Transitioning: A Danish Folktale and the Contemporary Transgender Experience

Paper presented at the 2016 Conference for the American Folklore Society/International Society for Folk Narrative Research

The most well-known folktales of Denmark are, of course, the primarily literary tales of Hans Christian Anderson.  In the late nineteenth century, however, there were a handful of Danish folklorists collecting and compiling local folk tales, ballads, and legends.  Evald Tang Kristensen was a schoolteacher and folktale collector who grew up listening to the folktales of the poor villagers of Jutland—the western, continental portion of Denmark.  Unlike other Danish folktale collectors, Kristensen believed in collecting stories first-hand, and he travelled across Jutland doing so.  He strove to record them accurately, maintaining the speech patterns and dialects of the storytellers, with which he was intimately familiar.  He published these carefully transcribed tales, in four large volumes, during the 1880’s (Kristensen 9).


While there have been English-language collections of selected tales from Kristensen and other Danish collectors of this era, the bulk of Kristensen’s tales have never before been translated into English.  Stephen Badman’s 2015 Folk and Fairy Tales from Denmark, collects nearly all of the original tales in two volumes.  They are strange and beautiful.  They have a non-traditional narrative structure, they are brief, simple, and funny, and they are often quite vulgar; scatological and sexual jokes are the norm.  It’s easy to see why many of these tales have rarely been translated, including the tale I’m discussing today.  This story is a variant of an old tale type, ATU 514, “The Shift of Sex,” a narrative in which a woman is transformed into a man.  For my master’s thesis at George Mason, I attempted to collect every English-language variant of this tale type that I could find, and to compare them to one another.  I identified 28 unique variants.  This Danish variant from Kristensen’s collection is unique and beautiful.

As I said, this tale type is old.  Its earliest appearance is in the Ossetian Nart Sagas, which are first collected around 1,000 BCE in the North Caucasus region.  Although these sagas are mythological, it’s agreed that many of them were sourced from folktales (Colarusso 4-7).  A variant of the tale also appears in the Indian epic the Mahabharata, which appears between 800-900 BCE, and later in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, recorded in AD 8.  Since these early appearances, the tale has been continually told and collected across Europe, the Americas, and parts of the Middle East to this day.  Many of the European variants are similar to one another, and the basic narrative is as follows:

A female protagonist dresses as a man in order to escape a bad situation, or to solve a significant problem.  She is successful at all tasks, is heroic and admired for her many masculine qualities.  She becomes a soldier, and marries the king’s daughter, the princess.  At the end of the tale, the protagonist has to bravely confront a terrifying monster.  Just as she is about to defeat it, it utters a curse: “If you are a man, be now a woman; if you are a woman, be now a man.”  The protagonist is thus magically transformed into a man.  He returns home, and lives happily ever after with his beautiful wife.

There have been a few approaches to this tale type by Folklorists in the past 100 years, but some have dismissed it as aberrant or as unworthy of consideration (Brown; Holbek).  Other, more contemporary scholars have analyzed this story through a feminist lens, and found it wanting (Hooker; Pan).  The protagonist begins the tale as an empowered woman, but through the change of sex becomes a rather traditional male hero.  The tale, then, from this Feminist perspective, is not subversive but is instead a confirmation of heteronormativity—the tale ends with a traditional marriage.  More recent approaches to this tale type, however, take into consideration Transgender Theory, and thus read this tale very differently.  The most thorough example appears in Pauline Greenhill and Emilie Anderson-Grégoire’s chapter on the tale type in Unsettling Assumptions.  They argue that the tale type may be interpreted as “a subtle exploration and undermining of sex and gender” (Greenhill 57), and further, that ATU 514 has a “telling ambivalence about gender, sex, and sexuality that characterizes genderqueer” (57).  The cross-dressing and sex-changing straddling of gender boundaries creates a narrative that questions traditional ideas of gender and gender identity.  Their argument is that ATU 514 and other gender-bending tales describe female masculinity; the change of sex of the protagonist represents an increase in power and expression.

