3 Sisters, 3 sons, 3 quests. Why is 3 so common in fairy tales? And what about the 7’s? The 7 dwarfs, the 7 brothers, etc. Let’s look into numbers in fairy tales.
While I was reading the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, it struck me again: all these things happening in threes! Of course, as a storyteller, I knew about this rule of three. Let me tell you what else I discovered about other numbers in fairy tales (7 and 12).
Why is the number 3 important in fairy tales?
The number three in fairy tales establishes patterns. When something happens twice, we notice a pattern. The third time completes the pattern or overthrows it. These patterns needed to be as short as possible because most fairy tales have initially been orally told stories.
So you will find heroes that have to fulfill three quests, completing a pattern of three. And you will find three brothers, the first failing, the second failing, the third overthrowing the pattern by succeeding.
You can get a feel of how this works by telling two simple stories yourself. In one of them, you use a pattern of three; in another, a pattern of two. Let me show an example with the story of the president who is out of toilet paper.
Example ‘The President is out of Toilet Paper’
Let’s look at this storytelling phenomenon of ‘the rule of three’ using a story. Marco Holmer (link to his website), one of my storytelling teachers, used this example. I retell it like this:
One day the president entered his royal toilet. After he was finished doing what presidents do there, he found out that there was no toilet paper left. And toilet paper was severely needed.
He called an agent of the secret services and ordered him to buy new toilet paper. As quickly as possible!
The president sat down and off went the agent. First of all, he ran to Walmart to find out they were fresh out of toilet paper!
Out of breath, he ran on to Trader Joe. But, horror of horrors, all toilet paper was gone.
Luckily, he knew one more option: the 7-11 that was close by. And with a sigh, he found some presidential-quality toilet paper there. All well, end well.
You will find that if you change this story and let the agent find toilet paper in Trader Joe’s, it is over before it ever began. You need the two failures to establish a pattern, to build suspense. And then the third try to resolve this suspense.
Nowadays, we call this use of 3’s “the rule of three” or “the power of three.” It is used in many, many places, from jokes to ads to presidential speeches.
There are many different ways you can recognize groups of threes in fairy tales. Let me give you some examples (not exhaustive) from the Brothers Grimm fairy tales:
Brothers Grimm fairy tales with 3 characters
- The Wonderful Musician: A fiddler meets three animals in the forest who love his music and want to keep him company.
- The Three Little Men in the Woods: A sister and a stepsister both meet the three little men in the woods. How they behave towards them shapes their destiny.
- The Three Spinners: Three spinning aunts manage to save the princess, both from the queen and from a life of spinning.
- The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean: This fairy tale has exactly three main characters, who mostly come to a tragic end.
- Cinderella: Cinderella and her two stepsisters: a triplet. And don’t forget the three times she goes to the ball and the three fittings of the slipper.
- The Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage: Deep in the forest these three characters live peacefully and orderly together. Then things need to be different, and chaos ensues.
- Fitcher’s Bird: Three sisters are captured by a devious wizard. The youngest one succeeds in freeing them all.
- Knoist and His Three Sons: Knoist has three very interesting sons who are going on an adventure: one blind, one lame, one stark-naked.
Brothers Grimm fairy tales with 3 quests
- Faithful John: Trusty servant John overhears three ravens who prophecy three ways the king will die. He needs to prevent them.
- Little Brother and Little Sister: The brother only drinks from the third brook, the king finds their house on the third try and the sister is only saved in the third night.
- Rumpelstiltskin: Rumpelstiltskin helps the princess three times with spunning straw into gold.
Brothers Grimm fairy tales with 3 items
- The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs: The luck child needs to get three golden hairs from the devil. At the same time he solves three problems he encountered on the way to the devil.
- Wishing Table, Gold Ass, and Cudgel in the Sack: Three sons of a tailor are sent out into the world to find their luck. They find three magic items, but only the youngest one succeeds in bringing them home.
- The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was: The young man gets to stay three nights in a haunted castle and he can bring with him three items: a fire, a turning lathe, and a cutting board with a knife.
Other notable Brothers Grimm fairy tales with the number 3
- The Three Languages: The son of a count learns the languages of three groups of animals: dogs, birds and frogs.
- Fundevogel: Lisa and Fundevogel escape the cook who wants to boil them. Three times they shapeshift in something else before they are finally free.
- Looking for a Bride: A young shepherd has three candidate women to be his bride. To find out who is his true love, he watches them eating cheese.
Of course, there are even many, many more threes and triplets in the Brother Grimm fairy tales.
Why is the number 7 important in fairy tales?
After the number 3, the number 7 appears the most in fairy tales. Why? The answer to this question is less clear, but let me give you three possible reasons:
- In many religions (Jewish, Christianity, etc.) 7 is the number that denotes completeness. So when in a fairy tale the number 7 is used, it gives of a feeling of ‘all’.
- According to research, seven objects is the highest number of objects a brain can immediately recognize, i.e. without consciously counting them.
- Seven is generally recognized as a lucky number. According to research, it is the number people most think of when asked to say a number.
7 is a fascinating, unique number. It still gives me a feeling of completeness. Like The Chronicles of Narnia or the modern The Sisters, many book series contain seven volumes.
The power of 7 does not flow from setting up a pattern, like the number 3, so it might be something that could change in the future.
3 Brothers Grimm fairy tales with 7 characters
- Snow White: When you think about the number 7 in fairy tales, you might, like me, immediately think about the seven dwarfs who offer their shelter to Snow White. They were made even more famous by Disney.
- The Seven Ravens: A sister grows up with seven brothers. By a fit of an angry father they change into ravens. She sets out to rescue them.
- The Six Swans: A family of six brothers and one sister is only complete when all seven of them are together. She rescues them and goes to great length to bring them back.
Why is the number 12 important in fairy tales?
The number 12 in fairy tales most likely comes from religious significance of this number. Twelve is the number of the Jewish tribes in the Torah. Twelve is the number of the apostles of Jesus. Twelve is the number just before the unlucky thirteen.
Examples of the number 12 in the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales
- The Twelve Brothers: After their sister is born, her brothers need to feel for their father. She ends up going after them and rescuing them.
- Mary’s Child: There are thirteen doors, and she gets thirteen keys. Twelve doors she may open, one she may not. She opens it anyway and that unleashes a world of hurt.
Final thoughts about numbers in fairy tales
After reading this blog post, I’m sure that you will see more and more of these numbers popping up in the fairy tales you read.
If you want to dive even deeper into numbers in fairy tales, check out this more scholarly study about fairy tales beyond the Brothers Grimm:
- Liabenov, A. 2014. The Significance of the Numbers Three, Four, and Seven in Fairy Tales, Folklore, Mythology
For some more ‘fairy tale study’ like you just read, check out my article on magic in fairy tales.
Photo credits: Pixabay
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