In a genre that likes to play with monarchy, it’s no surprise that several fantasy stories have a big toolbox when it comes to throne-related tropes. For a genre, too, that frequently attempts to set its protagonist apart from everyone else, transforming them from something “common” to something “special,” it is perhaps also unsurprising that the protagonists might be revealed as a long-lost heir. The Lost Heir trope is not the most common of fantasy tropes, but it is an interesting one.
The Lost Heir trope can best be described as a character whose parentage or lineage is unknown until being later revealed at a convenient time. On occasion, the character themselves do not know, but just as frequently, the character does know but hides it from the reader. Despite the name of the trope, being a Lost Heir does not necessarily grant the character access to the throne; rather, it just connects them to the royal or unexpected bloodlines.
It is thanks to this definition that we see the likes of Bitterblue titular character–who, due to the nature of Leck’s Grace and questionable rise to power, wonders if she even has any Monsean blood in her to give her the right to rule that country–does align in some ways with the Lost Heir trope while Lord of the Rings‘ Aragorn–who never denied he was heir to Gondor’s throne, but who refused to take that position–does not.
Warning: spoilers abound for the titles below. Consider:
Throne of Glass.
Celaena Sardothien is the protagonist of the Throne of Glass series. She is thought to be little more than an excellent assassin until the very end of Crown of Midnight (book 2) where it is revealed she is the long-lost princess of the destroyed Fae country of Terrasen. Shortly after the revelation, she regains her magic powers and embarks on a quest to end the King of Adarlan’s reign of terror and regain her conquered throne.
Wheel of Time.
Rand al’Thor learns early on in the series that his parents are not really his and that Tam had found him and brought him to the Two Rivers after the Aiel War. That Rand has Aiel blood is not surprising, but his parents’ identities are not quickly revealed. His father was an Aiel clan chief; although such titles are not hereditary, it gave Rand the ability to enter Rhuidean and become the Chief of Chiefs to lead the Aiel. He learns, too, that his mother was a Maiden of the Spear, but it is not until much later that he learns her true identity as Tigraine Mantear, a queen of Andor until she forsook the title to be adopted into the Aiel society, therefore giving Rand royal blood too. This does give Rand some legitimacy in the eyes of other kings, queens, and lords throughout the continent, making him more than some upstart country bumpkin in their eyes.
Eragon is the embodiment of many a trope, and this one is no exception. Eragon learns at a relatively young age that Garrow and Marian are his uncle and aunt, not his parents. Who exactly his mother is, and who is father is, are not revealed until later. Murtagh, Eragon’s travelling companion and later nemesis, is secretly the son of Morzan, one of King Galbatorix’s most trusted, evil advisors, though this is shown in the second half of the first book. For a short time a little later in the series, Eragon is led to believe that Morzan is his father as well, with Murtagh being his elder brother. But someone later tells him the truth: he shares the same mother as Murtagh, Selena, but his real father is Brom, a previous Dragon Rider. As a result, Eragon is not heir to Galbatorix’s throne, but it does give him some sort of noble blood under Galbatorix’s reign.
A Song of Ice and Fire. (Book Rumor/TV series confirmed)
Jon Snow is said to be a bastard, with the honorable Ned Stark as his father and some mysterious woman as his mother. Ned always dodged questions about Jon’s mother, and clues within the text suggest Ned is not actually Jon’s father. It has been a long-standing theory, one that the TV show confirmed, that Ned is actually Jon’s uncle , and that Jon is the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. Furthermore, the two supposedly had wedding vows, which means Jon is not even a bastard, but a legitimate, rightful heir to the Targaryen’s throne.
Crown of Feathers.
Veronyka and Val are two sisters on the run, Veronyka armed with a magic that is dangerous to the both of them. The country is currently ruled by a council, but not that long ago, it had queens. The last were Avalkyra and Pheronia, sisters who fought over the right to hold the throne. Pheronia was pregnant at the time of her death, and the baby was saved, then lost. Near the end of the book, Val reveals that Veronyka is Pheronia’s daughter, and that Val herself was Avalkyra reborn, her memories kept intact. Veronyka is, thus, the heir to Pyra.
The Doling Out of Information
The success or failure of the Lost Heir trope relies heavily on what information is given to the reader and when. The latter is just as important as the former; too much information, given in too heavy-handed a way, makes it very obvious to the reader what direction the character might go. Too little, and you run the risk of destroying any suspension of disbelief.
