Goldilocks and the Three Bears is a nursery tale. That is to say: it is one of the relatively few examples of oral-derived narrative which really does preach to children (or at least seek to entertain them), as ‘fairy tales’ in general are commonly, but mistakenly, assumed to do. Perhaps relatedly, this story’s credentials as a genuine oral folktale have been questioned. There is reason to doubt them, in fact, but the story is an eclectic and intriguing mix of elements.

In the form in which you probably know it best, it certainly originated as a modern literary fairy tale. It was first published anonymously by the poet Robert Southey (seen here around the time he was writing it). He called it ‘The Story of the Three Bears.’ This tale appeared in The Doctor in 1837, and quickly became so popular that, in effect, it was adopted into tradition and became an authentic folktale.

It is interesting and salutary to note the changes which the story thereby underwent. Since Southey’s days, at least, the bears have always been three in number – one large, one middle-sized, and one small. They have always lived in a house furnished with appropriately-sized beds, chairs and the like; and, of course, they have tended to eat porridge. But in Southey’s original, for example, the intrusive protagonist was not a young girl at all, but an unpleasant, interfering old woman. And Southey’s bears are all male, and most tellingly, his sympathies were firmly with them, ‘for they were good Bears – a little rough or so, as the manner of Bears is, but for all that very good-natured and hospitable.’ His ‘impudent, bad old woman’ is not a heroine, or a potential victim of the bears’ vengeance; she is a nuisance.

Southey’s tale was immediately seized on for adaptation by other authors. In the years which followed, it was rewritten repeatedly for eager audiences, becoming the tale we recognise today. The first author to make the proganist a young girl was apparently Joseph Cundall, a pioneer publisher of children’s books and also notable as a pioneer photographer; he did it for his 1849 Treasury of Pleasure Books for Young Children.

Cundall gave the little girl silver hair and a name to match – fashionable choices for Victorian heroines – and this set the trend for half a century or so; he also seems to have been the one who turned the middle bear female. Later in the century (in 1878, according to Katharine Briggs), the bears were finally outed explicitly as the now-familiar father, mother and baby bear. The heroine’s golden hair emerged later (in 1889, according to Katharine Briggs). and the name Goldilocks followed. By now, the reader’s sympathies were now presumed to lie at least partly with the heroine. The story, in fact, had come to resemble other cautionary tales with a toehold in oral tradition, tales such as Little Red Riding Hood, in which another heedless young heroine encounters a monstrous adversary, and wises up just in time to escape the consequences of her thoughtless actions.

While it is certainly striking to reflect that dear little Goldilocks began her literary career quite recently, as a crabby, villainous old woman, much of the real interest lies in the tantalising hints about the secret life which her story lived in oral tradition before Southey got hold of it. The emphasis here is on hint: the story’s apparent absence from oral tradition once prompted the assumption that Southey simply make the whole thing up.

But this Southey probably did not do. For one thing, when he published the tale in 1837, a version of it had already been committed to writing. This was not published till years afterwards, but it is preserved in a private collection in Toronto Public Library – a well-established modern mecca of children’s literature and library storytelling. This text was written in 1831 as a present for a young relative, by Eleanor Muir. Southey himself had apparently been telling the story for years before he wrote it up, and his contemporaries tended to speak of the tale as being already fairly well-known before he introduced it to a mass readership. The Opies, meanwhile, record that Southey learnt the tale as a child from his uncle, William Tyler; we don’t know where Tyler learned the story, but we have grounds for a guess, thanks to one very interesting clue thrown up – many years after Southey published the story of the Three Bears – by the prolific Jewish-Australian folklorist Joseph Jacobs, or, more rather, by his illustrator, John Batten.

Batten – an equally prolific illustrator of folktale and fairytale collections – contributed a story to Jacobs’ More English Fairy Tales of 1894 (Jacobs had included Southey’s story of the Three Bears in a previous volume of English Fairy Tales). Batten’s story, ‘Scrapefoot,’ is recognisable as a version of the story of the Three Bears in which the protagonist is neither a little girl nor an old lady but – get this, right – a fox.

In Batten’s story, Scrapefoot the fox steals into a castle inhabited by three bears (of indeterminate family status). Like the bears themselves, everything in the castle is graded in order of size, as you might expect. Scrapefoot tries everything for size, breaks things, steals the bears’ milk (not porridge), and falls asleep. The bears return and the famous ‘Who’s been sitting in my chair?’-style investigation ensues. Scrapefoot is discovered and threatened with punishment (including hanging and drowning); finally, the bears throw him out of the window, and he escapes, older and wiser but unharmed. Clearly this is the same story as the tale of Goldilocks. But Goldilocks has no part in it, even in her original guise as an old woman.

Instead, there’s a mother-freakin’ fox.

How come?

Well, Jacobs argued that in the story of Scrapefoot he had discovered a version of the original oral story on which Southey’s tale of the Three Bears had been based. Southey, he argued, had taken a real folktale about a fox and three bears, and replaced the fox with a little old lady.

This is not as as bizarre an idea as it might sound. Folktales about a fox and some bears are exactly what we might expect to find in the storytelling traditions of modern Europe; the mid-nineteenth century is maybe a bit late to go looking for them, but not too late.

Generally, indeed, tales of beast-like beings with human characteristics (such as the power of speech) are among the most widespread and fundamental types of oral narrative in the world. From ancient times, the most popular form of such stories in European tradition was the animal-fable. Prominent among European animal-fables from the Middle Ages onwards was ‘the early Bear and Fox tale-cycle,’ as the folklorist Katharine Briggs called it. Jacobs in fact regarded the tale of the Three Bears as ‘the last survival’ of the cycle ‘in English folk tradition.’

