Annotated Fairy Tale: Tatterhood

I’ll be honest with you—I love this one. It’s very short compared to some of the drawn-out sagas we’ve seen and never once devolves into East of the Sun, West of the Moon, which is sort of the go-to fairy tale for dragging things out. So this’ll be a quick little afternoon amusement instead of a lengthy epic. Still!

It’s also one of the very very few fairy tales that has a kick-ass female hero who isn’t just there in an advisory capacity. (Seriously, why was the Mastermaid not just killing everything in her path? Why did she even need the prince around?)

I do rather resent the ending, though.

A little digging turns up that this is Aarne-Thompson type 711, “Beautiful and Ugly Twin.” Apparently this is common in Norway and doesn’t come up much elsewhere. Go figure.



(collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, 1852)

Once upon a time there was a king and a queen who had no children, and that made the queen very sad. She seldom had a happy hour. She was always crying and complaining, and saying how dull and lonesome it was in the palace. “If we had children there would be life enough,” she said. Wherever she went in all her realm she found God’s blessing in children, even in the poorest hut. And wherever she went she heard women scolding their children, and saying how they had done this and that wrong. The queen heard all this, and thought it would be so nice to do as other women did.

We only have the kids on alternate weeks, and let me tell you that the scolding bit is about as much fun as chewing your leg off in a bear trap. Seriously, why are there dirty socks on the windowsill? Seriously? Again?

At last the king and queen took into their palace an adopted girl to raise, that they might always have her with them, to love her if she did well, and scold her if she did wrong, like their own child.

Ironically, she will vanish without a trace one paragraph from now.

One day the little girl whom they had taken as their own, ran down into the palace yard, and was playing with a golden apple. Just then an old beggar woman came by, who had a little girl with her, and it wasn’t long before the little girl and the beggar’s child were great friends, and began to play together, and to toss the golden apple about between them. When the queen saw this, as she sat at a window in the palace, she tapped on the pane for her foster daughter to come up. She went at once, but the beggar girl went up too; and as they went into the queen’s apartment, each held the other by the hand. Then the queen began to scold the little lady, and to say, “You ought to be above running about and playing with a tattered beggar’s brat.” And she started to drive the girl down the stairs.

The queen is setting herself up for one of those classic fairy-tale comeuppances here. Always be polite to beggars and always follow directions. 

Also, I hope you enjoyed the adopted girl because we will never hear from her again.

“If the queen only knew my mother’s power, she’d not drive me out,” said the little girl; and when the queen asked what she meant more plainly, she told her how her mother could get her children if she chose. The queen wouldn’t believe it, but the girl insisted, and said that every word of it was true, and asked the queen only to try and make her mother do it. So the queen sent the girl down to fetch up her mother.

“Do you know what your daughter says?” asked the queen of the old woman, as soon as ever she came into the room.

No, the beggar woman knew nothing about it.

The kid’s nuts, Your Majesty. She keeps trying to tell me that it’s fairies leaving dirty socks on the windowsill.

“Well, she says you can get me children if you will,” answered the queen.

“Queens shouldn’t listen to beggar girls’ silly stories,” said the old woman, and walked out of the room.

This right here is proof that the old woman has magical powers. She just told off the queen and walked out. You don’t do that unless you’re pretty confident that you can turn everybody into toads if the issue comes up.

Or you’re fireproof. Fireproof is also good.

Then the queen got angry, and wanted again to drive out the little girl; but she declared it was true every word that she had said.

“Let the queen only give my mother something to drink,” said the girl; “when she gets tipsy she’ll soon find out a way to help you.”

Possibly this is a seriously clever two-woman con designed to get Mom’s drink on.

The queen was ready to try this; so the beggar woman was fetched up again, and treated with as much wine and mead as she wanted; and so it was not long before her tongue began to wag. Then the queen came out again with the same question she had asked before.

