An online dramaturgical casebook.

Changelings

Abductions of individuals targeted to become fairies’ lovers and spouses are told throughout Europe, but even more common are accounts of stolen infants. The folkloric record makes it clear that pre-industrial Europeans’ greatest fear concerning fairies was that the latter would steal a newborn baby, leaving in its place a misshapen fairy child known as a changeling. Accounts of such abductions are found throughout Europe, and beyond, stretching from the pre-Christian era into the twentieth century.

As late as 1924 it was reported that in sections of rural Germany many people were still taking traditional precautions against the supernatural exchange of infants. Outside of Europe the opinion survived even longer. Writing in 1980, Hasan M. El-Shamy reports: “The belief that the jinn may steal a human infant and put their own infant in its place is widespread in numerous parts of Egypt”.

This superstition’s longevity and widespread distribution is easily explained.
We all want reasons for events that fall outside of our control, especially those that have a direct bearing on our welfare. The changeling belief explained why some children fail to develop normally and justified the withdrawal of family support for such handicapped individuals.

Descriptions of fairy changelings gleaned from a sampling of legends suggest that the stories ultimately stemmed from actual experiences with children suffering from such ailments as autism, Down syndrome, hydrocephalus, or any other condition that resulted in a child’s failure to thrive and develop properly. Symptoms specifically described in the legends include a swollen head, strangely staring eyes, a flat nose, incessant crying, misbehavior, failure to learn to talk or walk, and a voracious appetite.

A noteworthy aspect of most changeling legends is that the parents whose child was misbehaving or failing to properly develop were not the ones who first suggested that the infant was a changeling. This diagnosis typically was made by someone outside the family: a priest, neighbor, landlord, fairy doctor, or even a perfect stranger. There was thus a shared responsibility for any actions that followed, and these were often very drastic. A standard approach was to torture the suspected changeling, thus forcing its fairy parents to rescue it. The abuses inflicted on these babies were unspeakably cruel, and if actually carried out would have been fatal.

… It is impossible to determine how often these extreme punishments were actually inflicted on malformed or mentally retarded children. In 1826 in Jalee, Ireland, a grandmother drowned her four-year-old grandson, who could neither stand, walk, nor speak. Brought to trial, she testified that she had not intended to kill the child, but rather “to put the fairy out of it.” She was found not guilty.

Cruel abuse was not the only way to force demonic parents to reclaim their misshapen children, although this was the most frequently described method. A more humane approach was to force the changeling to laugh or to make him utter an expression of surprise, which-according to popular belief-would expose his true identity and force his supernatural parents to take him away.

Brewery of Eggshells


IN Treneglwys there is a certain shepherd’s cot known by the name of Twt y Cymrws because of the strange strife that occurred there. There once lived there a man and his wife, and they had twins whom the woman nursed tenderly. One day she was called away to the house of a neighbour at some distance. She did not much like going and leaving her little ones all alone in a solitary house, especially as she had heard tell of the good folk haunting the neighbourhood.

Well, she went and came back as soon as she could, but on her way back she was frightened to see some old elves of the blue petticoat crossing her path though it was midday. She rushed home, but found her two little ones in the cradle and everything seemed as it was before.

But after a time the good people began to suspect that something was wrong, for the twins didn’t grow at all.

The man said: “They’re not ours.”

The woman said: “Whose else should they be?”

And so arose the great strife so that the neighbours named the cottage after it. It made the woman very sad, so one evening she made up her mind to go and see the Wise Man of Llanidloes, for he knew everything and would advise her what to do.

So she went to Llanidloes and told the case to the Wise Man. Now there was soon to be a harvest of rye and oats, so the Wise Man said to her, “When you are getting dinner for the reapers, clear out the shell of a hen’s egg and boil some potage in it, and then take it to the door as if you meant it as a dinner for the reapers. Then listen if the twins say anything. If you hear them speaking of things beyond the understanding of children, go back and take them up and throw them into the waters of Lake Elvyn. But if you don’t hear anything remarkable, do them no injury.”

So when the day of the reap came the woman did all that the Wise Man ordered, and put the eggshell on the fire and took it off and carried it to the door, and there she stood and listened. Then she heard one of the children say to the other:

Acorn before oak I knew,
An egg before a hen,
But I never heard of an eggshell brew
A dinner for harvest men.

So she went back into the house, seized the children and threw them into the Llyn, and the goblins in their blue trousers came and saved their dwarfs and the mother had her own children back and so the great strife ended.

The bushes parted. In the very spot where Dan had stood as Puck they saw a small, brown, broad-shouldered, pointy-eared person with a snub nose, slanting blue eyes, and a grin that ran right across his freckled face. He shaded his forehead as though he were watching Quince, Snout, Bottom, and the others rehearsing Pyramus and Thisbe, and, in a voice as deep as Three Cows asking to be milked, he began:

     'What hempen homespuns have we swaggering here,
     So near the cradle of the fairy Queen?'

He stopped, hollowed one hand round his ear, and, with a wicked twinkle in his eye, went on:

     'What, a play toward?  I'll be an auditor;
     An actor, too, perhaps, if I see cause.'

The children looked and gasped. The small thing – he was no taller than Dan’s shoulder – stepped quietly into the Ring.’I’m rather out of practice,’ said he; ‘but that’s the way my part ought to be played.’

