“And the third night…”: Why Things Come in Triplets in Fairytales


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?

  1. “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.

  1. “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.

  1. 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.

My Summer Reading Challenge

Lately, I’ve been struggling to just pick up a book and immerse myself in its world. I think it has a lot to do with the amount of research and reading I have done for my master thesis. After a long day at the library, I often struggle to gather my concentration for another book. Let’s be real- binging some Netflix or YouTube is less demanding than reading.

Anyway, I don’t like that my reading habits have suffered so much under my uni work and therefore I decided to set up a fun reading challenge for the months to come. I’m pretty much a “challenge-accepted” girl and competition often gets me going (which is not always a good thing, I know).

Below is the reading challenge template I put together. If you find yourself in a reading funk too, then I hope I can help you out with this fun list and get you back to the pages!

summer reading challenge

For some categories, I already know which books I’m going to read:

  1. Fairytales
    I’m still working my way through the Brothers Grimm’s collection. Here are 7 fairy tales I chose: “The Golden Bird”, “Hans in Luck”, “Old Sultan”, “The Frog Prince”, “The Goose Girl”, “Tom Thumb” and “The Seven Ravens”.
    I’m also eager to finally read the original tale of “Beauty and the Beast”, written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve.
  2. Book about Travelling
    This has to be Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. (Confession time: saw the film before the book…)
  3. Fairytale re-writing
    I have two so far: After Alice by Gregory Maguire and The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill.
  4. Book adapted for TV show
    The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: I started it but had to give it up again because of my thesis. And no, I haven’t watched the TV show (yet!).
  5. Books recommended by friends
    Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald. My friend Leonie adored this and it has mermaid references…
    For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. Elena, (if you read this), I will read it this summer!
  6. Greek myth re-telling
    Circe by Madeline Miller. I heard so many great things about this novel and I’m a Circe-fan- so it sounds like right down my alley!

    I still have to fill the blanks for the remaining categories, so stay tuned for a haul 😀 and I somehow need to plan which book I will read this month  (TBR June to come…).

The Cinderella Complex: Do Women Still Want To Be Saved?


A friend of mine once told me: “You’re lucky. You have your boyfriend who’s with you here and you can plan your future together- your life looks so concrete.”

That statement simmered with me for quite a while. Yes, sure I have a boyfriend and yes, we are currently renovating a dream house- but does that really make me luckier? I’m sure that my friend did not intend to question women’s independence and I’m pretty certain that I caught her at a vulnerable moment then. But still- to me, it’s quite concerning that you need to have a boyfriend in order to start planning your life. Do women still wait for a partner before they really aboard on their journeys? Are we still waiting for the prince on the white horse to be taken out of the dull limbo that precedes the true fun in life?

This discussion takes us to what psychologists call “The Cinderella Complex”. It’s one of the many psychological syndromes observed in women and essentially describes women’s fear of independence. Sounds scary to any girl bosses out there but according to Colette Dowling and psychology, it is a thing.

The name obviously traces back to the fairy tale of Cinderella. It specifically centres on Cinderella’s passive character which I discussed in last week’s blog post.

Colette Dowling argues in her book that numerous women bear this Cinderella facet inside of them- herself included. According to Dowling, most women are ready to drop all of their individual ambitions as soon as they can enter the domestic space. Like Cinderella, women wait for an external force or human to change their lives. In other words, women still wait for their men or their fairy godmother to be financially and emotionally saved.

Dowling’s inspiration for the book came from her own experience. She is a divorced mother of three daughters and for years, she was in charge of her family. After some years, Dowling fell in love with a new man and once again, she went down the feminine spiral of dependence. With her children and her new partner, she moved to the country side. She gave up on her own writing and instead, typed the manuscripts for her partner. Of course, this domestic imbalance led to a huge fight in which Colette was forced to face her own fear of independence. This epiphany of some sorts kicked off her writing and research which came to fruits in her book The Cinderella Complex, published in 1981.

I would love to boldly state that the time span of over thirty years gave us women some time to get a grip on reality and take over our own pumpkin coaches. I think that social media has played a huge role in raising awareness and fostering women rights’ movements. Platforms like Instagram or Twitter help to share daily affirmations to embrace women’s independence and diverse living situations.

However, Cosmopolitan also existed in the eighties and according to Dowling, the feminist affirmations were similar to the ones that are propelled on Instagram today, which spread the credo: “I can be sexy and successful at the same time” (Dowling 175).

