Friday, August 5, 2011

Changelings: When parents fear the child they did not expect

This is a changeling legend I came across recently, from Verstermanland region of Sweden, collected in 1882:

Every intelligent grandmother knows that the fire must not be allowed to go out in a room, where there is a child not yet christened; that the water in which the new-born child is washed should not be thrown out; also, that a needle, or some other article of steel must be attatched to its bandages. If attention is not paid to these precautions it may happen that the child will be exchanged by the Trolls, as once occured in Bettna many years ago.

A young peasant's wife had given birth to her first child. Her mother, who lived some distance away, was on hand to officiate in the first duties attending its coming, but the evening before the day on which the child should be christened she was obliged to go home for a short time to attend to the wants of her own family, and during her absence the fire was allowed to go out.

No one would have noticed anything unusual, perhaps, if ithe child had not, during the baptism, cried like a fiend. After some weeks, however, the parents began to observe a change. It became ugly, cried continuously and was so greedy that it devoured everything that came its way. The people being poor, they were in great danger of being eaten out of house and home. There could no longer be any doubt that child was a "changeling." Whereupon the husband sought out a wise old woman, who, it was said, could instruct the parents what to do to get back their own child.

The mother was directed to build a fire in the bake oven three Thursdays evenings in succession, lay the young one upon the bake shovel, then pretend that she was about to throw it into the fire. The advice was followed, and when the young woman, the third evening, was in the act of throwing the changeling into the fire, it seemed, a little deformed, evil-eyed woman rushed up with the natural child, threw it in the crib and requested the return of her child. "For, said she, "I have never treated your child so badly and I have never thought to do such harm to it as you now propose doing mine," whereupon she took the unnatural child and vanished through the door.

The parents' distress, depicted in this and other changeling legends, is one that I've seen expressed many times in modern human interest stories on television and in magazines, when the rejoicing at the birth of a baby turns to fear and confusion when the child fails to grow or flourish as expected.

And, as in these changeling stories, the focus of these modern human interest tales is always on the parents, the horrible burden such their new baby turned out to be, and the tricks and procedures they undertake to bring normalcy back into their lives. Almost always, there's a sense of being tricked, somehow: the child (and the future) you expected was swapped for another when your back was turned -- when you blinked at the wrong time.

In 1987, Emily Perl Kingsley wrote a brief allegorical essay about what it's like to be the parent of a disabled child: Welcome to Holland:

(Quote) I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability - to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It's like this......

When you're going to have a baby, it's like planning a fabulous vacation trip - to Italy. You buy a bunch of guide books and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It's all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, "Welcome to Holland." (Unquote)

The scariest thing about these changeling legends is that they are legends. Instead of beginning: "Once upon a time, when wishes made things true, in a land far, far away..." the setting is specific -- in this very village, or the in next county, and the time frame is always within living memory. Legends are all presented as evidence in support of beliefs, to reinforce a code of socially accepted behavior.

Each time I read one of these stories, I can't help wondering how many real infants were placed on baking stone by the oven, by desperate parents, or how many were left at the crossroads at midnight on Christmas Eve. When the trolls or fairies failed to bring back the "natural" child, how many parents progressed from pantomime to actually throwing their child on the fire?

When it was all over, did the parents feel remorse? Or did they feel relief from ridding the world of an "unnatural" creature, even if their own child is lost to them forever?


"The Changeling from Bettna." Excerpted from Swedish Fairy Tales, by Herman Hofberg (1882). Translated by W. H. Myers; W. B. Conkey Company, Chicago: 1895. Digitized by Google.

See Also:

Changelings: an essay by D.L. Ashliman