Wednesday, October 2, 2013


So I’ve got a book about to peek its head into the world. Now six months in advance, each character is jostling for recognition. Each wants star billing. And as I look over the odd assortment of people and creatures populating Beyond the Door, my gaze settles fondly on the Greenman. Half-man, half tree, his shape shifts with the seasons. But then I realize that he is not the only shifter in my story. There’s Herne the horned man and Gwydon the wolf who was once a story teller. Shapeshifters. We love them. We fear them. Mostly they fascinate us. Myth is peopled with creatures that change from one being to another. The gods of myth, like Odin or Zeus, often take the form of animals. And in some myths, like the story of the selkie or seal woman, animals become human.  One of the most famous myths is the story of Tam Lin who must be held in the arms of the woman who loves him as he changes from animal to animal.

Maybe we identify because we are all shapeshifters. We play one role in life and then another. But that answer is too easy. In shapeshifting you give up who you are to become something else. There is no promise of return. It is crossing a boundary. You have no guarantee of being the same again ever.  And you won’t. Shapeshifters are always marked. Think of Merlin teaching the young Arthur. In T.H. White’s version of the story, Arthur learns about the world through  the perspective of various animals. And it changes him. He is more insightful, but with insight we open ourselves to pain. We can sympathize with a hurting world, we empathize when we feel its pain. The selkie can reclaim her skin and return to the sea, but she leaves part of her heart on shore. Forever. The werewolf, knows the loneliness of night, the drive that compels him. He fears who he becomes. He is split between two worlds, between  two natures and wonders which one is his. It is a question we never escape, who am I? At times, we are afraid to learn the answer. And this is the territory of writers.  The deep place we must be willing to travel with each of our characters.

Neil Gaiman says,”… the best way to show people true things is from a direction that they had not imagined the truth coming.”  Today I share with you one of my poems in hopes that looking at a topic from a different direction will add a little bit of clarity. It first appeared in the Journal of Mythic Arts.

There is a moment
when the creature seems to disappear.
Nothing remains, but a quivering
in the air, the invisible finger
that runs your ridge of spine
Beauty and the Beast, by Anne Anderson, Wikipedia
My students ask if it hurts
to become another. We’ve read
the stories of humans furred,
flesh erupting to wings, or scales,
gill-gasp of transformation.
I tell them some are stories of pursuit,
a dove answered with a hawk,
a hare with greyhound as reply.
Pursuer and pursued, their deft dance
that ended once with a grain of corn,
swallowed by a hen who birthed
the storyteller, Taliesin.
But what the students want to know is pain.
That remembered moment when
quills pierce skin, fingernails bleed
to claws. Beyond the window
winter’s first kiss startles the grass with frost.
I tell them yes,
there is always pain at birth or when,
our tent of flesh opens
like a door to the sky,
and something more, you must
lean close to hear
the single note of joy.


Jordan Dane said...

Wow. I have no talent for poetry, but your poem is AMAZING!!! Love the imagery and the emotion. It's evocative. Thanks for sharing it, Maureen.

Maureen McQuerry said...

Glad you like it. I love stories with mythic elements like Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising