by Terri Windling
Victorian interest in changeling stories extended to works of literature and art, as we see in many works from the period with changeling themes. Children were abducted by fairies and goblins in George MacDonald’s story "Cross Purposes" (from Gifts of the Child Christ) and in his children’s novel The Princess and the Goblin. 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.) For adult readers, we find changeling themes in Sheridan LeFanu’s "The Child That Went With the Fairies,"Walter Besant’s The Changeling, Dinah Muroch Craik’s Olive, Arthur Machen’s The Shining Pyramid, and John Buchan’s "The Watcher by the Threshold," to name but a few. Changeling poetry, in addition to Yeats’s famous fairy poem, "The Stolen Child," includes Samuel Lover’s "The Fairy Boy," Dr. Anster’s "The Fairy Child," James Stephen’s "Fairy Boy," James Russell Lowell’s "The Changeling," and "The Changeling" by Charlotte Mew. 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. Artist Henry Fueseli tackled the subject in his nightmarish painting "The Changeling, Abduction by Moonlight."
Sir Joseph Noel Paton’s intricate "The Fairy Rade" contains the image of a child stolen by the fairy queen. As folklorist Carol G. Silver remarks, "The pictured scene is less innocent than it first appears. . .Thumb in its mouth, [the stolen child] stares bleakly out of the painting while its royal abductress — intent on the handsome fairy knight beside her — ignores it. Three pretty blond children, whose comparatively large size identifies them as human, appear to be dancing in a circle as they stroll beside the fairies on horseback.The little girl looks wistfully at the baby. The sinister implications of the painting emerge only when one notices that the children wear slender chains around their ankles."
Most changeling tales from the folk tradition are told from the parents’ point of view, but literary renditions often look at the other participants in the tale: the fairy changeling, the stolen child, even the fairy kidnappers. The most famous example of the latter is in William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which revolves around the tiff between the Oberon (the fairy king) and Titania (the fairy queen) over the fate of a captive human child. The Changeling, by Selma Lagerlöf, based on Scandinavian tales, is a wonderful story about a human child abducted by a troll woman, and about the ugly troll child who is left behind in exchange.The distraught human parents are instructed to abuse the troll child to make it go away, but each time the father attempts this,the mother protects the ugly changeling. Eventually, their own child is restored — and then the human parents learn that every act of kindness or cruelty extended to the troll child was also received by the human child in the parallel world of the trolls. More recently, Eloise McGraw published a splendid novel, The Moorchild, about a changeling child left with humans when the fairies steal their baby. The novel follows the life of the changeling, struggling to cope with the mortal world and the alien concept of human emotion. It’s a subtle, beautifully written story and highly recommended.
Changeling and 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 these themes come together in J.M Barrie’s well–known tale 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) to steal away the children in the Darlings’ nursery in London.
The original text of Barrie’s Peter Pan 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. (For a fascinating look at Barrie and his creation, read J.M. Barrie: A Study in Fairies and Mortals by Patrick Braybrooke, and "The Boy Who Couldn’t Grow Up" in Alison Lurie’s Don’t Tell the Grown–ups: Subversive Children’s Literature).Lost child stories can be frightening, full of fears of abandonment writ large, but they can also be oddly exciting, as Mowgli and Peter Pan demonstrate. Here, the children live in a world beyond adult rules, a world of continual play and adventure, befriended by animals, fairies, and other denizens of the wild. Kipling’s Mowgli eventually returns to human society, but Barrie’s Peter is a more ambiguous creature, determined to dwell in perpetual childhood . . . although even he longs for the civilized world in the form of a mother’s touch. The themes of such stories are as old as Remus and Romulus — the Roman myth of twins exposed in the wilderness,adopted, suckled, and raised by a wolf. We also find it at the core of medieval romances such as Valentine and Orson. Here, too, two infant children are left to die in the wilderness. One is saved and returned to civilization, the other is raised in the woods by bears. The two eventually meet and become bosom friends even before their kinship is revealed.
The specter of missing or stolen children has long been one of our greatest cultural fears. Today, we confront it every time we see a child’s face on a milk carton, or (more benignly) in childish daydreams of running off with the circus. In earlier times, these fears expressed themselves in stories of stolen children: stolen by fairies (or pirates, or gypsies), or lost in the wilderness. In Victorian and earlier eras, the public was fascinated by actual cases of feral children found living in jungles or woodlands, their origins shrouded in mystery. One of the most famous of these was the young Wild Boy of Avignon,discovered in the forests of France in 1800, living off the raw flesh of the beasts and birds that he hunted. In India, in the 1920s, two smallgirls were discovered co–habiting in the wilds with a wolf pack, while in Russia, much more recently, an urban "wild child" was discovered living with a pack of dogs on the streets of St. Petersberg. When we read such tales with parental eyes, they are deeply disturbing ones. . .but when we read from the child’s point of view, there is something secretly thrilling about the idea of shedding the strictures of civilization, heading into the woods and the wild.
"Come away, O human child!" call the fairies, as they reach out to take us by the hand. Come away from all human sorrow, they promise — but fairy promises can deceive, and to follow their call, folklore reminds us, is a dangerous proposition. And eventually, like Mowgli, like Wendy Darling, like mortal children stolen by the fairies, goblins, nickerts and elves, we must return to the human world. We don’t, alas, really belong in Fairyland, where the sun doesn’t shine, and the Folk never change, and little boys never grow up.
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
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 (for young readers) by Terri Windling
Changeling by Roger Zelazny
"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)
"The Green Children" by Terri Windling (from The Armless Maiden)
An Encyclopedia of Fairies by Katherine Briggs
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
The World Guide to Gnomes, Fairies, Elves, and Other Little People by Thomas Keightly
Savage Girls and Wild Boys: A History of Feral Children by Michael Newton
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
The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by W.Y. Evans-Wentz
"The Stolen Child" by W.B. Yeats performed by Loreena McKennitt (on Elemental)
"The Stolen Child" by W.B. Yeats performed by The Waterboys (on Fisherman’s Blues)
Labyrinth, film by Jim Henson, Brian Froud, and Terry Jones
The Wild Child, film by Francoise Truffaut
"Tell," poem by Nathalie Anderson
"The Green Children," story by Melanie A. Kimball
"Changeling" essay by D. L. Ashliman
"Lost and FOund: The Orphaned Hero," article by Terri Windling
Feral Children website