Does this mean that in 2018, women’s fear of independence is still looming at the back of our minds?

Such an observation is certainly shocking, to say the least. Of course, I wanted to find some proof AGAINST this rather sad conclusion and I raced through Dowling’s book for evidence that women are at least less inclined to depend on external forces.

  • Women communicate tentatively

One big point of evidence that the Cinderella Complex is still part of women is the way we communicate:

 “communication in general is difficult for women whose self-esteem is low and who harbour an inner wish to be taken care of. Some women get confused, forget what they wanted to say, can’t find the right word, can’t look people in the eye. Or they blush, or stutter, or find their voices getting quavery. Or they have trouble sustaining the line of an argument the moment someone disagrees with them. They may become flustered and tearful- especially if it’s a man doing the disagreeing.”

Moreover, women’s speech is tentative, they often end their sentences with questions or in questioning intonations that express some hesitance. And indeed, when I closely pay attention to the way I communicate, I notice that I often end my sentences in questions, with some hesitance in my voice. It’s a terrible thing to notice and it even diminishes my credibility. Of course, I don’t want to come across as over-confident or rude, which in my opinion also expresses uncertainty, but still, if I have something important to say then I don’t want to question it before I have even fully expressed it.

  • Women don’t take credit for their accomplishments

Another symptom of the Cinderella Complex is that we fail to take credit for our accomplishments. Dowling says that women tend to negate their success, but when it comes to failure, they “leap at the opportunity to take responsibility for” it (188). If I look at the women around me, myself partly included, I often observe that it’s almost shameful to talk about your success. It’s either a source for jealousy or it’s just not worth discussing- almost taken as granted that you should succeed. Also the way we measure success has become highly problematic.

  • Tearing their partners down

A final symptom that I think still applies to today is the ambivalent state of women in relationships: there is the tendency to either subordinate oneself to their partner, portray oneself as smaller than the partner OR to tear them down by complaining about the clichéd behaviour of one’s partner. This rant of complaints take place on a superficial level and does not force women out of their “girlish disillusionment” to take action (144).

And still, I think that we have at least improved in some ways. If anything, we stay away from big generalizing claims today, like the one made by Dowling in her book.

Yes, a lot of these signs of behaviour are still present in women today. But I think that on the one hand, it is a bit discrediting women and putting down their rich inner lives. Also dependency in itself needs a clearer definition in my mind, for some women might feel dependent on their partner if they stay at home and look after the kids, yet on the other hand, other women might feel independent from some other pressuring expectations. Especially today, a strand of belief tends to applaud women who choose career over family and pity the ones that don’t- which again, is not the right way to go.

Reclaim your independence by listening to your gut!

I think that Dowling’s own conclusion is a great starting point to conceive of our inner Cinderella. Dowling writes that freedom and independence should be developed from within. This can only happen for women, but also for men if we pay close attention to ourselves- or as Dowling puts it: “by leaving no stone unturned in examining your motives, your attitude, your ways of thinking about things” (196).

If you feel the urge to paint, even though you’ve never painted in your whole life- why go ahead take out that brush, colour and paint! If you feel like dancing even though you’ve come to believe that you can’t even hold your balance while tying your shoe laces- screw that mindset and start dancing. It’s important to shut off from time to time what those around you scream, deem or believe you should be doing- whether that be your Instagram feed, society around you or your step-mother and step-sisters.

And if you want to turn a pumpkin into a coach, well it’s always worth trying– who knows, your independence might even help you to defy science.


The History of Cinderella

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I think it’s safe to state: Cinderella is one of the most well-known fairy stories of all time. Who hasn’t been touched by the poor orphan who’s terribly exploited by her mean step-mother and step-sisters but whose spotless goodness and integrity will be rewarded as she ends up marrying the prince of her kingdom?

The dominant version of Cinderella has of course been told by Disney. Like any other fairy tale, it is a construct of numerous versions that have travelled over borders and across time. As a result from folklore, the tale has been passed on through oral story telling before it was first written down. However, what is so fascinating about the history of Cinderella is that almost the entire tale has survived- not only hundreds but thousands of years!

The earliest version of Cinderella traces back to 6th century BC. It is the story of Rhodopis, a Greek courtesan who married the king of Egypt. The story was written down by the Greek philosopher and historian Strabo around 5 centuries later. According to the tale, Rhodope took a bath when her sandal was carried off by an eagle and taken to the Pharaoh of Memphis. The Pharaoh vowed to marry the owner of the tiny shoe and sent his troops to search the country for the unknown sandal owner. Rhodope is found in the city of Naucratis and brought to Memphis to become the wife of the king.