“Kids? Whadya want kids for? It’s all dirty socks and dragging me in to talk to queens. Seriously, get a goat. Goats are useful. And they don’t wear socks.”

“Perhaps I know one way to help you,” said the beggar woman. “Your majesty must make them bring in two pails of water some evening before you go to bed. Wash yourself in each of them, and afterwards throw the water under your bed. When you look under your bed the next morning, two flowers will have sprung up, a beautiful one and an ugly one. Eat the beautiful one but leave the ugly alone. Be careful not to forget this last bit of advice.” That was what the beggar woman said.

All those who think the queen is going to listen, raise your hand. No, keep ’em up so I can count them.

Right. You have failed Fairy Tales 101. Report to the old well to be assigned whatever horrible thing will fall out of your mouth whenever you talk from now on. Ask for earthworms, they’re easier to hide than toads. And good in the garden.

Incidentally, that’s a lot of water to dump under the bed. If I did that, I’d expect a leak in the living room.

Yes, the queen did what the beggar woman advised her to do; she had the water brought up in two pails, washed herself in them, and emptied them under the bed; and when she looked under the bed the next morning, there stood two flowers; one was ugly and foul, and had black leaves; but the other was so bright, and fair, and lovely, she had never seen anything like it, so she ate it up at once. But the pretty flower tasted so sweet, that she couldn’t help herself. She ate the other one too, for, she thought, “I’m sure that it can’t hurt or help me much either way.”

Remarkably, the queen will not learn from this mistake.

Well, sure enough, after a while the queen was brought to bed. First of all, she had a girl who had a wooden spoon in her hand, and rode upon a goat.

There is almost no way to interpret this that does not involve the queen giving birth to a riding goat. I am guessing there was a lot of screaming and a lot of head-scratching on the part of the midwives—and how do you even explain that to the king? “Say, Your Majesty, you aren’t aware of any…err…odd shoots on the family tree, are you? You know…extra limbs…maybe with hooves…?”

It’s even more disturbing if you take the literal interpretation that she rode out on the goat, under her own power. I am not entirely sure that dilation in centimeters is what’s called for here. Presumably the queen had like three epidurals and maybe some laudanum. 

She was disgusting and ugly, and the very moment she came into the world she bawled out “Mamma.”

“If I’m your mamma,” said the queen, “God give me grace to mend my ways.”

Last time I take advice from drunk beggar women. Let me talk to the goat. Technically the goat’s mine, too.

“Oh, don’t be sorry,” said the girl on the goat, “for one will soon come after me who is better looking.”

I dunno, that’s a fine figure of a goat. Come to Mamma, goatikins! Lookit those liddle hoofie-woofies! Wooo, this is good laudanum!

After a while, the queen had another girl, who was so beautiful and sweet that no one had ever set eyes on such a lovely child. You may be sure that the queen was very well pleased.

This is even better than a goat!

The elder twin they called “Tatterhood,” because she was always so ugly and ragged, and because she had a hood which hung about her ears in tatters.

Incidentally, she’s the only character in the entire story who gets a name.

The queen could hardly bear to look at her.

Because she’s ugly or because they had to invent a new scale for vaginal tearing after that whole riding goat incident?

The nurses tried to shut her up in a room by herself, but it did no good. She always had to be where the younger twin was, and no one could ever keep them apart.

One Christmas eve, when they were half grown up, there arose a frightful noise and clatter in the hallway outside the queen’s apartment. Tatterhood asked what it was that was making such a noise outside.

“Oh,” said the queen, “it isn’t worth asking about.”

But Tatterhood wouldn’t give in until she found out all about it; and so the queen told her it was a pack of trolls and witches who had come there to celebrate Christmas.

The queen is incredibly blase about this. I am gonna go with serious laudanum habit, because otherwise having packs of trolls and witches in the hallways is completely commonplace. “Not worth asking about. Just witches and trolls again. It’s Tuesday, you know that’s witch-and-troll-in-the-hallway-day. Sheesh, go play with your brother the goat or something.”

So Tatterhood said that she would just go out and drive them away. In spite of all they could say, and however much they begged and asked her to leave the trolls alone, she just had to go out and drive the witches off. She begged the queen to be careful and keep all the doors shut tight, so that not one of them would open the least bit.

Anyone who thinks the queen listens, raise your hand.

Nobody? Good.

Having said this, off she went with her wooden spoon, and began to hunt out and drive away the hags.

The two-handed wooden Battlespoon is used to this day by an order of warrior nuns found only on a small island off the coast of Norway. The name is chock full of umlauts and is believed to have been the Viking word for “Just keep rowing, dude.” The nuns have artfully ragged habits and keep a flock of exceedingly handsome goats.

All the while there was such a commotion out in the gallery that the like of it had never before been heard. The whole palace creaked and groaned as if every joint and beam were going to be torn out of its place. Now I can’t say exactly what happened;

Oh, it was so totally the queen.

but somehow or other one door did open a little bit, and her twin sister just peeped out to see how things were going with Tatterhood, and put her head a tiny bit through the opening. But, pop! up came an old witch, and whipped off her head, and stuck a calf’s head on her shoulders instead; and so the princess ran back into the room on all fours, and began to “moo” like a calf.

The next time somebody pulls out that ancient astronaut crap about how primitive societies were so much more advanced than we are, I’m pointing to this story and claiming that the old Norse could do head transplants.

When Tatterhood came back and saw her sister, she scolded them all, and was very angry because they hadn’t kept better watch, and asked them what they thought of their carelessness now that her sister had been turned into a calf.

Great. Now my siblings are a goat and a calf—and I am still gonna be third in line to the throne. This family has issues, even leaving aside Mom’s increasing opium dependency.

“But I’ll see if I can’t set her free,” she said.

There’s only room for one farm animal in this family!

Then she asked the king for a ship with a full set of sails and good load of stores, but she would not have a captain or any sailors. No; she would sail away with her sister all alone. There was no holding her back, and at last they let her have her own way.

We will also never see the parents again. I would hope that they went back to their adopted daughter, but at this point, I think she’s well out of it. I like to think she ran off with the beggar-girl and her mother and learned witchcraft.

Tatterhood sailed off, and steered her ship right up to the land where the witches lived. When she came to the landing place, she told her sister to stay quite still on board the ship; but she herself rode on her goat up to the witches’ castle.

C’mon, bro, let’s go get our sister’s head back…

When she got there, one of the windows in the gallery was open, and there she saw her sister’s head hung up on the window frame; so she jumped her goat through the window into the gallery, snapped up the head, and set off with it. The witches came after her to try to get the head back. They flocked around her as thick as a swarm of bees or a nest of ants.

I want Pixar to do this movie, just so I can see Tatterhood with a severed head under one arm, riding her war-goat, beating the crap out of people with her spoon.

The goat snorted and puffed, and butted with his horns, and Tatterhood beat and banged them about with her wooden spoon; and so the pack of witches had to give up.

We may be witches, but a goat AND a spoon? That’s just crazy talk.

So Tatterhood got back to her ship, took the calf’s head off her sister, and put her own on again, and then she became a girl as she had been before.

I like to think that they tacked the calf-head on the front of the ship as a figurehead. And then became pirates. “STAND AND DELIVER OR YOU GET THE GOAT AND THE SPOON!”

After that she sailed a long, long way, to a strange king’s realm.

Well, I’ve terrorized all the other pirates until they just hand me money as soon as we pull alongside. Now I’m bored and the deck is ankle deep in goat crap.

Now the king of this land was a widower, and had an only son. When he saw the strange sail, he sent messengers down to the beach to find out where it came from, and who owned it; but when the king’s men came down there, the only person they saw on board was Tatterhood, and there she was, riding around and around the deck on her goat at full speed, until her strands of hair streamed in the wind. The men from the palace were all amazed at this sight, and asked if more people were not on board. Yes, there were; she had a sister with her, said Tatterhood. They wanted to see too, but Tatterhood said no.

