K.V. Johansen is the author of a number of fantasy and science fiction novels for children and teens, as well as novels and short story collections for adults and the Pippin and Mabel picture books. Her latest book is Blackdog, a novel for adults published by Pyr.
In a bookstore recently, the covers of some paranormal romance bodice-rippers featuring shapeshifters jumped out at me, all leather-trousered women without much bodice to rip and men without shirts. (Also without chest hair. I’m all for neutering pets so as not to add to the population of unwanted animals, but…)
“Ahhhh!” I thought. “Shapeshifters are the new vampires. I’ve become trendy.”
Sometimes it seems as though I’ve been writing about shapeshifters all my life — high fantasy shapeshifters, though. In high school, way back when, I had three shapeshifter protagonists I worked on, revising and revising, laying the groundwork for future real books. It just ends up being, for me, the natural form for a hero to take. (Or forms, heh.) I can’t be blamed for the ones in The Serpent Bride (an early work — a collection of stories based on ballads from medieval Denmark); they were there in my sources to start with — dragon-princes, snake- and hawk- and deer-girls, those Scandinavian trolls who are sometimes beautiful women and sometimes ravens and occasionally do lurk under bridges, even without goats getting involved. The hero of Blackdog, which is definitely not a fairy-tale but an epic fantasy (now out from Pyr), is a man possessed by a savage dog-spirit. Another central Blackdog character, who appears as well as the hero in the short story “The Storyteller”, would be right at home in those shapeshifter-filled medieval Danish ballads, though she could find a place in the grim Norse sagas and work her way into the mythology of the Elder Edda too, given half a chance. Her lover is a half-demon whose particular shapeshifting nature was inspired by East of the Sun & West of the Moon, which is in the Norwegian folktale collection of Asbjørnsen and Moe, the same place you’ll find “The Three Billy Goats Gruff”.
Which brings me to how I caught shapeshifters. It’s partially due to McKillip (I devoured her Riddle-Master trilogy, with its assorted shapeshifters, when I was quite young). Ladyhawke, my all-time favourite movie, was of course an influence. However, when I was four or thereabouts, I had a picture book version of the Grimms’ fairy-tale “Little Brother and Little Sister”. The important part, from my pre-schooler self’s point of view, was not that Little Sister eventually married the king and freed her brother from the spell. The important part was the enchanted springs in the forest that whispered, “Anyone who drinks of me will turn into a tiger…a bear…a fawn.” At the third one, Little Brother is too thirsty to resist, and thus the real story starts. He was warned, he drank anyway, and — he had a marvellous time as a young stag, until the hunting king caught up with him. I always wished he’d drunk from the tiger spring instead.
Therein lies, for me, the appeal of writing about shapeshifters: the power, the freedom, the discovery of otherness within oneself, and the dangers and temptations inherent in that. It fits naturally with an interest in characters who exist on the outer edge of humanity, perhaps having more in common with each other than with the ordinary folk whose lives they have the potential to shatter, yet from whom they’ve sprung and from whom they can’t disengage themselves, not without starting a slide into evil, which, to quote Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax, arises from “treatin’ people as things” (Carpe Jugulum). The potential in every outside-of-humanity hero to damn a society that to some degree fears and excludes him or her and to start looking on its members as pawns, prey, or tools is part of the tension that fuels the story. Even though most of the shapeshifters are either villains or victims in the fairy-tales and the medieval ballads that pre-date them, right back to the Volsungasaga, with Fafnir who becomes a dragon and Sigmund and Sinfjotli transformed by wolfskins, they were always the characters I wanted to discover more about, the ones whose heads I wanted to see into. They were the ones I wanted to be the heroes.
It never occurred to me that they’d want to wax their chests.