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The Gruesome Origins of Classic Fairytales: Goldilocks & the Three Bears

While this fairytale doesn't really have gruesome origins, I thought I would share it anyway. Goldilocks and the Three Bears is a 19th century British fairytale. The later variations are all based on the initial fairytale.

 

Version 1 By Robert Southey


In Robert Southey's version of the tale, three anthropomorphic bears – "a little, small, wee bear, a middle-sized bear, and a great, huge bear" – live together in a house in the woods. Southey describes them as very good-natured, trusting, harmless, tidy, and hospitable. Each of these "bachelor" bears has his own porridge bowl, chair, and bed. One day they make porridge for breakfast, but it is too hot to eat, so they decide to take a walk in the woods while their porridge cools. An old woman approaches the bears' house. She has been sent out by her family because she is a disgrace to them. She is impudent, bad, foul-mouthed, ugly, dirty, and a vagrant deserving of a stint in the House of Correction. She looks through a window, peeps through the keyhole, and lifts the latch. Assured that no one is home, she walks in. The old woman eats the Wee Bear's porridge, then settles into his chair and breaks it. Prowling about, she finds the bears' beds and falls asleep in Wee Bear's bed. The end of the tale is reached when the bears return. Wee Bear finds his empty bowl, his broken chair, and the old woman sleeping in his bed and cries, "Somebody has been lying in my bed, and here she is!" The old woman wakes, jumps out the window and is never seen again.

 

Later Variations


Twelve years after the publication of Southey's tale, Joseph Cundall transformed the antagonist from an ugly old woman to a pretty little girl in his Treasury of Pleasure Books for Young Children. He explained his reasons for doing so in a dedicatory letter to his children, dated November 1849, which was inserted at the beginning of the book:

The "Story of the Three Bears" is a very old Nursery Tale, but it was never so well told as by the great poet Southey, whose version I have (with permission) given you, only I have made the intruder a little girl instead of an old woman. This I did because I found that the tale is better known with Silver-Hair, and because there are so many other stories of old women.

Once the little girl entered the tale, she remained – suggesting children prefer an attractive child in the story rather than an ugly old woman. The juvenile antagonist saw a succession of names: Silver Hair in the pantomime Harlequin and The Three Bears; or, Little Silver Hair and the Fairies by J. B. Buckstone (1853); Silver-Locks in Aunt Mavor's Nursery Tales (1858); Silverhair in George MacDonald's "The Golden Key" (1867); Golden Hair in Aunt Friendly's Nursery Book (ca. 1868); Silver-Hair and Goldenlocks at various times; Little Golden-Hair (1889); and finally Goldilocks in Old Nursery Stories and Rhymes (1904). Tatar credits English author Flora Annie Steel with naming the child in English Fairy Tales (1918).


Goldilocks's fate varies in the many retellings: in some versions, she runs into the forest, in some she is almost eaten by the bears but her mother rescues her, in some she vows to be a good child, and in some she returns home. Whatever her fate, Goldilocks fares better than Southey's vagrant old woman who, in his opinion, deserved a stint in the House of Correction, and far better than Miss Mure's old woman who is impaled upon a steeple in St Paul's church-yard.


Southey's all-male ursine trio has not been left untouched over the years. The group was re-cast as Papa, Mama, and Baby Bear, but the date of this change is disputed. Tatar indicates it occurred by 1852, while Katherine Briggs suggests the event occurred in 1878 with Mother Goose's Fairy Tales published by Routledge. With the publication of the tale by "Aunt Fanny" in 1852, the bears became a family in the illustrations to the tale but remained three bachelor bears in the text.


In Dickens’ version of 1858, the two larger bears are brother and sister, and friends to the little bear. This arrangement represents the evolution of the ursine trio from the traditional three male bears to a family of father, mother, and child. In a publication ca. 1860, the bears have become a family at last in both text and illustrations: "the old papa bear, the mama bear, and the little boy bear". In a Routledge publication c 1867, Papa Bear is called Rough Bruin, Mama Bear is Mammy Muff, and Baby Bear is called Tiny. Inexplicably, the illustrations depict the three as male bears.


In publications subsequent to Aunt Fanny's of 1852, Victorian nicety required editors to routinely and silently alter Southey's "[T]here she sate till the bottom of the chair came out, and down came her's, plump upon the ground" to read "and down she came", omitting any reference to the human bottom. The cumulative effect of the several changes to the tale since its original publication was to transform a fearsome oral tale into a cozy family story with an unrealised hint of menace.

 

There are some television adaptations for children available but I'm not going to link them here. I hope you enjoyed today's post. I'll see you next time.

 

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