Cradles in space: the changeling in folk narrative and modern science fiction

Lawrence, Adam Douglas (2010) Cradles in space: the changeling in folk narrative and modern science fiction. Doctoral (PhD) thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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Abstract

This dissertation considers how modem science fiction (SF) has continually employed elements of European folk narrative to explore subaltern and subterranean culture - meaning, both the politically disenfranchised and biologically deformed figures who threaten to emerge from their underground habitations and infiltrate the most cherished institutions of the upper world. According to legends deriving from England, Wales, Cornwall, Scotland, Ireland, and Scandinavia, it was common practice for the fairies, also called the "Good People" or the "little people," to abduct human children and leave withered and cantankerous fairies, known as "changelings," in their place. I argue that the changeling emerges as a "conceptual persona" in the nineteenth century when folklorists and scientists alike began to interpret changeling tales as unsophisticated diagnoses of congenital diseases-before the medical lexicon of "congenital malformation" was even available. The changeling provided the absent lexicon, which was specifically adopted by Victorian British society as an explanation of insubordinate behaviour among children, women, the lower classes, and the non-white races. My five chapters discuss the figure of the fairy changeling as it appears in British and other European legends and as it is adapted in several SF novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To begin, I suggest that these European folk legends describe a "fairy economy," in which two species engage in various forms of trade and exchange (Chapter 1). Through detailed readings of such folktales as "The Fairy Wife" and "The Speckled Bull" and such legends as "The Caerlaverock Changeling" and "Johnnie in the Cradle," I argue that the changeling enunciates a particular set of issues that surface in the Victorian period, concerning childcare, reproduction, cross-cultural and cross-species relations, and hybridity, and which are further explored in the realm of modem SF. Both Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde re-imagine the changeling as a representative of the lower-class mob, the atavistic criminal population, and the Gothic underworld (Chapter 2). Shelley's and Stevenson's monsters are also clearly prototypical SF creations, related as they are to early speculations on the biologically engineered human. In both The Time Machine and The Island of Dr. Moreau, H. G. Wells modifies these gothic/scientific fictions and their folkloric antecedents by exploring, on the one hand, the future devolution of the species into a two-nation world consisting of fey-like "little people" and monstrous underlings and, on the other hand, a near future hybridization of the species through the radical vivisection of various animal types (Chapter 3). Wells's two works present vivid attempts to conceptualize a "symbiotic" community, clearly hinted at in the legends involving human-fairy interactions. As I argue through these first three chapters, the changeling narrative presents a fictional narrative that explores human origins through the interaction and exchange with a nonhuman species. Viewed through the lens of SF, the changeling legend conceptualizes species evolution and speculates on the utopian possibilities of cross-breeding cultures and species. Providing an Eastern European perspective, Karel Čapek explores the folkloric-cum-evolutionary notions of hybridity and symbiosis, first, in R. U R., a craftily disguised melodrama about artificially grown workers called "Robots" and, second, in War with the Newts, a satirical scientific parable about salamanders conditioned and bred to function as a labour force (Chapter 4). In both scenarios, the engineered entities possess the "changeling" instinct to infiltrate and undermine human authority but also present the nightmarish results of co-opting monsters for profit and war. Olaf Stapledon develops this twentieth-century folkloric-cum-evolutionary exploration, first, in two "cosmological" fictions, Last and First Men and Star Maker, which contemplate the future development of the human species and the potential function of symbiotic communities. Adapting these original far-future visions, Odd John and Sirius return us to the quaint environment of folk narrative, conceptualizing new changelings in the form of a mutant superman and a hybrid man-dog. Together, Stapledon's "composite" fictional world testifies to the resilience of the folkloric tradition and the religious or supernatural fascination with the fearful symmetry of the human organism. Such science-fictional speculations enable us to discover that legends contain within them subversive undercurrents associated with both a rural underclass as well as a "little folk" driven underground by colonization and industrialization. From this perspective, there are some fascinating intersections between folklore and SF, including the crossover between the "alien" and the "fairy," the abduction motif itself, and the cultural significance of physical metamorphosis as it is consistently presented in changeling narratives and in "alien encounter" SF.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral (PhD))
URI: http://research.library.mun.ca/id/eprint/10859
Item ID: 10859
Additional Information: Includes bibliographical references (leaves 389-414).
Department(s): Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of > English Language and Literature
Date: 2010
Date Type: Submission
Library of Congress Subject Heading: Changelings; Changelings--Folklore; Science fiction, European.

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