The stolen child
Thursday, June 24, 2021
It's International Fairy Day, and so today's post is on fairy changelings....
"Come away, O human child!" call the fairies in a poem by William Butler Yeats inspired by Irish folktales of children abducted to fairyland. Yeats was a folklore enthusiast and a life-long believer in the fairy folk. His poem "The Stolen Child" is rooted in changeling tales found throughout the British Isles, as well as in other lands with fairy traditions of their own. Changeling stories are not "fairy tales" as the term is commonly used today. They are not set "once upon a time" in magical lands distant from our own, like fairy tales such as Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, or Puss in Boots. Changeling stories are folk legends, usually set in the same country as the teller, and come from an ancient belief system in which fairies are real, co-existing with mortals.
A typical changeling story is the following tale from the mountains of northern Wales: A farmer and his wife lived in a cottage with their infant son. One day, while the farmer was in the field, the wife was called away from home to tend to the health of an old woman who lived just down the road. The child was sleeping peacefully, so the farmwife left the babe in the cradle while she visited her neighbor, turning homeward again at dusk. As she
traveled back, her path was crossed by the Twyleth Teg (the fairies of Wales), so she rushed to her house and was greatly relieved to find the cradle undisturbed. She quickly scattered salt on the doorstep and on each of the windowsills to protect the child from fairy mischief, as she should have done before.
Alas, she was too late. The boy had been a fat and jolly child, but now he grew pale and wan and howled in his cradle for hours on end.
"This creature is not ours," said the farmer.
"Whose then should he be?" said the wife.
"He belongs to the Twyleth Teg," said the man. "We must put him out on the cold hillside and see if the fairies come to reclaim him." But his wife would not allow any harm to come to the child she thought was her own.
The troubled woman continued to feed and dress and clean the babe, though his face now looked like a wizened old man's and his milk teeth grew into points. The infant's appetite grew and grew while his chest and his stick-like limbs seemed to shrink. When the baby had eaten through all of their stores, and still he continued to howl for more, the farmwife left the cottage to seek her old neighbor's advice.
"Go home," the old woman replied, "and do what I shall tell you to do. Then you will know if this is your son, or one of the Twyleth Teg."
Following the old woman's instructions, the farmwife procured a large hen's egg, returned to the cottage, and broke the egg in front of the child's cradle. She cleaned the shell and filled it with porridge, then set it to boil on the fire. The infant watched her closely with a frown on his wizened face. Finally, he could contain his curiosity no longer. "What are you doing?" the boy piped up.
The woman was startled to hear him speak but answered as she'd been instructed. "Why, I'm making dinner for the men in the fields. They'll be hungry after all of their work."
The infant laughed and said: "Acorn before oak I knew, and an egg before a hen, but never before have I seen an eggshell brew dinner for harvest men."
With these words, the creature betrayed his great age and the farmwife knew that her husband was right. This was not their own dear boy but a fairy who'd taken his place. She picked up the shovel and put more coals on the fire until it roared with heat.
"What are you doing now?" asked the infant.
"Preparing to throw you on the fire." As she spoke these words, she snatched him up and threw the creature onto the flames, where he changed to a puff of smoke and left the house through the chimney. And in his place sat her own fine son, returned by the Twyleth Teg.
There are numerous variants of this curious story. In some versions the threat of violence alone is enough to betray the fairy's true nature, while in others it's beer that the farmwife brews in a shell, to the fairy's surprise. In a changeling tale from the Isle of Man, a visiting tailor discovers the fairy's deception. When his hosts leave the house to work in the fields, leaving the tailor alone with the child, the infant leaps up from the cradle, demanding whisky and a fiddle tune. In most stories, the human child is restored safe and sound once the changeling has fled, though there are bleaker versions in which the only resolution of the tale is the banishment of the troublesome fairy, while the real child remains lost forever. In some of the tales, however, further action is needed to save the child, kept in captivity or slavery in a fairy hill.
