Thursday, April 11, 2024


The reason for abducting the human child varies as well: to reinforce the fairy stock, for love of their beauty, or to pay the Devil.
~Austin Harvey

Happy Poetry Friday! For National Poetry Month, I am writing poems inspired by short stories. To be honest, it's an even more compelling project than I anticipated! It's got its challenges, for sure, but the stories are so interesting and they send me in all kinds of directions.

Today's poem was inspired by Irish folktale "The Changeling," collected by Lady Wilde (Oscar Wilde's mother). In it, a woman sees two people (a man of undetermined age and an old woman) come into her cottage late at night. They warm themselves by the fire and then approach her baby in his cradle, whereupon she faints.

When she comes to, she sends her husband to deal with them. He chases them out, and then lights a candle. When they look at the baby's cradle, they see their baby has been swapped for an unattractive (but cheerful) baby. They are weeping and wailing about it when a young woman comes in and asks what the problem is.

The husband tells her the story and she looks at the baby and laughs, because she is a fairy and it is the child who was stolen from her that very evening. She says that she would rather have her own ugly baby than any mortal child, so she takes him and tells the couple how to get their child back.

They need to go to the old fort on the hill (during a full moon, naturally) and burn some sheafs of corn, threatening to burn down the fort. The fairies can't deal with fire and will give the baby back. The fairy advises that, for his safety, they tie a nail from a horseshoe around the baby's neck after they get him back.

The husband goes to the old fort and follows the fairy's directions, which work. The last advice the husband is given is to draw a circle of fire with a hot coal around the baby's cradle when he gets home. (Fairies really can't stand fire, but the first fairies who stole the baby did seem to warm themselves by it. Maybe they just can't cross it?)

Anyway, the husband goes home, the fairy's fort is still standing, and they live peacefully from then on. "The man would allow no hand to move a stone or harm a tree, and the fairies still dance there on the rath, when the moon is full, to the music of the fairy pipes, and no one hinders them."

My poem:


Fairies walk like the tinkle of wind chimes,
their wings guiding them through the world
like a hand on the back of a dancer,

so no human would expect a fairy's baby to be ugly,
not that the humans had given a moment's thought
to the fairy babies, far away under the hill,
when humans had their own concerns
and their own baby, so new and pink and tight and perfect,
sleeping quiet as a hiding hare,

silent, even when the strangers entered the cabin,
brazen as you please, and sat by the fire.
Once, twice, three times, the baby's desperate mother
tried to send them away, but magic weighed her down
like a blanket, left her flush with angry sleep.

By the time she had come to herself,
her husband was chasing the crone away
and some other baby had his hairy knuckles
wrapped around the top of the wooden crib.

When he gave them a startling grin and held his arms up,
they screamed and sobbed, only too relieved to give him
to his mother-fairy when she came knocking.

If the exchange had gone differently,
if fairy babies were more sleek than unsightly,
would they have cocked their heads
and marveled that their baby was more beautiful
than they remembered,
but pleased?


I wrote my poem thinking about how the fairy mother, who loved her child, would have appreciated them taking good care of her son while they had him but would they have if she hadn't shown up? (And the flipside of that: Would they have wanted to keep the fairy baby if it had been handsome?)

I read this sad article after writing my poem. Not sure how it would have affected me if I had read it beforehand.

Jone Rush MacCulloch has the Poetry Friday round-up. Thanks, Jone!


Patricia Franz said...

Wow, Tabatha - your project is impressive. I come away from this post with a sense of awe that you commit yourself so fully to the story, by committing a poem to it. And the big questions that emerge from both! It gives me a scary feeling - one that tells me I'm about to try something hard.

Mary Lee said...

Yikes! That article!

Ugly baby seems like an oxymoron to me...

Denise Krebs said...

Oh my gosh, Tabatha! This is so fascinating. I saw your post yesterday, but saved it for today so I could really read it carefully. The summary of the changeling story had me captivated. It was all new to me, and now after a long morning of rabbit hole reading about this sad history, I am undone. The link you shared at the end, like you, makes me wonder how your poem would have been different. Wow! I can see how this is a compelling project!

I so loved these lines:

"their own baby, so new and pink and tight and perfect,
sleeping quiet as a hiding hare"

Linda B said...

As I read your post, then through the poem, I imagined this ending, Tabatha, that they might keep the 'new' one if thought more beautiful! Your words read like its own story, a philosophy of ignorance where people found ways to answer the unknown. One of my colleagues told me once that when he was grown, he finally discovered that a neighbor had a child, also now grown, kept in the basement because they thought he had been touched by the devil & they were afraid of his behavior. No doubt, those today with some mental issues are more supported but perhaps not all? I can see why you're intrigued by your poetry month plan!

Heidi Mordhorst said...

Tabatha, you hew pretty carefully to the story, but lines like "a hand on the back of a dancer," "flush with angry sleep," "hairy knuckles wrapped around the top of the wooden crib"--make it so lively! I'm glad you have time for such an in-depth project, and that we get to share it.

TraceyKJ said...

Tabetha, I had not heard much about changelings until a couple months ago, now they seem to keep appearing unexpectedly! Your poem is so interesting, and I am glad that you included that article because when I first heard the term “changeling” in a different context, I wondered if there was some aspect of inhumane treatment of children behind the legend. It seems that is indeed the case. Thank you for enlightening me!

Bridget Magee said...

Fascinating short story and poem response, Tabatha. I agree with Mary Lee an "ugly baby" is an impossibility. (As a former foster mom, current adoptive mom and birth mom, I can attest to the fact that one can love a baby not born of their flesh and blood - even a fairy baby!)

Sarah Grace Tuttle said...

Thank you for sharing this tale and poem! (I chose not to read the article, and I appreciate that you kept the sadness vague.) I especially appreciated your use of the word "brazen," considering the role of fire in the legend.

Jone said...

Tabatha, this is mysterious and enchanting and now I must go down the rabbit holes of fairies.

I loved this line: "Fairies walk like the tinkle of wind chimes". And your NPM project is intriquing.

Karen Edmisten said...

Tabatha, what a creative and ambitious endeavor! The story and your poem raise such fascinating questions.

I love the idea of fairies sounding like wind chimes.

Happy (and intriguing) writing this month!