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Before fairies went around granting wishes
and bestowing Pimped Out Dresses
to cinder maids
, they spent a lot of time doing some serious mischief
One favorite game of The Fair Folk
was to abduct human infants and leave behind a doppelganger
or changeling. The human baby was taken back to the Land of Faerie
to be a soldier or slave. According to most European fairy tales
, boy babies and children with golden hair were in particular danger of being stolen by elves
and possibly replaced by an unwanted child
. Alternatively, the mother might be abducted, seduced, and impregnated by the Tuatha de Danaan
(or local equivalent), resulting in a (possibly malevolent
) fairy child
. We know for a fact that adultery was ''of course'' not to blame in any of these incidents.
Compare Alien Abduction
To deter fey folk, infant boys were often dressed as girls, and cold iron would be hung over cribs and doorways. Common items included horseshoes, bells, nails, scissors and steel files. (What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
) Early baptism was also encouraged, and it was often cited as the reason why mothers could not work for some weeks after childbirth: they had to watch over the baby to prevent this.
Simple abduction by fairytale beings also counts under this trope. Due to the inscrutable nature of the Fair Folk
Returns Policy, 1:1 replacement of your child is not guaranteed.
The earliest fairy tale versions are Older Than Print
. Contrast Moses in the Bullrushes
, where the parents do the switching. See also Foundling
. Compare Persephone
, Year Outside, Hour Inside
, and its inverse Year Inside, Hour Outside
Subtrope of Doppelgänger
, The Fair Folk
, Land of Faerie
, Invasion of the Baby Snatchers
, and very often Switched at Birth
. Not to be confused
with the Lighter and Softer Changeling Fantasy
, which is a Rags to Riches
open/close all folders
Anime and Manga
- In Berserk, a young girl named Rosine offers up her parents' lives to the Godhand to become a fairy (or rather, a demon that takes the form of a fairy). She then makes the same offer to other children, transforming them into insectile pseudodemons that can look like fairies (to the disgust of Puck, an actual elf). Her mistake is trying to make the offer to her former best friend, Jill, because said friend happens to have just met series protagonist Guts, a former mercenary on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge against all demonkind following the horrors of the Eclipse.
- In the Hellboy short story "The Corpse", Hellboy exposes a fairy changeling, then he has to perform a task for the fairies to get the original child back.
- In Suburban Glamour (pun intended) the teenage protagonist learns that she's a literal changeling, and is the daughter of Fae royalty. She's initially elated to have the chance to get out of her dull, miserable life in a small middle-of-nowhere English village, but soon comes to realize that her Fae family are controlling and distant, and that they did abandon her for seventeen years without any explanation and as such have no right to barge into her life and start making demands of her. She decides to remain with her human parents, who at least love and respect her even if they don't always understand her.
- In Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things, Courtney encounters a genuine changeling, but decides the baby's parents deserve it and the kid is better off among the Night Things (a.k.a. fairies).
- Referenced in Iron Man. As Malekith the Accursed hunts Tony Stark, he taunts him with the knowledge that he was adopted and compares him to changelings, saying that Tony has been one of Malekith's subjects his entire life.
- In the Avengers Elseworld Avataars: Covenant of the Shield, those who develop strange powers in their childhood with no obvious cause are believed by the superstitious to have been "exchanged" for a fairy child, and are therefore known as X-Changelings.
- Into The Hedge starts off with one, with the Cutie Mark Crusaders being kidnapped, and then replaced by fetches.
- Mirrors Image has Queen Chrysalis replace a stillborn Twilight Sparkle with her daughter in order to ensure she has a family to feed her with their love.
- Changeling (2008) is a modern version of the same ancient fear, with The Fair Folk replaced by society as the antagonist.
- Pan's Labyrinth. Although Ofelia rather loves her human mother, and seems to have loved her long-dead father, it's presented as an unambiguously better thing to live in the underworld full of magic. Mostly because dad is dead, mom is very weak-willed, and new stepdad is a zealous fascist. Unlike most examples, Guillermo del Toro actually takes into account the implications of such a statement.
- Coraline (book and film). The Other Mother is, in fact an evil faerie and the Other Father is a servant of said faerie. And, of course the other world is a horrible place to live. In the end Coraline is very happy to have her own parents back.
- Labyrinth: "I wish the Goblin King would come and take you away, right now." Be Careful What You Wish For, Sarah...
- The Faerie Queene contains stories of humans (like the Red Cross Knight) who have grown up in Faerie Land because of this trope, aware of their race but not their true identity.
- Roger Zelazny's 1980 novel Changeling has its plot built on this trope, and its sequel, Madwand. It's a subversion of the typical "Changeling Fantasy" because Pol (né Daniel) acknowledges that the family that raised him was nothing but supportive, and openly admits that his real father was a terrible man when he went off the deep end.
- This is the basis for The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw, who wrote it in response to the awful folktales about how to get rid of one. The half-Folk changeling, Saaski, was transformed into a baby and swapped with a human child because her limitations were a nuisance to the Folk, and she's unhappier about it than everyone else. Later on, she restores her foster parents' daughter to them.
- In the SERRAted Edge 'verse, the fey specifically only do this when the children have Abusive Parents. The reason given is that as nigh-immortals, Elves have a very low birth rate and thus value children very highly.
- Laurell K. Hamilton being a stickler for mythological accuracy, this is mentioned in passing in the Merry Gentry series, but is not practiced by any of the Fey living in the United States, since it might interfere with the driving plot.note
- Variants appear frequently in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell where fairies seem pretty fond of kidnaping in general, but usually don't bother with replacements or stick to children. It comes closest to being played straight with the Raven King who learns magic after being taken as a child, and Mrs.Strange who gets an actual replacement.
- In the YA fantasy Poison, the heroine's baby sister is kidnapped and replaced by a changeling, kicking off her quest. It's actually all part of the Hierophant's plan to recruit her as his heir, and her sister is actually returned as soon as she sets off—as the girl Poison passes on the boat.
- One in John Crowley's Little, Big. After a while, it starts to disintegrate.
- Kaye from Holly Black's Modern Tales of Faerie is a changeling, swapped as an infant for a human baby. She later meets the child she was switched with, who has aged only a few years in the Seelie Court.
- In Tad Williams' novel The War of the Flowers, it is revealed that Theo is actually a changeling baby that the fairies replaced his parents' real son with, while the human child is taken to the fairy world and becomes an Enfant Terrible.
- Lords and Ladies, being based on The Fair Folk legends, references this — elves are known to have a habit of stealing children, and while they aren't seen to do it in the book itself, the mere possibility is so infuriating to the usually laid-back Nanny Ogg that she actually (if half-jokingly) suggests Cold-Blooded Torture. Later, in The Wee Free Men, their child-stealing ways get actual page time.
- The title character of Zilpha Keatley Snyder's book The Changeling spends almost the entire book trying to convince herself and a friend that she is just that.
- Several of Caitlin R. Kiernan's novels feature "the Changelings": human children who have been abducted from their birth families and inducted into a cabal of subterranean monsters as servants and soldiers. A few of the so-called "Children of the Cuckoo" express longing for normal, human lives.
- In Good Omens, the infant Antichrist is swapped for a normal human baby this way, with demons instead of fairies. Thanks to the incompetence of an order of Satanic nuns, though, he winds up in the wrong normal human family.
- In Raymond E. Feist's Faerie Tale, the boy Patrick is taken away by "the shining man" and replaced by a changeling. The family takes the false child to the hospital, and there is a chilling description of the changeling's behavior, and how modern medicine attempts to explain it (that his brain was damaged by fever, that they don't understand how his brain could look like it does under an MRI)
- In Brenna Yovanoff's debut The Replacement, the main character Mackie is a changeling (or a castoff, or a child left in someone else's bed...the Morrigan gives a lot of names). There is a rather sinister purpose to the child-switching here. The faeries (although they're never named as such) don't want a pet or anything nice like that. No, what they want is a child for the Lady to sacrifice. What's more, the fae kids who get switched into the human world usually don't survive, due to their weaksauce weaknesses of being allergic to iron and blood. Mackie only survived to high school because his older sister loved him so much. The kid who was switched with his girlfriend's little sister? Not so lucky. She does show up in the book, but as a revenant to be re-switched for Natalie
- Poul Anderson's fantasy novel The Broken Sword prominently features a changeling.
