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.

The Body Horror of Tam Lin

by Sonya Vatomsky

A note for readers: this essay mentions sexual violence.

bc0da84b13315d7d46f4457197fb0affIn folklore, the term “transformation chase” refers to the use of shapeshifting as a means of combat or escape. The wizard duel in the animated film The Sword In The Stone, for one, but more traditionally the plot of several Celtic ballads. “The Ballad of Tam-Lin” was included in a book of folktales I had as a child, translated from song to prose. I remember loving it. I remember the way the name “Tam-Lin” felt on my Russian tongue, liquid and strong. For those unfamiliar with the story, it goes like this: a girl comes upon Tam-Lin in the woods of Carterhaugh, where he is being held prisoner by the Queen of Fairies. To rescue him from the Queen and win him as a lover, the girl must hold him fast through countless transformations: a roaring lion, a terrifying snake, the painful scald of flame. To my young sensibilities, this seemed extremely romantic. I appreciated the ritual of endurance; trials and pageantry were a necessity of love stories because some outside force willed it, not because of the lovers themselves. Years later, “The Ballad of Tam-Lin” made me pissed.

Granted, what sounds romantic to a four-year-old-girl can hardly be expected to ring true to a thirty-year-old non binary queer person. All the same, I wanted to slice apart this story with my feminist lance — which is like a feminist lens, but for folktales. The basic premise of “Tam-Lin,” where a woman holds a man as he hurts her, was no longer abstract but a common narrative played out through a million books and films fetishizing a woman’s abnegation and self-sacrifice for the sake of a man’s potential. “Tam-Lin” became our culture’s unfortunate connection between pain and love, equating the latter with a willingness to suffer on behalf of another. “It’s only true if you bruise by the force of it,” as Chris Corner once said. Fuck. What had originally drawn me to such a sexist, heteronormative depiction of devotion? A poem from my poetry collection, Salt Is For Curing, tried to understand: “She holds and she hurts and / she wins. Maybe I liked it because the woman / is doing something, not waiting. It’s always / either waiting or hurting, you know, and often / one can’t tell the difference.”

Yet the more I thought about it, the more “The Ballad of Tam-Lin” seemed itself to change shape, to become something other than what I had previously seen. As I looked back on an extremely difficult period of my life when I frequently lashed out in anger and attempted to isolate myself from those around me — and as I thought about the people who remained by my side throughout this — I began to see “Tam-Lin” not as a patriarchal narrative of pain-acceptance but as one where a character holds another through change. Tam-Lin did not become a flame and slowly burn hotter; he shifted indiscriminately, the changes done to him as he assumed monstrous forms akin to those in body-horror films like The Fly or Tusk. The transformation chase in “Tam-Lin” is a battle against the Fairy Queen and not really between the two individuals. In this forest, the courage required in love is made literal.

To be forcibly changed, especially as a means of achieving freedom, is a strong metaphor that does double-duty here: the girl can leave the forest and head home any time, but enduring the transformations is the only way for Tam-Lin to escape the Fairy Queen. Someone we love can certainly assume different shapes to frighten or hurt us, but the experiences that make us shift and change are as varied as all the animals in the wood of Carterhaugh. Which is to say: is it possible that there is something beautiful in love’s tenacity? Not in the sense that it’s good or admirable to endure pain, but in the sense that a transformation chase represents the monstrous qualities people display as they pass through tragedy — the qualities we might take on during the processing of grief or trauma. This link of change with pain, especially in the context of external pain (vis-à-vis the Fairy Queen), is in some ways a very honest look at any long-term relationship, where we must each see the other’s wounds and mold each other back into, if not our perfect form, then at least something passable. A transformation chase is not discomfort for the sake of another but the choice to remain by their side in a moment of shared discomfort — because, after all, it is only in fairy tales that change can happen with something as easy as a kiss.


Sonya Vatomsky is a Russian American non-binary artist with too many feelings on the inside and too much cat hair on the outside. They were born in Moscow and currently live in Seattle with their cat, Magpie Underfoot, and a growing collection of taxidermy, wet specimens, and other oddities. Salt Is For Curing (Sator Press, 2015) is their full-length debut — a poetry collection about bones, dill, and survival. Get in touch by saying their name five times in front of a bathroom mirror or at @coolniceghost and sonyavatomsky.com.

