(urth) Shapeshifting Evidence and Principles

b sharp bsharporflat at hotmail.com
Sat May 27 10:24:06 PDT 2006

If you find it impossible that 5th Head of Cerberus could be part of the 
history before BotNS, then you should skip this first paragraph. In this 
book we see (very hazily) that during a wave of human space migration, they 
encounter an alien shape-shifting species which can imitate humans almost 
exactly, manual dexterity being the most difficult part.  Dr Veil (Aunt 
Jeannine) teaches that shape-shifting to imitate a human cannot be perfect 
because that would involve losing the ability to shape-shift. And evolution 
would not allow for a creature to lose its most advantageous trait.

In BotNS, Melito's story contains an angel with shapeshifting ability.  This 
angel can give away its shapeshifting ability for a while then take it back. 
  We know that angels are divinely created, not evolved like beasts. Still 
the angel cannot give up one thing, which its essential essence as a divine 
creation.  Therefore it needs to call in an actual (evolved) eagle to take 
its place in a birdfight.

We don't actually see Zak and Tzadkiel shape-shift but he presents the 
clearest evidence for shape-shifting. We learn from Severian that one of the 
deepest instincts of a shape-shifting, imitating creature must be to run 
away when the masquerade is discovered.  In 5th Head, Number Five is able to 
chase Dr. Marsch away by insisting he is an abo from Sainte Anne imitating a 

So who better than Tzadkiel to explain shape-shifting to Severian?  She 
explains that, "the cells of our bodies shift, like those of certain sea 
creatures on your Urth (sponges I think) which can be pressed through a 
screen yet reunite.  What then prevents me from shaping a miniature and 
constricting the connection until it parts?"  So, Roy (as we both knew), 
size-shifting really is a function of shape-shifting.  But now we have a 
Poriferal mechanism to explain it.

Severian also tells Tzadkiel that he has been told two stories with 
shapeshifting in them but he asks about only one of them, Melito's angel 
story.  Tzadkiel assures Severian that he can't give that ability to humans 
(including larval Hierogrammates). But what about the other story?

I think he means Foila's story which is interesting (and the best IMHO).  
The Armiger's Daughter seems to appear in three guises, as a masked horse 
rider, as a sort of bird-person and as an angel with a sword.  She is marked 
in each guise by the color brown and a gold ring on her ankle.  Her arm is 
hurt while she is a horserider and the wound is maintained when she becomes 
the bird- person (it isn't mentioned for the angel).  She is not observed 
flying as a bird or angel, so perhaps the shape-shifting is in appearance 
only and not substance.  We are told that the beliefs of her land include 
that shape-changers will not change once they have been made prisoner.

So......as I see it, this evidence suggests these BotNS principles:  that 
shape shifters are most likely to be found in the past, the future and on 
planets other than Urth.  Time and space travel make it possible for 
shapeshifters to travel to Urth.  If so, they will go through great lengths 
to hide themselves and their abilities. The imitation can never be perfect 
and they will always be marked by some sign of their original nature.  They 
won't shift in front of our eyes, or while imprisoned.  The shape change may 
be just visual illusion in some cases, but can be of substance in other 

Now, perhaps Gene Wolfe has created an Urth in which shape-shifting legends 
and aliens could visit, but never do.  Perhaps the abos of Sainte Anne were 
wiped out and that's all there is to the story.  Maybe the Urth stories 
within the story are no more than pure fiction.  Perhaps dinosaurs are not 
dragons, just bones. Maybe these myths and legends are just a fun way for 
Wolfe to place false clues and mislead fanciful readers who might still, in 
their hearts, long for a Pegasus.  We each have our own view on that, I 


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