And Then She Rode In On A Goat: The Pure Awesome of Tatterhood

Once upon a time, there was a spectacular, and spectacularly ugly, heroine who rode around on a goat and beat up malevolent trolls and witches with a wooden spoon. She saved her sister, negotiated marriages of her choosing, and lived happily ever after.

We’re not making this up! This heroine’s name is Tatterhood, and she’s from the Norwegian storytelling tradition.

For more than a year, we’ve been working on a collection of poetry celebrating fairy-tale sisterhood, and last week, our poem “Dreams Vermillion,” a “Tatterhood” retelling, was published in the gorgeous feminist fairy-tale journal Corvid Queen. You can read it by clicking here.

To mark its publication, today we’re going to talk about the fairy tale “Tatterhood” and why it’s one of our favorites.

You can read the story in its entirety right here, but here’s the short version:

Once upon a time, a king and queen longed for children. (In fairy-tale terms, this is ALWAYS a sign that something bananas is about to happen.) Eventually, an old-beggar woman (under the influence of a LOT of alcohol) tells the queen to wash herself with two pails of water. After doing so, she must throw the dirty water under the bed. Then, when she looks under the bed the next morning, she’ll find two flowers – one beautiful, the other ugly. The queen is instructed to eat the beautiful flower but to leave the ugly one where it is. 

The queen follows the instructions, but when she sees the flowers, she eats them both. And not long after, she gives birth to twin girls. The first twin is unspeakably hideous, and she emerges from the womb on a goat and carrying a wooden spoon. The second twin is fair, sweet, and beautiful. According to well-known fairy-tale logic, the girls should be bitter enemies, but instead, the twins are inseparable: “where the younger twin was, there she must also be, and no one could ever keep them apart.”

One Christmas eve, their castle is attacked by witches and trolls, and Tatterhood goes outside to defend her home and her family. Unfortunately, her sister peaks outside to check on her, whereupon a witch rips off her head and pops a calf’s head in its place.

After Tatterhood chases off the invaders, she’s horrified to see what has happened to her beloved sister, and she demands a ship and supplies from her father so that she can restore her sister’s head.

The twins sail off, without any crew, just the two of them.

When they arrive at the home of the witches who stole the beautiful twin’s head, Tatterhood climbs in through a window, snatches her sister’s head off the wall where it’s been hanging, and fights off the witches who swarm her with her wooden spoon. Then she yanks off the calf’s head and puts her sister’s head back in place.

Next, they sail to a far away kingdom, where a king falls in love with the beautiful twin. Tatterhood insists that they cannot marry unless she herself marries the king’s only son, the prince.

On the way to the wedding, the prince is having a massive sulk, but through a series of questions and answers, Tatterhood insists that her ugly goat is a gorgeous horse, her spoon is a silver wand, her gray hood is a golden crown, and that she herself is a total babe. The prince looks again, and sees that she is correct, whereupon the weddings take place, and everyone lives happily ever after!

Even though this story feels highly unusual compared to more famous fairy tales like “Cinderella” and “Snow White,” it’s actually part of a whole family of stories that folklorists categorize as ATU 711: The Beautiful and Ugly Twin Sisters. “Kate Crackernuts” is another (awesome) fairy tale from this group!

“Tatterhood” was collected in Norway by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe in the mid 19th century and published in Norwegian Folktales. There are a bunch of other versions of this story from Norway and Iceland, too!

So, there’s a lot going on in this story. For brevity, we actually left a ton of stuff out, including the adoption of another little girl by the king and queen before the twins are born. But just a few of the themes at play here are transformation and resurrection (the beautiful twin really should have died when having her head ripped off – twice! – but instead she’s able to just…absorb a new head?!), sisterhood, agency, and persistence.  

And this, of course, is why we love it. It’s full of all the best typical fairy-tale stuff, but features an incredibly kick-ass heroine and a deep love between sisters – neither one is a slave to the other, neither one makes snide remarks about the other, neither one would ever leave the other behind. 

We are profoundly interested in fairy-tale sisterhood. It’s kinda what we do! It’s a part of the fairy-tale world that often gets overlooked or twisted into something horrible. Over the past few years, we’ve been seeking space in all kinds of stories, both familiar and not, for something more, something deeper, something that speaks to the incredible bonds women can have. They don’t call us “the fairy-tale twins” or “the sisters Grimm” for nothing, ya know! 

Our poem, “Dreams Vermillion,” is a retelling of the story of “Tatterhood” with a very unexpected perspective. While many might assume that Tatterhood harbored some kind of jealousy over her beautiful sister, there is no evidence for that in the story. In fact, what we see is Tatterhood repeatedly being absolutely amazing – fierce, confident, active, and free in a way that many fairy-tale heroines don’t get to be. So what if it wasn’t Tatterhood, but rather her beautiful sister who felt jealous? Not the kind of envy that would steal what her sister had for herself only, but a desire to be like she is. To be more like her so that their lives could have worked out a different way. To be more like her so that neither of them had to conform to the life princesses are supposed to want. To run off together and be monstrous and free. 

It’s not always fun being beautiful. 

When we write together, we like to switch off back and forth. One of us starts a poem, maybe using a specific tale we’ve decided we’re going to try to work with, and then the other takes over. We go back and forth like this until we have a first draft, then we go back together and tweak things, fixing things until the piece feels exactly right to both of us. One of the things that’s so amazing about this practice is that, often, the first person will have an idea about where the poem is going to go… and then the other completely explodes that idea and makes it infinitely better! But the best thing is that, looking back at the poem, we can’t even remember who wrote what. The blending of our two voices is where the magic happens.

In the best of circumstances, that’s exactly what strong sisterhood can do – create a magic that would be impossible for anyone to do alone. We still hope that maybe Tatterhood and her sister will run away from their conventional life and live the passionate dreams vermillion that they could only create together. 

P.S. If you’re interested in more of our thoughts on writing, particularly fairy-tale writing, we recommend you check out our big digital workbook, Spellcraft: Write Like a Witch!

P.P.S. Just a quick reminder that we’re doing a talk for the Smithsonian next week on French Fairy Tales! If there were ever a group of people who knew about fairy-tale sisterhood, it’s definitely the French salonnières. Click here to grab your tickets!

[All imagery in this post by Lauren A. Mills. Her beautiful children’s book of Tatterhood is sadly out of print, but you can find used copies by clicking here.]

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