In a tale from the West Highlands of Scotland, for instance, the son of a smith is stolen away and an evil–tempered changeling called a Sibhreach is left in his place. The Sibhreach is exposed and banished, but still the mortal child remains missing, and the smith must go in search of him beneath a fairy hill. He waits for a night when the hill will be open, then follows the sound of fairy music. Armed with a Bible, a knife, and a cock, he walks boldly into the fairy court. The Bible protects him from their mischief, the knife holds open the door of the hill, and the crowing cock annoys the fairies so much that they toss the smith and his son back into the mortal world.
There are various reasons given for the fairies' penchant for stealing human children. Some tales imply that the young mortals are destined for lives as servants or slaves, or are kept (in the manner of pets) for the amusement of their fairy masters. Some stories (in echo of the folk ballad Tam Lin) suggest a darker purpose: that the faeries must pay a tithe of blood to the devil every seven years, and prefer to pay with mortal blood rather than blood of their own. In some traditions, however, it's simply the beauty of the children that attracts the fairies, who also kidnap pretty young women, artists, and musicians. The ability of fairies to procreate is a debatable issue in fairy lore. Some stories maintain that the fairies do procreate, though not as often as humans. By occasionally interbreeding with mortals and claiming mortal babes as their own, they bring new blood into Fairyland and keep their bloodlines strong. Other tales suggest that they cannot breed, or do so with such rarity that jealousy of human fertility is the motive behind child-theft.
Some stolen children, the tales tell us, will spend their whole lives in Fairyland -- and may even find happiness there, losing all desire for the lands of men. Other tales tell us that human children cannot thrive beneath the hills, and eventually sicken and die for want of mortal food and drink. Some fairies maintain their interest in child captives only during their infancy, tossing the children out of the fairy realm when they show signs of age. Such children, restored to the human world, are not always happy among their own kind, and spend their mortal lives pining for a way to return to Faerie.
One of the interesting aspects of changeling tales is that each contains the seeds of two separate stories: of the human child in fairyland, and of the changeling in the mortal world. The changeling "child" isn't usually a child at all, but merely takes on that appearance. Sometimes changelings are old, nasty fairies who revel in the sorrow they cause; or fairies with prodigious appetites for human food or mortal breast milk. Sometimes the changelings are fairies so old and worn out that their kinfolk have left them behind, happy to be rid of them in exchange for a plump human child. In these cases, the changeling withers and dies while the human parents look on, grieving for the loss of a baby they think is their own son. Yet we do find some interesting stories in which the fairy changeling is also a child. One tale from England's West Country tells of a farmer's youngest son who is stolen and replaced by a sickly, sallow, silent imp of a boy. The farmer and his wife raise the queer little child as tenderly as their own. Some years later, a piskie appears at their door. "Father!" the boy cries out. The pair runs off, and the farm is blessed with good fortune from that day forward (though no mention is made, at the end of the tale, of the fate of the farmer's true son.) Sometimes the changeling is not even a fairy -- merely a stock of wood, or a block of wax, enchanted to look like a child. When the trick is discovered, the "infant" must be thrown onto the hearth fire. Wood burns, or wax melts away, and then the true child is restored.
In Germany, the Brothers Grimm collected a number of interesting changeling tales, such as the story of the Rye-Mother (or Grain-Wife), published in German Legends. A nobleman had forced one of his peasants to work binding sheaves during the harvest, even though the poor woman had given birth but a few weeks before. She took the child to the field, laid it down, and got on with her work, despite her fears for the child because it had not yet been properly baptized. Some time later, the nobleman himself saw a Rye-Mother cross the field. She carried a child in her arms, which she exchanged for the peasant's baby. The false child began to cry, and the peasant hurried over to nurse it -- but the nobleman held her back. He made her wait while the child cried and wailed -- until at last the Rye-Mother returned, exchanged the children again, and left with her own child, who now quieted in his mother's arms. "After seeing all of this transpire," the Grimms write, "the nobleman summoned the peasant woman and told her to return home. And from that time forth he resolved to never again force a woman who had recently given birth to work."
