERARY ORPHANS
1. Philip Pirrip
Charles Dickens does good orphans. David Copperfield; Oliver Twist, either could top this list. However, for me, Pip in Great Expectations takes the credits, since the entire plot of the novel revolves around Pip’s rise from lowly beginnings.
2. Jane Eyre
Charlotte Brontë’s heroine falls into the traditional Victorian stereotype of the oppressed orphan. Raised by her cruel aunt Mrs Reed after her parents die of typhus, she has to endure a harsh upbringing before love eventually triumphs over adversity.
3. James Bond
It is only in the penultimate book in the 007 canon, You Only Live Twice, that it is discovered that Bond is the son of Andrew Bond of Glencoe and Monique Delacroix of the Canton de Vaud, both who died in a climbing accident when Bond was only eleven.
4. Tom Sawyer
Tom Sawyer discovers a kindred spirit in the son of the town drunk, Huckleberry Finn. It would be hard to imagine either of the boys embarking on their adventures on the Mississippi if there had been an anxious parent hovering in the background.
5. Becky Sharp
The heroine of Vanity Fair sets the tone for the modern, fantasy orphan. Unlike Jane Eyre, she is not oppressed by her early life, instead it is a catalyst to free her to embark on her own peculiar brand of amoral escapades.
TOP FIVE FANTASY ORPHANS
1. Harry Potter/Lord Voldemort
Like the plot of a Greek tragedy, the famous boy wizard’s parents are killed by his arch-enemy who, in turn, is similarly parentless.
2. John Clayton II
Who? Okay, so I am deliberately being a bit obscure here. Perhaps it would clarify matters to give him his other name, Viscount Greystoke. Or better still Tarzan. Tarzan’s mother Alice died when he was a child and his father John was killed by the ape Kerchak.
Orphaned in an earthquake in Peru, Paddington was raised by his beloved Aunt Lucy before finding fame and adventure with the Brown family in London.
4. Tom Natsworthy/Hester Shaw
The protagonists of the Mortal Engines quartet seem like an unlikely paring, but their shared isolation in a strange steampunk world is both their strength and salvation.
5. Frodo Baggins
Frodo’s parents Drogo and Primula died when he was just twelve years old. But as the adoptive heir of Bilbo Baggins, nothing was going to stop Frodo’s quest in the Lord of the Rings.
© Fergus Longfellow
Fergus Longfellow is an orphan himself; thank you for asking.