|Dave Langford delivered this guest of honour talk at Microcon, Exeter University, March 1999. It may be useful to know that the (then) Exeter-based author Paul Barnett also writes as John Grant.|
Hello, everyone, and thanks for having me. I'm delighted to have been had. Since Microcon's theme is Metamorphosis, it seems as though I should talk about this subject -- at least until I can think of a tempting digression, whereupon this speech may well metamorphose into an epic poem, a Socratic dialogue or a teapot.
During the next half-hour, by way of practical demonstration, I promise to transform Paul Barnett into John Grant and back again. Keep your eyes peeled. The quickness of the hand deceives the eye.
Seriously now, metamorphosis is one of those deep-rooted archetypal themes, which even in the most insensitive of readers -- that is, Interzone's reviewer Chr*s G*lmore -- even in the most insensitive readers provokes such troubling thoughts as, 'Am I really sure I can spell it?' And its mere possibility in fantasy means pitfalls for writers who find their sentences going all ambiguous, as in: 'He walked down the street and turned into a shop.'
At this point I wasn't sure whether to regale you with authentic Latin bits from Ovid's Metamorphoses or just to tell tasteless jokes, but looking at my audience I think I see an urgent consumer demand for the tasteless jokes. Here's one: Jack Chalker. Chalker's personal slant on the theme of metamorphosis generally takes the form of having chaps magically turned into gorgeous women with insatiable sexual appetites and a love-slave compulsion. Women, by contrast, remain female but get turned into gorgeous, sexually ravenous love-slaves.
When I was in America last year I came across one of his Dancing Gods novels in a second-hand shop -- this is known as distancing myself from the crime -- and almost immediately found a passage where the hero takes his companion to a wizard for advice on her problem, which (with startling originality) is that the rules of this secondary world are draining away her free will and making her his sex-mad slave. The helpful wizard, Chalker's equivalent of Gandalf, solves the problem by saying, 'Tough, that's the way things are, but I tell you what I'll do: she'll need a slave ring in her nose and I'll put one there painlessly by magic.' Another book to cross off your list.
But I digress. When we were doing the Fantasy Encyclopedia the editors found themselves wallowing in a huge morass of terminology about metamorphosis. Even with about half a dozen different words for it defined in different entries, people kept groping for more. One grumpy entry of mine that didn't make it into the final book went:
TRANSMOGRIFICATION. Word not defined in this Encyclopedia but used by various contributors when they've grown bored with the existing cross-references to METAMORPHOSIS, TRANSFORMATION, SHAPESHIFTING, SHAPECHANGING, TRANSMUTATION, and -- for those who like really posh words -- THERIOMORPHY.
Speaking of shapeshifters, a favourite typo in the draft Encyclopedia gave the world a new paranormal power with awesome implications: shapeshitting. The editors would like to encourage someone other than themselves to develop this concept in fiction, and then send it to Harlan Ellison for The Last Dangerous Visions. It's possible that even Ellison the fearless taboo-buster might just draw the line at shapeshitting. Back in the 70s, when a few naive souls still believed The Last Dangerous Visions would one day be published, Ellison very publicly announced his rejection of a story whose theme was too vomitous even for him: snot vampires. Presumably they bite you on the nose, and then I hastily change the subject.
The Encyclopedia managed to restrain itself from an entry called LYCANTHROPY, and contented itself with one on WEREWOLVES. One concept it doesn't cover at all was boanthropy, or turning into a cow. I came across this useful word in the late great Avram Davidson's spiffy essay collection Adventures in Unhistory, which is full of wonderful stuff about how the Phoenix legend got started, where Hyperborea actually was, and how to grow your very own fake mandrake roots. Boanthropy was what supposedly happened to Nebuchadnezzar the King of Babylon, who according to the Bible spent seven years living as a cow. As Davidson pointed out:
The records of ancient Babylon do not tell us anything of the sort, no such tell-tale phrase as, 'O King, live for ever! I brought you some nice hay,' no: nothing of the sort. There is merely an interval in the records during which Nebuchadnezzar is not recorded as doing anything at all. And this interval lasts for seven years. Ver-ry interesting....
