Today I have the brilliant Lari Don, author of the Spellchasers trilogy on my blog talking about all things shapeshifting and why we love shapeshifters in literature so much. I hope you enjoy reading!
Why do we love stories about shapeshifting? Why do we tell so many tales about werewolves at full moon and frogs turning into princes?
There are lots of shapeshifters in the Scottish folklore I was brought up with: selkies (seals in the sea, who become human when they take off their sealskins) and kelpies (monsters in a river or loch, but beautiful horses or humans when they come out of the water.)
Those two different magical creatures possibly show the two sides of our fascination with shapeshifting. Selkies are usually unthreatening and gentle, turning human to dance in the moonlight. But kelpies change shape to lure children to the water’s edge, then pull them into the water to drown them and eat them. So, some shapeshifters are enchanting, others are predatory.
Most cultures have shapeshifter stories, with a mix of friendly or benign or enchanted shapeshifters (that frog prince) and terrifying or monstrous or dangerous shapeshifters (those werewolves.)
So why do we love shapeshifter tales?
Is it because we want to recognise some kind of humanity in the animals around us? It’s easy to glimpse something familiar in the eyes of a seal watching you from a few metres offshore.
Or is it because we like to imagine ourselves with the power and abilities of various animals? Who hasn’t wished for wings?
I’ve always loved shapeshifter stories. My favourites include The Tale of Tam Linn (a Scottish tale about a boy stolen by the fairy queen, then rescued by a girl who holds on as he shifts into all sorts of animals), Ceridwen (a Welsh story with a wonderful shifting chase in which a hare is pursued by a greyhound, a swallow by a hawk, and a salmon by an otter), and Durga (a Hindu story about a ten-armed goddess defeating a shapeshifting demon.)
All these shapeshifters in my head inspire the adventure novels that I write.
I built up my shapeshifting muscles writing The Fabled Beast Chronicles, when my main character met selkies and werewolves. Then I threw myself entirely into shapeshifting when I wrote the Spellchasers trilogy.
I discovered snippets of folklore about women shifting into hares, mostly from the north of Scotland, and I started to imagine what that transformation would be like if you didn’t choose it. If you were cursed to become a hare.
Hares are beautiful and fast, but becoming a hare by surprise would be terrifying and dangerous.
So, because one of the main attributes of a writer is being horrible to your characters, I had a witch curse a schoolgirl to turn into a hare every time she hears a dog bark or growl. My unwilling shapeshifter Molly finds herself on a curse-lifting workshop, trying to make friends with several other young shapeshifters, including a kelpie who is quite happy shifting shape, and a toad who isn’t…
Because the Spellchasers trilogy is filled with shapeshifting (some of the baddies are shape-shifters too) I had to consider how it would feel to be these animals, and also consider how the specific moment of change would feel and look. I researched hares, horses, toads and crows, then I used that information to think about how it felt to be those creatures. But I just had to imagine the magical shift!
That mix of research, empathy and imagination makes shapeshifting – ‘what animal would you like to be for the weekend, and what adventures would you have?’ – a very powerful way to encourage kids to come up with their own stories.
The enthusiasm I find when I work with kids using shapeshifter stories perhaps suggests one answer to the question ‘why do we love shapeshifter stories?’ There seems to be a creative magic in thinking about what you could do if you gained, for a short while, a different set of physical abilities.
When I ask 10 year olds what animal they’d like to shift into, they usually want to be animals that can do things they can’t: eagles to fly, ants to creep and spy, dolphins and sharks to swim, cheetahs to run…
But they always want to turn back again at the end of the adventure, because humans are the ones who can tell the stories afterwards!
Lari Don is a full-time children’s writer and storyteller. She grew up who was brought up in the North East of Scotland and now lives in Edinburgh. She writes in her garden shed, helped by purring cats and hindered by lurking spiders. Lari has written more than 20 books, including adventure novels, picture books and retellings of traditional tales. She can be found on Twitter @LariDonWriter or at
More info www.laridon.co.uk
The Spellchasers trilogy is available and out now.