Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Changeling


This video was made on May 18, 2009 at the newly opened Rhone Plaza in Central Square, Cambridge.  The occasion was our monthly MouthOff, hosted by MassMouth, a Massachusetts-based Storytelling organization.  Stu Mendelson, Norah Dooley and I came up with the theme of "Working Mothers" as a good theme for the month of May, in honor of Mothers Day and International Workers' Day.

I have long been drawn to the story of the Changeling: a counterfeit child left by the Faerie folk in exchange for a human baby who is stolen to replenish the dwindling ranks of that secret and magical race.  The Celtic peoples in particular tell many tales in which small children - especially those who have not yet been named or baptized - are stolen away while their mothers are not looking, and replaced by a supernatural substitute.  Such stories invariably end with the restoration of the "real" child, usually after the determined mother tricks the Changeling to betray its true nature and threatens it with physical harm.  The threatened Faerie being gives back the child, who is none the worse for wear, and all is well.

(from "Labyrinth", my favorite Jim Henson flick)

Or is it?

Stories about healthy children who are spirited away and replaced by sickly inhuman monsters, draw upon a deep and elemental terror that lurks in the heart of nearly every parent: the fear of losing a child.  But there is a subtext - and a sub-fear - to the story of the Changeling, which beneath its frightening surface narrative of kidnapping and restoration, presents us with the equally terrifying idea that a baby who seems normal and healthy can drastically and mysteriously change in some dreadful way, with little warning or explanation.  Thus, the concept of the magical Changeling is rooted in a harsh human reality: a child who seems "normal" at first, but then shows signs of "inhuman" abnormality.  Perhaps some parents - confronted by the sad truth that something was wrong with their child - were comforted by the notion that "this isn't really my child".  And so the story of the Changeling was born.

Interestingly, but cruelly, these stories also imply that the terrible transformation/ailment of the Changeling is due to some form of negligence on the part of the mother: she left the child alone for a moment, she forgot to hang rowan berries over its cradle, she didn't baptize the child in the Christian faith, etc.  The loss - or transformation - of her offspring is thus presented as a punishment for maternal misdeeds. It naturally follows that she must somehow redeem herself in the eyes of some supernatural authority before she is considered worthy to have her "true" (i.e. healthy) child restored to her.  She must perform a mysterious nonsensical ritual, and then - in a parallel of the story of Abraham and Isaac - she must threaten her "child" with violence or even death.  Only then will she be rewarded by the return of her little one.

The moral of this story? Be a good mother, or else.

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