"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.