Thrice Upon A Time

So as we reach the third month, March, what better time to talk about one of the golden rules of folk tale and storytelling: if it happens more than once then it happens three times. Oh yes, the third time’s the charm!
Three siblings set out to seek their fortune. The first two are really only there to show how difficult, dangerous or disgusting the task at hand may be, through trying and failing they elevate the third adventurer by contrast. It may be that they meet a giant each and you can be sure that, if the second outsized thug is more fearsome than the first by dint of having an extra head, then an even bigger giant with the full compliment of three heads will be along shortly.

Once you start to look there is no turning back the tide of trios, triplications and trinities: our protagonist befriends three magic helpers; is given three gifts; meets three consecutively older and uglier peasants; goes to three dances; answers three riddles; turns around three times; gets three chances; meets three crones on the heath… and here we find ourselves looping in to the sphere of mythology where the triple aspects of an ancient mother goddess, creator, sustainer, destroyer are reflected in the three Greek fates, the Norse Norns and Shakespeare’s witches. It’s not just goddesses that hang around in threes: The Norse God Odin is first encountered creating the nine worlds (3×3!) with his brothers Vili and Ve alongside him before, for the sake of brevity we assume, Vili and Ve vanish without trace and their deeds are referred to Odin alone. A similar thing happens with the Celtic God Lugh who is born one of triplets before they too are collapsed in to the singular name. Even in a nominally monotheistic religion we find a triple aspect of masculine deity in the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

Is it because three is the number of the divine then, that it is so popular? Well, it is also the basis of our physical world since we live in three dimensions, we all know the stability of a tripod, everything is either solid, liquid or gas. Even the business world will “tell you three times” while politicians talk about “Education, education, education.” and estate agents recite “Location, location, location”. It seems that, even in the most mundane of environments, if it happens more than once then it happens three times.

Maybe it’s because three gives us a beginning, a middle and an end, though it may be hard to know where the beginning is. In the case of the year it obviously begins on January 1st… Unless you’re Chinese when it gets going in February… or, if you have had a slow opening to 2011 and would like to start all over again then your third chance comes from following the Roman, Persian or astrological example, all three of which celebrate the new year in March.

It would appear that three is the natural number, the number of completeness, it just is the right number. So there you have a golden rule of folk tale, and like so much in these old traditions it is a microcosm of the world around us: if it happens more than once then it happens three times!

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.


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Filed under Fairytale, Folk Tale, March, Rule of three, Spring, stories, Storytelling

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