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Moses was found in the stream
—"It Ain't Necessarily So", from Porgy and Bess
An infant is saved from some calamity by being cast into the hands of Fate by his parents, whose lives are sometimes claimed by the same calamity. Fate, not wanting to have to rear a kid, promptly deposits the young hero with a family (usually poor and humble) who will raise him up to be good, just, noble and strong. He remains ignorant of his true heritage except perhaps for some trinket -- a ring or maybe a pendant, or sometimes a distinctive birthmark -- which can identify him to someone who knew his parents.
Sometimes the infant is abandoned in the wilderness by the Villain, who doesn't want to murder the child directly, and instead wants it to die from exposure. This never works out as planned.
Often the hero is an aristocrat or even a prince(ss), whose nurture by a humble family gives him a refreshingly egalitarian view on things when he finally discovers his heritage and takes his rightful position.
See also Changeling Fantasy. Compare Door Step Baby, Switched At Birth, Separated at Birth, Muggle Foster Parents, Wonder Child, Wild Child, Noble Fugitive. See also Parental Abandonment, Fling a Light Into the Future, and The Ark which is another ancient motif. Results from a Nice Job Breaking It, Herod.
Anime & Manga
- Arika in Mai-Otome appears to be the infant princess set adrift to escape invaders in the very first scenes of the series. Then again, so does Nina, and the official story was that it was Mashiro. The series plays with the ambiguity for a while before The Reveal (heated fan debates and inevitable Epileptic Trees continued all the way until episode 23 aired).
- As it turns out That was Arika as an infant in the first scene but that wasn't actually the princess but instead the daughter of the King's retainer being set adrift. The actual princess was Nina, who was snuck out in a different fashion off screen. Mashiro was a fake
- A parodic twist of the concept: In Dragon Ball Z, it was revealed that Goku was sent to Earth as an infant, on the assumption that his Saiyan instincts would compel him to conquer the planet when he grew up. In a twist, this saved him from the near-extinction of his race, and he was raised into a good person by a succession of quirky father-figures (it also helped that he received a blow to the head as a child that gave him Easy Amnesia).
- Kami, except no parental figures.
- Mamoru in GaoGaiGar, although in this case, the "basket" is a giant mecha-lion that hand- or rather, mouth-delivers him to his Muggle Foster Parents. Notable that for most of the series, the parents still have a lingering fear that one day, the lion will return and take him back.
- He does, sort of. And it's heartbreakingly inverted in the ending of FINAL; the heroes can only open a couple of tiny, ephemeral wormholes back to Earth, and they choose to send Mamoru and Kaidou back to their foster parents, entrusting the future and their story to the children.
- Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D's: Yusei Fudo's father evidently borrowed Kal El's spaceship to save his son from Zero Reverse.
- Violinist of Hameln has Princess Flute, who was slipped out of her kingdom during a war (in which her older brother had already tragically died). She was eventually left on a doorstop in a small village far, far to the south of her home country, with only a letter saying "take me" and a crucifix - but in a Subversion of the trope, was ignored by the house's inhabitants and the passersby tried to act like she didn't exist. She would have died had not the visiting elder of a nearby village taken pity on her.
- Superman is the classic modern example.
- A twisted variant happens in Superman: The Dark Side where Superman is raised by Darkseid. Darkseid eventually translates a message where Jor-El says he coded the anti-life equation into Superman's genes so he could enslave Earth using superior Kryptonian science. His father would not be proud of his foolish attachment to these primitives.
- Subverted in the case of Superman's foster son, Chris Kent/ Lor-Zod. At first it looks, and Superman believes, this trope has happened, but in reality Lor-Zod was sent to Earth by his father, the villain General Zod, to provide a link that he can use to escape the Phantom Zone
- And subverted hard in the storyline "Superman and the Legion of Superheroes". Two members of a dying planet try to invoke this trope by launching their son to Earth, hoping Earth will make him as great as Superman. Unfortunately, the alien child lands on Earth in the xenophobic 31st Century, where it is immediately shot and killed by the couple who find it...
