I open my front door. It is an overcast, drizzly, gloomy Monday morning out there. I’m feeling a bit under the weather and feel the need to get out from beneath its oppression. Going into my study to look out of the French doors, I see the sky over the Magic Forest is clear and bright. I’ll go take a walk out there.
My notion is to wander deeper into the Magic Forest than I ever have before, but am saved from that adventure when I get to the pond, and there is Ultima, sitting under a walnut tree, her back against the trunk, reading a book.
“Ah, darling,” she says, “how good to see you.”
“My greetings in return. What are you reading?”
“One of the tomes from your library, The Welsh Fairy Book. I assume Welsh is one of your countries.”
“Wales,” I say. “How do you get into my library without me ever seeing you?”
“You’re never there when I visit.”
I suppose there is some time slippage between our two worlds.
“You are welcome to borrow my books, but now you must pay by reading me a story.”
I settle down on one of the comfortable sitting stones that line the pond’s banks. That these stones should be comfortable is one of the magical things of this place.
“Well,” says Ultima, “let’s try this one, which I just started. The Llanfabon Changeling.”
A young widow in the parish of Llanfabon had a son, who was all she had in the world and all she loved. Llanfabon was rife with fairies, the sort of fairies that would lead a man into the bogs at night with false lights. The widow knew that fairies would steal human infants, and she took precautions but to no avail.
One day, the sound of her cows in distress lured her out of the house, she forgetting, in the moment, to place the fire tongs crossways over the cradle in which her son slept. Upon returning, she felt uncertain that the child in the cradle was her own.
Over time, the once pleasant child became grouchy, less attractive, and didn’t grow. She went to a wise man, reputed to understand dark matters, and told him her story. He advised her to follow his instruction, faithfully and minutely, to brew beer in an eggshell, and to listen for what the child might say.
When she did this, the child, actually the changeling, expressed in rhyme that throughout his long life he’d never seen anyone brew beer in an eggshell.
She repeated the verse to the wise man. He then instructed her to go at midnight, under a full moon, to a specific crossroads to see what she could see, but without being seen herself upon danger to her life.
What she spied were hundreds of fairies in procession, playing music and singing, the likes of which she had never heard. However, among the procession came her own dear child. She could not rescue him and returned to the wise man.
He now told her to find a black hen with no other color of feathers on it, bake it over a wood fire (not peat) with feathers and all, and close up all passageways and holes except the chimney flue. As she did this, she was not to look at the child.
It took her a long time to find the black hen, but when she baked it and the last of its feathers burnt away, the changeling disappeared, and she heard the music she had heard at the crossroads coming from outside her door. Opening the door, there she found her own child, who could not account for where he had been but said that he had been listening to beautiful music.
Ultima closes the book. “The fairies in your world are not very nice!”
The Fairy Raid: Carrying off a Changeling, Midsummer Eve (oil on canvas) by Sir Joseph Noel Paton, 1867
Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2022 The Llanfabon Changeling – Part Two
Martino di Bartolomeo
Legend of St Stephen
“Well,” I say, trying to keep defensiveness out of my voice, “there are three types of fairies.”
“Three?” Ultima cocks her head.
“The fairies of legend, folklore, and literature. What I think of as the original fairies are those of legend, such as the Tuatha De Danann. They are entirely of human shape if a bit more handsome and superior. They live in a realm separate from ours where time moves at a different pace.
“There is a tragic Irish legend of Oisίn, the warrior poet, and Niamh of the Golden Hair. Naimh, daughter of the sea god, Manannán mac Lir, kidnaps the willing Oisίn, taking him to Tir na nÓg, the land of the young. After living there for three years, he desires to see his family and friends again. What he finds is that in his birth world not three years have passed but three hundred years, and his family and friends are a distant memory.”
“Oh, how sad.” Ultima’s lips droop.
“It gets worse,” I confess. “When he dismounts from his fairy horse and his foot touches the ground, the three centuries catch up with him, and he turns into an ancient being.”
“Good gracious.” Ultima is perturbed.
“The folklore fairies,” I continue, “the fairies of our story, are of a different lot. These are the fallen angels. I guess I should ask, is there a Christian god in your world?
“Oh, plenty of gods, as well as goddesses,” Ultima assures me.
“Right. Do you have any angels in your world?”
“I believe the Zoroastrians do.”
