In his essay on fairy stories, Tree and Leaf, Tolkien says: “There are profounder wishes: such as the desire to converse with other living things.” He adds that, on this desire “is largely founded the talking of beasts and creatures in fairy tales, and the magical understanding of their proper speech”. Tolkien locates this in “a sense of separation of ourselves from beasts” which he finds to be very ancient, and he implicitly links this with the sense of guilt that is also expressed in the idea of ‘The Fall’ and the banishment from The Garden of Eden. Tolkien also expressed the view that “the absence of the sense of separation” has never been so pronounced as in our own times when many wish to emphasise our closeness to animals in the scientific sense or in sentimental attachment.
Many modern pagans claim to have spirit guides in animal form and I have had my own profound experiences in this respect. But I take Tolkien’s point. Faërie guides and spirit helpers are beings from the Other World. The veil between this world and that is sometimes very thin, and we glimpse the way through or meet someone or something from a place that is as near as breath and yet very far away.
When reading the medieval Welsh story of Culhwch and Olwen we feel that we are in the very oldest part of the tale when the help of the ‘oldest animals’ is sought. Gwrhyr Gwalstawd Ieithoedd can (exceptionally) speak their language and so converses with the Blackbird of Cilgwri, the Stag of Rhedynfre, the Owl of Cwm Cawlwyd, the Eagle of Gwernabwy and the Salmon of Llyn Llyw. The tale, at this point, emphasises the great age of these animals. They are from a time of the world that has now passed when humans and animals shared a differentiated but common form of life.
Biologically we can show that this is still so. Sentimentally we have never been closer to animals, though, apart perhaps from our most domesticated pets, have never understood them less. Perhaps it is only by recognising the otherness of the life forms with which we share this biosphere that we can come to terms with our place within it and free our spirit to run with the other kindred but different spirits of the non-human persons on the Earth.
Though I don’t know quite where shape-shifting fits into this analysis ….