- Superman is not the only DC Comics hero to invoke this trope. Aquaman, at least in some versions of his origins, was cast away from Atlantis at birth and raised by a lighthouse keeper who named him Arthur Curry.
- Nightcrawler of the X-Men was thrown over a waterfall by his mother, later he is rescued and adopted.
- Invoked in The Dark Lords of Nerima (A Ranma ½-Sailor Moon Crossover) where it looks like we are being set up for the Amazons to be given a Moon Kingdom origin story with a folktale of their founding based on a set of baby twins sent to Earth in a lifepod along with the records of the Fall of the Kingdom so they will be safe then heartbreakingly subverted when it is revealed that the two most holy relics are tiny infant skeletons.
- In The Dancing Water, the Singing Apple, and the Speaking Bird and The Three Little Birds, the king's children are abandoned and grow up in ignorance of their birth, until a magic bird informs the king and children of the truth.
- The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt, by virtue of having Moses as the protagonist.
- The Penguin in Batman Returns (1992) is a villainous version of this trope; the Penguin even plans to kill the firstborn of every family in Gotham as revenge for his upbringing.
- Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia in the Star Wars movies, although the trope is slightly distorted in their cases. For one, they are directly given to the Larses and Bail Organa.
- Parodied in the movie Kung Pow Enter the Fist. The baby Chosen One, having narrowly escaped the thugs that killed his parents, ends up rolling down a steep hill. He is found by a peasant woman, who picks him up, hugs him... and sends him rolling down the hill again. Chosen One also has an identifying mark of destiny -- his tongue is a living creature.
- This is one of the few tropes that the movie Spaceballs actually played straight: Lone Starr was raised in a monastery, with only a medallion to tell him of his past. No one could tell him what it meant until he encountered Yoghurt... who told him in a fortune cookie that he was a prince, with just enough time to sweep Princess Vespa off her feet.
- In teaser for the Western spoof Evil Roy Slade, the titular character was the last survivor of an Indian attack. The Indians looked at him, then walked away. Then wolves found him, sniffed him for a bit, and ran away yelping. As the credits roll, we see Roy as a very angry toddler stalking out of the desert, toward the camera.
- In The Night of the Hunter, Missus Hooper finds the two Harper children washed up on shore in a little boat amid the bullrushes. Although they're both a bit older than baby Moses, they're still compared to the Biblical event.
- Elora Danan in Willow: born with a birthmark that destined her to bring about Bavmorda's downfall. Her mother sends her away with a benevolent nursemaid and is then is killed by Bavmorda's enforcers. Willow finds her floating down a river, having been sent away to safety by the nursemaid moments before she's tracked down and murdered.
- In Clash of the Titans, baby Perseus, being an illegitimate demi-god, is locked into a coffin with his dead mother and thrown into the sea, but a fisherman finds the coffin, rescues Perseus and raises him as his own child. This scene is based on the original Greek myth of Perseus.
- In the first Ice Age movie, the human mother just so manages to deposit her young son with the protagonist animals before dying. Counts, because how could she know that they would take care of him?
- In Treasure of Swamp Castle, Princess Szaffi is lost in a flood and adopted by a gypsy woman.
- The villainous Benedetto ("blessing") from The Count of Monte Cristo is a definite subversion of this trope. He is the product of an adulterous affair and left for dead by his parents. He is raised by criminals, and is much worse than his adoptive family. If they manage to impart any values to him, it is an utter hatred of his birth father.
- This is Shasta's Backstory in CS Lewis's The Horse and His Boy, part of The Chronicles of Narnia... Except for the part where his adoptive father is horribly nasty and tries to sell him as a slave. The talking horse Bree is actually the one who helps teach him values.
- A version occurs in The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon: In Oath of Gold, the third book of the trilogy, Paks takes up the task of locating the rightful king of Lyonya, a man with elven blood and specific birthright powers that make him the only one the elves will accept as ruler. He was stolen by evil forces as a child, and, it turns out, enslaved for some years and forced to endure some terrible things that the book doesn't go into great detail on. A visitor contrived to give him a chance to escape, and he found his way to some distant relatives who didn't realize who he was, but raised him well. He went on to make his own life, and it isn't until Paks figures out who he is that his true purpose and powers are revealed - but it turns out that half a dozen people actually knew where he was, but feared to bring the truth to light, because 1) his time in the hands of the evil ones could have damaged him beyond help (specifically, making him an unstable ruler or making him unable to wield the powers needed to perform his duties as king), and 2) until shortly before the story begins, his sister was alive and showed great promise as a ruler.
