In this next installment of the archetype series, I discuss the Shapeshifter.
Do you like to read or watch characters who you don’t know whether to trust them or not? Or the characters who are fascinating because it is hard to tell which side they are on? They could be on any side and switch when it suits them, and you have no idea which way they’ll turn in any given moment. That’s the Shapeshifter. Not only are they usually interesting characters, they also perform an important function in stories.
One role of the Shapeshifter is to confuse the Hero. They can also lie to, trick, and delay the Hero. They are hard to understand because they change—their story, their appearance, or their personality. The Shapeshifter can also facilitate change in the Hero. They can make Hero’s question themselves or their quests. Ultimately, the Shapeshifter’s role is to create tension, conflict, and suspense in a story.
The Shapeshifter in Mythology
In mythology stories, Shapeshifters were gods and goddesses who quite literally changed their shape. They would shift into animals or humans, but animals were much more common. The Norse god Loki is an example of a Shapeshifter–he shifted into a horse, salmon, fly, and an old woman. Dwarves in Norse mythology are also expert shape-shifters (see my post about Norse dwarves here), transforming into fish, an otter, and even a treasure-hoarding dragon.
The Greek god Zeus changed his form regularly. The goddess Athena transformed into a man, Mentor, so she could help Odysseus’s son Telemachus in his father’s absence. Shape-shifting was one of the powers of the gods that mortals did not possess–sometimes they used it for good, like Athena as Mentor, but quite often, the gods did cruel things while transformed, like the god Zeus who abused his power by forcing himself on innocent women.
The god, Loki, being a trickster, used his shapeshifting ability to help the gods and also to do great damage. He’s a trickster, though, so that’s his role! The Trickster is another archetype.
The Shapeshifter in Fiction
The Shapeshifter in fiction is different from mythology in that these characters do not typically change their physical shape. In fiction, this archetypal role is more about shifting emotions or desires. Gollum from The Lord of the Rings is one example of this archetype in modern times where the character does change shape. He’s a perfect example of a Shapeshifter in both regards–Smeagol was a being much like a hobbit when he found the One Ring. After that, his body physically turned from a hobbit-like being into a wretched monster. Emotionally, Smeagol transformed into the evil Gollum, who would do anything to possess the Ring. Throughout the later books and movies, the audience sees this creature’s dual nature played out as he literally argues with the two sides of himself, and we wonder which side will win out.
The role of Gollum is also to provide opportunities for Frodo, the Hero, to make important choices. Frodo must choose whether to accept his help and trust him, or kill him. In the end, Frodo feels pity for the “wretched” creature and is kind to him. It is through his interactions with the Shapeshifter, that Frodo makes some of his most important decisions and comes to understand the power of the One Ring. The character of Gollum helps Frodo physically by leading them to their destination and helps him emotionally by highlighting how destructive the Ring can be.
Who Can the Shapeshifter Be?
The Shapeshifter can be anyone in the story—the Hero’s friend, a love interest, a magical person like a wizard or shaman, a character along the way, or one of the henchmen for the villain (called the Shadow in archetypal terms). Shapeshifters don’t necessarily have to be bad; they just need to be someone that keeps the Hero off balance.
Sometimes being unbalanced and not knowing what to do next, or who to trust, can be a good lesson. It might bring about the Hero questioning their previous beliefs and prompt them to change. It can, and often does, make the Hero stronger and more focused about their ultimate task or quest.
One of my favorite Shapeshifters, other than Gollum, is Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series.
Snape is a great example of a Shapeshifter because we (as readers) and Harry (as the Hero) have no idea what is going on with him, or whose side he is on. He is a confusing character, as the Shapeshifter should be.
Snape in The Sorcerer’s Stone
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we first meet Professor Snape during the feast when the first years are sorted into houses. Harry sees Snape and,
“It happened very suddenly. The hook-nosed teacher looked past Quirrell’s turban straight into Harry’s eyes—and a sharp, hot pain shot across the scar on Harry’s forehead.”
When asking about this strange teacher, Harry is told that he, “knows an awful lot about the Dark Arts, Snape.”
This first impression is one of a dark and malignant wizard. Harry’s lightning scar even hurt, the one given him by Lord Voldemort. We immediately think that Snape is evil.
This belief is carried throughout The Sorcerer’s Stone. Snape unexpectedly decides to be a referee for one of Harry’s Quidditch matches, and Harry thinks it is “Snape’s sudden, sinister desire.” Harry is later bewitched while playing the match—Hermione and Ron see Snape making intense eye contact with him and think he’s the one working the curse. When Hermione starts a fire under him and breaks his eye contact with Harry, the spell breaks.
Here are other ways in which Snape appears bad. Snape:
- Argues with Professor Quirrell
- Is attacked by Fluffy
- Works with Filch to discover any students out of bed at night
- Threatens to expel Harry from school if he’s caught off limits
When Harry finally gets to the Sorcerer’s Stone and finds it was Professor Quirrell, and not Snape, who was the bad guy, he is surprised and says so to Quirrell.
