Being a Changeling

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of a changeling.

You know what that is, I’m sure. Although come to think of it, when I ask my students what a changeling is, most of them don’t know. They ask, is it something that changes? And I say, no, the “change” in changeling comes from the same root that gave us “exchange.” A changeling is really an exchangeling.

My friend the Oxford English Dictionary says that the word “change” goes back to the late Latin “cambium,” meaning “exchange.” Among its meanings, it specifies that change is the “substitution of one thing for another; succession of one thing in place of another.” It’s also a round in dancing, “passing from life; death,” and “a place where merchants meet for the transaction of business, an exchange.”

So what is a changeling? “A person or thing (surreptitiously) put in exchange for another,” or more specifically, “A child secretly substituted for another in infancy; esp. a child (usually stupid or ugly) supposed to have been left by fairies in exchange for one stolen.”

A changeling is a child who actually belongs elsewhere, left here in our world. That’s what I felt like, as a child. I wondered what I was doing here, when I obviously belonged somewhere else. I didn’t know where, but somewhere. I could not understand why the other children at my elementary school read books that were not about magic. I mean, how boring, right? I could not understand how the other teenagers in my high school could be so interested in popular culture — the latest movies, the latest music. Although by then I had learned to disguise my own lack of interest. I looked like everyone else, I spoke like everyone else. But I didn’t feel the way I imagined they felt. I was in love with Robin Hood, not Scott Baio. (I bet a lot of people reading this post won’t even remember that ’80s teen heartthrob. But most of you know who Robin Hood is.)

What I’m trying to describe is that sense I had, when I was young (and, confession, still have) of being permanently outside things. Not just that: of belonging someplace else. Part of it, of course, was being an immigrant. I did in fact belong someplace else, another culture. I had lived in that culture long enough to learn its language, to be Hungarian. And then I was taken away, and I had to become something, someone, else. I had to become American. At that time, the land I had come from was hidden behind an Iron Curtain, so it might as well have been fairyland. That’s part of it, I’m sure.

But I’ve met lots of people who feel this way, who are convinced they somehow belong elsewhere, and are still nostalgic for their home country. C.S. Lewis described this feeling, although it converted him to Christianity. I honestly don’t think it has anything to do with religion in particular. What is it then? I think perhaps it’s really the condition of being an artist. Or perhaps of being the sort of person who has an artistic approach to life. You know there is a fairyland, a magical country. You feel it when you create, and see it when you observe. You catch glimpses of it just beyond the reality other people insist is the only one. (I have also met people who don’t feel this way, and who did not at all understand what I was talking about. Sometimes I envy their comfort, how easily they move in this world. It seems to me that being a changeling is a state of continual discomfort.)

What I’m trying to say, I think, is that there are people out there (perhaps you’re one of them) who identify with the story of the changeling, the fairy child left to live in this world. The child who is convinced it belongs elsewhere, but does the best it can here, because that’s what it has, right now. The child who often feels (going back to the definition) stupid or ugly, because it doesn’t quite fit. It thinks, well, perhaps what I have would count as wit and beauty elsewhere? Under a different system of values?

The compensation, for me, of feeling as though I’m a changeling, a sort of perpetual outsider, is art. It feels as though what I do, the stories I tell, the poems I write, all come from someplace else, the place (wherever it is) that is my home. It feels as though I have access to a fairyland, a place where words come from and magic is made. And I see it, too, in little bits and pieces. Fairyland is there: in pools of water, curled up in flowers, as though it were one of those other dimensions described by quantum physicists. It’s as though I can see it interspersed in this world, intersecting it, or behind it but visible as though through a film or veil. Fairyland haunts this world like a ghost. It is always there: what we need are the right eyes.

Recently, I read a book called Writing Wild by Tina Welling. She says something about writers that struck me, although I would apply it to artists in general:

“As writers, we pretend to be among the normal people, all the while living in a way that no one, not even we ourselves, believes is normal at all. What we yearn for is to be acknowledged for who we really are. It may be the reason behind writing in the first place.”

“As writers, we choose a particular way of life. It is our business to see what others may miss; we see life as an exciting wilderness of connections, and we make it our work to discover these connections, mark the path through them, and pass the information on to others. We have noticed that we are after a larger experience of life than most. It doesn’t make us better than others, but it does demand that we be more alert to life. And so it makes us different. We know that, and we like our differentness. Yet it is uncomfortable at times.”

