There are loads of tropes and patterns in fairytales that make them not only dynamic but easy to remember and recount. One of these patterns is the number 3. In case you haven’t noticed, here are some examples from the Grimms’ collection:
- Snow White’s evil stepmother pays her three visits until she succeeds in putting her into a long slumber
- in Rumpelstiltskin, it takes the miller’s daughter three nights until she figures out Rumpelstiltskin’s name
- Cinderella has not one but two evil step-sisters, forming a siblings’ triad
And yet, why is the number three so important in fairytales?
- “The Power of Three” or “The Rule of Three”
There’s actually a name for the fantastical triad: “the power of three” or “the rule of three”. Essentially, the number three is a mnemonic technique for the narrator. Long before fairy tales were written down, they circulated from mouth to mouth. It was mainly the job of women to keep the tales alive and to pass them on to the younger generation. Without the help of print press and often without education, these women depended on their own memory. The recurring triad constellation in tales helped the female narrators to convey the stories in a catchy way but it also helped to make the tale more memorable- and thus ready to be recounted to the next generation.
The rule of three is used in many different ways: it applies to characters such as three siblings, but also to the passing of time. In the story’s arch, there’s typically a huge twist on the third night or on the third day. It also adds to the tone of the story, since three tries are more suspenseful than just one. According to this rule, two plus one is greater than three. That is to say, the number three helps to build contrasts.
The triad contrast works especially well for defining characters. Take for example the tale of “The Golden Bird”, in which the gardener has three sons: two of them are evil robbers and tricksters, but the third one is a virtuous, diligent young man. The same goes for “Cinderella”: Cinderella is a hard-working, tolerant girl, whereas her two step sisters are idle, spoilt and manipulative. So, the two plus one method makes the three of them stand out.
- “omne trium perfectim” (=everything that comes in threes is perfect)
If we believe what the Romans preached then “everything that comes in threes is perfect”. Following this statement, the number three eases the tension between twos. When 1 is Black and 2 is White, then 3 needs to be Grey. If you venture outside the fairy tale realm, it becomes shockingly obvious how deeply embedded our traditional world is in this triad symbolism. Father, Mother, Child; Morning, Noon, Evening; Harry, Hermione, Ron. Once you start looking for the triads, you’ll see them everywhere!
What’s more is that when fairy tales were written down, they often pertained to certain morals and ideals and often included a religious tone. In reference to the number three, the Christian Godhead trinity supports the centrality of the number, it holds a place of divinity and completeness. In the little mermaid, for instance, she firstly lives in the waters, secondly on land with her new pair of legs and thirdly, as an aerial daughter in the sky, bringing together a cosmological triad.
- Act of Persuasion
Besides creating a certain balance, the number three is also used to persuade. According to studies, manipulative discourse such as ads use three reasons to persuade potential customers. Four claims would however trigger scepticism and reduce the credibility of the product.
The same pattern of persuasion can be observed in fairy tales. Indeed, this act of persuading someone is often used to break spells and charms. In “The Frog Prince”, the frog must eat from the princess’s plate and sleep in her bed for three nights to be transformed back into a human.
However, at the same time, the number three is not the only significant number- especially studied from a more transcultural perspective. The numbers seven and twelve are equally important to storytelling. It’s important to remember that these numbers are indicators of culture, religion and storytelling technique.
So there you go: three reasons why the number three is crucial to fairy tales. See what I did there?
This blog post is also available as a podcast episode.