Quite often, it’s a matter of simple math. In Crown of Feathers, the reader is given a decent amount of Pyrean history, including the timetable for the war between the two sisters. Incidentally, Veronyka looks to be about that same age. From relatively early on in the novel, I began to suspect that there was more to Veronyka than was being said. And, in the end, it was revealed that she was indeed the daughter of the last queen.
While I am by no means a fan of the Throne of Glass series, Sarah J. Maas handled the revelation of Celaena’s true identity far more deftly. Firstly, Celaena has more than one dark thread of history, and so when she blocks out painful memories, the reader assumes it’s related to something they already know about. Secondly, Celaena has led a very busy, erratic life. She’d trained as an assassin, traveled the world, met a lot of people. Additionally, the exact timeline of Terrasen’s fall is never written out.
Chaol searches for the lost heir of Terrasen in the second book, Crown of Midnight, and while more clues are dropped so Celaena’s real identity does not come out of left field, they are sparse enough that the reader may only have hints of the truth of things. Essentially, it works because, for the longest time, Celaena is Celaena; she left Aelin Galythinius far behind her. There are multiple secrets wrapped up in her past, allowing this one to hide behind them, but the current events of the first two books brings back some bad memories, bringing enough information to light to allow her to leave her false identity behind by book three.
The Importance of Relevance
The Lost Heir trope can likewise be problematic as a result of that fine line we call narrative relevance. Often, the Lost Heir trope involves a vacant throne, or a throne occupied by some villainous character that needs to be ousted. Throne of Glass is one such example that actually includes both: Terrasen’s seat is empty, but its lands have been claimed by the evil King of Adarlan. Conceptually, Aelin’s journey is an interesting one. She must oust the tyrant to free all conquered lands, including her own home.
Eragon’s, from the Inheritance Cycle, is on the opposite end. It is of no surprise that, as an orphaned character, Eragon should wonder about the identity of his parents. However, beyond giving him an identity crisis, there is no real narrative function to connecting him to Morzan and Selena (also known as the Black Hand). This may, in part, have to do with the fact that Morzan held no real titles, and that even had Eragon been Morzan’s son, it did not give him any direct line to Galbatorix’s throne.
Perhaps the best example of balancing that narrative relevance comes, unsurprisingly, in the form of Wheel of Time. The Aiel were a stable presence in the story, and they were the first people that Rand took charge of. They gave him an army with which he could conquer the rest of the continent. But his Aiel bloodlines did not inherently put him in that position; it just put him in a place where he could earn the title.
Additionally, Rand has Tigraine’s blood. That he never claims Andor is irrelevant. To those who see Rand as a nothing commoner, and his Aiel army as mindless savages, that royal bloodline does give him some credence. Admittedly, it does not come to light until Lord of Chaos (WoT #6), yet from that book on, he can use that to buy some respect from the snobbish nobility and royalty of other countries.
What is most important is that everything Rand ultimately takes, he earns. The Aiel did not make him Chief of Chiefs; their Wise Ones simply agreed to let him journey to Rhuidean where he could prove his mettle. When he lays claim to other territories, he does not fall back to pulling his blood-ties to the distant thrones. Rather, he relies on Moiraine’s teachings on how best to approach and lead them.
It is very easy to use the Lost Heir title as an easy way to put the protagonist in a position of power, a sort of deus ex machina to lay down their path to victory. In Crown of Feathers, it seems pretty obvious that if Veronyka should pursue her throne, it will be a simple matter of fighting for it to depose the current tyrants. Neither Rand nor Aelin had such an easy fight, because they both had to claim more than just a single throne.
The inevitable conclusion one might draw is that one must use the Lost Heirs trope in the same way it is used with Rand or Aelin. That is to say, to follow in Crown of Feather‘s footsteps is to risk predictability and to follow in Eragon‘s is to risk irrelevance. Yet to mirror Wheel of Time or Throne of Glass in this matter is to risk turning it more specific, tired trope than it already is.
Rather I think it is important to recognize that having the protagonist Heir win a few battles to earn their crown will probably read as little more than a hollow victory. It takes more than realizing one has noble blood to make a good ruler, and if the protagonist does not make a good ruler, then what was the point of it all? If they don’t have to earn the loyalty of those they command, they may as well not command.
The details… the specifics of their secret, and the revelations, can be toyed with to fit the narrative, as discussed above. Ultimately, the Lost Heir trope should be about the difficulty of ruling effectively and empathetically, because what it does is give the protagonist a chance to learn the intricacies and challenges of being a leader. They have no credentials and likely very little proof of their identity as the Lost Heir, and so it only makes sense that they must earn that position, that being the Lost Heir is ultimately only a leg-up against the others who might take their title from them.