The Power of Three: Why Fairy Tales Often Feature a Triple

The phrase “Once upon a time” is something you’ll often find in a fairy tale, however, there’s another common element that you may’ve noticed in these rich stories. The pattern of three is all over fairy tales and folklore originating from various regions, but have you ever wondered why?

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Three bears at a table

“Somebody has been at my porridge, and eaten it all up!” Illustrations by Arthur Rackham. Published in English Fairy Tales by Flora Annie Steel (1918), MacMillan and Company.

There’s actually a name for this writing choice, and it’s known as “the rule of three” or “the power of three.” This technique is used throughout all forms of entertainment, including comedy. Have you ever watched a show and noticed they often do three jokes, especially if it’s slapstick comedy? That’s the power of three. You can also see three in marketing slogans and in advertising, but nowhere is three more apparent than in fairy tales.

Why Three?

Three little pigs and their mother in front of their home in this illustration by L. Leslie Brooke

“Once upon a time there was an old Sow with three little Pigs, and as she had not enough to keep them, she sent them out to seek their fortune.” Published in The Story of the Three Little Pigs (1904), Frederick Warne & Co.

Let’s remember that fairy tales originated from the oral tradition, when storytellers would tell stories, and eventually, scholars and historians would write those down. These story collectors included Hans Christian Andersen and The Brothers Grimm, however, there are even more fairy tale authors, and many used the power of three. Having characters undergo three tests or trials makes for good suspense-building, such as when Rumpelstiltskin gives the queen three tries to guess his name. The pattern of three can also illustrate the personality of characters. In fairy tales, families typically have three daughters or three sons, and often, two of the children are lazy, cruel, wicked, and other “negative” qualities. The third child is the hero of the story, the one who’s rewarded for their goodness, or cleverness.

Another reason why the pattern of three is common in fairy tales and folk tales is to make it more memorable to those who heard the tale. Fairy tales were told from person to person, and having groups of three is a handy memory device for the storyteller to recall of the elements of the story. It doesn’t matter how long ago you heard the story of Cinderella, you probably remember that she had two evil stepsisters, don’t you? That’s the power of three at work.

We can examine the use of three in different ways. In psychology, experts believe that 3 plays a big part of persuasion, which is probably why Snow White’s stepmother came back three times to try to kill her, and finally succeeded on the third try! In terms of religious themes, three is a common element in virtually every religion, such the trinity of Christianity, and more. It’s important to note this, since so many tales have religious tones.

What Comes in Threes?

In fairy tales and folk tales, nearly anything can come in groups of threes. For instance, three can be the number of children a woodcutter has, or how many animals are present in a group, such as the Three Little Pigs. Three can also be the number of magical gifts received, such as those by Cinderella: a pair of glass shoes, horses and a coachmen who were formerly rodents, and a pumpkin that becomes a carriage. In Maid Maleen, the main character speaks to three things: a nettle-plant, a foot-bridge, and a church door, while in East of the Sun, West of the Moon, the girl in search of her husband receives three gifts. As you can see, three is just as common in fairy tales as towers and enchanted animals!

Listen to The Three Little Pigs, The Three Bears, and other stories of three in audio in the Fairytalez Audio Book App for Apple and Android devices.

Further Reading

Here are a few more stories that feature groups of three:

The Story of Three Wonderful Beggars
The Three Apprentices
Three Chests: The Story of the Wicked Man of the Sea
The Three Enchanted Princes

15 Responses to The Power of Three: Why Fairy Tales Often Feature a Triple

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  4. Herb O. Buckland September 9, 2017 at 6:53 pm #

    In discussing patterns-of-three in Fairytales, the “Rule of Three” idea being used by those of us today is not necessarily the conscious “reason” employed by the authors. While we can reference different rationales pertaining to folklorist views about cultural borrowing, there is a great need to apply a larger appreciation about a more widely occurring “threes phenomena” appearing in many different subjects. For example, it is hard to imagine that the reason so many of us use three fingers to hold a pen or pencil is due to some story-telling rule of three. No less, the same goes for ending sentences with a period, question mark or exclamation. But let us also add such ideas as three tri-mesters for pregnancy or the protons, neutrons, electrons ensemble. In fact, there are literally hundred upon hundreds of examples of “threes”, not to mention that we are on the third planet from a Sun, both DNA and RNA have triplet coding systems, etc… Granted, keeping the discussion confined to specifically fairytales or literature in general, the proposed “rule of three” idea seems rather logical. But if you remain in such a structure orientation, you will overlook the presence has having a far greater suggestive reality about its origin which is part of a much larger task at unraveling human cognition. I invite you to take a look at this site:

  5. Sankar October 12, 2017 at 5:42 am #

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  6. Megan February 26, 2018 at 9:16 pm #

    Cinderella – coachmen were the duck and dog, not the mice. The mice were the horses.

    • Fairy Tales March 8, 2018 at 3:53 pm #

      Megan, thanks for your comment. In the original fairy tale, the mice are the horses, and a rat is a coachman. I’ve edited the text to reflect the correct animal, as I forgot that the rat was retrieved from the trap to be a coachman.

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    Very Helpful for my research paper. Btw, who is the author?

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    This website is beneficial, this specific article helped me write something for my English class in school. Thanks, Fairytalez!

  9. Edward May 11, 2023 at 10:26 pm #

    The number three is also recurrent in opera librettos: Turandot asks three questions of her suitors, Lohengrin forbids Elsa to ask him three things about himself (including his name!), and of course most operas are in three acts.

  10. Jayden October 17, 2023 at 3:34 pm #

    helpful for working on my research paper.

  11. william October 17, 2023 at 4:32 pm #

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