Still the children stared at him – from his dark-blue cap, like a big columbine flower, to his bare, hairy feet. At last he laughed.

‘Please don’t look like that. It isn’t my fault. What else could you expect?’ he said.

‘We didn’t expect any one,’ Dan answered slowly. ‘This is our field.’

‘Is it?’ said their visitor, sitting down. ‘Then what on Human Earth made you act Midsummer Night’s Dream three times over, on Midsummer Eve, in the middle of a Ring, and under – right under one of my oldest hills in Old England? Pook’s Hill – Puck’s Hill – Puck’s Hill – Pook’s Hill! It’s as plain as the nose on my face.’

He pointed to the bare, fern-covered slope of Pook’s Hill that runs up from the far side of the mill-stream to a dark wood. Beyond that wood the ground rises and rises for five hundred feet, till at last you climb out on the bare top of Beacon Hill, to look over the Pevensey Levels and the Channel and half the naked South Downs.

‘By Oak, Ash, and Thorn!’ he cried, still laughing. ‘If this had happened a few hundred years ago you’d have had all the People of the Hills out like bees in June!’

‘We didn’t know it was wrong,’ said Dan.

‘Wrong!’ The little fellow shook with laughter. ‘Indeed, it isn’t wrong. You’ve done something that Kings and Knights and Scholars in old days would have given their crowns and spurs and books to find out. If Merlin himself had helped you, you couldn’t have managed better! You’ve broken the Hills – you’ve broken the Hills! It hasn’t happened in a thousand years.’

‘We – we didn’t mean to,’ said Una.

‘Of course you didn’t! That’s just why you did it. Unluckily the Hills are empty now, and all the People of the Hills are gone. I’m the only one left. I’m Puck, the oldest Old Thing in England, very much at your service if – if you care to have anything to do with me. If you don’t, of course you’ve only to say so, and I’ll go.’

He looked at the children, and the children looked at him for quite half a minute. His eyes did not twinkle any more. They were very kind, and there was the beginning of a good smile on his lips.

Una put out her hand. ‘Don’t go,’ she said. ‘We like you.’ ‘Have a Bath Oliver,’ said Dan, and he passed over the squashy envelope with the eggs.

‘By Oak, Ash and Thorn,’ cried Puck, taking off his blue cap, ‘I like you too. Sprinkle a plenty salt on the biscuit, Dan, and I’ll eat it with you. That’ll show you the sort of person I am. Some of us’ – he went on, with his mouth full – ‘couldn’t abide Salt, or Horse-shoes over a door, or Mountain-ash berries, or Running Water, or Cold Iron, or the sound of Church Bells. But I’m Puck!’

He brushed the crumbs carefully from his doublet and shook hands.

‘We always said, Dan and I,’ Una stammered, ‘that if it ever happened we’d know ex-actly what to do; but – but now it seems all different somehow.’

‘She means meeting a fairy,’said Dan. ‘I never believed in ’em – not after I was six, anyhow.’

‘I did,’ said Una. ‘At least, I sort of half believed till we learned “Farewell, Rewards”. Do you know “Farewell, Rewards and Fairies”?’

‘Do you mean this?’ said Puck. He threw his big head back and began at the second line:

     'Good housewives now may say,
     For now foul sluts in dairies
     Do fare as well as they;
     And though they sweep their hearths no less

(‘Join in, Una!’)

     Than maids were wont to do,
     Yet who of late for cleanliness
     Finds sixpence in her shoe?'

The echoes flapped all along the flat meadow. ‘Of course I know it,’ he said.’And then there’s the verse about the rings,’ said Dan. ‘When I was little it always made me feel unhappy in my inside.’

“‘Witness those rings and roundelays”, do you mean?’ boomed Puck, with a voice like a great church organ.

     'Of theirs which yet remain,
     Were footed in Queen Mary's days
     On many a grassy plain,
     But since of late Elizabeth,
     And, later, James came in,
     Are never seen on any heath
     As when the time hath been.

‘It’s some time since I heard that sung, but there’s no good beating about the bush: it’s true. The People of the Hills have all left. I saw them come into Old England and I saw them go. Giants, trolls, kelpies, brownies, goblins, imps; wood, tree, mound, and water spirits; heath-people, hill-watchers, treasure-guards, good people, little people, pishogues, leprechauns, night-riders, pixies, nixies, gnomes, and the rest – gone, all gone! I came into England with Oak, Ash and Thorn, and when Oak, Ash and Thorn are gone I shall go too.’Dan looked round the meadow – at Una’s Oak by the lower gate; at the line of ash trees that overhang Otter Pool where the millstream spills over when the Mill does not need it, and at the gnarled old white-thorn where Three Cows scratched their necks.

‘It’s all right,’ he said; and added, ‘I’m planting a lot of acorns this autumn too.’

‘Then aren’t you most awfully old?’ said Una.

‘Not old – fairly long-lived, as folk say hereabouts. Let me see – my friends used to set my dish of cream for me o’ nights when Stonehenge was new. Yes, before the Flint Men made the Dewpond under Chanctonbury Ring.’ Una clasped her hands, cried ‘Oh!’ and nodded her head.

‘She’s thought a plan,’ Dan explained. ‘She always does like that when she thinks a plan.’

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