- In the Paranormalcy series, Evie and Jack are these. Jack was stolen by the faeries at a young age, and Evie's mother is a human and her father is a faerie. Both of their stories bring some of the traditional mythos into it, with them both having blonde hair.
- In The Twelfth Enchantment Lucy's niece is replaced by a strange demonic creature by one of the fairys of the book.
- In Jack Vance's Lyonesse, Princess Madouc of Lyonesse is a changeling left by the fairies, although a relatively benign sort.
- In the Trylle Trilogy, Wendy is a troll child that replaced the baby her mother actually had, a boy. Her mother somehow knows this and tries to kill her when she is 6. When she is in high school, a "tracker" named Finn finds her and brings her back to her mother, Queen Elora of the Trylle. She finds out that the Trylle (troll) society has done this for generations. They replace human babies from rich families with troll babies in order to acquire their trust funds. They then take the human babies, who are treated as second class citizens.
- In Andre Norton's Dread Companion, Bartare triumphantly recounts that although human lands have shaped her body, she is where she belongs when The Fair Folk take her.
- In Ruth Frances Long's The Treachery of Beautiful Things, the servants of the Fairy Queen were all taken. Jack explains that the queen could not keep fairies as perfectly entrapped in delusion.
- In Isaac Asimov's story "Kid Stuff", a member of the insectoid race which is the basis for the legends about fairies states that his people really like milk, and in the past, some have apparently used their mind control powers to get it fresh.
- A more mundane example in the web-novel Domina: The fey (who are just crazy women who think they're Celtic fairies) kidnap people, and subject them to Bio-Augmentation so horrible it destroys their memories. Those few who escape are returned to as close to human normal as possible and become the changelings, a culture of hackers fighting the fey.
- While Faeries don't actually kidnap human children in the Artemis Fowl books, this trope is referenced in the painting The Faerie Thief, which Artemis steals from a bank vault during The Opal Deception. It depicts an elf trying to snatch a baby from its cradle.
- In Katherine Kerr's Deverry series, the Guardians (pretty much the Fair Folk, except there's already another species who are elves) are eventually reincarnated as human children. From the description of their behavior, this is an explanation for autism.
- The plot of Linda Haldeman's The Lastborn of Elvinwood largely revolves around the whys and hows of making such an exchange to save The Fair Folk from extinction.
- "The Changeling" by Swedish author Selma Lagerlof - in her version of the myth, a human mother saves her own child from being mistreated by the trolls because she cares so well for the troll-child they left her. Her son later returns.
- The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue is all about this trope - from the viewpoints of the changeling as well as of the stolen child. And there's a kicker; it's an apparently endless cycle, each stolen child eventually becoming a changeling in turn, having to steal and replace someone else's child in order to return to the normal world: sort of an "Our Changelings Are Different" take on the concept.
- Played with in Foxglove Summer, in which two missing girls are found wandering in the forest, and one of them turns out to be a duplicate after they've been taken back to their families. The twist is that the replacement is actually the real biological daughter, who'd been swapped for a faerie changeling as an infant without anyone realizing it had happened. In a subversion of how parents usually react to this trope, her mother still wants the child she's been raising returned to her, and to hell with whether she's genetically related or not.
Live Action TV
- An episode of Law & Order: SVU did a piece on a woman with Capgras syndrome (see below). The suspect, a video game addict with a Bastard Boyfriend, kept her daughter under the stairwell and refused to believe she was real, but had been replaced with another — unless she only heard her daughter's voice. But the minute she saw her daughter, the delusion would set in again.
- The Torchwood episode "Small Worlds" involved a girl who was a changeling (unbeknownst to her or her family), and the fairies came to get her back.
- An episode of The BBC's Merlin has a variation on this one, in which a princess is not replaced, but is possessed by a Sidhe in infancy, as part of a plot to put a Sidhe on the throne of Camelot. The princess doesn't know the Sidhe is inside her, although its presence makes her very clumsy and uncoordinated. The plot is that once she's married Prince Arthur the Sidhe will take her over completely.
- Highlander has Duncan being called a changeling by people in his clan, as he was found as a baby after his parents' true child died at birth. There's no proof immortals were really changelings.
- The Haunting Hour episode "Intruders". Eve is contacted by a fairy named Lyria, who explains that Eve is really a fairy that had been taken in by a human couple.
Mythology and Folklore
- Trolls in Scandinavia were also fond of switching their own children for human babies. The way to get rid of the changeling, however, was to treat it horribly and beat it frequently. The changeling's true mother would see the way its child was being treated and rush to undo the swap.
- In Iceland the Hidden People would steal infants and leave their elderly in stead of the child as a changeling. Much more sensible than leaving your own child, just get rid of senile old pops and get a pretty little young thing instead.
- In German fairy-tales there are generally two possiblities to get rid of them: 1) treat them horribly (as described above), or 2) doing something really stupid (e.g. cooking water in egg shells), the changeling then would laugh at you (sometimes even taunt you with a rhyme), which broke the spell and forced the fairy to take the changeling back and return the real child.
- In the fairy tale "Childe Rowland", Childe Rowland's sister Burd Ellen is kidnapped by elves when she inadvertently runs around a church "widdershins" (i.e., counterclockwise to the sun's path).
- Folk musician Alexander James Adams was once known as Heather Alexander. His stage reason for this is that Heather was the changeling left in his place, of late returned to Faerieland. This is pretty much in keeping with the themes of most of his songs.
- While it certainly seems to be metaphorical, "Changeling" by The Doors drunkenly plays this trope out.
- Heather Alexander's Changeling Child is about this.
- Changeling: The Lost is all about this. Of course, the faeries in this case don't stop at kids, and the "changelings" of the title are actually the humans they've taken. The Gentry usually just leave something made of detritus and a fragment of their captive's soul in their place. Tragically, such "fetches" not only look human, but often think they're human and have no idea of the truth.
- Ars Magica. Faeries do the standard "kidnap children and replace them with changelings" routine.
- Like many fairy tale tropes, this is referenced in the Lorwyn expansion for Magic: The Gathering, on the card Crib Swap.
- In Warhammer:
- The Wood Elves are not above this kind of thing, although they seldom leave anything behind as a replacement. They tend to steal away beautiful boys from the land of Bretonnia surrounding their forest home, who then become ageless servants at their feasts. It is possible that stolen girls are returned to Bretonnia as its damsel sorceresses.
- There is also a daemon called The Changeling, with the ability to impersonate others flawlessly. Though it tends to impersonate full-grown and important people to cause mischief, rather than replacing babies.
- The Interactive Fiction game The Warblers Nest is about a woman trying to figure out if her baby is a changeling or not. There are two possible endings to the game, but both leave it ambiguous as to whether the baby is truly a changeling or her mother is simply cracking under the stress of taking care of it.
- In Tales of Symphonia Kilia is this. The party returns to Palmacosta only to discover that Governor-General Dorr has been working with the Desians in order to acquire a cure for his wife, who has been transformed into a monster prompting a "Reason You Suck" Speech from Lloyd. Dorr is then stabbed in the back by Kilia, who reveals herself as a doppleganger. leading to his death after the ensuing boss fight. It turns out the real Kilia died some time ago, and the fake one replaced her in order to keep an eye on Dorr, and monitor the experiments at the ranch from behind the scenes.
- In The Sims 3: Supernatural, the backstories for some of the families in the new Moonlight Falls neighborhood are variations this. The fairy Flora Goodfellow switched Linda Rodgers' adoption to that of a fairy baby and took the human baby she was supposed to adopt. Flora Goodfellow also accidentally turned the Hoppcraft toddler into a fairy.
- In The Curse of Blackmoor Manor, one of the Penvellyn ancestors was rumored to be a fairy's child, foisted off on her presumptive father by means of this trope. She was actually a foundling whom the man had adopted on the quiet.
- In Rêveillerie/Whither, Emelind is a literal changeling, but she considers the universe where she was raised to be her true home.
- Several subverted changeling tales (the Erlkönig tried to steal Toby but the Jareth and Javert stopped him, Jareth babysat Lír but King Haggard sent the Red Bull after them etc.) appeared in Roommates, but you know it must be common if the token fair teammate (Jareth) refers to the practice as babysitting. And he never messed up so badly to kill anybody, his father was not this lucky.
