In my book, The Devouring Mother, I differentiated between the acquiescent and the rebellious children of the mother and stated that the archetype of the acquiescent children was The Orphan. Having had more time to think about it since then, I’m going to slightly alter my analysis in this series of posts and make the claim that both the rebellious and acquiescent children are manifestations of The Orphan archetype and, in fact, modern western culture is a manifestation of The Orphan (technically both The Orphan and The Innocent but we’ll get to that in the next post).
Assuming we are an Orphan culture, it follows that the culture would be striving towards the archetypal mission of The Orphan and that The Devouring Mother is preventing the achievement of that mission. By analysing The Orphan in more detail, we can see what might happen if The Orphan can break free of the mother and achieve its archetypal mission. That would be the happy path scenario. Other scenarios are implied too and we will use the model of Jungian archetypes to explore them in later posts.
If all this sounds fanciful in light of the real world problems we face, that’s to be expected. We are still governed by an extremist materialist philosophy in the West. We’re still, with Karl Marx, historical materialists, although we’ve managed to airbrush out that unpleasant business about class. The economy drives everything. Technology drives everything. For any problem we have, therefore, there must be a technical solution that can be solved by a greedy capitalist seeking their own self-interest or a team of benevolent experts. That’s the default assumption of our public discourse. Culture is an epiphenomenon driven by material considerations.
What if we flip the whole thing around and put culture first? This would get us somewhere closer to Oswald Spengler who defined the West’s obsession with technology in cultural terms. What if we then posit that culture is at least as much driven by the subconscious as by the conscious mind. What if archetypes do not just blow up every now and then in mass hysterias such as the last two years but are a pervasive background force on the culture. These are the questions and assumptions we’ll be exploring in this series of posts. If they are true, then a cultural archetypal analysis can tell us something about the direction of the culture and therefore society.
In the next post, we’ll be fleshing out in more detail the specifics of how the archetype manifests in modern western culture. In order to do that, we need to know what the archetype is and that’s what we’ll be defining in this post using some prominent Orphan/Innocent stories from film and literature.
Coming of Age/Individuation
Although the focus of this series is on The Orphan archetype, we’ll need to talk about The Innocent too. All archetypes have fuzzy boundaries. The Orphan and The Innocent are both subtypes of The Child. There is no rule that says a writer or movie director cannot mix and match properties. In fact, that happens all the time. There are a number of well-known stories which feature orphan characters but which are actually manifestations of The Innocent archetype. The difference between them will be important in subsequent posts so we need to be clear about it.
The primary difference is that The Innocent wishes to remain or return to the safety of childhood while The Orphan’s archetypal mission is to transcend childhood. It’s for this reason that Orphan stories are always coming of age stories. They are about the protagonist’s journey into adulthood or, in a Jungian sense, selfhood via individuation and confronting the shadow.
This criterion distinguishes stories that seem to be about The Orphan but which are really about The Innocent. A classic example is Harry Potter who is an actual orphan in the story and fulfils a number of other traits of the archetype. However, at the end of the story (the first Potter book, at least), Harry has not come of age. He is still in school; still a child. Depictions of The Innocent are portrayals of what we might call the eternal child. Other examples of The Innocent who just happen to be orphans are Frodo Baggins, Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, Heidi, Pollyanna and Oliver Twist. In all of these stories, the character is still a child at the end.
The Innocent is the child who needs to remain a child. The Orphan is the child who is ready to grow up. The Orphan seeks to transcend their childhood and come of age. But we must distinguish between coming of age as recognised by society and what we might call coming to selfhood in a Jungian sense. Most societies with formal coming of age ceremonies have them around the time of puberty for both boys and girls. For example, the Jewish Bar/Bat Mitzvah is at 12 or 13 years old. Tribal societies that had initiation rites also conducted them at this age. In modern western societies we don’t have formal coming of age ceremonies and so the age of consent, driving age and voting age have become de facto coming of age markers. We recognise you as an adult at age 18 no matter what your personal developmental stage happens to be.