Of course the Golden Age for magical transformations was in classical Greece. Even my heavily censored Children's Encyclopedia had some remarkably raunchy stuff about Zeus descending on some unfortunate lady as a golden shower. In later years I came to distrust this particular encyclopedia because of its fable about doomed Greek lovers called On and Ion, who perished miserably and therefore were changed to a plant which brought tears to everyone's eyes, this being the origin of the onion. A likely story. Before I move on to some of the modern shapechanging fantasies that I particularly enjoyed, let's just steal Avram Davidson's all-in-one summary of a typical 'conversation in ancient Greece, almost any afternoon ...'
Maiden: Oh, my god, Zeus! Here comes your wife!
Zeus: She mustn't find you here; zap! you're a laurel tree! -- Why, hel-lo, dear! Fancy meeting you here in the groves of Arcadia; lovely afternoon, isn't it?
Mrs Zeus: What are you doing with your arms around that laurel tree?
In modern fantasy no one really wants to turn into a laurel tree. It's much more fun to become a wolf, which -- as discovered by the heroes of Poul Anderson's Operation Chaos and Anthony Boucher's 'The Compleat Werewolf' -- can mean a lucrative career playing doggy roles in Hollywood movies. For the adolescent heroine of Suzy Charnas's story 'Boobs', it also provides a great way to deal with obnoxiously over-attentive boys, by eating them. As she thinks to herself while snacking in wolf shape, 'Who would think that somebody as horrible as Billy Linden could taste so good?' By the way, I'm still looking for a copy of old-time fan Chuck Harris's werewolf story, which opens with the legendary line: 'The family were changing for dinner.'
The Anderson and Boucher stories I just mentioned play around with were-beasties other than wolves. Poul Anderson has an old-fashioned belief in the conservation of mass, and his werewolf hero has serious trouble with this bad guy who in his human form is seven feet tall and grossly fat with it, because he's a were-tiger. Fortunately Ron Goulart didn't bother about mass conservation in his short story 'Please Stand By', which deals with the problems of a fellow who owing to a well-meant spell turns into a medium-sized grey elephant on all American public holidays.
In 'The Complete Werewolf' the wizard who teaches Professor Wolf the magic word that triggers his metamorphosis goes on to explain other folks' problems:
'Of course there's some werethings that just aren't much use being. Take like being a wereant. You change and someone steps on you and that's that. Or like a fella I knew once in Madagascar. Taught him The Word, and know what? Hanged if he wasn't a werediplodocus. Shattered the whole house into little pieces when he changed and damned near trampled me under hoof before I could say Absarka! He decided not to make a career of it.'
Absarka is of course the magic word for reversing the change. The snag for Boucher's Professor Wolf is that while it's a hell of a lot of fun being a werewolf and stalking the night, a wolf's mouth just isn't built to pronounce words like Absarka. So, being a brainy academic and knowing that it'll also work if someone else says the word for him, our professor sneaks into the college lecture room, writes ABSARKA in big letters on the blackboard while holding the chalk in his teeth, and then hides behind a desk. Sure enough, when his class files in for the morning lecture, someone reads the mysterious word aloud. It is at this point that Wolf's academic career comes to an end as a hall full of students of various sexes is amazed by the sudden appearance of a naked professor of philology.
Of course this is as nothing to the embarrassment of the fairytale princess in Anthony Armstrong's story 'Princess Mardra and the Mirror', when she discovers that the traditional magic mirror in her bedroom is in fact a transformed prince who for the last six months has been very appreciatively watching her get into and out of her underwear.
Apart from perks like this, being turned into inanimate objects is generally a drag. There is not much potential for a life of desperate fun once you've become a laurel tree, statue, or clock. In Damon Knight's short-short story 'Maid to Measure' there's a witchy lady who quite literally changes into a bikini, which is then put on by the deadly rival who's about to go swimming with her faithless lover. The story stops without saying what happens out there on the beach or in the water, but it does set you thinking and wondering. As an extra bonus, this is obviously the classical literary source for the bit in the Red Dwarf episode 'Polymorph' when the alien shapeshifter becomes a soiled pair of boxer shorts which our hero Lister unwisely puts on. What follows is too tasteless to discuss at a family convention.
I imagine there must be all sorts of Freudian critical examinations of the sexiness of this whole shapeshifting thing. It comes out in the open in one of the very earliest stories, Apuleius's The Golden Ass, where the chap who gets accidentally turned into an ass find himself remarkably well-built in certain areas and thus very popular with a certain class of loose woman. You don't get so much of this in the prudish 20th century -- when John Myers Myers repeated the ass scenario in Silverlock, he made sure the transformed fellow's friends save him against his will from the attentions of naughty women.... Even Andre Norton, a dear and pure-minded lady, seemed to be getting a bit excited in her young-adult novel Dread Companion, whose heroine is caught in Fairyland and apparently turning into a dryad or something -- feeling surges of dubious ecstasy that seem slightly disproportionate to the actual physical changes like having her toes grow long and rooty and her hair turn green. In the end she escapes and goes back to normal without ever finding out what the end of the process might have been like, which is what you might call transformatus interruptus.
When Jack Williamson's hero in Darker Than You Think decides to sell out the human race and join the other side, it doesn't take much decoding of the luridly ecstatic descriptions of life in wolf shape to make you suspect that the principal attraction is great sex with other werewolves. Someone probably expects me to mention the Cat People movies at this point, but I don't want to admit that I haven't seen them. This does bring me to the chap in Algernon Blackwood's story 'Ancient Sorceries' who seems just the tiniest little bit regretful that he's escaped the terrible fate of joining in when the inhabitants of the French village he's visiting, including the girl he's fallen in lust with, change into cats and in their typically French way start having it off like crazed, well, cats. What a lucky escape! Just like the episode in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where Sir Galahad is rescued a little too soon by Sir Lancelot after being trapped in the Castle Anthrax at the mercy of eightscore young blondes, all between sixteen and nineteen-and-a-half and dangerously eager to learn about oral sex.
Of course there are plenty of cautionary tales about the seductive pleasures of metamorphosis. In Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea, wizards who turn into bear or bird or dolphin shape may come to enjoy it too much and forget about turning back again. Which is depressing for ordinary Earthsea folk facing the thought that there may be something, er, genetically modified in their nice bear or bird or dolphin stew.
About the nastiest cautionary tale about reading the small print before an exciting-sounding transformation appears in one of Alan Moore's Swamp Thing comic scripts, featuring this highly attractive girl who's betrayed and killed her friends in order to win the ability to transform into a crow. Unfortunately and unexpectedly, the old problem of mass conservation crops up: the treatment by unpleasant South American sorcerers begins with a drug that makes you vomit up all your intestines, after which your whole body withers away and the head that's left is about the right size for a one-way transformation into crow shape. This is very obviously an intentional allegory of the way that British heavy industry was transformed by Margaret Thatcher.
Some kinds of transformation may be all in the mind. T.H. White wrote a story about a young 17th-century British nobleman who believed himself to be a spaniel. To prevent this valuable genetic inheritance from dying out and being lost to the House of Lords, King Charles II scours Europe until he locates a wild girl who thinks herself a dog, and there is a discreet consummation which probably doesn't involve the missionary position. By the way, one real-life lord with strange delusions was Lord Bulwer-Lytton, who was convinced that he could make himself invisible. He would stalk through his own house-party holding a cloak sinisterly before his face, which was the sign that he was being invisible, and everyone politely pretended not to notice him. Then he would dramatically reveal himself, to an unconvincing chorus of 'Good heavens, where did you come from?'
Again, in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel Witches Abroad, Granny Weatherwax does the traditional trick of turning some offending fellow into a frog -- but doesn't waste valuable magic actually altering his body. He just thinks he's a frog, and tends to sit in a pond trying to catch flies with his tongue. As his wife says, it's given him a whole new hobby. Later in the same book we meet a rather unsavoury lord who's actually a transformed frog who no one fancies kissing -- hard luck, since the only fun part of being froggified is to strike it lucky and find a princess with unusual bedroom preferences. The hero of Land of Unreason by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt has a slightly different frog-related problem: after a worrying period during which his feet seem to be getting big and his eyes migrating to the sides of his head, he goes for a swim and finds himself fully normal again. Unfortunately this is just an illusion which only holds underwater, and if he leaves the pool he's a frog. Even worse, the gorgeous and fanciable redhead whom he met under the water turns out to be secretly a vole. Can you spell miscegenation?
This is perhaps less alarming than the discovery in Fritz Leiber's short Fafhrd & Gray Mouser story 'Bazaar of the Bizarre' that the magic shop's entire floor show of dazzling female temptresses in gilded cages are actually giant spiders disguised by illusion. But I'm wandering off-topic ... it's elsewhere in the Lankhmar saga that the Mouser suffers an embarrassing metamorphosis when he takes a potion that his wizard mentor had told him will 'put him on the right footing' to deal with a highly organized plague of rats. Naturally he hopes it will make rat-destroying rays shoot from his eyes or something. As the horde of blood-crazed rats swarms in his general direction, he confidently quaffs the potion and shrinks to the size of a rat. Things then get complicated, and you should read the book.
Come to think of it, you should read my books too, but I haven't written much fantasy about metamorphosis. Well, just a few. It is a rule of the Guild of Comic Fantasy Writers that everyone sooner or later has to have a go at the Frog Prince story. In my own version, just for variety, the princess instead encounters a talking toad and is eventually persuaded to undo this poor creature's terrible transformation with the traditional kiss: 'Sure enough, where an ugly, warty toad had squatted, there was now a sleek and handsome frog.' Unfortunately, owing to conservation laws, those warts had to go somewhere and they're now all over the princess. Again, things become complicated. One of the dodgy solutions so common in fairytales soon presents itself:
On the morning of the third day, a more than usually appalling dwarf arrived at the palace. He boasted a squint, a bulbous nose, a club foot, a humped back, a cauliflower ear, and all the other fashion accessories beloved by dwarfs. [...]
"I'll riddle ye a riddle, my maiden fair," he said to the princess, leaping and capering with repulsive agility. "I'll riddle your warts away with riddling words, that I will, and ye must riddle my name. If ye riddle it not aright, then ye must be mine forever. Will ye riddle me this riddle, fair princess?"
At this difficult juncture the King came into the Great Reception Room to inspect the visitor. "Why, Rumpelstiltskin, old chap," he cried.
"Bah," said the dwarf, and left in considerable dudgeon.
And the Princess has to go back to the drawing board, or in this case the magic mirror. It's a tough life in fairytales, but I'm glad to report that after fighting off three whole princes she runs away with the frog and lives happily ever after.
When I wrote this one I was mostly inspired by Anthony Armstrong's funny fairy stories written for Punch in the 1920s and 30s, plus A.A. Milne's comic fairytale novel Once on a Time from 1917. It was therefore a bit of a surprise to be told in a stern Interzone review that I was limply imitating feminist revisionist fantasies of the 70s. I wanted to write in and complain that I was brazenly stealing from much older stories.... Of course the Milne book just had to feature a silly metamorphosis, and its unfortunate questing prince gets turned into a kind of improvised anthology creature. This leads to terrible dietary problems as he hunts for some food which appeals to his lion hindquarters, his woolly-lamb centre-section, and his rabbit's head.
Which reminds me of my favourite imaginary animal, invented by Woody Allen of all people: the great roe, which has the head of a lion and the body of a lion, but not the same lion.
When you get desperate enough to start quoting Woody Allen, it's clearly time to stop. I'll just mention my own unwritten story about series character Dagon Smythe, Psychic Investigator, which explores the idea that too much shapeshifting eventually uses up the last remnants of what Terry Pratchett calls the internal morphic field. You end up with no shape at all, which thus explains the original of H.P. Lovecraft's formless abominations the shoggoths -- they're long-time abusers of metamorphosis who from overdoing it have become totally shogged out. Old shapeshifters never die, they simply ooze away.
Just as I now fancy oozing in the general direction of a drink, and hope to spend the rest of Microcon getting completely shapeless. Thank you all for listening --
|First published in Sleight of Hand #1 ed. John Teehan, 2002.|
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