The meaning of a classic fairy tale
A blonde-haired juvenile delinquent breaks into an ursine family home and proceeds to indulge her penchant for fussy eating and fidgetiness around furniture. This is, in brief, a summary of what happens in the fairy tale of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’. Such a story, if true, would be of more interest to the police and the psychiatrists than the literary critic; but instead, this famous fairy story is one of the best-loved pieces of children’s fiction in existence.
And yet, pretty much every detail of the above summary is a later addition to the original story, which was very different. ‘Goldilocks’, for instance, didn’t initially feature in the fairy tale at all when it was first published in 1837. Instead, the young girl was an old woman, with silver rather than golden hair. If we go back to the story’s oral roots, before it was published, the female antagonist may not have been a person at all (it’s been suggested that she was a ‘vixen’ – i.e. a literal female fox – but that the author of the published version misinterpreted ‘vixen’ to refer to a cunning old woman, rather than a cunning old fox). And in that first published version, the bears weren’t a family, but three bachelor bears. The porridge and the furniture were already there, though.
The author of that original version of the Goldilocks fairy tale to be published was Robert Southey, who was UK Poet Laureate from 1813 until his death in 1843. Southey’s version of the tale, called ‘The Story of the Three Bears’, marked its debut in print, when it appeared in Southey’s book The Doctor. A few years later, another writer, George Nicol, took up the story and turned it into a children’s rhyme. It almost immediately became popular, and has remained so since.
Before we delve any deeper into the story’s curious origins, it might be worth providing a slightly fuller summary of the story as it is now known to readers. Goldilocks, a young golden-haired girl, is out walking in the forest when she comes upon a house. She knocks at the door but nobody answers. But instead of minding her own business and walking off, she decides to open the door and walk in. This is the first sign that Goldilocks is trouble. Is she incredibly nosy, or does she simply have no concept of personal property?
Anyway, on with the summary. In the kitchen, on the table, there are three bowls of porridge. As she’s hungry – all that poking about in other people’s homes is hard work – she tries the porridge in one of the bowls. It’s too hot, so she moves on and tries the next bowl. The porridge is too cold. So she then tries the third bowl, and this porridge is just the right temperature. So she polishes off the whole bowl. (This aspect of the tale – this state of something being ‘just right’ – has inspired scientists to name the area in a star system in which planets are neither too hot nor too cold the ‘Goldilocks zone’. We, for instance, are in the Goldilocks zone of our own solar system: Venus or Mars either side of us would be too hot or too cold respectively to support complex life.)
Having eaten the bowl of porridge, Goldilocks walks through to the living room, where there are three chairs. She tries sitting in each of them. The first is too big, as is the second, but the third is just the right size. However, it’s a small chair and Goldilocks manages to break it by sitting in it. So we can add destruction of property to the list of growing charges.
Rather than fleeing the house before she can do any more damage, Goldilocks ventures upstairs into the bedroom, where there are three beds. She tries lying on the first, but it’s too hard. The second, by contrast, is too soft. But the third is just right. So she promptly falls asleep in it.
As she’s sleeping there in the bed, the three bears – Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Baby Bear – come home. The mum and dad moan about someone having eaten their porridge, and their young offspring points out that his porridge hasn’t just been tasted, but whoever tasted it has eaten the whole lot. They then find their chairs – the parents can tell that someone’s been sitting in their chairs, but it’s all too obvious from the broken chair that someone’s had a go in Baby Bear’s. Then they go up to the bedroom, where Mama and Papa Bear spot that someone’s been in their beds. And Baby Bear sees the same – but the guilty trespasser is still in his bed, fast asleep! When Baby Bear shouts out in surprise, Goldilocks wakes up in a fright and runs downstairs and out of the house, and never returns to the bears’ house. And that, in summary, is the story of Goldilocks and the three bears.
She didn’t become ‘Goldilocks’ immediately. Even after she had morphed from an old woman into a young girl, her name – and her hair colour – showed all the signs of fidgetiness evinced by the character herself in the story. In one version, she was Silver-Locks. In another, Golden-Hair, and yet another, Little Golden-Hair. In George MacDonald’s ‘The Golden Key’ (1867), she appears as Silverhair. Amazingly, given the vintage of the fairy tale, it wasn’t until 1904 that she became Goldilocks, when an English writer named Flora Annie Steel took the name from older (and very different) fairy tales and applied it to the youthful intruder in the Three Bears tale.
The evolution of the three bears from Southey’s all-male trio into a family unit was not without its bumps and false starts, either. Several versions of the fairy tale published in the mid-nineteenth century altered the three bears into a family trio, yet somewhat confusingly, in the accompanying illustrations, the bears are all male and all the same size.
How should we analyse this curious little tale? It’s obviously great fun in that it contains adventure, a woodland jaunt gone wrong, and talking animals – a formula for success, if ever there was one, when it comes to children’s fairy tales. But it’s hard to say what the moral is, exactly. At best, it’s implicit in the story: don’t go about nicking other people’s food or using their stuff, because if you take your eye off the ball they may find you out – and they might be big and fearsome and present a real danger to you. But then in most versions of the tale, Goldilocks gets a quick fright and nothing more: she undergoes no punishment or real peril, and there’s no sign at the end of the tale that she’s learned her lesson. The fact that in each case, it’s the hapless Baby Bear whose porridge is eaten, whose chair is broken, and whose bedsheets will have to go straight in the wash, aligns the child Goldilocks with the child of the ursine family unit. She’s a child and so, we are to infer, doesn’t really understand why her actions are wrong. (By contrast, in an earlier version before the female intruder became Goldilocks, the old woman ends up impaled on a steeple in St. Paul’s churchyard, which would make sitting down in any chair, whether yours or someone else’s, difficult for a good while after.)
The Goldilocks story might nevertheless be viewed as a classic cautionary tale about the dangers of going off and exploring unknown places. But where does curiosity give way to downright rudeness? Goldilocks is not a particularly pleasant child. She’s been allowed to wander off on her own (where are her parents, one wonders, and what happened to parental supervision?), and then when she finds a place that is very obviously and recognisably Someone Else’s House, she decides to walk right in and help herself to whatever she can find. (Mind you, the insurance company would doubtless throw out any claim made by the bears for their broken chair: after all, they left their property unlocked.) She’s lucky she doesn’t come a-cropper when the bears get home; indeed, in some early versions, she only narrowly escapes being devoured by them – a high price to pay for a bowl of porridge.
One could take such an analysis further, and wonder why the bears have made porridge and then caused each of the servings somehow to manage to fall to different temperature levels; or why, after they’ve gone to the trouble of making and serving up the food, they then choose that precise moment to go out. (Call of nature, perhaps? They are proverbially renowned for it…) But then fairy tales aren’t known for their realism, or necessarily even for their moral lessons. They are fun, they introduce children to the basic patterns inherent within all stories: the sense of peril or conflict; the restoring of the equilibrium at the end of the tale; the patterning of three seen so clearly in the story (the bears, the porridge, the chairs, the beds); and the need for heroes and villains to make a compelling narrative. What’s so strange about the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is that the true villain of the piece should not prove to be the fearsome bears, but the young golden-haired protagonist.
Image: Goldilocks runs from the Three Bears (1912), via Wikimedia Commons.