My contribution to this conversation was to read as many variants of the tale as I could find, and to compare them to one another.  What I found through this process, is a common theme among the tales outside of the primary narrative.  I found small moments in every tale in which a female character experiences frustration and oppression due to the unjust restraints of her assigned gender role.  These restraints range from mild to severe.  The most common episodes on this theme are: oppressive marriage practices, restricted employment options, lack of freedom of movement, and the largest of all is the oppressive father figure against which the female character is powerless.  While the primary focus in these tales is the fantastic life of the woman who becomes a man, these secondary narrative elements offer a more realistic portrayal of the ills of restrictive gender roles for women.  The recurrence of these episodes in every single variant is evidence of their significance to the narrative, and possible evidence for the audience experience of these tales: that these tales gave audiences a space to process the frustrations of gender and gender roles, primarily for women, and also a space to fantasize about escaping them.

I also agree with the authors of Unsettling Assumptions that this tale type creates a space in which to explore sex and gender.  They point to a statement from Lewis Seifert, who writes, “Fairy tales are a particularly apt means of studying the construction of sexuality and gender differences…they reveal more explicitly than other texts the conflicts, contradictions, and tension on which [the myths about what divides the sexes] are founded” (Seifert 1-3).  The often fantastic nature of folk and fairy tales leaves space for creative exploration of these complex concepts, and ATU 514 is a perfect example of this.  I have chosen this Danish variant to explore today because it is a particularly clear narrative in which to explore the construction of gender and the conflicts around it.   In this variant femaleness and maleness are far more than the sex organs; they are complex constellations of physical, social, behavioral, personal and cultural factors.


But let’s look more closely at the tale itself.  The variant which I’m discussing today, “The Princess Who Became a Man,” was originally collected by Kristensen from informant Ane Kristine Olesdatter.  The tale begins with a gruesome situation: a female protagonist loses her mother, and her grief-stricken father decides to marry his own daughter.  Even though incest is a universal taboo, the crazed father, who is also a king, is in such a position of power that no one dare stop him.  The princess is sworn to obey him not only as her father, but also as her king.  Her powerlessness is a foul side effect of the patriarchal power structure, and the unquestioningly enforced gender roles that support it.  The incestuous father is an unfortunately perfect illustration of the ills of an unequal balance of power between the sexes.  Another side effect of this imbalance of power is the objectification of the female body—the predatory perspective which leads the king to prey upon his daughter because she was born into a beautiful female body that resembles her mother, the king’s dead wife.  In the story, the princess runs from her father and attempts to hide in the woods.  Here I read from the story:

She heard the belling of her father’s two bloodhounds close on her trail. When she saw them closing in, she cut off both her breasts and threw them to the hounds. They each ate a breast before running back the way they had come. The princess gathered moss to staunch her wounds and travelled deeper into the woods. (Kristensen 247)

The princess has left home with nothing: no possessions, and nothing with which to defend herself.  The one object that she has is her physical body.  The body that left her vulnerable to her father’s desires has now become her means to escape him.  To survive, she sacrifices a portion of her female body.  This symbolic first step away from femininity and a female life ensures her freedom and protection from the violation of incest.  She escapes her father by escaping her subservient female life, because the male sex means freedom and power.

As she escapes, now, free from her father and his hounds, she meets an old man.  He invites her in, tends to her wounds, and tells her “I will teach you all I know” (Kristensen 247).  This old man is a loving and kind father figure who cares for her, in very stark contrast to her father.  When she is healed,

the old man took her into the woods where he gave her a gun. He taught her how to shoot and before long, she became an accomplished marksman; the clothes she had worn as a princess were no longer of any use to her and she wore men’s clothing.  (Kristensen 247)