“No one shall see her, unless the king comes himself,” she said; and so she began to gallop about on her goat until the deck thundered again.

I think we should take up barrel racing next, bro. We could make a killing on the pro-riding circuit!

(Incidentally, I told you guys about how my great-grandfather ran off with a trick rider from the rodeo, didn’t I? True story. Piece of family history. She was always described as “mannish” but of course all parties died long ago so all we know is the one line “he ran off with a mannish trick rider from the rodeo.” I have always wished we had some context on that.)

When the servants got back to the palace, and told what they had seen and heard down at the ship, the king wanted to set out at once to see the girl that rode on the goat. When he arrived there, Tatterhood brought out her sister, and she was so beautiful and gentle that the king immediately fell head over heels in love with her. He brought them both back with him to the palace, and wanted to have the sister for his queen; but Tatterhood said “No,” the king couldn’t have her in any way, unless the king’s son would take Tatterhood. That, as you may guess, the prince did not want to do at all, because Tatterhood was such an ugly hussy. However, at last the king and all the others in the palace talked him into it, and he gave in, promising to take her for his queen; but it went sore against his grain, and he was a very sad man.

I am torn here, because I’d feel for anybody being emotionally blackmailed into marrying against their will, but his reasons are so dreadful. She’s an ugly hussy? Dude! Have you seen what she can do with a spoon? This woman is a force of nature!

The goat does not apparently get any marital prospects.

Now they began making preparations for the wedding, both with brewing and baking; and when all was ready, they went to church. The prince thought it the worst church service he had ever been to in all his life.

That’s because you were born several centuries before the Satan-is-everywhere-in-popular-music sermon common in the mid-eighties.

The king left first with his bride, and she was so lovely and so grand, all the people stopped to look at her along the road, and they stared at her until she was out of sight. After them came the prince on horseback by the side of Tatterhood, who trotted along on her goat with her wooden spoon in her fist. To look at him, he was not going to a wedding, but to a burial, and his own at that. He seemed so sad, and did not speak a word.

In fairness, I can understand the prince being a teensy bit intimidated. She’s carrying the Battlespoon and he’s got to know she can take him with the goat tied behind her back.

“Why don’t you talk?” asked Tatterhood, when they had ridden a bit.

“Why, what should I talk about?” answered the prince.

Please don’t hurt me. They say some of those trolls turned up in Greenland. And they scream whenever they see silverware.

“Well, you might at least ask me why I ride upon this ugly goat,” said Tatterhood.

“Hey,” said the goat, “No need to get nasty about it. I thought we were a team.”

“Why do you ride on that ugly goat?” asked the prince.

“Is it an ugly goat? Why, it’s the most beautiful horse that a bride ever rode,” answered Tatterhood; and in an instant the goat became a horse, the finest that the prince had ever seen.

“If you could do this all along, sis, I wish you’d mentioned it. I totally would have had a shot with that hot Clydesdale babe back home.”

They rode on a bit further, but the prince was just as sad as before, and couldn’t say a word. So Tatterhood asked him again why he didn’t talk, and when the prince answered, he didn’t know what to talk about, she said, “Well, you can ask me why I ride with this ugly spoon in my fist.”

“Why do you ride with that ugly spoon?” asked the prince.

Oh god, please don’t hit me with it. I like all my limbs.

“Is it an ugly spoon? Why, it’s the loveliest silver fan that a bride ever carried,” said Tatterhood; and in an instant it became a silver fan, so bright that it glistened.

Because it was Tatterhood, I assume it was one of those razor-edged iron fans from the kung-fu movies.

They rode a little way further, but the prince was still just as sad, and did not say a word. In a little while Tatterhood asked him again why he didn’t talk, and told him to ask why she wore the ugly gray hood on her head.

