Once upon a time the ability to change one's shape into an animal form was considered magic. Those who could do so were either magicians of some sort or had used a magical ritual to accomplish the deed. It is little wonder that many who could do so were given the appellation of witch or something similar in their own culture's tongue. Superheroes notwithstanding, I think we can all understand how the ability to change one's form, or even to send out the spirit in the form of something else, or just to inhabit the body of an animal would be seen as magical.
Times changed; they always do.
Today the fashion is to consider shapeshifters to be aliens or naturally occurring species. This has certainly been the case with werewolves of late. Without going into too great a detail (since I did that back in 2011 HERE) I can trace it thusly: Werewolves start as folk stories/cultural tales, possibly linked to prehistoric shamanic rituals --> Werewolves become a figure of evil in cultural stories after the Christian expansion into Europe and the advance of civilization --> Nobody seriously believes in werewolves anymore; Europeans come to the North American continent and discover similar legends among natives --> Horror as a genre of story becomes commercially viable in print, radio and celluloid --> Folk tales get turned into Horror genre works --> Tales of curses that turn humans into beasts, typically the minority of werewolf tales, become the main plot for werewolf/shapeshifter movies --> Monsters turn sexy --> Werewolves become their own "species" of noble monsters born different because that is what subcultural twats want.
This is all well and good, but did it need to happen? I don't think it needed to, but it did. Perhaps if stories had stuck to older legends of wizards changing shape by their own wills it would not have happened. The curse is the default story now. We can trace it back to Circe, maybe even before, but it lingers today. Look at Harry Potter. The werewolves of Harry Potter are of the bite cum curse variety. Nobody ever wants to be one. This is a shame as in the days before the mighty FIREBALL the more subtle magics, including shapeshifting, were the standard. Modern gaming, for example, seems to give this ability to the druid class. NOTE: There is absolutely NO basis for this in the historical record.
The witch/wizard, traditionally, assumes a new form (an animal form, not a hybrid) for the benefits of that form and possibly for the freedom, pleasure and communion it provides.
And on top of all of that it is just badass. I mean, look at that guy. That is badass, that is. If you are in a world full of farmers and peasants and people that have forgotten just why the wilds are dangerous (oh, they are convinced the wilds are dangerous, they just don't know how much and why) the ability to turn into a regular old wolf (with your own intellect still intact) is a powerful thing indeed.
In the werewolf movies the protagonist, assuming the film is not about hunting werewolves, becomes cursed and then whines about it. He doesn't want to be a werewolf. He doesn't want to be forced...to...KILL! Bullshit. If you could turn into a wolf and rip some asshole who you don't like from neck to nuts and get away with it, and you WILL because the police are going to have zero leads at this point, you would do it. Every time.
Don't pretend otherwise.
Now the thing about wizards is that they spend a lot of time learning magic and not much time learning to wear armor, swing a sword, or sneak into buildings in the gloom of twilight. They therefore expect payoff for the hard mental work. The ability to change your form seems a pretty good payoff. I'm not saying this should be your first ever spell you learn, but it is still magic and that should be a goal. I'm not saying don't learn to throw the FIREBALL. Go ahead, learn that, but know that there are going to be times when throwing a fireball is just not practical. You want to take out the enemy but leave their gear in good shape because your party needs to disguise yourselves as guards to get into the keep? Not a good time for a fireball. Having a magical duel with an enemy sorcerer in his tower surrounded by priceless tomes of ancient magical lore that you covet and noxious chemicals from his latest round of experiments? Not a good time to throw a fireball. Fighting an army of killer scarecrows? Go ahead and lob that FIREBALL! But falling overboard into the raging ocean surrounded by an army of killer mermen? Would you rather have a fireball on hand as you sink beneath the waves or be able to turn into a giant white shark and just eat them to death?
I haven't even taken into account utility shapeshifting. There are times when it is useful to become, say, a sparrow and listen in on a conversation or becoming a modest rodent and scampering to safety. If the mighty Dracula sees the value of shapeshifting into canine and chiroptera forms is it not a most useful power?
Then there are the enemies that the wizard must face, which are not limited to the simple Orc or enemy warriors. A seemingly endless horde of servitor zombies under the command of a powerful necromancer (mayhaps even a lich) can quickly exhaust the spell reserves of even the most accomplished spellcaster and nobody wants to be surrounded by flaming zombies (undead conflagration!). Now a deadly hybrid combat form would come in handy here. A grizzly bear wouldn't even need a hybrid form; that's a bad mama jamma.
|LOOK AT THE CLAWS, MAN.|