- In Terry Pratchett's Discworld:
- It's all but admitted out loud that Carrot Ironfoundersson is the long-lost heir to the long-empty throne of Ankh-Morpork. He was found in the wild and raised by dwarfs (and still considers himself an unusually tall dwarf), and he has both a crown-shaped birthmark and a sword (which, while not enchanted, is far from ordinary). Carrot, however, is happy with his position as a captain in the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, has no intention of reclaiming the throne, and even goes out of his way to obfuscate any more evidence he's the lost king of Ankh.
- Pratchett also subverted this in Wyrd Sisters. After the true heir to the throne of Lancre is revealed, everyone discovers he doesn't want to be king, and would rather be an actor, like his adopted father. Fortunately, an alternative heir is found when Magrat realizes he has a half-brother, who turns out to be the court jester. In a further subversion, Magrat later discovers that the half-blood was not because the king disported with the jester's wife; it was because while the king was out disporting himself with the peasants, the queen got lonely.
- Harry Potter. Parents killed? Yep. Whisked away? Yep. Door Step Baby? Yep. Raised somewhere safe? Yep (Dumbledore has enspelled Harry as long as he lives with the Dursleys). The Chosen One? Yep. Comes from a background much different from the way he is raised? Yep. Distinguishing special mark? Yep. Identified by tons of people who knew his parents? Yep. Has to step up and face the Big Bad? Yep. What more can you ask for?
- His adoptive parents not to know about it?
- However, one thing doesn't quite fit the trope: the Dursleys were complete jerkasses who existed only to make Harry as miserable as possible. It's pretty clear that Petunia is taking out on Harry all her resentment for the Wizarding World that took her sister away from her and then killed her. It may explain her smothering of Dudley as well, she's determined NOT to lose him.
- Has to sacrifice his life freely in order to save everyone? Yep!
- Simon, the hero of Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy, is this. Orphaned shortly after his birth with nothing but a name and a mysterious ring, taken in by chambermaids, raised as a scullion, befriended by a wise doctor, forced to flee into the wilderness when evil takes over his home, goes on adventures, and eventually returns to the Hayholt to battle the Big Bad Sealed Evil in a Can Storm King. Naturally, it turns out that he is a direct descendant of the former king and therefore the only valid claimant to the throne -- since just about all of the other eligible characters have been killed.
- (King Bel)garion (of Riva) in The Belgariad is a slightly further-removed example -- he's the descendant of the original Moses in the Bulrushes, a few hundred years down the line -- strange birthmark and all, although the heirloom sword would be an immediate giveaway apart from the fact that it stayed in the throne room -- he claims it when he finds out his station.
- In the Chivalric Romance Havelok is dumped as a child by the Big Bad in a castle and then sent to be drowned by a fisherman. Then, the fisherman has a Heel Face Turn and decides to protect and raise the boy instead to fulfill his destiny after a weird mark shows his heritage.
- In the Chivalric Romance King Horn, the boy Horn is set adrift in a boat by the usurper of his father's throne. Similarly, in Havelock, the fisherman the usurper hired to kill Havelock actually smuggled him to England.
- In the Chivalric Romance The Swan Children, the swan maiden who marries a king gives birth to children, and her wicked mother-in-law has them exposed, replacing them with animals that she claims her daughter-in-law has given birth to.
- In the Chivalric Romance Lay La Freine -- and many others -- a woman gives birth to multiple children, and another woman taunts her, saying that this is possible only in cases of adultery. This other woman is promptly punished for her slander with a multiple birth of her own, and exposes the excess children to avoid being charged herself.
