The rule of three is inviolate for copywriters (“Diamonds are forever”), incredible for comedy and television writers (there’s a reason why Modern Family features three family storylines every episode), and inescapable for all (think birth, life, and death).
How deep does the rabbit hole go?
Perhaps it began with the dawn of understanding that woman and man equals child, and then gained energy with early consciousness of death (birth, life, and death, or life, death, and afterlife). Sometime later, the great goddess was worshipped around the world, in various ways, as a three-dimensional deiform (creation, preservation, and destruction, or maid, mother, and crone).
Perhaps the rule of three was further concretized with the divine birth of the three fates of ancient Greece: Clotho (the spinner), Lachesis (the measurer), and Atropos (the cutter).
With no concern for the beginning, middle, or end of this triple-faceted odyssey, here are some more thoughts: The Precious Triad of Buddhism: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha; the Holy Trinity of Christianity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; the great civilizations of the west: Mayan, Aztec, and Inca. Further down (or up) the rabbit hole, there are the three dimensions of space; matter, energy, and anti-matter; proton, neutron, and electron; black, white, and grey; past, present, and future; solid, liquid, and gas. I’m just scratching the surface. I could go on and on and on.
Lest we forget what all this has to do with fairy tales, the realm of which is “wide and deep and high” (in the words of J. R. R. Tolkien): Long long ago and Far far away, two three-word phrases no story calling itself a fairy tale should be without, words that place the tale within its setting which is nowhere, everywhere, and something betwixt.
Fairy tales abound with the rule of three. They often have three significant characters, or natural groups of three characters, such as the three bears, the three billy goats gruff, and the three little pigs. We could go a little further to point out that “Cinderella” has the stepmother and two stepsisters, and the heroine plus her two stepsisters. Rapunzel, the witch, and her prince form a triad. Hansel, Gretel, and their witch form another.
Significant events in fairy tales often occur in threes: the three guesses of Rumpelstiltskin’s name, the Queen’s three attempts to kill Snow White, and the twelve dancing princesses passing through three enchanted woods (silver, gold, and diamond).
Fairy tale gifts also come in threes. There are the three keys that Bluebeard gives his new bride for safekeeping, the third of which she is forbidden to use. In “Puss in Boots” the miller gifts his youngest son (of three) with the mill, an ass, and a cat (Puss). In “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” a golden apple, a golden carding comb, and a golden spinning wheel are given to the wife of the bear-prince as she seeks to rescue her husband.
Time is often measured in threes: “…three days are always sufficient to test a fairy-tale figure’s strength…” (From The Hard Facts of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar). In “Bearskin” the bride waits for her bridegroom for three years. In “The Armless Maiden” the devil returns in three years to claim the miller’s daughter. And in “The Sleeping Prince” the heroine watches the prince for three months, three weeks, three days, three hours, and three half-hours.
And lastly, from The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll, “What I tell you three times is true.”
That’s all folks!
Image Credit: Sharon Mollerus [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons