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The Three Siblings Theme in Folk Tales and Fiction

By Apostolos Doxiadis

“Once upon a time, a long long time ago, there were three brothers.” So begins the story of my new novel, Three Little Pigs. The words are spoken by an old man, living in what is described as “a benevolent institution, somewhere in the Alps.” He is no fool and knows that such an opening will make what follows sound like a fairytale. But even more than the formulaic phrase, “once upon a time,” a trademark of a fairytale if ever there was one, what gives an archaic echo to his words is the reference to “three brothers.”

I wasn’t aiming at a prize for originality in writing this story; rather, I was conscious of using a classic literary trope with great potential to generate meaning.  The number “three” was particularly important to the Pythagorean mystics, mainly for the reason that it was considered to be the first number, which meant the first denoting multiplicity, as “one” was seen as standing for uniqueness and “two” for otherness. I think that it is an echo of this idea that best explains the importance of triads of characters in storytelling. Look at it this way: when the emphasis in a story is on one person, it is about him or her as individual; when it is on two related characters, father and child, a married couple, or associates, the emphasis is on their relationship. But with three related characters, it’s different. For storytellers, as for the Pythagoreans, “three” is the smallest case of “many.”

As a consequence, stories with three similar characters at their center, or even parts of longer works in which such a triad appears, basically belong to one of two types, depending on whether the multiplicity of “three” is being used for its power to denote variety or to highlight an exception. And though in the stories in which the similarity between the Three Little Pigs coverthree characters is shared parentage we get the additional load of meaning provided by our knowledge of families, it is also the number “three,” not the relation of the characters, that is most important in determining type. In stories of three siblings, too, storytellers go either for variety or exception.

A venerable example of “three” standing for variety is Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters. As in all his major plays, Chekhov uses a premise that is still alive and well today, best known from television series like Downton Abbey: characters with well-defined relationships living in the same space. Olga, Masha and Irina, the three sisters of the play, couldn’t be more different. The eldest, stern and puritanical, is already considered—at twenty-eight!—a spinster; the second, attractive and desperate, is imprisoned in her marriage to a boring man; the third, at age twenty, is teeming with youthful romanticism, which is obviously untainted by experience. Three sisters with three different worldviews, giving the play’s audience a panorama of a certain social class at a certain time and place, or perhaps—because Chekhov is a great writer—a panorama of humanity. The differences are equally marked in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, where the three-sibling theme also denotes variety. Dimitri is similar to the boorish father, Fyodor Karamazov, in his love of the baser worldly pleasures; Ivan, like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment or Stavrogin in the Devils, is a nihilistic rationalist, an intellectual driven to insanity by reason; and Alyosha, a novice monk, is an idealist, a man who has made a credo of kindness. The family bond in Three Sisters works as a power of allegiance, while in The Brothers Karamazov as a breeding ground for conflict. Yet, in both works, the three siblings stand for the range of human experience. The family here is the world-in- miniature.

In three-sibling stories of the second type, emphasizing an exception, one can see “three” functioning almost as the minimal sample of a statistics stating “most people are like this (siblings x and y) but special people (sibling z) are not.” This is a much older use of the three-sibling motif, deriving from the archaic mindset preserved in the oral tradition. We see it clearly in old fairytales, such as “Puss in Boots,” first recorded in a 16th-century Italian collection, though we have reason to think that it goes further back in time.

The most famous instance of the motif of three-as-exception in English can be found in King Lear, whose source derives from legend, rather than history—and thus also from the oral tradition. Goneril and Regan, like the two elder sisters of “Cinderella,” are egoistical, cruel, and hypocritical; Cordelia, the youngest, is kind and truthful. In the first King Learscene of the play this difference is already apparent to the audience—as is Lear’s spiritual blindness, when he fails to recognize it. But because King Lear is a complex work of art, Cordelia, the exceptional sibling, does not emerge victorious, as she would in a folk tale.

A modern instance of a faithful application of the motif appears in the “Tale of the Three Brothers,” in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The gifts that the two eldest brothers, Antioch and Cadmus Peverell, demand of Death for their small victory over him are too powerful—there is hubris in their request, which turns against them, their gifts leading them to their premature deaths. But the youngest brother, Ignotus, a humble man, asks only for a cloak that makes him invisible. With this, he is able to avoid Death until he reaches an age when he is ready for him.

It is the second type of the three-sibling motif which guides the plot of my new novel. In my case, the model was one of its simplest forms, found in the fairytale which first appeared in print in an English collection of the middle of the 19th century. The story of  “The Three Little Pigs” is too well-known to be retold. What is worth remarking in the context of this discussion is that it is the simplicity with which the three-sibling motif is applied in it, which makes it so powerful. Uncomplicated plots involving talking animals point at symbolism already since the time of Aesop and the Panchatantra. So also in the case of the “Three Little Pigs.” How can the protagonists protect themselves from a mortal peril, we ask ourselves at its beginning of the tale. Straw and wood and bricks—three siblings, three different materials, three symbols. The majority, i.e. two of the three, choose a useless form of protection. It is only the third pig and the third material—bricks—that achieves the desired result. This is the symbol that one must decipher in order to find meaning in the fairytale, as well as in any story inspired from it.  The number “three” serves as a spotlight on the exception.

Image (top): Three Little Pigs by Apostolos Doxiadis is published by Canelo. Image (bottom): Cordelia’s Portion from King Lear by Ford Madox Brown, 1866, Wikimedia Commons.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on March 30, 2016, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Think the bedrock of most folklore is Christianity with its emphasis on the holy trinity. There may also be an element for the learned in the three sided triangle, which is extremely flexible in its ratios,

  2. A really interesting post. I’m fascinated by the recurring themes of folk law and always intrigued by new interpretations. I’m currently reading Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland which I would recommend.

  3. Fascinating! I think the theme of 3 is so prevalent across fiction/folklore around the world. Sibling-wise, it’s very common, but you see it everywhere!

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