- Both tropes are explored and played tragically straight in the short story "Changelings and Fairfolk" on Strange Stories About Sad people. http://strangestoriesaboutsadpeople.blogspot.com/2009/10/changelings-and-fair-folk.html
- This trope is used interestingly in one of the illustrations of The Warden by DeviantARTist Keith Thompson, where the Fey Folk's custom of stealing away babies and replacing them with their own as a spiteful taunt to the oblivious parents BITES THEM BACK IN THE ASS HARD. The Warden was one of the fairy dopplegangers who, as a result of the constant patience, love and compassion given by his elderly human parents, turned on his own kind in bitter grief after their deaths with the intent to dish out the same sorrow the Fey Folk doled out so generously. He now spends the rest of his days capturing Fey Folk and strapping them to his body, savoring their pleas as they waste away.
- Invoked in the backstory of Moonflowers, where a traditionally-minded town tries to kill one of their own people (the homosexual Owen) by claiming that he's a fairy changeling. It's stated several times that it was just an excuse for guilt-free homophobia: Owen was twenty years old, had never showed signs of actual Folk lineage like being burned by iron, and nobody even bothered testing him to confirm the claims. Owen is now bitter, snarky, and prone to violent bursts of anger.
- Children with the hereditary genetic Williams-Beuren syndrome are sometimes called "fairy children". They are often smaller than average and show typical facial features: upturned snub nose, full lips, wide mouth, small chin, large eyes set wide apart. Children with blue or green eyes may show a starburst pattern in their iris. They are often mentally retarded but empathic, commonly have strong social skills and great verbal and musical talent.
- There is another medical phenomenon that fuels this, known as the Capgras Delusion. Basically, a person with a specific brain injury thinks that their child (or another relative) is not theirs, has been replaced by a doppelganger who looks alike, and cannot be convinced otherwise (in the age of mythology, elves would be a convenient explanation). It was referenced in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.
- Common characteristics of autism include: Difficulty emphasizing with others (or realizing when they're harming or at least offending someone else), rigid adherence to a series of seemingly nonsensical rules, trouble telling lies, sensitivity to loud noises (i.e. church bells), slow to develop creativity, and the lack of facial expressions mean it takes longer to develop wrinkles giving the illusion of youth. Any of those traits sound familiar?
- The closest equivalent to real-world changelings is Brood Parasitism, practised by half of the species of cuckoos. They replace another species of bird's egg with their own, tricking the parents that the impostor is their own child. This relieves the cuckoo from the investment of rearing young or building nests, enabling them to spend more time foraging, producing offspring, etc. Despite the cuckoo chick not resembling the "parents" at all (and are sometimes even bigger than the "parents"), the strategy works fairly often since most birds are just that stupid. If the host birds do get a clue and remove the cuckoo egg, the adult cuckoos (who occasionally check up on their eggs) will attack them and destroy their nests. Cuckoos basically run an egg protection racket as a "cuckoo mafia".
- There are fish species that do the same thing, sneakily laying their eggs among those of other fish that engage in parental care.
- Spare a thought for poor, doomed Bridget Cleary, who in 1895 was murdered by her husband because he believed her to be a fairy changeling. Already a topic of contention in her small village in County Tipperary (she was proudly of independent means and had had no children in the eight years she had been married to her husband) at the age of 26 she fell deathly ill- to the point when the priest was called in to perform the last rites. Relatives complained that the nearly-dead Bridget was "much changed" and "not herself" (apparently unfamiliar with the concept of delirium), and so her husband Michael became convinced she had been replaced by a weak and sickly changeling. Soon the whole village was surrounding the cottage, chanting, force-feeding her milk with herbs, pouring human urine on her (a popular fairy repellent, apparently), and eventually holding her over the fire and prodding her with a red-hot poker. Again and again she was asked if she was the wife of Michael Cleary, and again and again she said yes. She eventually disappeared, and the villagers naturally assumed she had gone off with the fairies. But no; her charred corpse was uncovered a few days later in a shallow grave. The coroner ruled that she had been burned alive, and Michael said that yes, he had burned her alive, but had not killed his wife; he had driven the fairy changeling away, and his real wife would be waiting by the fairy fort on a white horse. She never turned up and he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. To this day, Irish children often chant, "Are you a witch or are you a fairy? Are you the wife of Michael Cleary?" There is, rather oddly, an Irish folk band called Burning Bridget Cleary.