Friday, 30 October 2015

Fabled Beasts And Mythical Creatures: Jigsaws and Shape-shifters, by Lari Don

Centaurs and kelpies, mermaids and selkies... Why are we so fascinated by animal / human mashups? And not just us, now, but most cultures, in most places, since the start of (once up on a) time. The Egyptians had animal-headed gods. The Greeks were happy to slice almost any animal in half and stick it onto a matching bit of human. And most cultures have shape-changer stories.

Why are we fascinated by these impossible creatures and their stories? And what are the differences between our need to have people shift into animals, and our need to have people who are also part-animal?

I was privileged early this month to do a launch event for someone else’s book (I know that’s a bit unusual, but I stepped in at the last minute when unforeseen circumstances meant the real author couldn’t be there.)

Kate Leiper's beautiful selkie
So I was on stage, waving A Treasury of Scottish Mythical Creatures, showing Kate Leiper’s gorgeous pictures and reading Theresa Breslin’s enchanting words, and chatting to school kids about selkies. I asked if anyone knew what a selkie was. One pupil said, “It’s a half-seal half-girl.” And I said, “Very close!” then explained that a selkie is sometimes a seal and sometimes a girl, rather half a seal stuck to half a girl. Which we then realised would look a bit like a mermaid...

Which made me think about the similarities and differences between two very distinctive forms of animal / human mix and matches.

There are the shape-shifters, the sometimes-human sometimes-animals: the werewolves, the kelpies, the selkies, the kitsune, the frog princes, the lion women and hyena men...

And there are the jigsaw-ed beasts, made up of bits of people and bits of animals, but always the same shape: the mermaids, the minotaurs, the centaurs, the satyrs...  (The Greeks were masters of these mix and match monsters, but you find a few in other cultures too.)

So what’s the difference between them, and why do we love (or need) to tell stories about them both?

I believe that shape-shifters are fascinating because they could be right beside us, right now. You can’t tell whether the person sitting beside you on the bus in the morning will be a wolf creeping up behind you tonight...

But shape-shifters are often vulnerable too, depending on the rules of their magic. I love Kate’s picture of the selkie, because she has buttons down her tummy, to show that the sealskin comes off when she becomes human. And if she loses that sealskin, she can’t become a seal again. So in Scottish folklore there are a lot of very disturbing and frankly abusive selkie wife stories about a fisherman getting himself a reluctant wife by stealing her sealskin.

It’s not just female selkies who are vulnerable. I tell a story about a werewolf who needs to wear his own clothes to become human again, and is trapped as a wolf when his trousers are stolen.

So, shape-shifters can be vulnerable, and also very easy to hide inside a crowd. This makes them very useful in stories!

And shape-shifters allow us to imagine having different powers and skills. Flying, running, jumping, swimming. It’s probably the opportunity to imagine a human sensibility inside a body with an animal’s capabilities and limitations that attracts me to writing about shape-shifters.

Also, perhaps, shape-shifter stories allow us to explore ideas about what is ‘animal’ inside people, and what is ‘human’ within animals. (What is worthy of compassion, respect, understanding, perhaps? Though, of course, we shouldn’t just extend those to humans... )

But what about the jigsaw-ed beasts, the composite creatures? What about the half-horse half-man, or half-woman half-fish? What do we get from them?

I love writing about these creatures. I love their imagery and their power. The main baddie in several of my Fabled Beast novels is a minotaur, and the sidekick hero in all of them is a centaur. Mainly because I love the idea of a creature that thinks like a human being, but has the power of a large animal.

Perhaps our desire for that mix of agency and strength is why we don’t have a lot of compelling stories about half-worm half-girls or half-mouse half-boys. Thinking practically, if nothing else, the animal has to be big enough for the join at the neck or waist to seem plausible...

But while I love to write about the mix and match monsters, they are perhaps less generally useful and universal in stories than shape-shifters. Mainly because they’re a bit obvious. I’m fairly sure that wherever you’re reading this blog, you’re not sitting next to a minotaur. (Though it’s nearly Halloween, so I might be wrong...) The jigsaw creatures can’t hide among us as easily as the shape-shifters. They are less likely to be our friends and neighbours.

However they are very useful for creating monsters made of things we understand and recognise. (Minotaur = bull’s head + man’s body. There, you’ve got the picture in your head already. That kind of shorthand is very useful for an oral storyteller.) Also, I find centaurs are great for kicking doors down.

What else do you think these animal / human fabled beasts and mythical monsters give us, when we’re  inventing, telling and remembering stories? I’m sure I’ve only mentioned a few of the ways they're useful and important to us as we imagine and create...

But whatever niches they occupy in the ecosystems of our story world, I love writing about the shape-shifters, and the half and halfs...

I’ve written about them from my very first book, and I’m not going to stop now. There are centaurs, fauns and minotaurs, working with or against werewolves, mermaids and selkies in my Fabled Beast Chronicles. There are kelpies and various winged shape-shifters in the series of novels I’m working on now. I’ve also written a whole collection of shape-shifter stories, Serpents & Werewolves, including many of the myths, legends and folktales which inspire my novels.

So now, having mused about why we love and need these fabled beasts, I’m off to write a scene discovering how much faster my heroine can run with paws rather than trainers...

(And if you think Kate’s selkie picture is fab, you might be interested to know there’s an exhibition of her artwork at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh from 4th December until 9th January.)

Lari Don is the award-winning author of more than 20 books for all ages, including a teen thriller, fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales and novellas for reluctant readers.
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Susan Price said...

That is a beautiful selkie.
I think shape-shifters stem from the same source as the Christian Fall myth - we're conscious that we were/are animals and have somehow become separated from them. Children often long to be able to communicate with animals. Many tribal people trace their origin to totem animals. Shape-shifting stories fulfill this wish to return to the company of beasts - Norse heroes, for instance, pull on skins and become wolves or bears.

I think the selkie story is more than simply abusive (though it is, in some measure.) It illustrates the truth that you can't make someone love you.

Great post - thank you!

Emma Barnes said...

I love this - I was always fascinated by the selkie stories, growing up.

It's a good point about shape-shifters "hiding out in a crowd". I've written a variation in Wolfie where a girl is given a pet dog which is actually a magical wolf. In my book though there is no "shape-shifting" - instead the adults are convinced that Wolfie "can't possibly be a wolf" - a complete failure to see what's right under their noses, until something happens that makes them wonder...

Lari Don said...

Susan - you've put me in mind of shamans and their relationship to guide animals, I hadn't even thought about that! The animals in the mind... And thanks for giving me a more positive way to look at the selkie wife story.
and Emma - I love the idea of (adults particularly) not seeing what's in front of us, because it seems too unlikely. Of course, as writers, 'unlikely' is where we live...

K.M.Lockwood said...

Smashing piece about some of my favourite fantasy beings.
I should like to put a word in for male selkies. Not so common - but they do occur in Orkney for one place.

Lari Don said...

Yes, I'm always relieved to find stories about male selkies too - apart from anything else, the species would die out if there were only girl selkies! Are you thinking of the ballad of Sule Skerry? Yet another sad selkie story... When I invented a selkie colony in Sutherland for my adventure novel Storm Singing, I made sure I had male and female, young and old (wrinkly selkies!), and goodies and baddies. Selkies are people too!

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