Shapeshifting might have once sounded like pure fantasy, but in the Fifth World most people take it for granted. Nearly every family either includes a wizard who has mastered the art or at least knows of one who has, so most have heard the accounts of shapeshifters first-hand.
What someone else sees
Shapeshifting often begins with very long periods of rapt attention. For example, a woman might sit on the side of a mountain watching a red-tailed hawk. Someone watching her would not see her transform into a hawk herself; they would only see her sitting there, entranced by the hawk’s movements. The wizard sits very still, and typically becomes unresponsive to anything else going on around her. Then, suddenly, she returns to herself, having experienced flight as a red-tailed hawk.
What shapeshifters experience
If this woman tells the story of her experience in detail, she might mention that she’s spent years watching the local red-tailed hawks closely. She knows each of the individuals in the area and can identify them on sight. She can tell you about each bird’s personality, history, and relationships. She might tell you how she focuses on a single bird, following her path through the sky, focusing on every detail: the tensing of each muscle, the flutter of each feather, and the glint in her eyes. The intensity of this focus causes her consciousness to shift. She feels the locus of herself not within her body, but at a point between her and the bird, and eventually, within the bird. She becomes the hawk. She experiences what it means to fly and can see the valley spread out below her.
Unless she intends to train you as a shapeshifter, though, she will likely not tell you any of this. Instead, she’ll say that she became a hawk and saw far below that the missing child fell into an old ruin. You’ll race out to that ruin and find the child there, just as she told you.
The shift from literacy to orality has meant a shift from nouns to verbs. In terms of nouns, shapeshifting seems like an obvious fantasy. One thing cannot become another, after all. The essence of a noun defines its static nature. In terms of verbs, shapeshifting seems obvious and ordinary. We act differently all the time, from moment to moment. The basic forms of tai chi provide a good example of the basics of shapeshifting: in each form, one embodies and feels the patterns, behaviors, flows, and relationships of a mountain, or an animal, or the wind — in short, becoming it as a verb.
Those who devote themselves to shapeshifting spend many years closely studying the movements and habits of a particular animal, or a particular plant, or a particular mountain, until watching them becomes a trance in which they project their own sense of self, first in between themselves and the animal, and finally directly into the animal itself. At this point, from an etic perspective, shapeshifting works using the same principles as journeying in trance or under the influence of an entheogen. In this state, the shapeshifter may put together subtle clues that she might not have connected in a normal waking state. This could explain how shapeshifters so often learn things that they wouldn't appear to have any way of knowing except by actually changing shape.
Of course, people in the Fifth World rarely think like this and find little value in such speculations. Does such an explanation really differ substantively from the shapeshifter’s own report of her experiences? You might have filled in many irrelevant details as to how she came to experience what she experienced, but it doesn’t change anything of what she actually experienced as a hawk. Worse yet, you’ve missed the things that really do matter — namely, all of the details of her actual experience. To offer this as a reason why she didn’t “really” turn into a hawk rings as hollow and pedantic for them as saying that someone didn’t “really” speak because she simply caused vibrations in her larynx, producing a series of sounds that the people around her understand as carrying linguistic significance. They might recognize the explanation as correct, but they also consider it boring, pedantic, and utterly irrelevant to the much more interesting question of what she actually said.