Again in contrast to the father, the old man is nurturing, where her father was destructive.  The old man sees her growth and potential where the father wanted to stifle and control.  The old man is truly a magical helper in that he does not resist the transgressive transition the princess has begun, but instead he kindly supports her in her subversion of the gender she was assigned.  Eventually, the protagonist (who is no longer a princess but not yet a prince, and so I’ll refrain from gendered pronouns), is “ready to leave the safety of the woods.”  The old man speaks:

“I’ve taught you everything I know,” he said. “It’s time for you to make your own way in the world.  The royal palace is just on the other side of the woods; you should go there and ask if they need a gamekeeper.  It’s a job that would serve you well, but if ever you find yourself in trouble, think of me.” He gave her the best of his clothes and she left.  (Kristensen 247-248)

Here the contrast between the first and second father is most clear: where the father wanted to inhibit movement, the old man encourages it.  The shift from one father to another demonstrates a movement from toxic, violent, and controlling masculinity to positive, nurturing, protective masculinity.

The protagonist leaves home, gets a job as a gamekeeper, is hired by a king, and meets and falls in love with a beautiful princess.  They are happily married.  At the climax of the story, an antagonist, the Red Knight, appears, who wants to marry the princess as well.  The Red Knight discovers the protagonist’s secret, sabotages their marriage by alerting the king, and arranges a trip to the river where everyone will bathe nude together, so that the protagonist’s secret will be exposed.  The protagonist is of course desperate, and recalls the last words the old man spoke: “if ever you find yourself in trouble, think of me” (Kristensen 248).  As they think of the old man, a stag suddenly leaps into the water, and disappears around a hill.  The protagonist follows it, and discovers the old man, who tells him: “From this moment on, you are a man” (249).  This transformation, like all those before it, does not come without a price.  The old man tells the prince: “you must promise me one thing in return: you will give me your first-born child” (249).  When the child is born, the prince brings it to the old man, who asks him to place the child on a chopping block and to take hold of one of its legs.  “The prince…watched in horror as the old man grabbed the child by its other leg.  He picked up the axe and chopped the child between its legs up to its navel” (Kristensen 249).  The old man asks: “’Did that give you pain?’ ’Yes,’ the prince answers.” “’It pained me just as much when I saw you that day…your father desired to marry you’” (249).  The old man continues: he chops the child in half, further and further up its body.  “’Did that give you pain?’” He asks again. “’Yes,’ the prince replies.”  The old man says: “’It pained me just as much when you needed to cut off your breasts and throw them to your father’s dogs’” (Kristensen 249).  Finally, the old man chops the child’s head in two, and asks the same question again.  “’Yes,’” the prince replies.  The child has been sacrificed.

At this point in the story, the prince has moved through several stages of transition from female to male: physical, behavioral, social, and personal.  Before he is fully a man and may live happily ever after, however, he experiences this final sacrifice.  This barbaric symbol forces the prince to re-experience his own trauma again.  This time, however, the prince is able to experience his trauma from the outside.  He sees his own powerless child dissected by a powerful man, and is able, as an adult, to fully appreciate the horror of it, and the horror of what he experienced in his own youth.  The old man, as well, is re-visiting his grief through this sacrifice.  Together, they remember their past, the cruel victimization of a child by a predator.  Fortunately, this story ends happily, with a strong similarity to the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis.  After the child has been offered up in sacrifice, the old man restores life to the child and returns it to the prince, who brings it home to his wife, and the three live happily ever after.  Through this cathartic sacrifice and rebirth, the two men revisit their past and have space to process their grief, and move forward.  It is only after this catharsis that the prince is able to live happily ever after—it was a necessary hurdle for him to climb in his transition from female to male.

