Literature

A Summary and Analysis of the ‘Three Little Pigs’ Fairy Tale

By Dr Oliver Tearle

The anonymous fable or fairy tale of the Three Little Pigs is one of those classic anonymous tales which we hear, and have read to us, when we are very young. The fable contains many common features associated with the fairy tale, but there are some surprises when we delve into the history of this well-known story. Let us begin with a summary of the Three Little Pigs tale before proceeding to an analysis of its meaning and origins.

First, a brief summary of the tale as it’s usually told. An old sow has three pigs, her beloved children, but she cannot support them, so she sends them out into the world to make their fortune. The first (and oldest) pig meets a man carrying a bundle of straw, and politely asks if he might have it to build a house from. The man agrees, and the pig builds his house of straw. But a passing wolf smells the pig inside the house.

He knocks at the door (how you can ‘knock’ at a door made of straw is a detail we’ll gloss over for now), and says: ‘Little pig! Little pig! Let me in! Let me in!’

The pig can see the wolf’s paws through the keyhole (yes, there’s a keyhole in this straw door), so he responds: ‘No! No! No! By the hair on my chinny chin chin!’

The wolf bares his teeth and says: ‘Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down.’

He does as he’s threatened to do, blows the house down, and gobbles up the pig before strolling on.

The second of the three little pigs, meanwhile, has met a man with a bundle of sticks, and has had the same idea as his (erstwhile) brother. The man gives him the sticks and he makes a house out of them. The wolf is walking by, smells the pig inside his house made of sticks, and he knocks at the door (can you ‘knock’ at a door made of sticks?), and says: ‘Little pig! Little pig! Let me in! Let me in!’

The pig can see the wolf’s ears through the keyhole (how can there – oh, forget it), so he responds: ‘No! No! No! By the hair on my chinny chin chin!’

The wolf bares his teeth and says: ‘Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down.’

He does as he’s threatened to do, blows the house down, and gobbles up the pig before strolling on.

Now, the final of the three little pigs – and the last surviving one – had met a man with a pile of bricks, and had had the same idea as his former siblings, and the man had kindly given him the bricks to fashion a house from. Now, you can guess where this is going.

The wolf is passing, and sees the brick house, and smells the pig inside it. He knocks at the door (no problem here), and says: ‘Little pig! Little pig! Let me in! Let me in!’

The pig can see the wolf’s great big eyes through the keyhole, so he responds: ‘No! No! No! By the hair on my chinny chin chin!’

The wolf bares his teeth and says: ‘Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down.’

So the wolf huffs and puffs and huffs and puffs and huffs and puffs and keeps huffing and puffing till he’s out of puff. And he hasn’t managed to blow the pig’s house down! He thinks for a moment, and then tells the little pig that he knows a field where there are some nice turnips for the taking. He tells the pig where the field is and says he will come round at six o’clock the next morning and take him there.

But the little pig is too shrewd, so the next morning he rises at five o’clock, goes to the field, digs up some turnips and takes them back to his brick house. By the time the wolf knocks for him at six, he is already munching on the turnips. He tells the wolf he has already been and got them. The wolf is annoyed, but he comes up with another plan, and tells the wolf that he knows of some juicy apples on a tree in a nearby garden, and says he will knock for the pig the next morning at five o’clock and personally show him where they are.

The little pig agrees, but rises the next morning before four o’clock, and goes to the garden to pick some apples. But the wolf has been fooled once and isn’t about to be fooled twice, so he heads to the apple tree before five and catches the pig up the tree with a basket of apples. The pig manages to escape by throwing the wolf an apple to eat, but throwing it so far away that by the time the wolf has fetched it and returned, the little pig has escaped with his basket and gone home to his brick house.

The wolf tries one final time. He invites the little pig to the fair with him the next day, and the pig agrees; but he heads to the fair early on, buys a butter churn, and is returning home when he sees the big bad wolf on the warpath, incandescent with rage at having been thwarted a third time. So the pig hides in the butter churn and ends up rolling down the hill towards the wolf. The pig squeals in fear as he rolls, and the sound of the squealing and the speed of the churn rolling towards him terrifies the wolf, and he tucks tail and runs away.

The next day, the wolf shows up at the little pig’s house, to apologise for not accompanying him to the fair the day before. He tells the pig that a loud, scary thing was rolling down a hill towards him. When the pig tells him that it must have been him inside the butter churn, the wolf loses his patience, and climbs on the roof, determined to climb down the chimney into the little pig’s house and eat him. But the pig has a pot of water boiling under the chimney, and when the wolf drops down into the house, he plops straight into the boiling hot water. The little pig puts the lid on the pot and cooks the wolf and then eats him for supper!

We all know these essential features of the story: the three little pigs, the big bad wolf. Yet neither of these is an essential feature of the story, or hasn’t been at some point or other in the fable’s history. In one version – the earliest published version, from English Forests and Forest Trees, Historical, Legendary, and Descriptive (1853) – the little pigs were actually little pixies, and the wolf was a fox; the three houses were made of wood, stone, and iron. In another version, the Big Bad Wolf was actually a Big Kind Wolf. In at least one telling, the middle pig builds his house out of furze (i.e. gorse, a kind of shrub) rather than sticks.

As the Writing in Margins blog observes, an 1877 article published in Lippincott’s detailing folklore of African Americans in the southern United States outlines a story involving seven little pigs, which contains many of the details we associate with the Three Little Pigs tale, including the chimney-fire-pot finale and the chinny-chin-chinning. Joel Chandler Harris’ 1883 collection Nights with Uncle Remus contains a similar tale (featuring six pigs rather than three), suggesting that the tale was part of African-American folklore in the nineteenth century. Was the tale related to race relations in the United States during the antebellum (and immediate postbellum) era?

Perhaps, although it’s worth noting there were also Italian versions of the tale in circulation around the same time (with three geese rather than three pigs). The definitive English version – with all of the features of the story outlined in the plot summary above – appears to have made its debut in print only in 1886, in James Orchard Halliwell’s Nursery Rhymes of England. This was a sort of hybrid version of the various tellings of the story in circulation, incorporating aspects of the Italian, African-American, and English versions. We recommend the Writing in Margins post linked to above for more information on the evolution of the story. Among other fascinating insights, the author suggests that the ‘pixies’ version of the tale arose from a mishearing of the Devon dialect word for pig, ‘pigsie’, as ‘pixie’. Certainly, no other version of the Three Little Pigs contains pixies, and the pixies in the story behave unlike the pixies found in other stories from English folklore.

1886 is rather late for the tale (as we now know it) to be making its debut in print. It feels much older, especially since it contains so many features we commonly associate with fairy tales and children’s stories. Indeed, it’s thought that the story is considerably older, and was perhaps circulated orally before it finally made its way into published books. Certainly, despite these slight differences between disparate versions of the tale, the raw narrative elements are those we are used to finding in fairy tales.

The rule of three – a common plot feature in classic fairy tales – is there several times over in the fable of the Three Little Pigs. There are three little pigs; there are three houses; the wolf tries to trick the last of the three pigs three times. In each case, the third instance acts as the decisive one: the first two pigs are eaten, but the third survives; the first two houses are insufficient to withstand the wolf, but the third is able to; and the third trick played by the wolf proves his ultimate undoing, since it is the last straw (no pun intended) which makes him erupt in rage and go on the offensive, with devastating consequences (for him). This helps to build a sense of narrative tension, even if we suspect we know where the tale is going. And of course, there is a delicious irony (delicious in more than one sense) in the pig eating the wolf at the end of the fable, rather than vice versa.

But if fables are meant to have a moral message to impart, what is the meaning of the Three Little Pigs tale? In the last analysis, it seems to be that plucky resourcefulness and careful planning pay off, and help to protect us from harm. There’s also a degree of self-sufficiency: the mother cannot look after the three little pigs, so they must stand on their own two (or four) feet and make their own way in the world. (This is another popular narrative device in fairy tales: the hero must absent themselves from home early on and go out into the world alone.) Of course, the third little pig survives not just by standing on his own feet but by thinking on his feet, too: it’s his quick thinking that enables him to outwit the wolf, himself not exactly a simpleton, even if he isn’t the sharpest straw in the hay-bale.

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.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

8 Comments

  1. I didn’t know the last three conversations the wolf had with the third pig. It does rather complicate matters but thanks for the information.

  2. Wonderful analysis. As a child, I do remember being afraid of the big bad wolf. He’s permeated our society, hasn’t he?

    • Mary Zoeter

      Thanks or no thanks to tales such as “The Three Little Pigs” and “Little Red Riding Hood”, many people have come to fear wolves. Wolves are rarely harmful to humans, but humans have certainly harmed and are still harming wolves.

  3. I was metaphorically replying to the fairly tale. The big bad wolves we have in society have two legs and can definitely blow your house down.

  4. Brian Burden

    I think the approach of the main critique is misguided. Folk tales work on a subliminal level and their logic is not the logic of every day. It’s for this reason that so many folk legends provide a basis for creative literature.

  5. I very interesting critique. I have never come across the second half – which feels more like a fable within a fable to me. The version I grew with has the wolf fail to blow down the third house and climbing immediately up to the roof to get in through the chimney, meeting his inevitable end. It actually makes a lot more sense that way I think as the wolf is determined to eat that pig right away!

    I have no textual evidence to support this but I can’t help but feel the origin of the fable must come from the biblical parable of the wise and foolish men building their houses upon the sand or rock. There’s too much of a coincidence with house-building, materials and the explicit or implicit wise and foolishness. Perhaps the Three Little Pigs was an attempt to expand the story and make it more accessible for children? I could easily imagine the story arising out of a Sunday School class. As I say, I have justification for this – just a hunch!

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