A Changeling on Man August 3, 2011Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback
Beachcombing’s eternal interest in fairies has taken an unusual turn this summer: he has been reading accounts, including some enjoyable ones and some fairly ghastly ones about changelings. Changelings for the uninitiated are fairy cuckoos, fey babies, often thousands of years old, who are, so the storytellers claim, taken and put in the place of human babies. There are some very rare cases of adults being supposedly replaced in this way as well – the most famous from nineteenth-century Ireland is Bridget Cleary who was burnt in 1895 over the matter: another post, another day.
By way of introduction to this subject for which he has two or three posts (Bridget included) he thought he would start with this gentle little number from the eighteenth-century Isle of Man. The visitor is a non Manx custom officer and Beachcombing likes it because it is one of the few of the changeling story that doesn’t finish with child abuse or murder.
The old story of infants being changed in their cradles, is here in such credit, that mothers are in continual terror at the thoughts of it. I was prevailed upon myself to go and see a child, who they told me was one of these changelings; and, indeed, must own was not a little surprised, as well as shocked at the sight: nothing under heaven could have a more beautiful face; but though between five and six years old, and seemingly healthy, he was so far from being able to walk or stand, that he could not so much as move any one joint; his limbs were vastly long for his age, but smaller than an infant’s of six months [??]; his complexion was perfectly delicate, and he had the finest hair in the world; he never spoke nor cried, eat scarce any thing, and was very seldom seen to smile; but if any one called him a fairy-elf, he would frown and fix his eyes so earnestly on those who said it, as if he would look them through. His mother, or at least his supposed mother, being very poor, frequently went out a charring, and left him a whole day together; the neighbours, out of curiosity, have often looked in at the window to see how he behaved when alone ; which, whenever they did, they were sure to find him laughing, and in the utmost delight. This made them judge that he was not without company more pleasing to him than any mortals could be; and what made this conjecture seem the more reasonable, was, that if he were left ever so dirty, the woman, at her return, saw him with a clean face, and his hair combed with the utmost exactness and nicety.
Beachcombing is on the look out for any other changeling stories from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially if they ended up in the newspapers: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
PS sorry if service patchy – news updates etc – Beach has only intermittent access to internet due to incompetence of provider.
4 August 2011: JudithMorph very kindly writes in with this. ‘it’s odd and synchronistic to have gotten your ‘Changeling’ issue just now as I’m re-reading (probably for the fourth time) Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin. If you have never read this I suggest that you would find it riveting; it presents a fairly chilling portrait of these Others (they’re identified as ‘fairies’ as often as ‘elves’). She has collected a series of short stories in the Lives Of the Faeries, many of which first appeared in The New Yorker magazine. These are set in various palace venues throughout Europe over a period of many centuries. And there certainly are changelings in many of these. While Warner doesn’t explore the origins of these creatures, she does describe their physical and mental/psychic attributes — to wit: they’re the size of a smallish human, and at least some are pale celadon green; they’re thin, gracile, and only the servant classes (sic) use their wings. For ‘aristocratic’ court fairies, wing-use is distinctly declasse. And most of us would recoil at their (in human terms) casual amorality. At any rate, it’s always been a favorite book of mine.’ Then RR with another fictional reflex of the legend: ‘I wanted to recommend a book on changelings. The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw. Although written for youngsters (teens), it is fascinating and delves fairly deeply into your topic thru the eyes of a changeling and her new ‘parents’. Woven thru-out the story are interesting folkloric bits regarding iron, faeries, blacksmithing, bagpiping, medicinal herbs, the slippery nature of time, Gypsies, and keeping bees. One of my faves… Hope you find time to fit it into your reading schedule.’ Thanks to JudithM and RR!
9 August 2011: Andrew B writes in with a fascinating changeling story from Scandinavia translated by himself from the Swedish. It’s a cracker and a pleasant variation on the Celtic changeling. Thanks Andrew!
13 August 2011: Fairyman writes: ‘this description was picked up by Eberly in her ‘Fairies and the Folklore of Disability: Changelings, Hybrids and the Solitary Fairy’ Folklore 99 (1988), 58-77, p. 70-1 ‘The primary clue here is found in the description of this child’s limbs, ‘very long for his age, but smaller than an infant’s of six months.’ This symptom suggests an ‘inborn error of the metabolism,’ homocystinuria. Of the congenital metabolic disorders, homocystinuria is second only to PKU in frequency; as with PKU, children with this disorder are often blonde [sic] and fair-skinned. A child with homocystinuria will begin to develop symptoms when about two months old. Failure to thrive osteoporosis or ‘brittle bones’, and – in some but not all cases – mental retardation and cerebral palsy are found. Importantly, with reference to Waldron’s changeling story, one symptom, arachnodactyly is common to this syndrome; the term refers to limbs and digits which are extremely long and thin or ‘spider-like’. Children with homocystinuria are highly prone to arterial and venous thrombosis-clots in the blood vessels-which may lead to encephalitis, paralysis (‘he could not move so much as one joint’), seizures, and cerebral thrombophlebitis. Other visible traits of these children include rosy cheeks (‘his complexion was perfectly delicate’); very fine, sparse hair( ‘he had the finest hair in the world’), and malformed teeth.’ Thanks Fairyman and (indirectly) Dr Eberly.