There are things I question about this quotation: for one thing, I don’t think anyone is actually “normal,” or that there is a normal to define ourselves against. There are simply different ways of being abnormal, defined against an imaginary normal that we have somehow made up. But artists may be particularly bad at fitting that imaginary template. They may be particularly incapable of appearing normal. And I do agree with what she says after that: it is our business to see what others may miss, to acknowledge it and represent it. It is our task to understand the connections, to experience and describe life as larger than most people imagine. Not all artists do that, but the ones who do are the ones I most admire, the ones whose work most resonates with me. They are the ones who seem to be looking into another dimension, who see fairyland curled into the trumpet of a flower.

If there is a good thing about being a changeling, it’s that you can see the magic, wherever it hides. And you can write about it, draw it, paint it. Dance it, even. (Change is a dance move, remember?) You can work to re-enchant the world. The world is already enchanted: re-enchanting it means helping other people see the enchantment that is there, and that we often seem to pave over, I think because it makes us uncomfortable. Because it reminds us that what we have, here, now, is only temporary. (Remember that a change is also the passage to death, and fairyland, in old stories, is the land of the dead.) It reminds us that we are ephemeral. But I think we need to be reminded.

Being a changeling means you feel as though you came from somewhere else, and will go somewhere else. It means acknowledging that you are here temporarily. It means seeing the magic in the world, and if you can, representing it for others, so perhaps they will see it as well. And it means being uncomfortable, feeling lost, sometimes feeling alone, because you see things differently than other people seem to see them — unless you can find other changelings to hang out with. But I don’t think I would exchange the way I perceive the world for comfort. It lets me see too much, it makes the world so much more vivid for me. And it allows me to create, which in the end is what I think the fairies left me here to do . . .

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22 Responses to Being a Changeling

  1. Ada Ludenow says:

    I am in the process of re-reading Ulysses right now. Not because I have to. I am blissfully expatriated from Academia. I read a copy w/o annotations because those just get in the way of Joyce’s language. And who else could Leopold Bloom be but a changeling! I had never considered the idea of changeling to apply to him, but this essay clearly points out many ways in which Leopold wanders through this world where he doesn’t quite fit in.

    My own name for Faerie is Hyperborea, but names as signifiers are as fluid as their speakers.

    Lovely essay.

    • Thank you! And I like the idea of Bloom as a changeling — I know Joyce very much felt out of place in Ireland (and probably the whole human world)! 🙂

  2. helen says:

    Fascinating post, thank you! 🙂

    Have you ever read ‘Cuckoo Song’ by Frances Hardinge? It’s a wonderful children’s book (but don’t let that stop you, it didn’t stop me!) about a changeling in Bristol in the 1930s, I think you’d like it.

    • No, but I’m planning to read her, because she’s been recommended to me before! And I love reading children’s books. They’re so much more complicated than books for mere adults! 🙂

  3. BJ Honeycutt says:

    Beautifully expressed! We are all changelings in-waiting – some more gifted than others.

  4. Nissah says:

    Beautiful! Thank you so much for sharing this with us. Your words are themselves re-enchanting ♡

  5. Phyllis Holliday says:

    Amazing. I didn’t think of it a a changeling thought later I found out it fits. I was peculiar. One of my best friends at St. Francis School in 2nd grade noticed me, the new girl, waving a stick because she knew it was wand and I was being a fairy for a while. She was much like me and going on in this
    weirdness I was shunned by some, but knew there were enough of us that we would find each other. And I still remember my enchanted forest and I think it is till there.

    • Phyllis Holliday says:

      Sorry about the typos. “As a changeling,” & “Though not thought.” Changeling speed.

      • That’s lovely! I see it in my daughter now — all that magic and otherworldliness. I do think we strange ones eventually find each other . . . 🙂

  6. Absolutely beautiful, yes, yes, yes, yes ❤

  7. Miriam says:

    Thank you so much. This post really resonates with me, maybe more than any blogposts ever. This is how I’ve felt all my life, and I’d like to know how to walk on. Still searching for my path with a burden inside me. Thank you again.

  8. Raphael says:

    Fae and Demon are essentially cultural parallels between east and west. What is supernatural, yet not divine between the human world
    I am familiar with a graphic image of exchange depicting a faery, if demon is too harsh providing one of its own in exchange for a natural born child already spellbound with a halo-the mark of the saint. So, the natural born is somehow too pure, too good for the earth? Early 15th century.
    What of Edward V of York in his “murder” or “disappearance?” To see a sickly prince with other images of the same effigy under the court of his father of clear pig influence by the Chinese zodiac if born early November by record as the twelve correlate. 1467 or 1471 birth is where you would tend to see the striking changes. DNA.
    Read his bio, his life. A different “higher self” or calling realized sending one down the road as Richard III may but be a well meaning victim of defamation.
    A green goblin or black demon penetrating an angel incidentally.
    Can happen to adults to become bound to a passionless marriage. Yes, he and his brother are said to be “illegitimate” by a previous arranged marriage to Edward IV, yet he is alive as his mother’s marriage is already consummated incidentally.
    There is also and Edward of Westminster from the same Wars of the Roses era said to be both an illegitimate son and “a changeling” who bears a frightening resemblance to Edward V.
    People incidentally vanish during our modern era.

