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"The Story of the Three Bears" (often known today as "Goldilocks and the Three Bears") is a children's story first recorded in narrative form by English author and poet Robert Southey and first published in a volume of his writings in 1837. The same year, writer George Nicol published a version in rhyme based upon Southey's prose tale, with Southey approving the attempt to bring the story more exposure. Both versions tell of three bears and an old woman who trespasses upon their property.

The story of the three bears was in circulation before the publication of Southey's version. In 1831, for example, Eleanor Mure fashioned a handmade booklet about the three bears for her nephew's birthday, and, in 1894, "Scrapefoot", a tale with a fox as antagonist, was uncovered by the folklorist Joseph Jacobs. "Scrapefoot" bears striking similarities to Southey's tale, and may have predated it in the oral tradition. Southey possibly heard the tale, and confused its "vixen" with a synonym for a crafty old woman.

The tale experienced two significant changes during its early publication history. Southey's elderly antagonist morphed into a pretty little girl called Goldilocks, and his three male bears became Father, Mother, and Baby Bear. What was originally a fearsome oral tale became a cozy family story with only a hint of menace. The story has seen various interpretations and has been adapted to board game format, film, opera, and other media. "The Story of the Three Bears" is one of the most popular fairy tales in the English language.


In 1837, the British poet Robert Southey recorded "The Story of The Three Bears" in narrative form, and inserted it into volume four of his anonymous collection of linked essays, The Doctor. In this story, three anthropomorphic male 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 bear has his own porridge pot, chair, and bed. One day they take a walk in the woods while their porridge cools. An old hairy woman (who is described at various points in the story as impudent, bad, foul-mouthed, ugly, dirty and a vagrant deserving of a stint in the House of Correction) discovers the bears' dwelling. After assuring herself no one is about, she enters the house. The old woman eats the Wee Bear's porridge, then settles into his chair and breaks it. Prowling about, she finds the bear's beds and falls asleep in Wee Bear's bed. The climax of the tale is reached when the bears return. Wee Bear finds the old woman in his bed and cries, "Somebody has been lying in my bed,—and here she is!" The old woman starts up, jumps from the window, and is never seen again.

The tale had never appeared in print before and the reading public assumed that it originated with Southey. Southey however was simply retelling a popular tale which apparently had been in circulation for some time. In 1831, for example, thirty-two-year-old Miss Eleanor Mure presented a handmade booklet styled, "The Story of Three Bears", metrically related, with illustrations locating it at Cecil Lodge in September 1831 as a birthday gift to her four-year-old nephew Horace Broke. Mure described her version as "the celebrated Nursery Tale...put into verse" indicating the possible existence of an earlier prose version. Mure's antagonist is an "angry old woman" who, unlike Southey's antagonist, has a motive for invading the bears' home: her courtesy visit is rebuffed by the bears and, in a pique, she decides to inspect their home anyway. Mure's version differs further from Southey in that the bears' pots are filled with milk rather than porridge. At the end of the tale, the bears try first to burn the old woman, then to drown her, and being unsuccessful in both attempts on her life, finally "chuck her aloft on St. Paul's church-yard steeple". Southey's old woman jumps out a window and runs away.

Though Mure's tale predates Southey's by six years, Southey knew the story of the three bears in 1813 for he wrote his wife and children in September 1813 that he had told the tale to others on several occasions. In The Doctor, Southey stated he learned the tale from his uncle William Dove (a pseudonym for his uncle William Tyler, his mother's half-brother). Tyler was an exponent of the traditional tale and may have known a version with a fox as the intruder. Southey may have confused his uncle's antagonist, a vixen, with a common apellation for a crafty old woman. Southey, the consummate technician, would have had no difficulty recreating the improvisational tone of his uncle's tale through rhythmical reiteration, alliteration ("they walked into the woods, while"), and bardic interpolation ("She could not have been a good, honest Old Woman"). Ultimately, it is uncertain where Southey or his uncle learned the tale.

Mary I. Shamburger and Vera R. Lachmann put forth the suggestion in the Journal of American Folklore in 1946 that the poet conflated a Norwegianmarker tale about three bears with the scene from "Snow White" in which the heroine enters the dwarves' house, tastes their food, and falls asleep in one of their beds. In a manner similar to Southey's bears, the dwarves cry, "Who's been sitting on my stool?", "Who's been eating off my plate?", "Who's been drinking my wine?", and "Who's been lying in my bed?".