Image by Jill Karla Schwarz.

Interview: Pauline Greenhill

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In 2014, when I began studying fairy tales, I came across Pauline Greenhill’s “‘Fitcher’s [Queer] Bird’: A Fairy-Tale Heroine and Her Avatars,”  an academic article that offers a queer reading of “Fitcher’s Bird,” my favorite Grimm fairy tale. The article has deeply influenced my thinking and writing on fairy tales and so I was thrilled when, after sending off an email to Greenhill, she agreed to an interview.

Greenhill is Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Her most recent book is Screening Justice: Canadian Crime Films, Culture and Society, which was co-edited with Steven Kohm and Sonia Bookman, and published in 2016. She also co-edited Fairy-Tale Films Beyond Disney: International Perspectives with Jack Zipes and Kendra Magnus-Johnston in 2016; Unsettling Assumptions: Tradition, Gender, Drag with Diane Tye in 2014; Channeling Wonder: Fairy Tales on Television with Jill Terry Rudy in 2014; Transgressive Tales: Queering the Grimms with Kay Turner in 2012; and Fairy Tale Films: Visions of Ambiguity with Sidney Eve Matrix in 2010. She is the author of Make the Night Hideous: Four English Canadian Charivaris, 1881-1940 (2010). She has fairy-tale research published in Feral Feminisms; Law, Culture and the Humanities; Marvels & Tales; Narrative Culture; Studies in European Cinema; and Theoretical Criminology among others.

There’s a storied tradition of studying fairy tales through a feminist lens, but you take that work further, examining queerness in fairy tales. How did you find your way into this field of research?

Absolutely my queer/trans research is an extension of my feminist research! But my route to queer and trans fairy tales was circuitous. I started a masters in Folklore at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1977. At the time, and to a sad extent now, the cool kids avoided traditionally recognised forms of folklore like ballads and fairy tales. Trying to be one of them, I did my masters thesis on family photography.

However, when I got to the University of Texas at Austin in 1981, where I did my PhD, I worked with Roger deV. Renwick, a ballad and folk song scholar who has always been an advocate for studying traditional genres (see e.g. Renwick 1980 and 2009). So for my PhD dissertation on folk poetry in Ontario under Roger’s supervision, I was looking for the old in the new, as it were (Greenhill 1989).

After five years teaching Canadian Studies at the University of Waterloo, I came to the University of Winnipeg’s (then) Women’s Studies program in 1991. (We’re now a Department with six full time faculty and we’ve included “and Gender.”) At the time I was working on Newfoundland ballads about women who dress as men to follow their lovers or seek adventure as sailors, soldiers, or robbers. You can listen to one example here, sung by the fabulous Newfoundland traditional source singer Anita Best on the compilation album Bristol’s Hope–Lately Come Over. Hitherto folklorists’ readings assumed that these songs were about men and their experiences, and my feminist reading asserted that they were also about women.

Continue reading Interview: Pauline Greenhill

The Morals of the Stories

by Carmen Maria Machado

A note for readers: the links below lead to many places, including articles describing physical and sexual violence. 

If you are a woman and you are curious, grief is not far behind. Your thirst will be quenched for a moment, yes, but then consequences will limp-lope toward you like an injured man (and isn’t that the world’s most dangerous creature, an injured man?) and you will regret all of your choices. And if you are a woman and you age, you will be invisible and no one will want you, but if you tighten, lift, tweak, cut, suck, pack, polish, paint, or conceal, then vanity is your weakness and you deserve what comes to you. And if you are a woman, your pleasure is a problem that needs solving. And if you are a woman and someone needs a bartering chip, you are that bartering chip. You can be bought and sold, taken without consequence, passed around, bound against your will. Your worth, to them, falls somewhere between organic greens and broodmare—an object to be consumed, fucked, acted upon. Do you see the pattern, now? And if you are a woman and you promise something to man or beast, that promise is eternal and binding. You might think your mind is yours to change, but you would be mistaken. And if you are a woman who walks in proximity to a monster, even if you don’t know it, even if the monster has soft fur and a kind smile and friends, even if you have been sent to the monster by another monster, then your downfall is of your own making. And if you are a woman and you do what they want, you will die, and if you are a woman and you reject what they demand of you, you will also die. And if you are a woman, they are coming for your voice. And if you are a woman, they are coming for your mind. And if you are a woman, they are coming for your body: Fire will find your flesh, the knife will find your chest, the boot will find your neck, the bullet will find your brain. Because if you are a woman, you look delicious, and the world is hungry for all the wrong lessons.


Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press. She is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, Best Horror of the Year, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, and lives in Philadelphia with her partner.

Editor’s Note: The They-Child Grows Wings

At the edge of the forest, the they-child saw the one-clawed bird, its feathers glinting cerulean in the sun. The bird stopped preening itself and stared; the they-child put their fingers to their neck and slowly shook, until the mask they wore wiggled loose. Off came the long auburn hair, the blue eyes ringed with sleeplessness, the mud-red collar buttoned to the chin. Underneath it the they-child was something else, something more splendid and strange, for the first time. They lifted the girl-mask up as a sort of offering. The bird extended its one giant talon and wrapped it around the part of the mask that had hugged the they-child’s skull. The bird started to fly, slowly at first–slow enough that the they-child could follow–and then faster, and the child found themselves lifting off the ground and gliding with new wings above the forest.

979ff707-61c5-434e-8459-22ad9a5b07b7I’m writing a fairy tale. It’s a very simple tale, with familiar archetypes and motifs: a young person, a bird, the woods, transformation. But it’s a tale that Sotheby’s–the auction house that owns Toyen’s Message from the Forest, the painting my story is based on–tells differently. In their version, there is no mask, no avian helper. “An owl-like spectre bearing in its one remaining claw the severed head of a girl,” says Sotheby’s of the painting; they also refer to Toyen as “she.”[1] The transmasculine Surrealist has been rendered into a woman; the painting, too, has been broken into its most obvious component parts: “owl-like spectre,” “one remaining claw,” “severed head of a girl.” I want more from it, I see more in it. So I read the painting queerly–through my own experiences as a non-binary genderqueer person, through what I know about Toyen–and try to riddle out a message from the forest that makes sense to me.

This is the story I choose to write: the girl-face as mask, the one-taloned bird as helper, the they-child running freely, as themselves, into the woods at last. I think of the obvious parallels between my life and the story: my tomboyish adulation of the woods as a child, and the avian name I chose at twenty in an attempt to be proud of my small stature and jumpy mannerisms, to give myself a non-binary name that fit my non-binary gender. I think, too, about which story Toyen would have preferred–mine or Sotheby’s, or neither. I struggle to imagine Toyen–an avowed anarchist, who hid his artistic partner, the poet Jindřich Heisler, of Jewish descent, from the Nazis–seeing nature, rather than humanity, as evil. Though perhaps he used the brightly colored bird as a stand-in for sinister human acts: Sotheby’s does say, “An image of anxiety and helplessness, it gave rise to the series of twelve drawings that []he embarked on over the next two years, influenced by the Nazis occupation of Prague, entitled Spectres of the Desert.” Sotheby’s has, I’m sure, proper art historians writing their descriptions, with proper training in historical context and technique–although I wonder what their biases make them overlook, or what they choose to ignore.

When I try to find something transgressive behind Message from the Forest–a bit of overlooked history, or a queer reading of the painting–perhaps I’ll only find my own reflection: the face of a strange and overgrown they-child standing, at the edge of the woods, girl-mask outstretched, hands trembling, wings pushing out through my shoulder blades. I’ll offer up the-gender-which-is-not-me-but-has-been-ascribed-to-me to my avian friend, who takes it and leads me deep into the woods, over rock and vine and river, to a place where all the birds are singing. Where I, too, will be a bird.


This editor’s note was written by Tiny Donkey editor Wren Awry.


[1] This is common across the internet and in academic articles I’ve found on Toyen (Czech, 1902-1980). It is well-known that Toyen used the masculine case for himself and lived as a man yet art history seems to insist on presenting him as a cisgendered woman.