Study Guide

Stardust Transformation

By Neil Gaiman


The old man pulled free of his sons, and stood straight and tall, then. He was, for a heartbeat, the lord of Stormhold who had defeated the Northern Goblins at the battle of Cragland's Head; who had fathered eight children […] who had killed each of his four brothers in combat, before he was twenty years old. (3.29)

The Lord of Stormhold used to be one impressive dude. He won a battle against some goblins, took on his four older brothers who were also accomplished warriors, and might've been great in the sack to boot since he fathered so many children. But then he got old, and now he's on his deathbed. For a moment, though, he embodies his former self, the warrior-king, as he prepares to pass on his legacy.

In the cottage, two old women stared, envy and hope mixing in their faces, at a tall, handsome woman with black hair and dark eyes and red, red lips. (3.88)

The eldest of the Lilim, the witch-queen, is chosen to eat up their remaining youth and go in search of the star. She gets the right to transform her body into a younger version of itself, which makes her sisters (who have to stay old until she brings back the star's heart) super jealous.

She snapped her fingers, and Brevis and the billy goat hastened to stand between the shafts of her cart; and Brevis was surprised to notice that he was walking on four legs, and he seemed to be no taller than the animal beside him. (4.195)

The witch-queen is an accomplished transformation-worker apparently, since she effortlessly changes Brevis into a goat without him even really noticing. Then again, we're not sure how noticeable it would be in the first place, not having undergone it ourselves.

While clothes do not, as the saying would sometimes have it, make the man, and fine feathers do not make fine birds, sometimes they can add a certain spice to a recipe. And Tristran Thorn in crimson and canary was not the same man that Tristran Thorn in his overcoat and Sunday suit had been. (4.217)

Tristran gets outfitted in some new threads, and apparently it helps transform him into a more confident, more awesome version of himself. He's more willing to take risks, to walk with a swagger, and to speak up, than he was before. We're going to take this as an indication that he really does belong in Faerie, and this transformation of his wardrobe reflects the inner transformation that's happening simultaneously as he adjusts.

"I swore, by the compact of the Sisterhood, that I would do you no harm. Had I not so sworn I would change you into a black-beetle, and I would pull your legs off, one by one, and leave you for the birds to find, for putting me to this indignity." (5.87)

The witch-queen is pretty darn irritated at Madame Semele for sneaking limbus grass into her food, thus forcing her to tell the truth about her search for the fallen star. So even though the witch-queen has technically sworn not to harm her, she can fantasize a little about how she would take her revenge if she were able. And guess what, it involves a forced transformation, and dismemberment. Good times.

"I didn't always used to be a tree," said the voice in the rustling of the copper beech leaves. "A magician made me a tree." (6.18)

The copper beech tree used to be a nymph, and in her case, transformation was a survival tactic. She had a disrespectful prince on her tail, and so in order to avoid whatever icky plans he had for her, she did some invoking and became a tree. We love trees and all, but we also love transforming for better reasons than avoiding rape.

For a heartbeat he felt most peculiar, as if thick, black treacle were running through his veins in place of blood; then the shape of the world changed. Everything became huge and towering. It seemed as if the old woman herself was now a giantess, and his vision was blurred and confused. (8.165)

Tristran's first experience being magically transformed into an animal is not a pleasant one. It's weird and disorienting for him to be shrunken into a mouse, though it seems like he doesn't really perceive the nature of the change at first, just that his sense of scale got all weird. Maybe he doesn't have enough brainpower to process it all at once, since mice have tiny brains.

Madame Semele had the bird in front of her now. She touched its plumed head with her glass flower, and it flowed and shifted and became a young woman, in appearance not too much older than Tristran himself, with dark, curling hair and furred, catlike ears. (9.51)

We know by now that Madame Semele likes keeping her slave in bird-form for most of the time, as a punishment for giving away one of her prized items for sale (which, in a twist, is the very same flower she's now holding to perform the spell). Later we learn that the slave has been enslaved for over sixty years, so it's kind of amazing that she hasn't undergone all the changes and transformations of old age. We'll chalk it up to magic.

"There is something of the dormouse in him still […] Sometimes I wonder if she transforms people into animals, or whether she finds the beast inside us, and frees it." (10.18)

Lady Una's observation is an intriguing one. Along these lines, what kind of animal do you think you'd be transformed into?

"Look at you," she said. "You became a man." (10.63)

When Tristran returns to Wall after his time in Faerie, the consensus seems to be that he's all grown up, from boy to man. He's learned how to handle difficult and unexpected situations, and he's had to courageously prove his worth. Sure he's gone through some physical changes, too, but it seems like the most important transformations have happened on the inside.