In other German stories, mortal children are stolen and held captive by bands of elves, who leave greedy changelings called killcrops behind in the cradle, wailing for food. The killcrop is revealed through the brewing of beer in an eggshell, or some other trick, then threatened with violence to make it flee, restoring the mortal child. Nickerts were German water fairies fond of stealing children from unwary parents, then taking their place in the cradle in order to eat mortal food and milk. Nixies also inhabited German rivers, and could be dangerous. "From time to time nixies would emerge from the Saal River," wrote the Brothers Grimm, "and go into the city of Saalfeld where they would buy fish at the market. They could be recognized by their large, dreadful eyes and by the hems of their skirts that were always dripping wet. It is said that they were mortals who, as children, had been taken away by nixies, who had then left changelings in their place."
In Scandinavia, healthy mortal infants had to be guarded from covetous trolls, who found them more beautiful and appealing than their own peevish, hairy troll children. One farmwife, suspecting her own sweet-natured child had been stolen by the trolls, was determined to rid herself of the troublesome creature who had taken his place. She set a cauldron in the hearth, took hold of the porridge spoon and bound a number of rods to it till the spoon reached up to the ceiling. "Well!" the child blurted out. "I am old as the trees and old as the hills, but never in my life have I seen such a long, long spoon for such a small, small pot!" Confirmed in her suspicions, the farmwife beat the changeling with her broom. As he howled and wailed, a trollwife entered the cottage bearing the farmwife's son and said, "See how we differ! I've cherished your son, while you beat my husband black and blue!" She then took the changeling by the hand and disappeared up the chimney.
Similar tales can be found the world over. In India, tigers steal mortal children and leave behind tiger cubs in disguise. When the trick is uncovered and the cubs threatened with harm, the tiger reappears, restores the mortal child, and leaves again with his wild brood. In Japan, children stolen by the fairies are rarely restored to the human world unless the substitution can be discovered before the child eats fairy food. In an odd twist on the theme, in old Persian tales it is the fairies (called peries) whose children are stolen -- by evil creatures called djinn, who substitute their own children instead.
We also find stories in various cultures in which such substitution, rather than abduction, is the goal. In these tales, mortals are the unwitting foster parents for faery children; such children are generally odd, dreamy, and incapable of human emotion. Eventually these parents learn that the changeling child is not, in fact, of their blood. The changeling is called back to Fairyland, and the human child is restored.
A number of preventive measures are recommended to insure against fairy abduction. Writing in Notes of the Folklore of the Northern Counties of England and the Border, William Henderson tells us: "In the southern counties of Scotland children are considered before baptism at the mercy of the fairies, who may carry them off at pleasure or inflict injury upon them. Hence, of course, it is unlucky to take unbaptized children on a journey...Danish women guard their children during this period against evil spirits by placing in the cradle, or over the door, garlic, salt, bread, and steel in the form of some sharp instrument...In Germany, the proper things to lay in the cradle are 'orant' (which is translated into either horehound or snapdragon), blue marjoram, black cumin, a right shirtsleeve, and a left stocking. The 'Nickert' cannot then harm the child. The modern Greeks dread witchcraft at this period of their children's lives, and are careful not to leave them alone during their first eight days, within which period the Greek Church refuses to baptize them."
Other charms include wreaths made of ivy and oak, which hindered fairy access to a house; also salt on the doorstep, or branches of rowan, or the father's shirt draped over the cradle.
Most of the children kidnapped were boys, so another method of thwarting the fairies was to dress little boys in girls' clothing and then to call them by female names. Newborn babies, it was advised, must be zealously guarded their first three days, and then closely watched until their baptism, when the threat of abduction lessened. Yet even older children could be stolen or tempted into Fairyland. Just as today young children are warned that they must never take candy from strangers, generations ago they were warned to beware of faeries that lurked in the countryside, seductive creatures who would whisk them away, never to be seen again.
When we hear fairy tales, we're hearing a story we believe in just for the length of the tale -- stories of impossible things, enchanted princesses and cats in boots. Fairy legends, however, were cautionary tales meant to illustrate the particular dangers of encounters with creatures that many people once believed in.
The 16th century preacher Martin Luther recounts this tale of a changeling in Germany: "Eight years ago at Dessau, I, Dr. Martin Luther, saw and touched a changeling. It was twelve years old, and from its eyes and the fact that it had all of its senses, one could have thought that it was a real child. It did nothing but eat; in fact, it ate enough for any four peasants or threshers. It ate, shit, and pissed, and whenever someone touched it, it cried. When bad things happened in the house, it laughed and was happy; but when things went well, it cried. It had these two virtues. I said to the Princes of Anhalt: 'If I were the prince or the ruler here, I would throw this child into the water -- into the Molda that flows by Dessau. I would dare commit homicidium on him!' But the Elector of Saxony, who was with me at Dessau, and the Princes of Anhalt did not want to follow my advice. Therefore, I said: 'Then you should have all Christians repeat the Lord's Prayer in church that God may exorcise the devil.' They did this daily at Dessau, and the changeling child died in the following year....Such a changeling child is only a piece of flesh, a massa carnis, because it has no soul."
Changeling stories are both fascinating and horrifying when we realize how such tales once accounted for the mysteries of wasting diseases, physical or mental disabilities, even differences of neurodivergence. Children suffering illnesses such as cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy and spina bifida, or simply born with conditions such as Downs syndrome, were explained away as fairy changelings, sometimes with deeply tragic results. As late as the 19th century in Britain, changeling stories in the press told of children subjected to violent "cures" intended to make the fairy flee and bring back the "real" child. Sir William Wilde (medical commissioner for the Irish census, and father of Oscar Wilde), writing in 1854, decried "the cruel endeavors to cure children and young persons of such maladies generally attempted by quacks and those termed 'fairy men' and 'fairy women'."
The most famous case of "fairy doctoring" involved a grown woman in 1895, and riveted newspaper readers all across the British Isles. This was the murder of Bridget Cleary, a handsome young Irish woman who was killed by her husband, family, and neighbors because they thought she was a fairy changeling. The facts are these: Bridget, a twenty-six-year-old dressmaker, and her husband Michael, a cooper, lived in a comfortable cottage near her family home in southern Ireland. Bridget fell sick with an undiagnosed illness (it may have been simple pneumonia); within a few days she was feverish, raving, and (according to her husband) no longer looked like herself. When regular medicine did not help, the family called in a "fairy doctor" -- for the cottage was located close to a fairy hill, which was bad luck. The fairy doctor confirmed that the ill woman was actually a fairy changeling and the real Bridget had been abducted, taken under the hill by the fairies as a consort or a slave. The doctor devised several ordeals designed to make the changeling reveal itself. Bridget was tied to the bed, forced to swallow potions, sprinkled with holy water and urine, swung over the hearth fire, and eventually burned to death by her increasingly desperate husband. Convinced it was a fairy he had killed and buried (with the aid of her family and neighbors), Michael then went to the fairy fort to wait for the "real" Bridget to ride out seated on a milk white horse. Bridget's disappearance was soon noted, the body found, the crime brought to life, and Michael and nine others were charged and prosecuted for murder.
Although the most flamboyant, this was far from the only case of changeling-murder in the Victorian press, although the poor changeling were more commonly children with physical or mental ailments, or those perceived to be wayward or different from the norm.
Victorian interest in changeling stories extended to works of literature, as we see in many publication of the period with changeling themes. Children were abducted by goblins in George MacDonald's children's novel The Princess and the Goblin, for example, and the heroine of Amelia and the Dwarfs by Juliana Horatio Ewing was kidnapped by a pack of nasty dwarfs and replaced by a wooden stock. In Rudyard Kipling's Rewards and Fairies, Puck denies the fairies' reputation for stealing human children. ("All that talk of changelings is people's excuse for their own neglect," he says.) In Fiona MacLeod's affecting story "The Fara Ghael," a Scottish woman exposes her sickly changeling child on a lonely beach, and is given a beautiful girl in its place that she raises, thinking it is her own. Eventually she learns that wild, beautiful girl is the real changeling, and her own daughter was the unloved creature she'd left out by the tide. Other Victorian/Edwardian stolen-child stories include Walter Besant's The Changeling, Selma Lagerlöf's The Changeling, Dinah Muroch Craik's Olive, Arthur Machen's The Shining Pyramid, Sheridan LeFanu's "The Child That Went With the Fairies," and John Buchan's "The Watcher by the Threshold."