Most of the best known Orphan archetypes from our film and literature are in their late teens. Neo in The Matrix and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars are two prime examples. Once the person is much beyond their teens, the story can no longer be a proper coming of age story. The movie The 40-year-old Virgin is one example which inverts the archetype for comedic effect by imagining a man in early middle age who has yet to make one of the more important transitions into adulthood.
The Orphan’s archetypal mission is not to be formally recognised by their society that they have come of age. That happens to everybody by default in the modern West. Rather, they must individuate or come to selfhood. In a Jungian sense, The Orphan story is the story of individuation.
Evil Step Parents/Adoptive Parents
An almost universal trope of Orphan stories is the orphan’s mistreatment at the hands of the parent figure who takes over after the orphan is separated from its natural parents. We see this in Rapunzel, Snow White and Cindarella, Heidi, Pollyanna and Pippi Longstocking, almost all the Roald Dahl children’s stories, Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, Harry Potter and others.
The explicit cruelty of the parents in Orphan stories functions to force the child out of the house and begins the individuation process as the child is forced to deal with the real world by itself. As a narrative vehicle, this makes sense. The home is the place of love and safety and the child will not want to leave that environment. They need to be forced out through tough love. We see this elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Here in Australia, the sound of young magpies who have been kicked out of the nest can be heard all over the country in late spring. This is a “cruel” but necessary move by the parent magpies. In practice, the cruelty can come as much from neglect (perhaps deliberate neglect) as active abuse but Orphan stories typically represent this quite explicitly in the behaviour of the adoptive parents.
Alongside the pain caused by the adoptive parents, The Orphan has the pain of the loss of their natural parents. This is symbolised quite precisely in Harry Potter, for example, by the mark on Harry’s forehead caused by Voldemort, the man who killed his parents.
The Orphan is a victim. They are a victim of the cruelty of fate having lost their parents. They are a victim of the abusive step parents and bullies. They are often a victim throughout the journey (Frodo is repeatedly injured in the Lord of the Rings, for example). This sets up one of the primary dynamics of the archetype. The orphan must overcome their victimhood and not use it as an excuse not to do the work required to transition into adulthood/selfhood. It is for this reason that playing the victim is the primary weakness of The Orphan.
Those who would derail The Orphan will offer them victimhood. The Evil Queen dressed up as a friendly old lady offering a poisoned apple to Snow White is perhaps the ultimate expression of The Devouring Mother seducing The Orphan and derailing its archetypal mission. Snow White’s suffering is caused by her naivete. She must transcend the naivete of the child by understanding the motivations of others, including and especially those who would do her harm. In processing their pain, The Orphan comes to understand something about human nature while also learning that much of their pain is caused by their own actions and mistakes. This sorting out of responsibility between self and other is a key part of the individuation process.
Having been forced out of the home and into the big wide world, The Orphan will meet an Elder figure who becomes their mentor. Obi-wan Kenobi, Dumbledore, Gandalf, Morpheus and Heidi’s grandfather are just some examples. Stories featuring orphans where the elder is not present are explicitly not coming-of-age stories and hence not Orphan archetypes eg. Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, Pippi Longstocking, Pollyanna.
The fairy tales Snow White, Rapunzel and Cinderella differ from the pattern in that the Orphan is not guided by a wise elder but saved by a handsome prince. These stories are symbolic of the old pathway of a young woman transitioning into the role of wife. Interestingly, they come closest to The Devouring Mother pattern by portraying the parent who does not want to allow the child to grow up thereby showing that the problem of parents stifling their child’s development is an old one.
The naivete of Snow White who repeatedly falls for the tricks of the Evil Queen is another prime attribute of The Orphan which is that they are easily influenced and therefore easily led astray. This makes sense as The Orphan is halfway between childhood and adulthood. Part of processing their pain is to understand the motivations for that pain in others. In doing so, they must learn to break out of the childish perception of their parents as demigods and see them for the first time as real people. That implies a loss of innocence and is another thing which separates The Orphan from The Innocent.
Alongside the Elder, The Orphan will meet others and make friends and enemies in the world outside the home. Thus, Frodo Baggins has friends in the other hobbits, Harry Potter the other students at the wizard school, Huck Finn has Tom Sawyer, Neo has Trinity and the other members of the crew, Luke Skywalker has Princess Leia, Han Solo and Wookie and so on.
The Orphan can also be led off track if it comes into contact with the wrong crowd. Oliver Twist gets in with a group of criminals. The same thing happens to J in the movie Animal Kingdom. In The Lion King, Simba falls in with friends who, while not really criminals, do not challenge him to rise to full selfhood and hold him back from his archetypal mission.
Oliver Twist is also led astray by what we could call the shadow elder. This also happens to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars with the twist being that it’s his own father who is trying to lure him to the dark side. Part of The Orphan’s mission is to figure who are the good guys and the bad guys, another factor in their deepening understanding of what it is to be human.
The Need to go it Alone
Although The Orphan needs its mentor and its friends, the final journey into adulthood/selfhood can only be done alone. The denouement of The Orphan’s story is the fulfilment of this archetypal mission. Luke Skywalker faces Vader alone in The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi. Neo faces Agent Smith alone at the end of The Matrix. J acts alone to free himself at the end of Animal Kingdom. In Batman, we have the vigilante orphan who alone battles the forces that killed his parents.
Along the journey, The Orphan first is estranged from its parents, then its adoptive parents, then from friends and finally even from the wise elder who can only show The Orphan the path of individuation but cannot do the work required. “I can only show you the door. You’re the one who has to walk through it,” says Morpheus to Neo in The Matrix.
This reveals a curious fact about The Orphan’s mission which is that everything is set up to prevent it from happening. For example, even though Morpheus shows Neo the door, afterwards he struggles to protect Neo from harm. In doing so, he is actually preventing The Orphan from fulfilling his destiny. The same goes for parents who are overprotective of their children. It’s perfectly understandable and almost nobody can hold it against you and yet it prevents The Orphan from growing up. I suspect that is why Orphan stories make the adoptive parents explicitly cruel; it makes it easier to tell the story.
Symbolically speaking, the parents of The Orphan are “dead” in that they can no longer protect the child from the real world. The adoptive parents, bullies, and false elders are the real world, the human society that inflicts pain upon the child who no longer has the option to run back to mommy and daddy but must confront it. In confronting it, the child learns that it too is capable of evil. It comes to understand itself as a fully-fledged human being capable of both good and evil with the ability to choose between the two.
The final scene of Return of the Jedi, where Luke forgives his father, works so well archetypally because that forgiveness is part of the fulfilment of The Orphan’s mission. It represents the new perspective The Orphan has on its parents. No longer are they demigods but real human beings with their own emotions, motivations, strengths and weaknesses. Rather than blame Vader for the evil in the world, Luke learns to forgive his father. We all must suffer at the hands of our parents and we must learn to see that suffering in its true light. Failure to do so is precisely failure to transcend the archetype and to live in eternal Orphanhood: playing the victim, blaming parents, friends and society for all the things wrong with our life. In Jungian terms, projecting the shadow.
Integrating the shadow
There is one book which captures the essence of The Orphan better than any others I have read: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin.
The protagonist of the book, Sparrowhawk, is as good as an orphan. His mother died when he was young. His brothers have moved out and his father is missing in action. He lives in a village roaming around doing what he wants. He receives minimal care from his aunt who only begins to show real interest in him when his magical powers are revealed. After teaching him briefly, she introduces him to the elder magician, Ogion, who gives him his true name of Ged.
So far, so good. This is much like a fantasy version of Harry Potter. But A Wizard of Earthsea is not a children’s book and what happens next is far closer to the psychological reality of The Orphan. Ged’s magical powers are as much a burden as a blessing for both himself and his mentor. He unleashes a shadow into the world and Ogion must use all his magical strength to subdue it. We see a similar symbolism in The Matrix and we will talk about this more in later posts. The elder’s job is not easy. Keeping The Orphan on track takes work and personal risk.
As a side note, the use of the concept of the shadow in A Wizard of Earthsea draws an obvious parallel to Jung. Although, interestingly, Le Guin said she never read Jung before writing the book.
Ged, in the manner of most young people, shows little remorse for the pain he has caused and no desire to take responsibility. He goes off to wizard school where his great power will cause more trouble and even the death of one of the teachers. Eventually, he graduates from school and is nominally a fully certified wizard. But his shadow is now chasing him and Ged must leave his job and spend the second half of the book confronting it. The battle is done alone out on the open seas with civilisation nowhere to be found; quite literally beyond the edge of the Earthsea world. In this, Le Guin symbolises the fact that the confrontation with the shadow, the individuation process, does not happen in society or civilisation. It is a personal battle; a psychological one. Being a battle against one’s shadow, it is battle for the understanding the one is as capable of evil as anyone else in the world. It is the integration of the parts of oneself that one would rather not acknowledge.
In A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged had already achieved his status in society. He could have kept his day job and gone on being a wizard in the usual fashion helping out the villagers and enjoying their respect. The same can be said for Neo in The Matrix who could have kept his job at the corporation. Same for Luke Skywalker in Star Wars and Simba in The Lion King. But The Orphan is called for something higher and that something higher is to face their own shadow. To do so, they must turn their back on society as this is a battle that can only be done alone. A Wizard of Earthsea strips back the symbolism of The Orphan story and presents it in true psychological light. Ged’s pain is not just caused by others. In fact, it is mostly caused by himself. That’s what makes individuation so difficult. Jung himself noted that integrating the shadow is one of the more painful things anybody can do and most people will avoid the task at all costs because it involves understanding that you are at fault for most of your problems. The task of The Orphan is not one that society can help with. In fact, society’s very existence gives The Orphan an out clause. All you have to do is keep the job, show up to work, do what you’re told. You can live a whole life that way but your shadow will always be there in the dark. You either confront it or let it control you. The Orphan must choose. The Elder’s job is to present The Orphan with the choice. But, as Morpheus says to Neo, “I offer you the truth. Nothing more.”
At the end of story, The Orphan has metamorphised. They are no longer The Orphan but have transcended into adulthood/selfhood. This implies a transition to another archetype. It’s no coincidence that in many Orphan stories, the archetype the protagonist transcends into is The Magician. Thus, Neo at the end of The Matrix re-enters the matrix as a master understanding both the rules of the game and how to transcend them and then offering the promise of transcendence to others. Ged goes on in the subsequent Earthsea stories to become an Elder himself and to lead other Orphans down the pathway to individuation.
However, it is also possible for The Orphan to take on other archetypes. Jane Eyre gets married at the end of the book manifesting The Lover archetype. In Animal Kingdom, J transcends into The Warrior in shadow form, echoing his cousins and providing the final, chilling twist to the story. Batman is a character who has already gone through an implied metamorphosis to become The Warrior. Simba becomes The Ruler in The Lion King.
We will extrapolate the meaning of the archetype in detail in the next post. But for now it’s worthwhile to point out how little our society resembles the typical Orphan story. Of particular importance is our lack of elders and the lack of power elders have vis a vis parents. It is the elder who offers The Orphan their mission; who shows them the pathway to individuation. For all kinds of reasons, the parents cannot do that job. And yet in the post war years, western society has foregrounded the role of the parent to an absurd degree. Meanwhile, our would-be elders are shipped off to the nursing home or the retirement village where they are out of sight and out of mind. Multi-generational households have disappeared, the granny flat got turned into the teenager’s bedroom and old age became a sign of failure that even the elderly do everything they can to avoid.
There are examples of societies where this is not so although there’s not many left these days. In hunter gatherer tribes, the child was removed from its parents and taken away for initiation. It was the tribal elders who both decided when the child was ready and also gave them the training for the initiation. The elders were the teachers who put the child on the path to adulthood. The break between childhood and adulthood/selfhood was made explicit through ceremony and involved an explicit severing of the parental role. No coincidence that those tribes also set aside a special place for elders in the life of the community. Our society is in many ways the exact opposite and yet we continue to tell Orphan stories where the elder plays a pivotal role. We still have this in our cultural memory and therefore we can still use this to critique the problems we face. That’s what we’ll be doing in upcoming posts.
All posts in this series: