Jul 6, 2010

Fairy Tale Origins - Part VIII
Goldilocks and the Three Bears

One interesting aspects of the Goldilocks tale is that the original story didn’t even feature a golden-haired child as the central character. There were three bears, but they were visited by a she-fox. The fox was later replaced with an old, crone-like woman. The woman was later replaced by a little girl named “Silver Hair”. “Silver Hair” was later changed to “Golden Hair”, and then finally “Goldilocks”.

The earliest recorded version of the tale is found in a collection of early children's books in the Toronto Public Library. This is a homemade book titled, The Story of The Three Bears. Eleanor Mure wrote and illustrated the story as a gift for her four-year-old nephew in 1831 from a story she already knew through oral tradition.

In 1837 it was published by Robert Southey in his collection of essays titled, The Doctor. The fourth volume contained the story, "Story of the Three Bears." This version has been so influential that for a time it was thought to be the origin of the story.

In both stories, the main character is not a young girl, but a nameless, homeless and ill-tempered old woman who intentionally breaks into the bears’ home, but there the similarity ends. Mure’s old woman has her courtesy visit rebuffed by the bears and, in a pique, she decides to inspect their home anyway. In Southey’s version there doesn’t appear to be a reason for the home invasion.

Mure's version differs further from Southey in that the bears' dishes are filled with milk rather than porridge. At the end of the tale, the bears try first to burn the old woman, then to drown her, and being unsuccessful in both attempts on her life, finally "chuck her aloft on St. Paul's church-yard steeple". Southey's old woman jumps out a window and runs away.

It’s believed that both Southey and Mure were influenced by the tale of Scrapefoot, an English tale which features a fox as the intruder. It is further believed that this may be the earliest variant with the old woman mistakenly replacing the fox/vixen through the simple confusion between the terms for a harridan, old woman, or she-fox.

Twelve years after Southey's story was published, Joseph Cundall changed the old woman into a young girl named 'Silver Hair' in the version he published in his Treasury of Pleasure Books for Young Children (1849). In 1858 the character was dubbed 'Silver-Locks' in Aunt Mavor's Nursery Tales. Next she became 'Golden Hair' around 1868 in Aunt Friendly's Nursery Book. Finally, in Old Nursery Stories and Rhymes, illustrated by John Hassall (circa 1904), she became Goldilocks. The name stuck and has been used the most often ever since.

The family of bears underwent a few changes as well. Instead of Father Bear, Mother Bear and Baby Bear, earlier versions called them “Great Huge Bear”, “Middling Bear” and “Little Small Wee Bear”. What was originally a fearsome oral tale became a cozy family story with only a hint of menace.

The number three is a common theme in many fairy tales, but more so in Goldilocks and the Three Bears. In the Mure and Southey versions, before entering the house, the old woman takes three actions: looking in the window, looking through the keyhole, then lifting the latch.

There are three bowls of porridge, three chairs, three beds and of course three bears. Goldilocks tries the bowls of porridge, chairs, and beds successively, each time finding the third "just right". There are also three sequences of the bears discovering in turn that someone has been eating from their porridge, sitting in their chairs, and finally, lying in their beds.

Author Christopher Booker characterizes this as the "dialectical three", where "the first is wrong in one way, the second in another or opposite way, and only the third, in the middle, is just right." Booker continues "This idea that the way forward lies in finding an exact middle path between opposites is of extraordinary importance in storytelling".

As a morality tale, the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is somewhat unique in that it raises many psychological issues, but gives no solutions. There is no true resolution to Goldilocks’ problem – she just runs away, never to be seen again, and the bears go on with their unchanged lives.

However, even without a resolution, there is still a lesson to be learned: as you grow and learn to find your way you’ll be faced with many choices, some hard, some easy, and some just right. You need to know yourself to choose wisely.

Story of Three Bears
The Story of the Three Bears
Goldilocks and the Three Bears

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