A short introduction to the tale of the three wishes – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
The pattern of three is deeply imbedded in the structure of the fairy tale. Numerous fairy stories, from Goldilocks and the three bears to Rumpelstiltskin to the story of Snow White (to name but three) rely in part on the tripartite narrative structure (three bears, three bowls of porridge, three visits to the house, three nights, and so on). But perhaps the most concentrated example of this patterning is the fairy tale titled ‘The Three Wishes’, where the entire story hinges on the granting of three wishes to a character.
In summary, the story of the three wishes runs as follows. A man and his wife are poor and wish they were happier and better off, especially compared with their neighbours. At that moment, a fairy appears to them, and says she will grant them their next three wishes, but no more. After the fairy disappears, the husband and wife mull over their wishes. The wife says it makes sense to wish to be handsome, rich, and ‘of good quality’. But the husband replies: you can be good-looking and rich but still be sick, full of worry, and end up dying young. So it’s better to ask for good health, happiness, and a long life. The wife retorts: but what use is a long life lived in poverty? They decide to sleep on it, and so go about their tasks at home. As the wife is tending to the fire to keep them warm, she sees how good the fire is, and says to herself, ‘I wish we had a giant bit of black pudding over the fire, as that would cook a treat’. In an instant, a yard of black pudding comes tumbling down the chimney and onto the fire. The husband, seeing his wife had wasted one of their three wishes, says, ‘You fool, I wish that black pudding was stuck to your stupid nose.’ And so it was: the black pudding attaches itself to the wife’s nose, and is stuck fast. The husband curses himself for being stupider than his wife. He says they should wish for something sensible for their final wish, like riches, but the wife says that all the riches in the world would be no good to her if she had to have a black pudding stuck to her nose for the rest of her life. So the husband reluctantly allows his wife to wish for the black pudding to be removed from her nose – and so it is. They have used up their three wishes and all they have to show for it is a black pudding. The husband decides that from now on they should wish for nothing, and be happy with their lot.
The above summary is of the version of the three wishes tale which Iona and Peter Opie collected in their definitive anthology of fairy stories, The Classic Fairy Tales, but as the Opies note in their fascinating introduction to this story, the tale of the three wishes has a long and complex history. Like many other fairy tales, versions of ‘The Three Wishes’ are found, in slightly different form, in medieval Persian texts, eighteenth-century French volumes of fairy tales, and even, perhaps, in a collection of fables attributed to the ninth-century Saxon king, Alfred the Great. The pattern of the three wishes extends far beyond traditional fairy tales, however, and can be seen in the tale of Aladdin and the magic lamp and in the wonderful Edwardian story by W. W. Jacobs, ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, to say nothing of that other Edwardian classic, this one for children, namely E. Nesbit’s trilogy of novels featuring the Psammead.
One of the most curious of these sister-tales to ‘The Three Wishes’ is the one found in a ninth-century Persian book, commonly known as The Book of the Seven Sages. In that version of the story, a husband and wife are visited by a friendly spirit and granted three wishes. In consultation with his wife, the husband requests that he be generously endowed with the means of satisfying his wife. The wish is granted, but the husband finds that he is now so well-endowed that he is weighed down by his new ‘gift’. So for his second wish he asks that all that embarrasses him be removed. When the wish is granted, he finds that he has been left, in the Victorian Andrew Lang’s delicate phrase, with ‘a frightful minus quantity’. The third wish is for his original, more modest ‘endowment’ to be restored. Black puddings are swapped for something else meaty and sausage-shaped in this version, it would seem.
The moral of the story is curious. It cannot be analysed as a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’, since, in the tale of the three wishes, the protagonists don’t end up worse off than they started. But nor do they end up better off either. Instead, they end up exactly back where they started, because they have foolishly and recklessly not made the most of the wishes on offer. With this in mind, it may be that the tale was conceived as a reminder of the folly inherent in human nature: we wish for things idly all the time, and even if those wishes could instantaneously be made reality, we’d still frivolously misuse them for short-term gain, myopically unable to see how more prudent wishing might serve us better in the long run. This is made more poignant in the version of the story summarised above, since the husband and wife sit down and carefully discuss which wishes it would be wisest to make, but then carelessly go and wish for trivial things in the course of going about their lives. To quote a cliché, ‘give a man a fish and he can feed himself for a day; teach him how to fish and he can feed himself and his family for a lifetime.’ The wishers in ‘The Three Wishes’ very much fall into the ‘give us a fish’ category, rather than the latter.
Or, to quote another proverb: ‘If wishes were horses, the Devil would ride.’ In ‘The Three Wishes’, wishes are horses, in that they are made reality. But the protagonists, not devils but merely flawed and silly human beings, end up riding round in circles. Perhaps the ultimate moral of ‘The Three Wishes’, in the last analysis, is found in the husband’s words at the end of the fairy tale: one should wish for nothing and either be happy with one’s lot or strive to improve it oneself. Relying on wishes from supernatural benefactors is a dangerous and unreliable game, after all.
Our book, Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape, is out now in paperback, published by John Murray. More about the book can be found here.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.