Transmogrification in storytelling has a long history. Today it can be seen across different types of story in many permutations.
WHAT IS TRANSMOGRIFICATION AND WHAT IS ITS USE IN STORYTELLING?
Transmogrification is the act of transforming into something else. The technique may be used by storytellers for the following reasons:
- Humorous effect
- Grotesque effect
- Humorous and grotesque at once
- In myth, transmogrification provides an explanation for natural things. It restores order by rationalising phenomena, inventing origin stories. We see it used in modern stories to explain a system of magic within a fantasy storyworld.
- Christianity includes commitment to an embodied self. Even after we die, we keep the integrity of the self, and this self will be perfected in Heaven. A lot of stories are built on Judeo-Christian thought. The transmogrification story can help a character have a revelation about who they really are — who is the integral self? I was a bear for a while, now I can embrace my wilder self. In other words, transmogrification is often a part of the self-revelation phase. In fairy tales, this redemption arc commonly changes foul to fair, ugly to lovely.
- The idea of shapeshifting is alluring as a wish-fulfilment fantasy: What if I was somebody else? When shapeshifting into an animal, it allows us an escape from humanity.
- Storytellers are able to explore what it might be like to be a dog, a cat, a bird.
- Metamorphosis is perhaps the most rewarding way of evading fear. It can symbolise the evasion of threat.
- Inventing faces for terrors or redrawing their features in a changed shape represents a way of coping with them — making them familiar. What if you were to transmogrify into a monster for a while? Would you still be scared of monsters?
Because transmogrification is not a thing that happens in the real world, there obviously needs to be a system of magic within the world of the story. But there are also realist stories which borrow from the ancient tropes and put a realist spin on it, for example:
- Makeover stories, in which a character wears make-up and new clothes and takes off her glasses to discover she’s beautiful both inside and out.
- Fish out of water stories
- Mistaken identity stories
- Crime/Mystery stories in which a character must put on a disguise in order to solve a problem
- Coming-of-age stories in which a young character is thrown into a grown-up world just before they are ready, hastening maturity.
All of these plots are about the fantasy of becoming somebody else for a while — of seeing what you’re really capable of, testing your mettle. This is the fundamental reason for any story, so it’s no surprise to find the transmogrification trope used far and wide, across cultures, across time, across different types of story.
IDEOLOGY OF TRANSMOGRIFICATION
I have written before about some ideological problems associated with posing as somebody else — the literary equivalent of black face. Because transformation is so strongly associated with not only humour but also the grotesque, it can be highly problematic to dress male characters up as female characters. Yet this is a standard gag in contemporary children’s films.
Perhaps for these reasons, many writers cross species to achieve the humorous/grotesque effect.
Animals inherently contain a sense of mystery, and so I think it makes sense that we would use literal transformations into animals in stories to talk about parts of ourselves and our relationships that are difficult—or impossible—to explain.
OTHER TERMINOLOGY RELATED TO THE CHANGING OF FORM AND TYPE
- Shapeshifting — a person or being with the ability to change their physical form at will.
- Metamorphosis — a general term for any kind of change in physical form, structure or substance. In literature there may be a system of magic or supernatural intervention, but this word is also used in the natural sciences to describe something like a caterpillar’s change into a butterfly.
- Anthropomorphism — Imagery in which a non-human creature is afforded human features. The creature is not thought to be literally a person within the world of the story.
- Personification — Imagery in which something inanimate is afforded human features. The object is not thought to be literally a person within the world of the story.
- Polytropos — literally “many forms”. In literary use, “many personalities”.
- Body Swap — a different take on shapeshifting, in stories which usually achieve a double reversal.
- Changeling — in this case it feels like a child’s body has been swapped for something evil.
- Metempsychosis — the supposed transmigration at death of the soul of a human being or animal into a new body of the same or a different species. You find this in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. According to pagan magic, natural phenomena was constantly changing from one thing into another. This is the belief system that governs the realm of fairytale. ‘Fairy tale logic’ is Pagan logic. You probably know Pythagoras from your high school maths textbook, but Pythagoras more widely was known back then for his wide dissemination of a set of principles to do with mysticism, not just mathematics. He was just as interested in both. He wrote far more about mysticism than about maths, but still added a lot to our understanding of the world.
- Transmigration — unless you’re talking about the Ancient Greek belief system, transmigration is the word to use. it’s basically another word for the process of reincarnation, which means ‘entering the flesh again’. Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism are pretty well-known for their belief in reincarnation. But the Norse, many Native American nations, lots of Catholics and Muslims also belief in some form of reincarnation, not to mention Scientology, Wicca and a bunch of other religions/cults I’ve never heard of. People seem to love this idea. I see it as one way of coping with knowledge of impending death.
TRANSMOGRIFICATION AND CHRISTIANITY
When my daughter was about five or six she was already a fan of Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki animations are full of transmogrification, in line with Japanese folklore. I remember a brief developmental period where she really did believe that people and animals could transmogrify into other things. To her, this wasn’t against the law of physics. But belief in transmogrification isn’t limited to young kids who’ve watched a lot of anime.
