This rant isn’t connected to much of anything at all…except, perhaps, the people I’ve met online who believe they’re shapeshifters, and the way that shapeshifting is often used in fantasy.
One thing that puzzles me is how often shapeshifting can be used to complicate the plot of a fantasy novel, and how little it is. The person who becomes an animal is represented as a threatening beast, a ravening thing with all humanity gone who only wants to prey on the kind he was born into. Or, if it’s the kind of shapeshifter who can assume more than two forms- say, the Changeling in Terry Brooks’s The Elfstones of Shannara- then the element becomes one of deception and intrigue, but still of threat. The shapeshifter, werewolf or demon or changeling or whatever term is used, is apparently intent on destroying human society. So humans have to band together and kill the threat.
It’s the opposite in most of the online world of people who think of themselves as shapeshifters. I’ve read a number of webpages written by “weres” (also called shifters, therianthropes, and other names) who have declared themselves superior to humans, and who want to go back to the animal form they believe their soul belongs to. They would abandon everything- intelligence, art, human family, everything- for a chance to run on four feet. There, people who think of themselves as human are represented as horrible, destructive, stupid, or at least ignorant. “Mundanes” is the usual term, and in some of the shapeshifters’ eyes, they only deserve to be abandoned or even killed.
Why these two simplistic views- one devoted to the human world, the other to the animal?
It doesn’t make sense to me, because it seems that the shapeshifter could be so powerful a symbol of both. He can flow back and forth when he wishes, having the best of both worlds. I could easily see the thrill of writing about such a being, or even, if I were different, believing myself to be one. You have the freedom to run faster and be stronger than any human can be, and more beautiful than many humans are. Yet you also have the ability to think and create art and live comfortably. Not the forest or the house, but both.
Maybe it’s this complexity that dulls the shining symbol down in the legends, the animal into a ravening beast and the human into an ignorant environment-destroyer. Either of those does make a compelling story. I personally feel the shapeshifter crossing boundaries makes a more compelling one, but perhaps it also makes people nervous. Black-and-white thinking, the bifurcation fallacy, is comfortable and has a lot of power of its own. I’ve seen it in people on all sides of the political spectrum, even when they’re perfectly aware of the divisions and complexities in their own side; they simply decide that they are complex, individual, and worthy of being cared about, while the other side is dumb and one-dimensional. Pro-choicers and pro-lifers, Democrats and Republicans, feminists and anti-feminists, people in stories and people who believe they’re shapeshifters- it’s easier that way.
Which affords me a little bitter amusement, since by dividing the world up into the worthy and the unworthy, the “weres” are acting very, very human.
To use the language of academia, maybe shapeshifters are “transgressive,” and people find it hard to deal with that-
Or maybe they just freak people out. *shrug*