'The Stolen Child' and the Changeling Myth

'The Stolen Child,' by Keith Donohue

hide caption'The Stolen Child' tells the intertwined stories of an adult trying to remember his childhood and a 7-year-old trapped in time.

The inspiration for Keith Donohue's book The Stolen Child is a W.B. Yeats poem in which fairies try to entice a human child away from a human world "more full of weeping than you can understand." The changeling myth at the heart of poem and book has ancient roots and echoes in popular culture.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Writer Keith Donohue's debut novel, The Stolen Child, is a contemporary re-working of the legend of the changeling, the story of children taken away from their parents by fairies. Donohue also draws on the poetry of William Butler Yeats. The result is a book that fits right into a recent trend of mixing fantasy and realism in a literary novel. NPR's Lynn Neary reports.

LYNN NEARY reporting:

Keith Donohue says he never intended to be part of a literary trend, but he says he understands the appeal of stories that include elements of fantasy.

Mr. KEITH DONOHUE (Writer): Well, I think in part it has something to do with the desire for that re-enchantment, the desire for our myths and our legends and our beliefs and our superstitions to be relit.

NEARY: In Donohue's story, a young boy named Henry Day is stolen by fairies and replaced by a changeling, a fairy who changes himself to look like Henry. The changeling takes over Henry's life, but is always conscious of the fact that it's not really his. Henry becomes a fairy known as Aniday, who never grows old, but is always aware that he has lost something precious. The two narrate their own stories.

Mr. DONOHUE: I thought it was an intriguing way to try to tell two sides of the same story, to have two narrators, to have two separate narrators. And boy, it was a lot of fun to write that way because you, I was able to bounce, as I said, back and forth between two narrators telling two slightly different versions of the same story, particularly when their paths intersect as they do.

NEARY: And their paths do intersect, yeah.

Mr. DONOHUE: Yes, right.

NEARY: I wonder if you could just read a short passage here that describes how the change happened.

Mr. DONOHUE: Okay.

NEARY: It's on Page 3.

Mr. DONOHUE: All right.

I changed lives with Henry Day, a boy born on a farm outside of town. On a late summer's afternoon when he was seven, Henry ran away from home and hid in a hollow chestnut tree. Our changeling spies followed him and raised the alarm and I transformed myself into his perfect facsimile. We grabbed him and I slipped into the hollowed space to switch my life for his.

NEARY: The changeling legend that inspired Donohue's story is a tough one, says Jeannie Thomas, the Director of the Folklore Program at Utah State University.

Ms. JEANNIE B. THOMAS (Director, Folklore Program): What the fairies do is they steal your human baby and they leave an old, yucky fairy in its place and then you're stuck trying to figure out what to do with this child or fairy.

NEARY: The changeling story, says Thomas, was a way to explain an infant or a child who had a disability. Sometimes parents would take such children out to the forest and leave them there and hope that the fairies would return the real child. But of course, a child left in the forest would die. The legend of the changeling, says Thomas, is steeped in tragedy.

Dr. THOMAS: All that brutality is there, all the difficulty if you were a family who had a disabled child and, you know, your subsistence level is grim, you're poor. That child was incredibly hard to deal with, hard to take care of, you know, it picks up on all the human stress, all of the human foibles there.

NEARY: Donohue says when he learned about the changeling legend, he was struck by its sadness. But he also saw the potential in it for exploring questions of identity.

Mr. DONOHUE: I was more interested in how a changeling could be a replica, a substitute, so we could have one kid who stays seven and then another kid who takes his place and grows up and lives a life that this child would have lived or could have lived.

NEARY: Donohue began thinking about using the changeling legend for the basis of his book when he heard a musical version of the Yeats' poem, The Stolen Child. In the poem, fairies lure a child with images of a wild fairyland, far from a world full of weeping.

(Soundbite of song, "The Stolen Child" by the Waterboys)

THE WATERBOYS (Band): (Singing) Come away, human child to the water and the wild. With a fairy, hand in hand, for the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

Mr. DONOHUE: You picture this little boy walking away with two fairies, right, to the waters in the wild and you get this kind of wonderful image of escape from the home and the last verse talks about, you know, the more you hear lowing of the cows on the hills and etcetera, because you'll be gone from home and that's where the boy who was stolen, the Stolen Child, when he begins his story, it's the first thing he says: I am gone. And that's the moment where the poem sort of connected with the other things that I was trying to deal with in the book.

NEARY: Like the Yeats' poem and the legend it is based on, Donohue's book is tinged with sadness and regret about what is and what might have been. He has used an agent legend to tell a story about man's desire to know himself and the obstacles that can get in the way of that quest. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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