The movement of the protagonist from princess to prince occurs in stages, and these stages correspond to different elements of sex and gender.  I’ll refer to the protagonist as he for ease of understanding.  The first movement away from femaleness was to remove the breasts.  This, of course, corresponds to the physical element of sex—the body.  During the next stage, the prince dresses in men’s clothes, and practices traditionally masculine skills like hunting.  This stage demonstrates the behavioral elements of gender—the habits and practices in which men typically engage.  The next stage is when the prince goes into the world as a man, seeks out men’s work, and betroths a woman.  This corresponds to the social realm of gender—the performative elements of living as a man in the world.  The next stage is mysterious—the magical transformation that occurs when the prince follows the stag back to his father figure and his sex is formally transitioned to male.  I interpret this stage as corresponding to gender identity, the personal inner sense of sex and gender.  This identity is independent of the other elements, and is the only one that the prince is powerless over.  The final stage in this narrative is the ritualized disfigurement and sacrifice of the prince’s son.  In this scene, the prince and his father figure are actively grieving together, remembering the cruel acts that they have experienced at the hands of the king—an unjust, patriarchal system.  In this final stage there is a conflict between the individual and their culture.  Gender, of course, does not exist in a vacuum.  Each of us experiences our own gender identity, but we also experience the ways in which our identities are at odds with, or are even in direct opposition to, the definitions and traditions of our culture.  This final stage carries a heavy weight: the conflict, often violent or cruel, between lived, personal experience and cultural tradition.

My reading of this tale is that it served for its audiences as a vehicle to process frustrations about restrictive gender roles.  For today’s audiences, however, in many ways this is not a feminist story, nor is it a transgender one.  Yet I argue that this tale is transgressive in its discussion of gender, gender identity, and gender roles.  I also believe this tale deserves a revisit in light of transgender scholarship.  I certainly cannot argue that this has been, for its historical audiences, a transgender story.  For most of these audiences, transgender or gender fluidity is simply not an option.  But even from today’s perspective this is not a trans story: after all, the hero of this tale chooses his gender.  This does not speak to the experience of most transgender individuals today.  Every trans person experiences their identity differently, and there are many ways to pursue or not pursue transition.  In general, however, transitioning is a matter of identity, not of personal choice.  It is not an action made in response to a past trauma: it is a confirmation of known identity.  Although this tale does not represent the experience of most transgender individuals, it does remarkably represent the complexity of gender and gender identity as we understand it today, in part because of trans awareness.

I argue that the primary relevance of this tale type for us today is its lucid presentation of the complexity of gender and gender identity; this tale instructs us that our identities are far more complex than the cultural gender roles under which we are constrained.  This tale emerges from our past with an ancient awareness that gender is more than our bodies.  The stages of transition that the protagonist moves through in this tale, from princess to prince, demonstrate that sex is not seen an essential or clearly definable quality; it is rather the result of a complex constellation of identity, experience, and environment—this calls into question the gender roles which are imposed upon all of us, and also leaves room for gender fluidity, and the gender spectrum.

Works Cited

Colarusso, John.  Nart Sagas from the Caucasus: Myths and Legends from the

Circassians, Abazas, Abkhaz, and Ubykhs.  Princeton: Princeton UP, 2002.

Greenhill, Pauline and Diane Tye. Unsettling Assumptions: Tradition, Gender, Drag. Boulder: UP of Colorado, 2014.

Kristensen, Evald Tang. Folk and Fairy Tales from Denmark. Trans. Stephen Badman. 2 vols. N.p.:

Seifert, Lewis C. Fairy Tales, Sexuality, and Gender in France, 1690-1715: Nostalgic

Utopias. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.

Works Consulted

Brown, W. Norman. “Change of Sex as a Hindu Story Motif.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 47 (1927): 3-24.

Hooker, Jessica. “The Hen Who Sang: Swordbearing Women in Eastern European Folktales.” Folklore 101.2 (1990): 178-84.

Holbek, Bengt. “Interpretation of Fairy Tales: Danish Folklore in A[n] European Perspective.” FF Communications, No. 239. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1987.

Pan, Maja. “Introduction to the Analysis of Gender in the ATU 514 Fairy Tale Type on Examples from the Balkans.” Studia Mythologica Slavika 16 (2013): 165-86.

Author: psychezready

I'm a student in the doctoral program at University of Connecticut in Rhetoric/Composition. My areas of interest are: Disability, Gender, and Folklore.

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