- In the Chivalric Romance Tristan and Iseult, Tristan, poisoned during his duel against Morholt, is sent on a craft without rows or sail in hopes of happening onto someone who can cure him; said person happens to be Iseult, who turns out to be Morholt's niece.
- In the Medieval French Suite du Merlin (and works which followed its story, including Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur), King Arthur, on finding out that he has fathered a son on his own half-sister who is prophesied to kill him, orders all the boys born around the right time to be put out to sea in a ship, which is then wrecked. Naturally the only survivor is the son in question, Mordred, who is found and fostered by a shepherd and brought to court at fourteen years old, where his true lineage is recognized. Something of a subversion in that this is usually a heroic-origin trope, and Mordred is about as unheroic as you get.
- And, in Lord Tennyson's version Idylls of the King Arthur himself is found this way, and is not necessarily son of Uther so much as the God sent King.
- In the Wheel of Time series, Rand learns that his father found him as a baby on the slopes of Dragonmount after his mother died in battle. This is a key part of the Prophecies of the Dragon, which requires that he be raised by the blood of Manetheren.
- An interesting variation occurs in L. Frank Baum's second Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz: Tip, the young protagonist, spends almost the whole book searching for the missing Princess Ozma of Oz: It turns out the Wizard gave her to a witch, who turned her into a boy, who just happens to be... Tip! Needless to say Tip was not particularly pleased by this development. But he got used to it.
- Inverted in the Star Trek novel The IDIC Epidemic, in which a young woman thought to have been the sole survivor of a destroyed Vulcan colony is discovered to be Romulan instead. The likely explanation is that she was kidnapped in infancy by a Romulan noble family's rivals, then left to be adopted by Vulcans, so her presence among the Romulan Empire's hated enemies could later be revealed, bringing shame upon her biological parents' name. Ironically, she still winds up becoming a savior of sorts, as her Romulan blood turns out to be the key to stopping a plague within the Federation.
- Salome in Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian story "A Witch Shall Be Born". Alas, owing to a Curse she was the calamity, and since exposure failed to kill her, she returned to usurp her sister's throne, use Cold-Blooded Torture on that sister, and institute a Religion of Evil with Human Sacrifice.
- Hector Malot's 1878 French novel "Nobody's Boy".
- Scyld Scefing, later to become king of Denmark, is washed up in this way on the shore of Denmark in Beowulf. His parentage and place of origin is never revealed.
- Averted in The Silmarillion where the young elf-princes Elured and Elurin (the sons of Dior and the brothers of Elwing) are abandoned in the wilderness... and never seen again.
- In Devon Monk's Dead Iron, Rose Small's backstory was being abandoned on the step of her adoptive parents' home.
- In A Song of Ice and Fire, this is the generally accepted story for Aegon VI Targaryen suddenly popping up in the Free Cities...if it really is him.
Live Action TV
- Smallville uses this same sort of variant as Dragon Ball Z to distinguish itself from the standard Superman back story. Superman deciphers a message from his father and it ends with an instruction to "rule [Earth] with wisdom".
- Part of the mythology in the fourth season of Sliders. Quinn was the infant son of the greatest living physicist on a parallel Earth, who placed his children with his childless alternate selves to shelter them from a war on his homeworld.
- Was done to Hera in Battlestar Galactica until her parents recovered her.
- In Prickly City, when Carmen coaxes Winslow into talking about his past, he starts with being found in a basket among reeds.
Religion and Myth
- Named for the canonical biblical example of this trope in action: Moses was set adrift in a basket of reeds to escape the slaying of all firstborn male Hebrew slaves; he was found and raised by the daughter of Pharaoh. (In this example, however, the baby is born to peasants and raised among royalty instead of the other way 'round.) (Exodus 2:3-6)
- Herakles/Hercules, Sargon of Akkad, Oedipus, Cyrus the Great, and King Arthur are just a few of many examples from mythology. The writer Larry Gonick has said this is a common trope in the myths of ethnic groups who have a hero from a different ethnic group; he's actually one of them but was swapped as a baby.
