A Shift of Sex: A Transgender Reading of An Ancient Folktale

by Psyche Z. Ready

I have always loved stories of cross-dressing heroines. It’s a familiar trope in literature, legends, and fairy tales: a woman dresses as a man to solve some problem, or to save the day. In her male guise, she is strong, brave, skillful, and clever.[1] At the end of the tale, however, when the conflict is resolved, she usually puts back on her apron and returns home. In many variants, home is a controlling father, a bullying brother, or a drunken husband. In my search for variants, I found another tale type that ends differently. In “The Shift of Sex,” or ATU 514[2] , the heroine does not go home after her adventures, but stays in her male disguise and eventually becomes a man. Most variants follow this narrative (I’ve used the gendered pronouns given in most sources):

An elderly father is asked by the king to enter military service. Because he is old and has no sons, his daughter dresses in his clothes, borrows his horse, and joins for him. With the help of her magical horse, she excels at all she does. She quickly becomes the king’s favorite soldier, and his daughter falls in love with her. When the community begins to doubt that she is a man, they set her on impossible quests that she completes easily. Her final battle is with a demon or witch, who curses her with their dying breath: “If you are a man, be now a woman! If you are a woman, be now a man.” The hero returns home to his castle where he is celebrated, his wife rejoices, and they all live happily ever after.

“The Shift of Sex” is a very old and widespread tale: it has been told for at least two, possibly three thousand years[3] , across Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas. There are at least twenty-six variants in English today, and I have spent the last year researching them. In my academic work on the subject, I argue that this tale type was historically a space to express frustrations at the limitations of the female gender. Today, however, this tale has the potential to hold space for a broader expression of gender identity.

An issue that some modern readers have with this tale is that, while it begins as a queer romance between two women, it ends with what feels like a return to heteronormativity. When the protagonist changes gender, the couple becomes heterosexual. Some readers interpret the story as a narrative message that says a happy ending for two women in love is impossible. The story is read as a condemnation of queer love. I read this story, however, not as a queer romance gone hetero, but as a trans love story with a happy ending. I would not argue that audiences thousands of years ago saw the protagonist in this tale as transgender[4], but present-day audiences certainly can.

In the many variants of this tale type, there are differences in narrative structure, tone, and detail, but the one element that is present in each is the happy ending: the princess is overjoyed that her partner has changed gender, and she and the royal family accept him, and they live happily ever after. Historically, our literary and popular narratives are lousy with stories of characters who transgress gender roles or heteronormativity and suffer for it; even contemporary stories with queer and non-binary characters kill them off, or depict them as monsters. The message spoken by these narratives is clear: any transgression of traditional gender and sexuality will be punished.

While we as a culture continue the struggle to create happy endings for transgressive and transgender characters in our own popular literature, we can take heart that there is a folktale that has been told and retold for thousands of years with a transgressive, cross-dressing, sex-changing protagonist who is not punished, but rewarded for their bravery, skill, and strength with wealth, marriage, and a happy life.

Variants of “The Shift of Sex” available online:

    • A Romanian tale, collected in Andrew Lang’s 1901 The Violet Fairy Book.
    • A beautiful, literary version of the tale in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
    • A Hungarian variant is translated on the excellent blog of storyteller Csenge Virág Zalka.
    • Folklorist Robert Elsie has translated an Albanian variant on his site.


Psyche Z. Ready is a reader, writer, and an instructor of English Composition at George Mason University. She loves folk narratives, fantasy, and genderfucking.


[1] Examples: Tale type ATU 884 (“The Forsaken Fiancée”), ATU 884B (“The Girl as Soldier”), and ATU 884B* (“Girl Dressed as a Man Deceives the King”).

[2]The Aarne-Thompson-Uther index is a classification system for folktales, grouped by similar motifs. Folklorists Pauline Greenhill and Emilie Anderson-Grégoire discuss ATU 514 at length in Unsettling Assumptions: Tradition, Gender, Drag.

[3] A variant appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which dates to 8 CE; another in the Indian Mahabarata, which originates in the 7th or 8th century BCE; and also “Alimbeglanya” in the Ossetian Nart Sagas, which were compiled around 2,000 BCE.

[4] These tales were told long ago and in disparate regions with notions of sex, gender, and gender identity unquestionably different from our own; to apply a contemporary understanding of gender identity to these cultures is a form of conceptual colonialism.

Illustration by H.J. Ford.  Taken from: Lang, Andrew, ed. The Violet Fairy Book. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1901.

Editor’s Note: A Different Kind of Happy Ending

So often the story begins with one of us, the wretched of the earth. There once was a poor woodcutter. There was once a poor fisherman. A widow, an orphan, a blind man. A peasant. You can imagine their hands are as rough as your own. You can imagine their swollen joints and bad teeth. You can imagine any one of them waiting bundled at the bus stop after a double shift, exact change in pocket, no more.

The story is about a low person. But because the girl was beautiful. But because the boy was brave. Because they are smart enough, good enough. Because they deserve it, they are lifted up. They marry the handsome prince who sits upon a saddle, or they win the hand of the Tsar’s daughter. The prole becomes rich.

We are taught that a happy ending is an ending with glittering gold pieces, perfumes, roasted birds. Wealth. The word itself almost fills your belly. A happy ending would be if you were driving that sweet Lexus idling at the stop light, if you were dressed like the people in big houses on the television screens, if you shopped at Whole Foods or didn’t have to scrub your own toilet. If only you deserved it.

Subvertere, Latin: To turn from below.

Now is the time for us to look for endings that subvert the paradigm of happiness we’ve been taught to seek. Now, because we are waking; now because in our disaster collectivism, we are discovering our power. We must be ready for reimagining, and rebuilding. I offer you a story with a different kind of happy ending. It’s not the perfect radical story; we’re not meant to question the idea of the benevolent monarch, or the assumption that people need be governed at all. But “The Rusty Plate” gives us an ending in which high is brought low; it’s a tale in which we learn to wish for a joy rooted not in becoming that which oppresses us, but in a world in which equality can be realized.

The story comes to us from the oral folklore of the Jews of Egypt:

There once was a poor man who wanted to bring a fine gift to the king for his birthday. His rich neighbor laughed at him and belittled him, saying, “What thing of worth could you possibly have? You may as well take this rusty old plate from your yard!” The poor man examined the broken plate, and thought, “Yes. Surely it is a very special gift, a gift from my very own yard.” He wrapped the plate in clean cloth and set off for the city. When he appeared before the king and unwrapped his gift, the sun shined just so upon its broken edges and it sparkled with all the colors of the rainbow. The rusty spots glittered like diamonds in the light. The king was delighted and amazed. He thanked the poor Jew profusely, and sent him off with a gift in return, a small pouch of gold.

But this is not our happy ending. Our happy ending comes not with gold, but with justice:

The poor man returns to his village, and his wealthy neighbor sees what the king has given him. “Imagine,” says the rich man, “If the king gives this fool coins for worthless junk, how much more will he reward me for a gift of real value?” So he sells his nice house, his land and goats and embroideries, to buy a plate of solid gold. The bourgeois man sets out for the city, thinking smugly that he will find such favor with the king that he will become a very rich, very powerful man indeed. And it’s true that the king is stunned by the beauty of the man’s gift. He exclaims “How can I ever thank you? Yes, I know! I will give you my finest and most prized possession!”

This is our happy ending, a happy ending for a new world:

The rich man looks into the pouch the king has given him, and he finds his neighbor’s rusty plate.


 This editor’s note was written by Tiny Donkey editor Anna Lea Jancewicz