“Close enough. In our tradition, there is a war in heaven among the angels, some siding with God and others with the angel Satan. The Satanic forces lose and are cast out of heaven. Some of them fall all the way to hell, but others fall only as far as earth. And here they wait until Judgement Day, not knowing if they will be allowed to return to heaven or spend eternity in the other place.
“Their relationship with humans can be very mixed. They are at least touchy to deal with. Visiting with the fairies may also have the time-lapse problem of Oisίn’s. What is notable, they, for the most part, have shrunk in stature, sometimes mistaken for children. As shown in our story, they are noted for producing the most beautiful music.
“When we come to, what I call, the literary fairies, or British fairies, their diminutive stature becomes more pronounced. They are the size of small birds, complete with wings.”
“Ah,” says Ultima, “those I would like. The fairies in my world are all of the legendary sort. Little winged people sound delightful.”
“I am told they can bite, but that has not been my experience.”
Ultima’s eyebrows narrow. “Why do your fairies keep getting smaller?”
I felt this question coming the longer I pontificated about the three fairy types.
“It has to do,” I say with shame, “with our fear of the ‘other.’ We cannot abide a thing different from ourselves. When placed up against a thing unfamiliar, we need to make it smaller in order to comprehend it. By then we have already distorted it.”
Ultima shakes her head. “You so need to have dragons in your lives. What would I be thinking without mine?”
Fairy Tale of the Month: 2022 The Llanfabon Changeling – Part Three
The Fairy Raid: Carrying Off a Changeling – 1867
by Sir Joseph Noel Paton
“Tell me more about this changeling thing,” said Ultima. “Why did the fairies want human children?”
“The folktales are all over the map on that one. Some stories indicate fairies cannot nurse their own children, and they substitute their child for a human child. In other tales, a human wet nurse is either abducted or hired for a handsome wage.
“In our story, an old fairy, under a glamour to appear as a child, is taken care of by the duped mother while the fairies enjoy the company of the human child.
“Then there is the ‘tithe to hell,’ owed by the fairies every seven years.”
“That does not sound like it will bode well.” Ultima grimaces.
“No, not at all,” I say. “Rather than give one of their own for the tithe, they will kidnap and offer up a human. However, not necessarily a child. Adults, too, may be stolen. The changeling in these cases can be a piece of wood glamoured to look like a sickly version of the person that soon passes away, leaving the living adult in the hands of the fairies with no one thinking to look for them.
“Perhaps the most famous of these humans destined to be the tithe to hell is Tam Lin. He fell into the hands of the Fairy Queen, who intended to sacrifice him for the tithe. However, Tam Lin instructs his lover, Janet, on how to save him. She is to go to a certain crossroads at midnight on Halloween and wait for the fairy procession.”
“Wait,” Ultima chimes in, “that is what the wise man told the young widow to do.”
“Exactly that, they are known as the Trouping Fairies. In the case of Tam Lin, they were on their way to give him over. He told Janet how to identify him, then drag him from his white horse, and hold him in her arms while the Fairy Queen appears to turn him into dangerous beasts and finally into red hot coals. This she does, stealing him back from the Fairy Queen.”
“Oh, that’s a much better story,” Ultima gushes. “But what about the funny bit with the young widow forgetting to put the iron tongs over the cradle to protect the child? What help would that have been?”
“Fire tongs were made of iron. Iron has always been a talisman against evil. It keeps away ghosts, witches, and fairies. In our world, cemeteries are often enclosed by iron fences and gates. It is not to keep people out at night but rather the ghosts in and not bothering the living.”
Ultima looks at me dubiously.
“As tradition,” I quickly add, “would have it.”
“And the brewing or cooking in an eggshell?” she asks.
“That is a curious item,” I admit. “The notion is to catch the fairy off guard and let him utter something in amazement about what he is witnessing. And, by the way, the kidnapped children are always boys. It is not until a girl becomes a young bride or a young mother that the fairies have any interest in her. Don’t ask me why.”
I saw that question rising in Ultima’s eyes.
“Nonetheless,” I continue, “the ruse almost always has to do with brewing or cooking in an eggshell in many of this story’s versions all throughout Europe. There is an association of eggshells with fairies. It is said a half-shell can serve as a boat for a fairy, but I suspect that may apply to the British fairies.”
I feel a raindrop and glance up at the darkening sky over the Magic Forest. Ultima and I sigh with disappointment. It appears I am back under the weather.