The next version I came across takes us to China, to the Tang dynasty in 850. It is the story of Yeh-hsien. As in other versions, her mother dies. However, it’s not really an outsider that steps in as her mother but her father’s second wife- polygamy was no big deal back then. Yeh-hsien comforts herself by befriending a golden fish that one day appears in their pond. Yet, the nasty stepmother or co-wife quickly discovers Yeh-hsien’s secret friend and kills it. She eats the fish and hides its bones. A magician of some sort tells Yeh-hsien about her step-mother’s sin and urges Yeh-hsien to hide the bones in her room. Whenever she wants for something, she has to wish for it and it will appear- from that day on she did no longer suffers hunger nor thirst. One day, her step-mother and sisters leave for a ball and Yeh-hsien wishes for a golden attire to follow them in secret.  Unfortunately, they recognise her and as Yeh-hsien flees, she loses one of her golden shoes. A local warloard finds the extremely small shoe and orders all the women to try it on. Yeh-hsien reveals herself with her magical fishbones and tries on the shoe, whereupon she becomes the new “chief” wife of the king. Her step-mother and step-sisters are not only left behind- but stoned to death. The locals feel sorry for the wicked mother and sisters and construct them a grave, entitled “The Tomb of the Distressed Women.” This story gives already a lot more to digest than the well-known Disney version.

Next, we take a huge leap in time to the 17th century in France. We’re talking about Charles Perrault’s story of Cendrillon– and finally, we can analyse the meaning behind Cinderella’s name. I guess at least the latest film that was released by Disney in 2015 made the etymology quite plain, for cinder obviously refers to the fact that her face is smeared with ashes from her daily hard work. In French, cinder means “cendre” and in German it translated to “Asche”; thus Aschenputtel in Grimms’ collection.

In Perrault’s tale, her father marries a new woman after his former wife’s death. Of course, the new step-mother and step-sisters are illtreating the lovely Cendrillon who accepts all of it very meekly. It is also explicitly mentioned that her father does not dare to counter his new dominating wife. Perrault also firstly introduces a fairy god-mother to assist Cendrillon. However, unlike Disney, Cendrillon actually helps her godmother by proposing that they could transform a rat into the coachman for her carriage that will take her to her ball. Also, in the French tale, Cendrillon goes several times to the ball and even interacts with her step-sisters giving them oranges and lemons from the prince. In the end, she even forgives her sisters for their degrading behaviour. As the new queen, she allows them to live with her and her prince in the castle.

In their collection of tales from 1812, the Grimm Brothers have somewhat stripped Aschenputtel of the little autonomy that she possessed in earlier tales. The tale opens at the deathbed of Aschenputtel’s mother who urges her child to stay a good person- a quality that confines her to meek acceptance and passivity. The affection of her mother remains the only human love in the tale. Aschenputtel’s father is alive throughout the entire tale but never intervenes when his daughter is so terribly exploited by his new wife, nor is there a fairy god-mother to help her. Instead, her animal friends and the magic tree that Aschenputtel plants on her mother’s grave are in charge of her fantastical transformation.

There are two somewhat gruesome aspects about the Grimms’ version. First of all, they ask the reader to dispose of their feminist lens once and for all, for the prince is an exemplary patriarch. During the ball he orders every other interested man to go away since Cinderella is dancing with him- and him alone. He also twice mistakes the step-sisters for Cinderella. Again, her animal helpers need to intervene and tell the prince to fetch the right bride. The Grimms also added some bodily mutilation into their tale. The first sister cuts off her big toe to make the glass slipper fit and the second sister squeezes her heel into the shoe until blood seeps from it. The final horrific ending has been cut out in some versions: at Cinderella’s and the prince’s wedding, doves haunt down her step-mother and sisters and peck out their eyes.

I don’t know if you noticed but in all of these tales the shoe is a crucial trope- it is the determinant of whom the prince marries. Many scholars have discussed the sexual connotations behind Cinderella’s tiny foot and her glass slipper that is said to have the length of the Duke’s index finger. Marina Warner for example notes that “it promises that what is hidden and not known can be beautiful if beheld in the right spirit(Beast 204). A far more provocative interpretation holds that finding the right foot to the shoe hints at Cinderella’s virginity and thus her appeal to become the prince’s righteous bride. Another huge point of feminist criticism is Cinderella’s meek passiveness- which according to critics has been maximised in the early Disney film version from the fifties.

I would say that Disney made up for their somewhat sexist faux-pas with their newer re-writing from 2015, starring Lily James as Cinderella and of course the unforgettable Helena Boham Carter as her fairy godmother. Cinderella and the prince meet each other as equals, as it were, on horseback in the woods prior to the ball. Their love relationship is much more developed and in the end, one could question if Cinderella’s foot did really impact his choice that much or if it was just more of a symbolic move from the prince’s side.

I hope you enjoyed this brief but eye-opening history of Cinderella. If you have any good re-writing recommendations for me, please comment below.

Alright my friends, I wish you a fantastic week,


Why women play a central role in fairy tales (first part)


Scheherazade is probably best known for her fascinating story telling that literally saves lives. Each night, she ensnares King Shahrayar in her narrative web and thus saves her own as well as the lives of many other virgins.

Women have always played a central role in fantastic story telling. Before the first tales emerged in print in the 17th century, they were disseminated through oral story telling. The well-known expression “old wives’ tale” stresses the close connection between elderly women and their fanciful narrations. But also the repetition of nurse rhymes helped to attach story telling to the female realm. The literary ringleaders of the genre such as Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen or the Grimm Brothers based their fairy tales on the oral versions that circulated in their lives and that have survived many generations of listeners. The earliest version of Perrault’s fairy tale collection even bore the title “Mother Goose Tales”.

As so often, the dominant understanding of fairy tales’ origins shuts women out of the picture, whereby female writing was crucial in bringing the tales to the page. In the late seventeenth century in France, a group of women writers came together to compile their collection of tales and thereby, to engage in the intellectual discourse from which they were excluded. It is especially intriguing that one of these female conteuses was Perrault’s cousin, called Mlle Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier de Villandon.

Fairy tales offered a space for female experimentation outside the rather restrictive set of social values. Similar to the wardrobe that leads to Narnia, women writers were intrigued by the fantastic, irrational and escapist realm.

In From the Beast to the Blonde, fairy tale expert Marina Warner eloquently summarises the central role of fairy tales for female story tellers:

“These tales are wrapped in fantasy and unreality, which no doubt helped them entertain their audiences- in the courtly salon as well as in the village hearth- but they also serve the stories’ greater purpose, to reveal possibilites, to map out a different way and a new perception of love, marriage, women’s skills, thus advocating a means of escaping imposed limits and prescribed destiny.”

Even today, fairy tales remain a genre of interest for many female writers. Angela Carter’s collection of feminist fairy tale re-writings exemplifies how women still use the fantastic genre to voice their socio-political concerns.

As long as women keep on telling, the fairy tale will migrate across borders, from generation to generation, broadening its female audience and conteuses.

Why, hello there!


Hi, you out there, and welcome to my blog! Since you’re here, I hope to share my passion with you. This blog is all about our past and on-going fascination with fairy tales, where they come from, how they started, recurring themes and why they have stayed with us for hundreds and hundreds of years. Together, we’ll venture through the fantastic realms in literature, wander over stages and look at movie screens- and hopefully, I’ll ensnare you with my reviews and share some of my knowledge about fairy tales!

In this first post, I’d like to tell you a bit about myself and why I decided to start this blog. You could say that at the moment I dedicate a huge part of my life to fairy tales, more precisely to the figure of the mermaid. I’m doing a research master in comparative literature and I chose to write my thesis on the complexity of the mermaid figure. As you might expect, it’s a massive project and I’m pretty much all day bent over my books.

Now, before I even knew that the mermaid would become the focus of my research, I spent hours researching fairy tales in general. And the world I discovered was mesmerising to say the least… I was astonished how complex certain tales are and how closely tied they are to their tellers’ society and culture. Another intriguing discovery is women’s central role in fairy tales- as tellers and as characters! But I’m getting ahead here of myself…

Perhaps I should add that I’m not entirely new to blogging. In fact, I’ve been blogging since five years (Oh time, where have you gone…). Being super passionate about healthy food options, I wrote down my thoughts on vegan food and travel destinations. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still very passionate about good food and travelling- but I’m sure that there are many people who are better educated on that subject matter. In that respect, I’m happy to bring my own expertise outside the library and into the world wide net.

Alright, my friends that’s it for the first blog post! I hope you’ll enjoy it and oh, one last thing: for those who don’t like to read, I’ll soon launch a podcast for Once Upon a Different Time!

See you in a different time,


What’s your favourite fairy tale?