“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.