Whilst much is written about the fairy theft of human children, and their substitution for elderly fairy changelings, a lot less is said about the fairies’ own offspring. What do we know about them?
A Low Birth Rate
Starting at the very beginning, the evidence is that fairy births are few and far between and that the whole business of labour and nursing are problematic for our Good Neighbours. For this reason, human midwives are called upon regularly to assist the fairy mother and women newly delivered of children here are frequently abducted to act as nurse maids for fairy infants. In the story of The Fairy Dwelling on Selena Moor, the human abductee Grace informs her former lover, when he asks about children in Faery, that there are:
“Very few indeed,” she replied, “though they are fond of babies, and make great rejoicing when one happens to be born amongst them; and then every little man, however old, is proud to be thought the father.”
Little Girls Lost
Given how precious faery offspring must be, it’s notable how often they seem to get lost. Most encounters with fairy children occur in cases where they have strayed or become lost or separated somehow. For example, one evening on Shetland, a man found a strange straw box in his farmyard. He put it in the house and went to feed his livestock, and when he returned inside, he heard an odd sound from inside the box, a little like “Foddle-dee-foodle-dee-doo” and the sound of feet kicking. A voice called out, asking to be released, and he realised there was a trow child inside. He promptly put the box outside again, hoping and assuming that the parents would return to collect their mislaid offspring.
This case sounds a little neglectful, although the man’s panic may be understood. In another Shetland example, a little trow girl dressed in grey and brown was found lost by a family and was taken in for the night. She slept in the same bed as the human children and, the next morning, heard her mother calling her home and left quite contentedly. In recognition of this care, it appears, the children who shared a bed with the trow girl grew up to be happy and prosperous.
Another faery girl was found lost and alone near Tower Hill, Middleton-in-Teesdale in Northern England. A woman took the child home, sat her by the fire and gave her bread and cheese to eat, but the girl cried so bitterly that woman took pity and returned her to the place by the river where she’d been found and where it was believed that the faeries came to bathe, in the hope that her parents would return for her- and several of stories indicate that they will do just that (see Janet Bord, Fairies, Appendix).
Sometimes the infants are just careless of their own safety, as was the case with a pixie child captured near Zennor, in West Cornwall. A farmer was cutting furze when he spotted a young pixie asleep. The man scooped him up and took him home, where he was named Bobby Griglans by his family. The little boy would play contentedly by the hearth with the family’s children. One day, when all the youngsters had slipped outside to play, the pixie’s parents appeared searching for him and he happily went home with them (Bottrell, Traditions of West Cornwall, vol.1, 74).
Accidents happen, of course, and there is evidence of normal care and parenting too. For example, a fairy child fell ill and her mother approached a housewife living at Longhill, near Whithorn in southwest Scotland, for some milk for the poorly infant. Fairy children can get sick and their families will take care of them.
What do these infants look like? As I have suggested before, fairies’ faces may not always be as we might anticipate. Much of the folklore evidence suggests something very much more alarming than the pretty girls of the illustrators such as Margaret Tarrant (above).
By way of illustration, the lost faery child found at Middleton in Teesdale had green clothes and red eyes- in light of which, perhaps there is negative evidence to hand as well. It is a widespread belief that pretty, fair-haired and blue-eyed human babies are the most vulnerable to being snatched away by the fairies. For example, along the border between England and Wales it was said that “fine and solid” country babies were the ones preferred. It might be proposed that the human infants taken were chosen because they did not look like fairy offspring, with their surprisingly coloured countenances.
When we gather together the scattered evidence, some surprising patterns emerge. The taking of changelings might suggest a want of family feeling on the part of the faes, but their own conduct suggests that they are just as good parents as any humans (and sometimes better, judging by the stories of the fairies providing child-care for our neglected infants).
Secondly, whilst we can often assume that the fairies are all lovely to behold, if we put together the different stories, we discover hints of something different. Some look just like us; others very definitely do not.