What Is the Role of the Changeling in Western Literature?

Changelings (a fairy that takes the place of a human) have been a divisive figure in Western Literature from the 1500s to the present day.

Jun 5, 2024By Lauren Jones, MA Creative Writing, BA English

changeling in western literature


When Martin Luther first described changelings, he was using the language of folklore to identify ‘children of Satan’. It is this fascinating combination of ancient fairy folklore (often benign) and the more sinister religious associations that have compelled authors to include changelings in their works. Often used to convey children who are troublesome, uncanny or sick – changelings have been a recurring motif in Western Literature from Shakespeare to the present day.


Shakespearean Drama: A Midsummer Night’s Dream & The Winter’s Tale (1595 & 1623)

richard dadd contradiction oberon titania fairy painting
Contradiction: Oberon and Titania by Richard Dadd, 1854-58. Source: Victorian Web


In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the central conflict between Titania and Oberon (king and queen of the fairy kingdom) revolves around a changeling child. Titania’s motives appear maternal: ‘The fairyland buys not the child from me.’ She is so determined to care for the stolen human child that she jeopardizes her marriage. This is also a reflection of the belief that beautiful human babies were sought by fairies. Later, in The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare presents the human belief in changelings as pastoral comedy.


The shepherds who find an abandoned baby are delighted: ‘It was told me I should be rich by the fairies. This is some changeling.’ This is an interesting development as changelings are certainly presented as otherworldly but far removed from the satanic children feared by Martin Luther. The drama revolves around the disruption a new child can bring to the family unit rather than the characteristics of the child itself.

German Folklore: The Elves, The Brothers Grimm (1806)

Illustrated Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Source: Best Choice Reviews
Illustrated Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Source: Best Choice Reviews


The Brothers Grimm, renowned for their collections of folk stories from across Europe, acknowledge shifting pressures on family units in the collection of stories named The Elves. A young mother tricks a changeling to reveal itself, thereby winning her human baby back. What is notable, is that the changeling is described in various editions of the story as ‘old’, ‘grotesque’ and ‘misformed’. For writers, this demonstrates the fluidity of the changeling figure and how it can be used more symbolically in literature.

Gothic Romance: Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte (1847)

Emily Bronte by Patrick Branwell Bronte, 1833. Source: he National Portrait Gallery, London
Emily Bronte by Patrick Branwell Bronte, 1833. Source: he National Portrait Gallery, London

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Emily Bronte refers to both Cathy and Heathcliff as changelings as a term of abuse for ‘unwanted’ or ‘evil’. Cathy’s first, ghostly appearance is striking. She is described as ‘That minx, Catherine Linton… she must have been a changeling – wicked little soul!’ We see here an early example of the uncanny, changeling child familiar to modern horror fans.


Additionally, Bronte introduces the child Heathcliff as ‘a dirty, ragged, black-haired child…repeated over and over again some gibberish.’ Heathcliff is established as a changeling: almost one of the children… but not quite. Furthermore his ‘gibberish’ language reminds the reader of earlier examples of riddling fairy changelings in common folklore and therefore a character not to be trusted. The real source of disharmony, however, is his assumption of another child’s place. The name Heathcliff previously belonging to one who died in infancy.


The Celtic Revival: The Stolen Child, W.B. Yeats (1889)

W.B. Yeats by Augustus John, 1907. Source: National Portrait Gallery, London
W.B. Yeats by Augustus John, 1907. Source: National Portrait Gallery, London


Changelings as symbolic figures are key to interpreting Yeats’s The Stolen Child (1889). As a modernist poet and a key figure in the Celtic Revival, Yeats unified contemporary themes of childhood alienation with the fairy myth.


“Come away, o human child

To the waters and the wild

With a faery, hand in hand,

From a world more full of weeping

Than you can understand.”


Describing the human world as ‘full of weeping’ marks a turning point in the portrayal of changelings as they begin to appear in naturalistic Victorian literature. Ever present is the adversarial struggle between childhood and adulthood.

Victorian Realism: Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy (1895)

Thomas Hardy (1923) by Reginald Eves. Source: National Portrait Gallery
Thomas Hardy (1923) by Reginald Eves. Source: National Portrait Gallery


No doubt influenced by new theories of psychoanalysis; Thomas Hardy presents a troubled ‘changeling’ in Little Father Time. ‘He was age masquerading as Juvenility.’ This strange interpretation of the aged child reflects the Grimm prototype where ‘changeling’ is shorthand for any member of the family or community who are burdensome.


Sue struggles to be a mother to her stepson, Little Father Time, and even his own father exclaims: ‘The poor child seems to be wanted by nobody!’ This alienation, in part, leads to the horrific murder/suicide of the children in the novel by the changeling child.


The description of the boy’s movement creates further distance, as Hardy struggles to settle on an accurate description: ‘The child fell into a steady mechanical creep– the movement of the wave, or of the breeze, or of the cloud.’ Little Father Time is clearly more akin to the natural world than the human one.


Modern Literature: We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver (2003)

Front cover for We Need to Talk About Kevin, 2003, by Lionel Shriver. Source: Ghouls Magazine
Front cover for We Need to Talk About Kevin, 2003, by Lionel Shriver. Source: Ghouls Magazine


Describing Kevin as ‘defective’ as a way of foreshadowing his murderous actions, echoes the fears of the Satanic changelings in Luther’s writing. Eva is Kevin’s true biological mother and therefore forced into introspection about her role in creating Kevin’s character: ‘In contemplating a darker twin of the dazzlingly hale and happy boy you were counting on; I allowed the changeling into the world.’ Shriver doesn’t recoil from using archaic, religious fears to hark back to the origins of the changeling myth: ‘Kevin smites me with the evil eye.’

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By Lauren JonesMA Creative Writing, BA EnglishLauren is a qualified teacher and writer with an academic background in theatre (Shakespeare), folklore and creative writing. She is also a travel writer and guide. Together with her husband she curates the travel website https://twohumansandadog.com. Lauren writes, explores and teaches full time always looking for the next adventure.