  9. Rafael says:

    Actually, it was Edward of Westminster, a close blood relative said to be a bastard and a changeling via contention through the Wars of the Roses. I know nothing of claim, but Edward V and his brother to be revealed “illegitimate” as Richard III rises to the throne. An effigy of a sickly apparition transcribe over the healthy child under the court of father Edward IV of York under the Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers. These are eyewitness depictions of the person from the time. “Walk-in” souls understood through shamanic tradition may volunteer a matter. Edward of Westminster perishes on the battlefield around the age of seventeen, the only English heir apparent to throne to die in battle, but through what life lived, must have been perceived too substantial a threat -be under representation of the Red Rose- of such an immature position. Supernatural properties observed in people to illustrate magic.
    Edward V sought daily penance under the Tower of London prior to public disappearance along with his brother, fearing the end was near: by depiction, visibly under a sickly state by the observance of others.
    In terms of culture, Felicia of Darkstalkers, a comic book character literally conveyed as foreign race effigy. Raised under a convent with a nun assuming role of the orphan’s mother, she follows her mother in deploying white magic relying rescued foreign race effigies as herself.
    Essentially a derelict under her vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, who seeks to run away from the convent seeking the fame of the world compelled by fascinations as burlesque.

  10. Ezra says:

    After years of feeling alone, I’ve finally found why. My best friend and his spouse told me that they believed I was of fairy descent, but as I grow older, the clearer the signs are. The stronger I get, the more apparent it becomes. Doing things I shouldn’t be able to do, knowing things I certainly shouldn’t know. In my home as a child, the veil between our world and what felt like home was thinner. I told my caretakers that there were portals in the woods, to which they said “what a lovely story”. When I call to the universe, it answers me. I have felt otherly my entire life, and the kinship I felt reading an experience even a little like mine is incredible. I am years late to this post, and I doubt that you’ll read this. But I am happy to have read this, and to have finally understood that the reason I can see the magic around me, the reason I’ve been told that I’ve got magic of my own my whole life, is because I do.

    • dreameramarie says:

      I feel the same and I also talked about portals in the woods. I used to spend lots of time collecting seeds, nuts, and still collect rocks and shiny things I find on the ground. I’ve had friends notice that I can easily find 4 leaf clovers if that’s part of it. I’ve always felt out of place except when out in nature. I have been known to easily find other’s missing objects especially jewelry. I’ve had quite a few people including those I had never met before call me a fairy or call me magical and have always been told I’m different. This definitely resonates with me.

  11. Coraline says:

    I have much to say, yet I’m unsure how to say it. I recently realized I too am a changeling. I’ve always felt like a fairy or elf stuck inside a human body. And I’ve always said that to my friends, but I still get scared that they’ll think I’m crazy. When I was Little I would look in the mirror and wonder where my pointy ears went. I‘m afraid it sounds silly but it’s true. All my life I’ve had a connection to the fairy realm and otherworld. I have seen fairies and ghosts many times and I’ve always had an extreme comfort to fairies and a kinship with them. They give me things and visit me often. I even see energetic sparkles and I know it’s them. I’ve never felt human. I’ve never felt like I belonged. Ever since I was little I’ve longed for home. I still do. I always think about how I want To go home even when I’m in my own bedroom. I’m always being told by strangers and friends that I’m a fairy, and it’s comforting every time because I feel somewhat validated. Like I’m not crazy. I am an artist and make lots of art and music. I relate To everything you said. Especially with feeling ugly and like I don’t belong, and yet still seeing all the magic in the world. It confuses me how people don’t see it when it’s right in front of us. Especially in nature. Reading your story gave me comfort. It’s nice to find someone who understands. I think changelings are here for divine purposes. And with that purpose comes experience for responsibility, and with that comes pain. Maybe we feel so much pain here because we aren’t from here. The way we operate is just different. And maybe it’d be easier in the fairy realm? Or maybe it’s because we have to become aware of our power when this human body is trying to forget? Or maybe we have to go through hardship for experience so we can be good at helping others and bringing the light into this world. Because you can’t know the light without being in darkness. Or maybe all of the above. Sorry, I’m just rambling now. Anyway, thanks for making me feel like I belong somewhere.

  12. Infinitely blessed channel says:

    What a great read but I think you are describing lightworkers in general. I agree we artists and writers and makers of all sorts. I was searching for the difference between a changeling and a walk-in. You writing is so eloquent.

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