Quirrell replies, “yes, Severus does seem the type, doesn’t he? So useful to have him swooping around like an overgrown bat…”
So useful, indeed.
Harry and the readers are set up to believe that Snape is malevolent and aligned with the Dark Lord. Even after Harry discovers that Snape had been working to help him rather than harm him, Harry still believes Snape is bad. Why? Because he is horrible to Harry and his friends. Snape is mean and vindictive toward Harry, and so it is reasonable and logical that Harry would distrust him and his motives.
What throws it all into confusion is when Harry learns that Dumbledore completely and utterly trusts Snape. Harry absolutely cannot understand this. He wonders how Dumbledore, someone he regards so highly, could trust a teacher who is cruel and unfair to him and his friends. Harry trusts Dumbledore completely. Dumbledore trusts Snape completely, but Harry does not trust Snape at all. This dynamic is troubling and unsettling to our Hero. The reader does not understand this either. Why does Dumbledore trust Snape? Why does he defend him so vehemently?
This is the Shapeshifter at work in a story.
Snape and The Order of the Phoenix
In The Order of the Phoenix, Harry discovers that Snape is a member of the Order of the Phoenix. Even after five years at Hogwarts, Harry is surprised that Snape is working for the good guys. In all this time, the professor has never let up in bullying and harassing Harry and his friends. No matter how many times Professor Dumbledore assures Harry that Snape is trustworthy, Harry cannot believe it because of his personal experiences.
Then Harry gets Occlumency lessons from Snape. This is meant to help Harry, but Snape turns it into sessions of bullying. But, it is also the time when Harry learns just how deeply his father wounded Snape, and he understands a little of why Snape might hate him, too.
This falls into the Shapeshifter’s role to rattle the Hero so much that the Hero changes. It’s quite symbolic, actually–the person in the story most changeable is often, in part, responsible for the Hero’s transformation.
When Harry first starts at Hogwarts, he has a young person’s hero-worship of his father. It is through Snape that Harry learns the truth; his father could be a vain, arrogant, and spiteful bully. Snape’s memories knock James Potter off the pedestal on which Harry had raised him. This helps Harry to grow up, and understand that his father was not perfect. Harry also realizes that he is not his father. An important step for any Hero is to recognize that they are not their parents or Mentors and do not have to make the same choices or the same mistakes.
Snape and The Half-Blood Prince
In The Half-Blood Prince, Snape seems even more untrustworthy. The book opens with Narcissa Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange asking for Snape’s help. If we thought Snape might be okay because he’s a member of the Order of the Phoenix, that all gets thrown out the window. If he’s helping the Malfoy’s and Bellatrix, he is aligned with the dark side.
Not only that, we find out that Snape is the Half-Blood Prince, the student who had written dark spells in the book Harry found.
In the end, when he kills Dumbledore, Harry and the readers are confident that we were right all along to suspect Snape, and that Dumbledore had tragically been in the wrong.
Snape and The Deathly Hallows
Everything about Snape is cleared up by the end of The Deathly Hallows. Harry discovers just how much Snape sacrificed to help him and Dumbledore—Snape sacrificed his life. If he had ever been found out as a spy by Voldemort, he would have been killed for sure and most likely tortured. Harry had known for years why Snape hated him, but he never understood why (or how much) Snape helped him. When he takes the memories from Snape as he lies dying, Harry finally learns the extent of Snape’s devotion to Lily and to Dumbledore.
In the end, despite all of the harsh treatment of him by Snape, Harry names his own son Severus. He tells the boy he was named after the man who, “was probably the bravest man I ever knew.”
*I remember the marketing promotions done by one of the big bookstores to promote Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that involved giving out bumper stickers. One of the bumper stickers said, Snape is a very bad man, and the other said Trust Snape. Even at this late stage in the series, there was a question about Snape’s loyalty and trustworthiness. Readers even took sides! It shows just how fun the Shapeshifter archetype can be.
An Important Function in the Story
Imagine the Harry Potter books without Severus Snape. He provided so much confusion, conflict, and tension…on a regular basis. Voldemort was a shadowy figure at first, and then an elusive one, so Harry did not have to confront him often, and usually just at the end of each book. There were many other villains, like Draco Malfoy, Lucius Malfoy, Dolores Umbridge, and the Dursleys.
But, Snape was there provoking Harry all the time! Harry never knew what side he was on—even thinking he was a Death Eater when he saw Snape’s Dark Mark in The Goblet of Fire— and he never believed he could trust Snape. Harry was constantly confused by Snape’s mistreatment of him and Dumbledore’s complete trust in Snape.
The Hero’s constant confusion is the sign of a wonderfully created Shapeshifter.