In Inkdeath, the third book of the Inkheart trilogy by Cornelia Funke, Death calls herself the "Great Shape-Changer", and changes her form several times while talking to Mo:

A squirrel was looking down at Mo, clutching the roots with tiny paws, and the voice with which the bird had spoken now came from its little mouth.
"The Great Shape-Changer, that's the name I like!" The squirrel shook itself in its own turn, lost its fur, tail, and ears, and became a butterfly, a caterpillar at his feet, a big cat with a coat as dappled as the light in the Wayless Wood — and finally a marten that jumped onto the bed of moss where Dustfinger lay and curled up at the dead man's feet.
Inkdeath, chapter 25: "The End and Beginning"

Why would Death be a shape-shifter? How would being a shape-shifter be relevant to being, well, the incarnation of Death? At a first glance, it seems to be a totally unrelated power to her duties.

  • Just a comment, but could this be an exercise of A Form You Are Comfortable With? The page notes, among others that also predate Inkheart, Death of Discworld and Dream of Sandman do this. "Dream also appears as a black cat to cats, black fox for foxes, and a blackened face inside a fire vortex to the Martian Manhunter." – DavidW Mar 13 at 18:14
  • It's good to see Funke getting some attention, given that this is her book month. – Adamant Mar 13 at 18:37
  • Is there anything I can do to improve my answer, or are you waiting for others before accepting one? – Adamant Mar 14 at 19:36
  • @Adamant - I'm generally pretty slow to accept answers, especially when there's room for interpretation that could lead to different answers (like here). I'll probably get around to accepting an answer eventually, but for now I'll leave it so as not to discourage additional answers. – Mithical Mar 14 at 20:10

Death is the Great Shape-Changer for two reasons. First, Dustfinger implies that this is not because Death can change their own form, but rather because death changes the forms of others:

They came to Silvertongue more often than to Dustfinger himself, as if to make sure that the Bluejay didn’t forget the bargain he had struck with their mistress, the Great Shape-Changer who made all things wither and blossom, grow and decay.


Withering, blossoming, growth and decay are processes that alter the forms of objects and creatures, changing their shapes. In other words, Death is change: for something new to come into being, something old must die, whether literally, such as flowers dying and their remains feeding new plants, or somewhat more metaphorically, a child fading away as they grow to adulthood. Death represents metamorphosis, and that is why Death becomes a butterfly and a caterpillar: the death of the caterpillar is the birth of the butterfly.

As Death says:

“I am the beginning of all stories, and their end,” it said in the voice of the bird, in the voice of the squirrel. “I am transience and renewal. Without me nothing is born, because without me nothing dies.


However, Death is also the Great Shape-Changer because they appear in many different forms, whether from a metafictional perspective (Death is portrayed in different ways in different stories) or from a more mundane one: living creatures can die in many different ways:

“All stories end with me, Bluejay,” Death said. “You will find me everywhere.” And as if to prove it, the marten turned into the one-eared cat that liked to steal into Elinor’s garden to hunt her birds.


Mortimer perceives Death as an old woman who takes the form of animals.

“As you see, my daughters don’t like to let him go,” said the old woman’s voice. “Even though they know he will come back.”


But this is probably just how Death seems to him:

But the marten laughed. And once again it sounded [emphasis mine] like an old woman’s laughter.


(Or possibly how Death manifests to those coming from the world of Inkheart, since Dustfinger also sees her that way.)

Orpheus seems to think of Death as a powerful father figure:

“Hear me, Master of the Cold,” said the poet. “Hear me, Master of Silence. I offer you a bargain. I send you the Bluejay, who has made mock of you. He will believe that he has only to call on your pale daughters, but I am offering him to you as the price for the FireDancer.


However, Death is none of these things and all of them. Death is no more and no less a powerful lord than a tired old grandmother, no more and less than a cat, a pine marten, or a bird.

  • I've never read the book, but "rather because death changes the forms of others" was the first thing I thought of. – RonJohn Mar 14 at 3:57

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