- In some versions, King Arthur tries to avert the prediction that his son Mordred will kill him by having him put out to sea on a raft. In some cases, it's said that he actually put all the children who shared that birthday onto a raft, to avoid the shame of killing his own son. Either way, a fisherman ends up finding and raising Mordred.
- The Norse and German legend of Sigurd, the dragon slayer who was raised by a blacksmith to discover that he was the rightful heir to a kingdom.
- Older Than Feudalism: This is extremely prevalent in Hindu Mythology
- In the Mahabharata, Karna was the first illegitimate son of Kunthi and the sun god Surya. Since Kunthi is an unmarried princess at that time, she sets him adrift on the river on a basket of reeds with a pair of amulets and chest armor as his inheritance (that incidentally makes him invincible). He gets adopted by the charioteer Atiratha and later joins the evil Duryodhana's side as his most trusted friend and against his (unknown to him) five brothers.
- Krishna is another. A prophet told Kamsa, King of Mathura, that his sister's offspring with Vasudeva would one day overthrow him. So he had her imprisoned. When she had a child, its body was throw against the prison wall. Krishna and Balarama were smuggled out of the prison, and raised by farmers in the countryside. Later, he and Balarama returned to Mathura, killed Kamsa, and freed their parents.
- Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of Rome, are an example where the villain cast them out to die. Their mother was not only a Vestal Virgin, but had been forced to become one by the relative who murdered her father for the throne. Since they were not only the offspring of a disgraced Vestal Virgin, but also a threat to his throne, the king ordered them to die by exposure. Luckily, a "she-wolf" found them and nursed them before they were found by shepherds who took them in and raised them.
- A more tragic subversion is the story of Oedipus. His father. King Laios, lived under a curse that stated that his own son would kill him. To defy fate, he hammered a spike through his infant son's feet and left him on a hill to die. The baby was found by farmers who named him Oedipus ("swollen foot") and raised him. As an adult, he got into a fight with a stranger on the road and killed him. He didn't realize that this stranger was in fact his birth father, King Laios. It Got Worse...
- Taliesin, a real life warrior poet of medieval Wales, eventually developed a complicated mythology around his origins. He began as a slave child forced day and night to stir the cauldron of the evil Ceridwen. By accident, he splashed some of her potion of awen (inspiration) on his hand. He gained instant and complete knowledge of the world - including that Ceridwen was about kill him. To evade her, he turned into a grain hidden among a million others. Still, she dug him out eventually and swallowed him. Nine months later, she gave birth to an infant who she could not bear to kill even though he was her enemy. So, she put him in a skin bag and threw him into the sea; he washed up on shore and was discovered, and in time grew up into the great poet and bard.
- Scyld Scefing, the legendary ancestor of the Danish royal lineage is described as arriving this way in Beowulf.
- Legend of the Five Rings has Daigotsu, the hidden heir to the throne. Subverted in that rather than being raised by an upright peasant family he is raised by evil cultists and becomes the new Big Bad.
- Mortarion, Primarch of the Death guard from Warhammer 40000.
- In Bionicle, most of the Av-Matoran were spread across the Matoran World by the Order of Mata Nui to ensure their safety from evil hands, mindwiping the whole population of the Matoran world to forget the whole several month period this moving took place to make even more sure nobody knew.
- Video game example: in Castle of the Winds, the Big Bad kills your parents in an attempt to kill you, the Chosen One. Your parents knew it was coming, however, and left little baby Player in the hands of a elderly farmer couple.
- Another videogame example(and spoiler): in Final Fantasy IX, Princess Garnet is revealed to be one of the last Summoners, who survived a great catastrophe by going away with her mother on a boat. Her mother, though, had died as soon as they got to Alexandria. Also, Zidane qualifies once the full scope of his origin is revealed
- Seemingly played straight in Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn with Pelleas, lost heir to Daein, except that he isn't taken in by a family and grows up in an orphanage. However, it's subverted when after fulfilling a boatload of conditions, you find out in the epilogue that Soren is the true heir. A subversion in that not only does he not become king, he doesn't even know. Made particularly ironic when it's revealed that Pelleas' special birthmark that identified him as the heir is actually a Spirit Charmer mark; Soren, who has the genuine Brand, probably owes his survival to being confused for a Spirit Charmer.