Changeling/stolen-child stories are closely related to "wild child" tales -- about lost children, runaway children and feral children in the wilderness -- the most famous of them being Mowgli's adventures in The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. All of these themes come together in J.M Barrie's tales of Peter Pan, in which the lost or wild child, Peter, becomes a kind of fairy himself (identified with Puck, and Pan -- god of the wilderness), stealing away the children in the Darlings' nursery in London. The original text of Barrie's Peter and Wendy is far more interesting than the surgery Disney-flavor adaptations most people know today, for Barrie's humor is arch, dark, and sometimes downright sinister.
Whether the child is abandoned to the wilderness or runs away to it purposefully, the focus of "wild child" stories is very different than that of changeling tales. Here the children, Here, the children live in a world beyond adult rules, a world of continual play and adventure, befriended by animals, fairies, outlaws, and other denizens of the forest. As parents, the thought of lost children is disturbing...but when we read such tales from a child's point of view, the idea of shedding the strictures of civilization and heading off into the wild is thrilling.
"Come away, O human child!" call the fairies.
Come away from all human sorrow, they promise. Come into the wild, come under the hill, where life is an endless round of feasting, dancing, adventure and enchantment. But fairy promises can deceive, and following the elfin call (folklore reminds us) is a very dangerous proposition. We do not thrive in that Otherworld where the sun doesn't shine and the Folk never change and little boys and girls never grow up. We are mortal creatures, we belong to the lands of time and change, of sorrow and joy.
Close the door now, child. Lock the windows tight. Don't listen.
Some further reading:
20th & 21st novels inspired by changeling tales include The Broken Sword by Poul Andersen, Tithe by Holly Black, The Truth About Celia by Kevin Brockmeier, The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue, The Managerie by Christopher Golden and Thomas E. Sniegoski, The Lastborn of Elvinwood by Linda Haldeman, Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge, The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw, The Book of Atrix Wolfe by Patricia A. McKillip, Harvest of Changelings by Warren Rochelle, The Book of the Fey Series by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Changeling by Delia Sherman, The Changeling by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, The Changeling by me (a very short book for 8-to-12 year olds), and Changeling by Roger Zelazny. Some short stories: "The Changeling" by A.S. Byatt (from Sugar and Other Stories), "The Green Children" by John Crowley (from Elsewhere, Volume I), "Lullaby for a Changeling" by Nicholas Stuart Gray (from The Edge of Evening), "Debt in Kind" by Peg Kerr (from Weird Tales magazine, Fall 1990), "Catnyp" by Delia Sherman (from The Faery Reel), "Brat" by Theodore Sturgeon (from The Perfect Host), and "The Green Children" by me (from The Armless Maiden). There's also a gorgeous "Green Children" poem by Jane Yolen, and Sylvia Townsend Warner's brilliant collection of fairy stories of adults, The Kingdoms of Elfin. If I've missed any good books or stories, please add to this list in the Comments.
For more information about changelings, try: The Burning of Bridget Cleary by Angela Bourke, The Cooper’s Wife is Missing: The Trials of Bridget Cleary by Joan Hoff and Marian Yeates, At the Bottom of the Garden: A Dark History of Hobgoblins, Nymphs, and Other Troublesome Things by Diane Purkiss, Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness by Carole G. Silver, and the various fairy studies and guides by folklorist Katherine Briggs, Thomas Keightly, and W.Y. Evans-Wentz.
For more of my own writing about fairies/faeries, see my long essay on the subject: Fairies in Legend, Lore, and Literature. Fairies also appear in Tales of a Half-Tamed Land: Devon Folklore, Troll Maidens & the Magic of Bridges, and The Wild Hunt. Here's a page of links to fairy books I've worked on over the years, with Brian & Wendy Froud and others; and two pages of posts about the Modern Fairies project (scroll down to the beginning to read them in order).
The art above is by Arthur Rackham, P.J. Lynch, Alan Lee, Brian Froud, Julia Jeffreys, John Bauer, Henry Fuseli, John Anster Fitzgerald, Maurice Sendak, Danielle Barlow, Charles Altamont Doyle, and Eleanor Vere Doyle. Each picture is individually credited in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights are reserved by the artists.