In 1381, there was a massive revolt in England, lead by an academic by the name of John Wyclif. What was his problem with the church? Corruption and hypocrisy, mostly. Plenty agreed with him and this led to an uprising. The church lay at the heart of the economy and of politics and to them him this wasn’t right. It even lead to the beheading of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
So what did the Church of England do? They didn’t want to give up their power, their property and political influence.
Wyclif had criticised the Eucharist — the part of Mass where bread and wine are blessed. They are believed to become the body and blood of Christ. Since 1215, the idea had been that a miracle takes place and after the blessing there is no bread and wine left — they become flesh and blood.
But the Church of England had never made much of this point and their people were left to interpret the miracle as they liked, regarding it as ritual if they preferred. Wyclif proposed that the bread and wine become the body of Christ in a spiritual or symbolic sense. Normally this wouldn’t have been a massively out-there thing to say, except after all that had happened, the church doubled down on it. After the incidents of 1381, the bishops — headed by William Courtenay, archbishop of Canterbury — decided this is where they’d draw the line, sort the believers from the enemies. From 1401, archbishops were able to hand over anyone who dared suggest that the bread and wine were not literally the body and blood of Christ. The doubting Thomas would be burnt at the stake. This was a very effective way of retaining the status quo.
The feast of Corpus Christi has not declined today, as have other great medieval feasts, such as Pentecost, but still provides the occasion for remarkable processions, imagery and performances that have become acts of communion beyond the ecclesiastic authorities’ reach. It continues to celebrate the miracle of transubstantiation which lies at the centre of the Catholic belief system. This central doctrine has enhanced, far beyond the write of the Catholic faithful, a contemporary sacramental relationship among bodies, images and their meanings. It informs the theme of ogres and bogeymen more vividly than might at first appear, because its religious meaning attempts to purify cannibalism, to turn the pollution of anthropophagy into a means of salvation. The feast of Corpus Christi celebrates the central sacrificial meal of Christianity, the holy mystery of the true presence of the body and blood of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine of the Mass.
Catholics who were brought up after World War 2 remember the many hours spent anxiously pondering the mystery of the consecrated host: we should not bite into it, we were instructed by the nuns but let it melt on the tongue and swallow it ewhole. I was frightened to experiment and nibble at I—in case it might turn bloody in my mouth. Any crumbs were caught in the paten that the serving boy held under our chins and open mouths, and gathered together later; then the priest mixed them up in the wine and drank them down, because Jesus was present in every fragment, infinitely divisible and ubiquitous.
— Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman
TRANSMOGRIFICATION AND EUROPEAN FAIRY TALES
Transmogrification can be seen across various folklores across the world, and sometimes it takes a slightly different form. For the European fairy tales as collected by Grimm, or written by Hans Christian Andersen, the hope of shapeshifting underpins many of the stories.
- The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen — a wish fulfilment fantasy — those of us who are ugly won’t always be so. (If not on this earth, then we’ll meet our perfect selves up in Heaven.) This tale is the ur-story of any makeover scene written today.
- Beauty and the Beast — the wish that however ugly our betrothed, by loving him he will become attractive to us eventually.
- The Frog Princess — another take on the Beauty and the Beast category.
- The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley — Tom transforms into a water baby after falling in the river.
- Rapunzel, in one interpretation
‘Dwarfing’ is also a form of transmogrification, common in fairytales:
Dwarfing characters, ading bumps and lumps that deviate from ordinary human anatomy, has become, in the late twentieth century, a highly common form of magic charm. Crook-backs are considered lucky in some parts of the world: in Italy, until recently, rubbing thehump was commonplace. Bes, the Egyptian god of portals, who makes rude grimaces to give protection to his votaries, was depicted as a dwarf. Some of this ancient superstition still permeates the totem world of toys. The proportions of the medieval gryllus haunt characters like Tolkien’s Hobbits, the Smurfs (highly popular in the 1980s) and, the greatest charmer of them all, the benevolent E.T. of Steven Spielberg’s huge success.
— Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman
CONTEMPORARY EXAMPLES OF TRANSMOGRIFICATION IN STORYTELLING
There are many. I’ve analysed a few of them on this blog.
- The Cat Returns
- Spirited Away — Chihiro’s parents turn into pigs. Chihiro herself has her name shortened to ‘Sen’ (the Chinese reading of one of the characters in her name). By changing her name she becomes a different person for a while.
- Wolf Children, and any other werewolf story.
ADULT SHORT STORIES
- Bunchgrass End Of The World, a short story by Annie Proulx and take on The Frog Prince
- The Tiger’s Bride by Angela Carter
- The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
- Slinky Malinki by Lynley Dodd — basically a werewolf story but starring a mischievous pet cat
- Northern Lights — the animals keep changing until the child’s personality settles into their permanent one.
- Freaky Friday, in which a mother and daughter swap bodies to learn about each other
- The Animorphs series
- All the transforming spells in Harry Potter
- Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland — when Alice nibbles on a bit of mushroom; when Alice is a huge walking head on the ground. Both of the Alice books play with identity via distortions of the body. According to Marina Warner, ‘ Carroll’s creations are the most eloquent modern exponent of Circean sporting with nature and the pleasures that beasts and monsters can inspire’.
- Courage The Cowardly Dog, whenever Courage turns into a monster to try and get his message across without words. This is a gag that happens in every episode.