- The Player Character of Jade Empire was a baby Spirit Monk taken from the destruction of Dirge and raised by Master Li to reclaim his/her heritage.
- As explained in the Extended Gameplay of Dragon Quest VIII, The Hero is the son of the wayward prince of Argonia and a Dragovian princess. His pet mouse is actually his grandfather in disguise, who protected him when his Dragovian bretheren sealed The Hero's memories (which conveniently immunized him from all curses) and sent him away. His Argonia heritage paves the way for him to marry Medea rather than Prince Charmles.
- In Ocarina of Time, it's revealed that Link is a Hylian, left in Kokiri Forest by his mother as she died at the feet (roots?) of the Great Deku Tree.
- Variant used in Odin Sphere with Oswald who wasn't abandoned, but adopted by Lord Melvin of Ringford who found him after his parents had been murdered by assassins sent by Oswald's grandfather- King Gallon of Titania. Possibly a subversion as Melvin DIDN'T raise Oswald with care and love to be a noble and good man, but raised him distantly to be a cold, emotionless killing machine.
- Another variant is in King's Quest III, where Gwydion, the game's protagonist, is really Prince Alexander, who was kidnapped and enslaved by the evil wizard Manannan.
- This trope serves as part of the opening cinematic of Legend of Spyro: A New Beginning, with Spyro's egg literally floating down a river on a makeshift raft.
- A variation occurs in Final Fantasy IV, but it was never really elaborated on until the DS version: as a baby, Cecil's father, the Lunarian KluYa, was murdered, and his mother Cecilia died in childbirth. Cecil's brother Theodore (later known as Golbez), abandons the baby Cecil at the edge of Baron's woods, since the evil influence of Zemus led him to believe that Cecil's birth was the direct cause of his parents' deaths. Cecil is taken in and raised by the King of Baron.
- For much of the series, Leela in Futurama is believed (by herself, the rest of the main cast, and the viewers) to be an alien abandoned on Earth. It is later discovered, however, that she was born to a pair of mutants living in the sewers of New New York. As mutants are rejected by society and forbidden to leave the sewers, they placed her on the doorstep of an orphanage with a note written in an alien language, so that people would think she was an alien rather than a mutant.
- In a heartwarming twist, her parents did watch over her for her entire life as they best could and as soon as Leela discovers them she tries as hard as she can to have a close, normal parental relationship with them (while still living above ground where mutants are banned).
- Bloom, or rather Princess Bloom of Sparx. In a bit of an aversion, in the episode where it's revealed she's adopted, 4Kids has it mentioned non-chalantly, but later in the same episode, Bloom's very much surprised when it's revealed how she was adopted (found in a fire in a burning building). In the original, her surprise is a bit more justified as she only finds out that she was adopted through said reveal, as the dialog in the scene where 4Kids makes its nonchalant reveal was totally different in the original. Video clip.
- Kung Fu Panda 2 reveals Po to be this, finally explaining how a panda can have a goose as a father.
- While it's pretty clear that Tygra from ThunderCats (2011) is adopted (considering how he's a Tiger in a royal family of Lions), it was never brought up in the show itself until the episode "Native Son". His father Javan sent him away in a hot air balloon when he was unable to sacrifice him to the Ancient Spirits in order to save their clan from a deadly disease. The balloon eventually found its way to the city of Thundera, where he was raised by King Claudus and his queen and would later gain an adoptive brother, Lion-O.
- Princess Gwenllian, daughter of the last native Prince of Wales, fits into this trope. Her mother died in childbirth, her grief-stricken father got himself killed fighting the English less than a year later, and she and her cousins were taken prisoner by King Edward I. Gwenllian was reared in a convent from infancy onward; Edward didn't want to kill her because she was a baby, she was a girl, and she was a member of his own family (her mother had been his niece), but he wanted her kept where the Welsh couldn't make her a symbol of uprising. The trope is subverted, however, in that she eventually was made aware of her own status, but she never left the convent.
- (who served the house of Kurus -- ironically, the same house Kunti married into when she married Pandu)