“Why do you wear that ugly gray hood on your head?” asked the prince.

Actually he figured out what was going on by now, but he’s afraid that if he breaks the sequence, he’s gonna end up with a calf’s head. If he’s lucky.

“Is it an ugly hood? Why, it’s the brightest golden crown that a bride ever wore,” answered Tatterhood, and it became a crown at once.

Now they rode a long way further, and the prince was so sad, that he sat without making a sound or uttering a word, just as before. So his bride asked him again why he didn’t talk, and told him to ask now why her face was so ugly and gray?

“Yes,” asked the prince, “why is your face so ugly and gray?”

“Am I ugly? You think my sister beautiful, but I am ten times more beautiful,” said the bride, and when the prince looked at her, she was so beautiful, he thought that she was the most beautiful woman in the world. After that it was no wonder that the prince found his tongue, and no longer rode along with his head hanging down.

I dislike this. Tatterhood is a badass and deserves better.

I think it needs another section.

Now they rode an even longer way, and the prince was still sad and also slightly concerned because the former goat was trying to put the moves on his horse. So his bride asked him again why he didn’t talk.

“You might at least ask me why you’re such a shallow douchebag.”

“Why am I such a shallow douchebag?” asked the prince.

“Upbringing, I expect,” said Tatterhood. “You should meet my mother. Anyway, you’re not shallow. You’re a caring decent human being who would not judge me for my failure to conform to conventional beauty standards.”

And the prince discovered that he had previously undisclosed depths and said “Honestly, I still think this arranged marriage thing is a little weird, but I’m willing to get to know you better. Incidentally, what kind of music are you into?”

So they drank the bridal cup both deep and long, and, after that, both prince and king set out with their brides to the princesses’ palace, and there they had another bridal feast, and drank once more, both deep and long.

Absolutely no response from the king or queen. I blame the laudanum.

There was no end to the celebration. Now run quickly to the king’s palace, and there will still be a drop of the bridal ale left for you.

That is a nice little end phrase though. One of these days I’ll have to note down all the endings. Most of them are so much better than “happily ever after.” Except maybe the one with the pebbles.

9 thoughts on “Annotated Fairy Tale: Tatterhood

  1. Peter of the Norse says:

    Have you seen NPR’s three minute fiction? They often require a line be present in the submission. I would love to hear the stories that come out of “he ran off with a mannish trick rider from the rodeo”.

  2. Larksilver says:

    I agree! Poor Tatterhood, that nobody could see her value until she literally changed herself into someone else.

    Now I want a Battlespoon. I can just see my paladin in WoW with a goat! and a SPOON! So excellent.

  3. Fedoriarty says:

    It’s been about 30 years since I last read this story (or rather, had it read to me in grade school). It was always one of my favourites. Thank you so much for the delightfully annotated nostalgia.

  4. Xane says:

    I like to think that she did not literally transform, but instead made the Prince see the beauty on her inside, hence not seeming ugly anymore to him :)

    Also this reminds me of a crazy tale I once read. It was about a virgin princess getting pregnant, even though she swore, that she had never slept with a man. Her father was pretty pissed and didnt believe her.

    Once the baby was born, he ordered her to bring the baby to church with a lemon in its hand (no idea why its a lemon^^). Whoever caught the lemon would be proclaimed father of the child. He made sure that only rich handsome man were at church, but an ugly peasant snuck in. The baby (of course) threw the lemon to him.

    This pissed off the father even more and he put all three of them in a small boat, making them leave the country without food or water. The princess at that point was pissed at the peasant as well and asked him, why he snuck in. He claimed to be the father of the child.

    When she didnt believe him, he revealed that everything he wished for came true and that he wished for her to have a child. She demanded proof and he first wished food and water for them, then an island, then a castle on the island and finally he wished to become a handsomee prince (which in retrospective, he shouldve done before entering the church)

    This fairaytale NEVER made it into the second edition of Grimms’ fairatales for obvious reasons ;)

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