Guest post by Donna Maloy
Shapeshifters are creatures that can assume the appearance—or actual living state—of other species. In many stories, one of those species is human.
There is something about the idea of changing shape that fascinates almost everyone. It might be simply a fanciful wish that we could grow wings and fly like an eagle if we chose, or run with the speed of a tiger, or intimidate our enemies with the mammoth size of a bear. But the fact that so many different cultures have similar stories seems to be a good argument for Carl Jung’s theory of a “collective unconscious” and Joseph Campbell’s idea of common patterns in myths from every time and place.
CURSED AND BESPELLED
In fairy tales and legends, the ability to change to the form and even nature of another creature is usually magical. In North America, for instance, some Native American magic-wielding shamans are said to be skin-walkers who can take on animal shape.
In one of the most well known shapehifter fairy tales, Beauty and the Beast, the bodily change into a bear-like “beast” occurs as the result of a magical curse. This traditional fairy tale started its written life as a play called Amour Pour Amour in 1742. It was then adapted as La Belle et la Bête in 1756, turned into an opera in 1771, and eventually a musical Disney cartoon in 1991. Along the way, it lost some of the backstory which explained the reason for the Prince’s curse and made Belle the secret daughter of a king.
A curse is also involved in the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, The Frog Prince, or Iron Henry (Der Froschkönig oder der eiserne Heinrich), in which a cursed prince remains in frog-shape until he’s thrown against a wall by a spoiled princess, whereupon he regains his humanity. In modern versions, the frog is usually kissed by the princess, but in some early versions the magic is triggered by him spending the night on her pillow. Surprisingly, there are many more versions of this story (Greek, Russian and Italian, for example) in which the frog is a girl, a Frog Princess.
A spell, usually triggered by an enchanted swan skin or garment made with swan feathers, is the method of change in the Swan Maiden legends. A young man steals the magic-imbued skin, preventing the human-shaped girl from changing back to a swan, so that he can marry her. Eventually she finds the hidden skin, changes back to her natural swan shape and disappears. The ballet Swan Lake is based loosely on this fairy tale. The Grimm Brothers’ version is not the only retelling of this story. There are bird-girl legends in Italy (dove), Russia (swan), and Japan (crane), though the Irish version of the same story involves Selkies (seals).
ENCHANTED, MAGICAL NATURE
There are several types of shapeshifters whose skill at changing comes, not from magic directed at them by witches, but from their own ability to use magical powers. Loki, the trickster god of the Norsemen and Leszi, a spirit of Slavic mythology, are examples of these. In Mexican folklore, the shaman Nahuales can turn into a wolf, coyote or jaguar.
Some Brazilians believe the seventh child of the same sex in unbroken succession can use magic to become a were-man or woman, taking the form of a headless horse/mule, goat, wolf, or pig.
In some myths, the ability to shapeshift is either gifted or inherited at birth, or passed by some sort of contagion. However, in most of these stories the being can change into only limited other forms. In India and some other parts of Asia, the animal form is a tiger. In Polynesia, it’s a shark, and in Indonesia and Egypt it’s a crocodile.
The werefoxes of Japan are called kitsune and they can only shift into the shape of women. In the oldest stories, kitsune are seen as wise and powerful—faithful as lovers and wives, though they might have trouble hiding their tails. In later centuries, they were sometimes seen more as goblins who could not be trusted. In medieval Japan it was thought any woman out alone at night was probably really a fox. A barking dog could frighten them into changing back to fox-shape. There are similar werefox myths in China, Korea and Vietnam, also.
The Norse believed that their warrior Berserkers could change into bears or wolves, the better to intimidate their enemies.
Were-hyenas, from the folklore of many different parts of Africa, were sometimes thought to be animal in their natural form—with only the appearance of humanity. But in Ethiopia it was believed that every blacksmith had the power to change into a hyena. In the fifteenth century, Arabs believed hyenas were vampiric, sucking blood from their midnight victims. In Greece, there were even stories that dead werewolves came back as vampiric hyenas.
And then, of course, there are werewolves—and almost none of the oldest stories are happy ones. In Hungarian folklore, it was once believed that parental child abuse was one of the causes of lycanthropy. In Poland, a child born with hair, a birthmark, or a caul on their head, was supposedly doomed to shapeshift into a wolf. In Armenia, a woman who committed a deadly sin would be (allegedly) condemned to spend seven years as a savage wolf, hunted and reviled. In Canada and the far northeastern United States, there are tales that mingle tales of legendary loup-garou (French for werewolves) with horror stories about the Algonquin wendigo (a cannibalistic monster).
Yes, in folklore and legend, werewolves have usually been portrayed monsters. But in modern literature, werewolves are as often shown heroic as villainous, as often born as made. Yet even when a werewolf is cast as one of the “good guys” the story will usually show the general populace regarding him or her as a pariah.
It’s probably good to remember that in legend and literature, the ability to shapeshift comes at a heavy price.
The year is 1806. Fourteen-year-old Celia Ashleigh is impatient to become a Deputy of the Crown, like all the other shapeshifting firstborn Ashleighs. When a very handsome French boy asks for her father’s help in rescuing his abducted sister, she doesn’t tell him her father’s away–she takes the mission herself. But Remy Broussard hadn’t told her that he and his sister are werewolves, nor that they’re being hunted by the dangerous Guardian of La Cluse. The Guardian’s plan is to have frightened villagers kill Remy’s little sister on the night she “changes” for the first time.
When a gypsy girl (who can turn invisible) joins Celia and Remy, Celia realizes that, for the first time, she has friends who are “gifted” just like her. But despite her enthusiasm and good intentions, and their help, she makes several crucial mistakes that jeopardize both her mission and Remy’s family.
As she comes closer to finding Lilette, Celia realizes The Guardian is actually insane with hatred… and his hatred extends to anyone who is not completely human. Like Celia.
About the Author
Donna Maloy lives on the Texas Gulf Coast. CELIA AND THE WOLF is her first book for teens. She’s also written more than twenty-five plays for elementary and middle schools. She loves ethnic foods, shopping, Jeopardy, and geeky things like Google Glass. Donna’s always interested in reading terrific books from new authors, particularly teen writers. Her website (DonnaMaloy.com) and her blog (TangledWords.com) contain resources for new writers, with a focus on contests, workshops, publications and advice for teen authors. You can also follow Donna on Facebook, twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.