In Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, Suzy, a devoted bookworm, says she’s always wished she were an orphan because most of her favorite characters are. “Their lives are more special,” she says. Many young readers feel the way she does. Being parentless appeals to their sense of adventure and individualism. We compiled a list of our favorite examples of the archetype in fiction—who did we miss?
Little Orphan Annie: The Annie of Harold Gray’s comic strip series was beloved even before she inspired the 1977 Broadway musical Annie. Post-musical, Annie is a complete phenomenon. Raise your hand if you were in at least one production of this show in grade school.
Anne Shirley: Speaking of enthusiastic redheaded orphans named Anne (with an “e“), let’s talk Anne Shirley, the star of Lucy Montgomery’s amazing series. It’s a miracle that a girl like Anne can be so simultaneously annoying and lovable, but she pulls it off with ease.
Harry Potter: An orphaned “chosen one” with a mark of destiny? Harry is an amalgam of many awesome archetypal tropes, though his journey is all his own.
Cinderella: In some versions of this story, Cinderella is completely orphaned; in others, her father just doesn’t give a pumpkin’s butt what happens to her. In all versions, Cinderella has to endure some serious abuse at the hands of her stepfamily. It obviously takes a mental toll, because she starts talking to mice, hallucinating fairy godmothers, and mumbling about glass slippers.
Josef Kavalier: If you haven’t already read Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, get on that. Joe Kavalier’s incredible story is a real heart-exploder.
Any Roald Dahl protagonist. Dahl loves killing off his protagonists’ parents in ridiculous ways, such as with angry rhinos (see: James and the Giant Peach). The unnamed narrator of The Witches is recently orphaned, and Sophie, the hero of The BFG, lives in an abusive orphanage when the titular Big Friendly Giant finds her. In the rare cases where Dahl doesn’t kill off the parents, he makes them 100% evil (see: Matilda; George’s Marvelous Medicine).
Tom Sawyer: Sawyer’s parents are not in the picture, and his friend Huck may as well be an orphan considering his waste-of-space Pops. Two young boys + the banks of the Mississippi + no parental guidance = legendary mischief.
Jane Eyre: Orphaned as a baby and subjected to a horrendous childhood, Jane Eyre emerges as a fiery, independent adult with a rich inner life. She really nails being a person.
Frodo Baggins: “Hobbits really are amazing creatures,” Gandalf often opines in The Lord of the Rings. But Frodo in particular is amazing. He lost his parents at 12 in a boating accident, was adopted by Bilbo, and became the one soul in all of Middle Earth capable of resisting the One Ring’s power. He bows to no one.
Oliver Twist & the Artful Dodger: Will there every be a more iconic orphanage scene than the one in which Oliver implores, “please sir, I want some more”? Will there every be a more engaging petty thief than the Artful Dodger? Your move, fiction.
Tarzan: There’s a whole subcategory of stories about abandoned children in the wild, typically raised by animals. Mowgli of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan series are the epitome of this wildling motif.
Batman: Batman was created the moment Bruce Wayne witnessed his parents’ murder. But the Caped Crusader is far from the only superhero who had bad luck with the ‘rents. Superman, Spider-Man, The Hulk, Daredevil, Robin, Aquagirl, and countless other heroes grew up as orphans. It’s kind of super-sad.
Daenerys Targaryen: Pretty much every George R. R. Martin character is an orphan, or about to become one. But none of them are quite so captivating as Daenerys and her dragon brood. Birthing mythical beings in the middle of a funeral pyre is pretty tough to beat.
Did we leave out any of your favorite orphans?