Over the weekend The Guardian published an article about the top ten shapeshifters in fiction. It was an enjoyable read and proof that shapeshifters continue to be relevant. However the choice of texts was limited (three examples from Harry Potter?). And, whilst I love Sirius Black in way that only someone who has grown up with novels and gone from fancying Harry to the Weasley twins to the complex Sirius can, I would argue that Sirius’ animagi status is not essential to his characterisation. So I offer you my alternative list.
Sandra Francey from Melvin Burgess’ Lady: My Life as a Bitch (2001)
My mum bought this novel for me when I was in my teens. It’s a very graphic depiction of what it’s like being a teenage girl. (My mother also bought me Anne Rice’s The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty (1983) for my 16th birthday without realising it was a erotic BDSM novel which might explain why she thought it was suitable). Sandra wakes up one day as a dog and the novel follows her acceptance of this state. Its intense depiction of the embodied experience of sexuality is paralleled with animality by Burgess. It’s not a perfect novel but reading it as a pubescent girl felt ground-breaking and taboo. Sandra’s devil-may-care attitude and disregard of social mores makes her present as a less neurotic Holden Caulfield.
Tallula from Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf Trilogy (2011-2014)
Duncan’s female protagonist is as unapologetic as Burgess’. She’s intelligent, independent, sexual, a successful business woman and very, very scary. Her ability to absorb the tenets of lycanthropy, which include killing someone every full moon, show her tenacity and will to survive. But as well as being a consummate carnivore, Tallula also becomes a mother throughout the novels and it is this aspect that makes her presentation particularly powerful. She is presented as maternal but without it annihilating the other aspects of her character. Nor does her motherhood make her more monstrous; it becomes another facet of her personality. The character of Tallula is a complex exploration of lycanthropy.
Kaye from Holly Black’s Tithe (2002)
Kaye was the first changeling that I met in a novel and she introduced me to the darkly enticing world of Black’s urban fey. I had always been intrigued by changelings (and I’m currently convinced my partner might be one) and was taken with Kaye’s ignorance of her true nature. The parallel between Kaye’s experience and the teenage sensations of feeling as though you don’t belong whilst fearing you don’t was elegantly expressed through the motif of the changeling. The balance throughout the novel between otherwordly beauty and gritty reality envisaged through dirty clothes, the smell of cigarettes and bitter coffee gives Black’s work an intense tactility.
The Beast from Robin McKinley’s Beauty (1978)
As Bill has rightly pointed out ‘Beauty and the Beast’, like ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, is an important narrative in relation to the figure of the shapeshifter/ werewolf. Though I am very fond of Angela Carter’s adaptations of these fairy tales, McKinley’s full length novel is a wonderful reinterpretation for the Young Adult audience. In particular the Beast’s character is more fully fleshed out making him more charming in both beastly and human form. Indeed perhaps the greatest risk of McKinley’s writing is that, along with the gorgeous library and self-cleaning house, the Beast’s charm makes him quite a catch regardless of his form. However the novel never fully describes the Beast so that even as I write this piece I can only picture a fluid, nebulous area of darkness where the Beast should be – which seems incredibly appropriate for the monster of such a Gothic text.
The werewolves in Sally Gardner’s Tinder (2013)
Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Tinderbox’ (1835), Gardner’s novel returns to the dark and tragic mood of early fairy tales. The story follows a soldier who makes a deal with a strange wolf-like man carrying a belt. Slowly the soldier makes his fortune but Gardner ensures through the dream-like narrative that the reader is never easy with a simple happy ending. Curling throughout the prose is the presence of the werewolves who replace the original fairy tale’s dogs with enormous eyes. The power of the story comes it part from its grounding in real life events – it is set during the Thirty Years War – and Gardner acknowledges that she researched the accounts of the Werewolf Trials as well as the malignant potential of the stranger’s girdle.
Narcissus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (8 C.E.)
Any instance of shapeshifting that goes on to inspire the name of personality disorder is clearly worthy of consideration. The influence of myth and legends on our understanding of the real world is perfectly encapsulated in the legacy of the story of Narcissus. (As well as its influence on horticulture). The relationship between physical versus psychological transformation continues to dog the representation of the werewolf through the idea of the ‘beast within’ which pertains more to the human psyche that the real life wolf. Thus Narcissus is representative of the importance of the figure of the shapeshifter in popular culture and the human imagination. We can also see the influence of Ovid’s tale in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) and for that I owe it a huge debt of gratitude.
The Little Mermaid from Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1837)
With a half-Danish father, Hans Christian Andersen formed an important part of my childhood. (I remember my dad reading me ‘The Little Match Girl’ (1845) when I was seven years old as a rite of passage and crying and crying over the image of her little body in the snow). I re-read ‘The Little Mermaid’ recently and I was struck anew by the beauty of the prose especially the description of the garden under the sea and colours of the storm that sinks the Prince’s boat. The Little Mermaid’s transition into a human and then sea foam is heartbreaking: first through the pain of her new feet which are like walking on knives and secondly through the sacrifice of her life for the man she loves. It is undeniably problematic but the many heartbreaking images which are tossed to the surface are remain singularly affective when compared to more anodyne accounts of shapeshifters.
Dracula’s Bloodline in Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula (1992)
If you haven’t read Newman’s Anno Dracula then I urge you to go and read it immediately. (And not simply because he spoke at OGOM’s ‘Bram Stoker Centenary Symposium’). It is an absolutely delightful read for any vampire nerd and the level of intertexuality is delicious. The basic premise is that Count Dracula wins the battle against Van Helsing et. al and has married Queen Victoria. He and his kin are transforming large numbers of Victoria’s subjects but in doing so his bloodline is becoming increasingly degenerate. The streets are lined with sanguinary prostitutes who sell their bodies for a lick of blood. Dracula’s shapeshifting abilities are diluted and disturbed creating harrowing images of blood-starved foundlings with stunted bat wings: a dystopian vision of a vampiric future.
Luke Garroway from Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments Series (2007-2014)
Luke, or Lucian, from Clare’s series has many overlaps with Remus Lupin from J. K. Rolwing’s Harry Potter series. They are both rejected from society for their lycanthropy and find themselves making decisions to sacrifice their own happiness for the greater good. However, where Lupin truly does transform into a traditional monstrous werewolf, Luke is able to control his transformations. In many ways this makes his betrayal by his best friend, who encourages Luke to kill himself having been infected, even more heartbreaking. Luke does not have to be a monster and is instead a victim of prejudice.
Quinn from Charlaine Harris’ The Southern Vampire Mysteries (2001-2013)
He’s a weretiger. Quite possibly the coolest option that therianthropy has to offer. Quinn also has purple irises which makes him the Elizabeth Taylor of shapeshifters. Harris managed to express Quinn’s tiger aspect even in his human form describing his elegance and physicality in hypnotic language. However whilst I was convinced by Harris’ world building I couldn’t help wondering, as I do will all accounts of shapeshifting, why there are never any were-slugs.
I hope you enjoyed this list. Are there any I have missed? Which are your favourites? Feel free to comment below.