To give Jacobs’ argument its full weight, we need to backtrack for a rather sweeping survey of human development. The oldest artworks from prehistory include half-human, half-animal figures. Such figures seem to have had an importance in early communities which is hard to overestimate. Hybrid animal-human beings appear in the mythic iconography of many of the earliest civilisations – think of all those animal-headed Egyptian gods. Down to modern times, such figures have continued to bulk large in indigenous myths and tales, with their irrepressible and unforgettable gallery of demiurges or world-creators, tricksters and culture-heroes: such as Raven, Iktomi, Kweku Anansi, Blue Jay, Grandmother Spider, /Kaggen the Mantis, and countless others. Not least, such figures feature widely in the oral learning of the American First Nations, one of the most intensively researched indigenous cultures of modern times. There is something about the idea that seems to be almost hard-wired into our consciousness; as discussed elsewhere on this blog, it seems to relate to the tendency which myths have to invest everything which they discuss with sentience, consciousness, and motivations similar to those which drive human beings. Animals, of course, are conscious beings with motives resembling those of humans, and there’s a fun illustration here of the sort of animal behaviour which might be easily observed and serve as an inspiration for storytelling.

But the animal-tale did not retain its mythic status in younger civilisations, and it has not remained quite so central to the religious thought of the western or Muslim worlds, or India, or China. Nevertheless, these younger civilisations have sustained their habit of reference to animal-human hybrid figures as icons of wisdom, or at least of common-sense, up to and including satire of human foibles and pretentions. The expression of this was in their sustained appetite for animal-fables. Aesop’s fables are the best known animal-fables in the west. Indian collections such as the Panchatantra are vastly more extensive. In Europe, from the Middle Ages onwards, animal-fables remained a common and popular literary form, adopted by such poets as Chaucer, Henryson and Lafontaine.

Scholars gather stories of such characters – as much for convenience as for any other reason – into cycles. One good example, relevant to our theme, is the great African Hare cycle, which seems to have crossed the Atlantic with its storytellers in the course of the American slave deportations, and fetched up in the southern US in adapted form as the Bre’r Rabbit cycle, and in the Caribbean in the tales of B’Booky and B’Rabby, and so forth. Directly or indirectly, these traditions may even have informed the creation of cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote, for today, of course, human-animal hybridity remains a standard characteristic in fantastic tales for children and adults, from the Chronicles of Narnia to Planet of the Apes.

The Bear and Fox cycle is part of this vast web of story. Bear and Fox tales are widely known – the famous story of how the bear lost his tail is among the more popular ones around the world today, and is a good example of the genre. There is no scope here for a full account of the cycle and its related scholarship, but tales of Reynard the Fox were a mainstay of oral and literary storytelling in medieval Europe in more or less the way that tales of King Arthur were. Relatedly, centuries later, the cycle was the subject of a massively important case-study in the history of folktale scholarship: Kaarle Krohn‘s groundbreaking 1888 doctoral thesis, Bär (Wolf) und Fuchs: Eine Nordische Tiermärchenkette (Bear (Wolf) and Fox: A Nordic Animal-Tale Chain), which made its author’s career as a professional scholar and inspired generations of folklorists to study folktales in terms of its famous (and famously demanding) comparative or historical-geographical method.

This is the wider context of the Reynard cycle of which the tale of the Three Bears may once have formed a part. And if Jacobs was right, and the story of the Three Bears ‘belongs,’ as Katharine Briggs puts it, ‘to the early Bear and Fox tale-cycle,’ then the tale of Goldilocks is not a modern literary fairy-tale or phoney folktale at all; it’s oral narrative royalty.

In some respects Goldilocks and the Three Bears does fit surprisingly well within the vast mosaic of animal-myth and -fable. Like the tale of Goldilocks, such tales admit no real distinction between the human and natural worlds: animals, humans, and indeterminate or hybrid beings live, converse and interact in community alongside one another. Their stories revolve around conflicts or rivalries within this chaotic, mixed-up world between vividly-drawn stock characters, which show a preoccupation with the basics of life, such as home, food, safety and danger, and often dwell on the consequences of immoral, tabooed or ill-advised behaviour. All these things are as true of the tale of Goldilocks as they are of the exploits of the African Hare, or the Egyptian Seth, or Luma-Luma, the unforgettable whale-man-culture-hero of the Kunwinjku people of northern Australia.

We should not forget that Joseph Jacobs may have simply been wrong to suspect that the tale of the Three Bears was ‘the last survival of the Reynard cycle in English folk tradition.’ For one thing, if Southey heard a story about a fox and some bears, why did he change the identity of the central character? There seems to be no entirely convincing answer. It has been suggested that the young Southey misunderstood his uncle’s reference to a ‘vixen,’ taking it as a slangy reference to a nosy old lady. This strikes me as contrived and unconvincing. So perhaps we have to remain agnostic. But there is something about John Batten’s story of Scrapefoot the fox. Reading it leaves me with the strong impression that Jacobs may have been right. If he was, then it follows that the three bears can claim a surprisingly wild and exalted lineage.

I grew up with Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I can still vividly remember my terrified fascination at the thought of the three great bears, wronged and vengeful in their sunny little cottage. Jacobs suggests that their lumbering, shadowy presences hint at what the doll-like figure of Goldilocks conceals: a link with dreams and understandings which have haunted the human mind for so long that the whole of history seems a mere afterthought by comparison. Do the Three Bears really have roots that stretch through the long, tangled web of medieval fables to the animal-myths of prehistory?

We’ll never really know. But the idea, as an idea, strikes me as surprisingly resonant. Resonant enough to seem persuasive. No wonder Goldilocks scarpered.

Advertisements