The other day Doug Mataconis mused over why superheroes were so commonly orphans. My answer is that it’s a storytellling convention that goes back at least 4,000 years and probably much farther. Here’s a partial list of historical and literary heroes who were either “sons of the widow” or foundlings, each dating from 1,000 years ago or more:
Sargon the Great
Moses (the story of his being found in the bulrushes is a retelling of the earlier story of Sargon the Great)
Cyrus the Great
Romulus and Remus
Jesus of Nazareth
The list is practically endless. Why? I suppose one answer would be “because that’s the way it happened.” My response would be that there are vast numbers of details about those individuals that are not considered important enough to report. Why is it important that they are “sons of the widow” or foundlings?
It’s also been suggested that it makes it easier for the storyteller who doesn’t have to explain their relationships with their families. I don’t think that stands up to scrutiny, either—the detail could merely be omitted.
I think the reason is that it’s a shorthand notation for growing up under conditions of extreme deprivation and adversity. Being the son of a widowed mother or a foundling was not uncommon but, conditions being what they were, it meant that the child would have a difficult life. It’s something that most people would readily understand. Heroes have not only survived great adversity but risen above it in triumph.