Wednesday, July 30, 2014

An Exploration in Fantasy -- Part Two: Orphans and the Gum Under the Seat

It may seem that the easiest way to find the origins of fantasy literature would be to simply follow the trail of fantasy literature back in history until we get to the earliest examples of it, but that would cause some problems. For instance, when does fantasy cease to be fantasy and become legend or myth? Are we going to call Beowulf a fantasy story? Or the tales of the Greek and Egyptian gods? Or Gilgamesh? It gets kinda messy if we do that. And that's not really what we're looking for, anyway. No, we're trying to establish where our current model for fantasy writing comes from. Look back at the last post to see the list.

So, although we're not going to go looking for historical beginnings, we are going to start at the beginning. Or, at least, where all fantasy stories start: the orphan boy. Sure, sure, it's not always a boy; Disney has given us plenty of girls, after all; but, when we start talking about the genre of fantasy literature, it's nearly always a boy. Or, even, outside the strict confines of fantasy. Let's take a look at some of the most popular examples (and some that I just like):

1. Harry Potter
2. Luke Skywalker
3. Garion (The Belgariad)
4. Rand al'Thor (The Wheel of Time)
5. Richard Cypher (The Sword of Truth)
6. Batman
7. Spider-Man
8. Superman
9. Arya and Bran Stark (A Song of Fire and Ice)
10. Dorothy (The Wizard of Oz)
11. Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games)
12. Skeeve (MythAdventures)
13. Pug (The Riftwar Saga)
14. Harry Dresden (The Dresden Files)

And, actually, I could just go on and on, but I've probably made my point. The fact is, almost any piece of fantasy that you pick up will have the orphan kid as the protagonist. In fact, I'm having trouble thinking of anything that doesn't use that as a starting point. Okay, technically, Dresden is not an orphan kid at the beginning of the series, but there is much made of the fact that he was an orphan so, even though we start with him as an adult, we get the full orphan background for him and how that set him up as the person he is when the series starts. And, yes, Arya and Bran don't start that series as orphans, but the orphan thing for them is significant and clearly part of the paradigm. We just get to see them get orphaned.

In fact, the author that is conspicuously missing from this list is Tolkien. Bilbo is most definitely not an orphan nor is he a kid. Bilbo isn't even young. Nor is Frodo. Okay, you could make a case for the orphan status of Frodo, but it doesn't actually have any bearing on the story. It was actually a contrivance by Tolkien to give Bilbo an heir that wasn't there during The Hobbit. Then there's the fact that Frodo is 50 by the time he leaves the Shire with the Ring. The orphan trope just doesn't apply when we're talking about Tolkien, so it must have come from somewhere else.

Added to the "orphan boy" trope there are the "child of prophecy" and "special" tropes. Special can mean some sort of special ability or having royal parents or any number of things. So let's go down our list and see which of these apply to the group I've selected.

1. Harry Potter -- there is a prophecy, and he's special (survived the death curse)
2. Luke Skywalker -- son of Vader, which makes him pretty special (and the prequels add in a prophecy)
3. Garion -- there's a prophecy, he's the hidden son of a king, and he's a powerful wizard
4. Rand al'Thor -- there's a prophecy and he's special
5. Richard Cypher -- he's got both things, too
6. Batman -- no prophecy, but he's special (yes, unlimited wealth counts as a special ability)
7. Spider-Man -- also, no prophecy, but he's genius smart and gets super powers
8. Superman -- I think the special is apparent. Have they ever included any kind of prophecy for him? I don't know.
9. Arya and Bran Stark -- Arya has some kind of prophecy about her, and Bran has special powers. Maybe there's a prophecy about him, too? Not having read the books, I'm not clear on all of it. But it's clear that these two are central to the story, and they have all the markers. Actually, so does Daenerys.
10. Dorothy -- there's no prophecy, but they certainly treat her as if she is special
11. Katniss -- also no prophecy (I don't think), but she is clearly portrayed as being extraordinary
12. Skeeve -- I don't remember there being any kind of prophecy, but Skeeve is portrayed as being above normal.
13. Pug -- prophecy and special magic powers
14. Harry Dresden -- there is some kind of prophecy (though I'm not to a point in the series where I know what it is, but it's been mentioned), and he's more powerful than he ought to be

So all of these examples have at least one of the two things and many have both. Tolkien, however, has neither. There is no prophecy in either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien makes it very clear that Bilbo and Frodo are only special in that they are willing to go, which is to say not special at all. They have no special powers or abilities. They are just hobbits.

When we look back at the first four things on the list from the last post (special orphan boy of prophecy), we find that Tolkien has none of these things; therefore, saying that this part of the fantasy structure is based on Tolkien would be a foolish thing to say. This idea is fairly central to modern fantasy, but it certainly doesn't come from the "Father of Modern Fantasy."

Oh! Before you leave, make sure you check under your chair; the orphans, special or not, leave gum there for good little children. Or whoever is sitting in the chair.


  1. Curse me and my two thumbs. Commenting in depth is impossible.

    Super loved the post.

    I think a lot of the fantasy tropes are influenced heavily by Joseph Campbell and religious themes. Especially the Orphan/Prophecy parts that you discussed above.

    I've had a 'History of Fantasy' book in my Amazon wish list for the past two years that I've been hoping to read. The cost of the book had kept me away from it though.

    I don't know how long this series if posts will be. But I hope you've got a bunch of them planned.

  2. Another orphan hero: Emma Earl, the Scarlet Knight.

  3. Hah! And I'm reminded why I stepped away from the genre. I applaud the authors who can take someone completely insignificant (other than in contemporary fiction) and make them a hero.

  4. TV Tropes lists a slew of orphan tropes:

    Perhaps this trope plays on our fears of losing our parents someday. At the same time, it may raise questions of identity.

  5. Rusty: I don't really think most of them are influenced by Campbell. Lucas, yes, but most are not, especially since this all existed before Campbell's work. But I'll be getting to that.

    There are at least two more posts coming.

    Pat: Does she fit the fantasy model like most super heroes?

    Crystal: Oh, but see, they don't. That's the real problem. The fact that the characters are subject to prophecy or some sort of special inheritance make them inherently significant. Only Tolkien took teh true insignificant character, Bilbo, and made him into a hero. (Frodo is not quite so insignificant as Bilbo since he was influenced so much by Bilbo.)

    Sandra: I don't think that's what the orphan trope plays on. I think it's more about the search for personhood. How can you really know who you are if you don't know who your parents were?

    1. I was ready to argue my assertion here. - but decided these two thumbs aren't up for the task today. I'm looking forward for the next installment.

  6. Rusty: Well, I'll add to that:
    Most people (writers) aren't familiar enough with Campbell's work to be directly influenced by it anyway. They'd only be indirectly influenced through Star Wars or something like that.
    And what Campbell did is inherently different from what I'm talking about in so many ways, because he looked at things like Beowulf and Gilgamesh which don't hinge on the orphan idea and are lacking in many other respects from what we consider modern fantasy.

    Which is not to say that there are not some parallels, but I don't think those things come from Campbell or, even, were really influenced by Campbell. Except for Lucas, who directly modeled his hero arc on Campbell, but the orphans and wizards did not come from Campbell.

  7. The dead parents are very prevalent in fantasy and most YA. It gives the protagonist an emotional impetus, a reason to rise up and overcome their misfortunes. And they will, because no one wants to read about ordinary people who do ordinary things. And, yes, the "chosen one" prophecy stuff is overdone, but people like to lose themselves in that fantasy. We all hope we're secretly special. I sort of skirt the trope in my novels. Not quite, but close. And, heh, my MC does end up losing both parents by the time she's come into her own. I guess I'm on the right track. :D

  8. Great post! Littlest kid just woke up from a nap or I'd leave a longer comment :)

  9. L.G.: Is it that way in YA, too? I don't read much current YA and the stuff I read when I was a kid that now is suddenly YA didn't have a lot of orphans.
    Personally, I do want to read about ordinary people, ordinary people who do extraordinary things. Really, what effort does it take someone who is "special" to do something special? But, when it's someone "ordinary," it's amazing!

    Jessica: I'll pretend.

  10. I think Emma fits the fantasy model; she's a knight after all, there's a wizard/ghost, and wasn't there a prophecy? Or at least she was chosen by the armor?

    YAY SKEEVE. I loved those stories. I bet they didn't hold up.

    Keep these posts up. They're awesome.

    I also like that you correctly included Star Wars and superheroes as fantasy.

  11. Briane: I haven't re-read the MythAdventure books, although I want to, because there have been another half dozen or so written since I read them. My kid loved them.