Every fantasy tale has a fantasy villain, a monster of some sort, whether it is human or a mythical creature.
First, let’s examine the word monster. What does this word actually mean? The word originated in the late middle ages, after the Norman conquest, and is of old French origin. It evolved from the word ‘monere,’ which meant ‘to warn.’ Originally, it meant any creature that was different and frightening and might have supernatural powers. In our current usage, the word monster has evolved to mean an imaginary creature that is large, ugly, and frightening.
Shapeshifters are an intriguing ‘monster,’ wonderful villains or companions to add to a cast of characters.
Shapeshifting is the ability of a person or creature to completely transform its physical form or shape. This is usually inherent ability. It can also be an ability granted by divine intervention, or it can involve using magic to alter one’s shape. The most common form of shapeshifting myths is that of therianthropy, which is the ability of human beings to metamorphose into other animals.
Other forms of shapeshifting allow the character to perfectly mimic their surroundings or assume the form of an inanimate object. Thus, they go unnoticed until it is too late.
In historical mythology, the ability to alter one’s shape was thought to enable the creature to trick, deceive, hunt, and most importantly, kill humans. In modern fantasy fiction, this ability to completely camouflage themselves makes them the perfect candidate to fill the role of the unseen assassin.
One of my favorite shapeshifters of legend is the Selkie. Selkies are creatures found in Faroese, Icelandic, Irish, and Scottish mythology, and are possessed of the ability to transform themselves from the shape of a seal to human form. Seal shapeshifters like the selkie exist in the folklore of many cultures, even among the Chinook people of North America, who have a similar tale of a boy who changes into a seal.
In legend, Selkies shapeshift by shedding their seal skin. This can be a chancy thing because they must reapply the same skin that they originally shed to return to seal form. The selkie must have a good hiding place for his seal skin, or he will be trapped in human form forever.
As you might imagine, stories surrounding these creatures are usually romantic tragedies. It’s an idea that offers a great deal of opportunity for mayhem, murder, and magic.
What makes a selkie good fodder for fantasy romance, is that they can remain in human form for only a short amount of time before they must find their seal skin and return to the sea. In many stories, humans have unknowingly fallen in love with selkies—a plot twist that creates the tension in a story.
Many famous stories tell of humans finding and hiding the skin of the selkie, thus preventing it from returning to seal form. The unhappy selkie may not regain the sealskin until years later, but when they do, the selkie returns to the sea, abandoning their human family.
Legend says that in their human form male selkies are exceedingly handsome and are possessed of great powers of seduction. They’re said to seek those who are dissatisfied with their lives, lonely women waiting for their fishermen husbands who have been away at sea for too long.
Female selkies are also possessed of seductive beauty, stealing the hearts of men. These stories tell of men finding and stealing the selkie’s seal skin, placing her under his power, forcing her to become his wife. In other tales, selkies have been known to lure humans into the sea by using the ability to create illusions.
Those kinds of stories don’t usually end well for the selkie or the human.
I haven’t written a shapeshifter into any of my work, but now the idea of the selkie is rolling around in the back of my mind. I may include one in a piece I have currently in the planning stage.
How this article came about:
I was challenged to write a post on a fantasy monster, by fantasy author Lindsay Schopfer. The creature could not be from my own books, which rules out minotaurs and dragons. I had to challenge another author to do the same, and I couldn’t pick the same creature as that which my predecessor had written about. Then I was to provide links forward to the other posts:
Lindsay Schopfer’s article on dragons can be found here: A Favorite Fantasy Monster: Jane Yolen’s Dragons
He was challenged by Aaron Volner, whose article on Darkhounds can be found here: A Favorite Fantasy Monster: The Darkhound
I, in turn, am challenging author Stephen Swartz, whose website can be found here: www.http://stephenswartz.blogspot.com
This is the challenge for others who choose to take up this sword and create their own chain:
- You must write a blog post about the subject of a favorite fantasy creature of yours and why it’s a favorite.
- The creature may not be from one of your own books.
- You must challenge one other author to do the same.
- You may not pick the same creature as the person who challenged you.
- You must provide a link back to the post of the person who challenged you, and a link forward to the person you challenged once they publish their post, so people can follow the chain if they want.
Credits and Attributions:
Wikipedia contributors, “Selkie,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Selkie&oldid=818257141 (accessed January 27, 2018).
By Edward Fuglø, Postverk Føroya (faroestamps.fo) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
9 responses to “A Favorite Fantasy Monster: The Shapeshifter #amwriting”
I love the whole notion of shapeshifiting. And your clear directions of how to play. 🙂
We must thank Aaron Volner for the directions! He is awesome and so is his article on Darkhounds.
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Shapeshifters in mythology (not necessarily fantasy fiction) are creatures not to be trusted because their true form is likely not known to the human who finds them attractive until too late. I’ve often wondered how this principle applies to a creature such as Rusalka, a mermaid who falls in love with a human man and acquires legs and comes out of the pond, but who tragically cannot remain happily in this human state. Or what about a more common example. In American gods, Gaiman has certain female characters who appear beautiful and who act as modern equivalents of a siren, but who are actually very very old and not physically attractive (i.e. they are hag-like), at least this is what shows up when they shift back to their “real” form. Are they considered shapeshifters? What about vampires and their ilk who can and do appear fully and ordinarily human, until they show their other side. Are they untrustworthy, tragic figures because they must hide their true nature when among humans?
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Yes, yes, and yes! You are so correct! The shapeshifter is one of the most difficult characters to nail down with one definition, which is why I chose to explore the selkie. Each literary aspect of the shapeshifter as a monster is deserving of a post. In ‘the Writer’s Journey,’ Christopher Vogler says, “People often have trouble grasping the elusive archetype of the Shapeshifter, perhaps because its very nature is to be shifting and unstable.” We (or I, at least) have the tendency to compartmentalize things–they are this, or they are that. Vampires or demons, werewolves or selkies. All of the shape-changers. Giving them a solid mythological persona with expected limits and abilities makes them easier to define and write, but they are all shapeshifters. So glad you made the time to comment!
Oh dear! You talkin’ ta me?
Given the parameters of the assignment, it seems all my options have been cut off.
*You must write a blog post about the subject of a favorite fantasy creature of yours and why it’s a favorite.
–I do not actually have a favorite fantasy creature.
*The creature may not be from one of your own books.
–I could’ve winged it from my epic fantasy novel, but ‘dragon’ was taken.
I could, perhaps, invent something completely weird but I have no way of knowing if that would suffice.
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Thou, sir, art creative and crafty. Many monsters abound in literature.
I would point out, Stephen, that the rules only dictate it must be A favorite, not your MOST favorite. Just pick something you really like.
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