Hunting rituals and ceremonies have been suggested as possible origins of the tale, but have been dismissed. In 1865, Charles Dickens referenced the tale in Our Mutual Friend, but there the house is owned by three hobgoblins rather than three bears—another tantalizing suggestion of a yet to be discovered source.

The same year Southey's tale was published, the story was retold in verse by writer George Nicol who acknowledged the anonymous author of The Doctor as "the great, original concocter" of the tale. Southey was delighted with Nicol's effort to bring more exposure to the tale, concerned children might overlook it in The Doctor. Nicol's version was illustrated with engravings by B. Hart after "C.J." which may have served as the inspiration for Leslie Brooke's illustrations in The Golden Goose Book of 1905. In 1848, Nicol's version was reissued with Southey identified as the story's author.


Illustration by John Batten, 1890

In 1890, the folklorist Joseph Jacobs expressed a general belief about the tale when he stated, "[This] is the only example I know of where a tale that can be definitely traced to a specific author has become a folk-tale." He modified his opinion in 1894 when apprised of a similar tale told to the illustrator John Batten. Batten purportedly heard it from a 'Mrs. H.' who had heard it from her mother more than forty years earlier. In Mrs. H's tale, the three bears live in a castle in the woods and are visited by a fox called Scrapefoot who drinks their milk, sits in their chairs, and rests in their beds. The suggestion was then put forward that Southey had heard the fox tale and had mistaken the word 'vixen' (female fox) for that of a common appellation used to describe a harridan. As a result of the misunderstanding, Southey cast the antagonist in his tale as an unpleasant old woman rather than a fox. "Scrapefoot" then belongs to the medieval beast epic, in particular the Fox and Bear tales such as "Reynard the Fox".

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:

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 1853 in the pantomime, Harlequin and The Three Bears; or, Little Silver Hair and the Fairies by J.B. Buckstone, Silver-Locks in Aunt Mavor's Nursery Tales of 1858, Silverhair in George MacDonald's "The Golden Key" (1867), Golden Hair in Aunt Friendly's Nursery Book circa 1868, Silver-Hair and Goldenlocks at various times, Little Golden-Hair in 1889, and finally Goldilocks in Old Nursery Stories and Rhymes of 1904. Flora Annie Steel has also been credited with naming the child Goldilocks in her English Fairy Tales of 1918.

Goldilocks' fate varies in the many retellings: in some versions, she runs into the forest, 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 St. Paul's church-yard steeple.

Southey's all-male ursine trio was not left untouched over the years. The group was re-cast as Father, Mother, and Baby Bear, but the date of the change is disputed. One source indicates it occurred by 1852, while others suggest 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 Dulcken's version of 1858, the two larger bears are brother and sister, and friends to the little bear. In a publication with the presumed date of 1860, the bears have become "the old papa Bear, the mamma Bear, and the little boy Bear", and, in a Routledge publication with the presumed date of 1867, the bears have become a family as Great Papa (or, Rough Bruin), Mrs. Bruin (or, Mammy Muff), and their little funny brown Bear, (or, Tiny). Incongruously, 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 "...there 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 unrealized hint of menace.


Southey's tale is sometimes viewed as a cautionary tale that imparts a lesson about the hazards of wandering off and exploring unknown territory. Like "The Tale of the Three Little Pigs", the story uses repetitive formulas to engage the child's attention and to reinforce the point about safety and shelter. While the tale is typically framed today as a discovery of what is "just right", for earlier generations it was a tale about an intruder who could not control herself when encountering the possessions of others.

For child psychologist and writer Bruno Bettelheim, the story had little attraction. Though he described Goldilocks as "poor, beautiful, and charming", the story does not describe her positively except for her hair. Bettelheim mainly discussed the tale in terms of Goldilock's struggle to move past Oedipal issues to confront adolescent identity problems. In his view, the tale fails to encourage children "to pursue the hard labor of solving, one at a time, the problems which growing up presents", and does not end as fairy tales should with the "promise of future happiness awaiting those who have mastered their Oedipal situation as a child". He believes the tale is an escapist one that thwarts the child reading it from gaining emotional maturity. Bettelheim's view instrumentalizes fairy tales in expecting them to act as vehicles to convey messages and to offer behavioral models to the child. While the story may not solve Oedipal issues or sibling rivalry as Bettelheim believes "Cinderella" does, it establishes the importance of respecting the property of others and the consequences of meddling with it. Bettelheim may have missed the anal aspect of the tale that would make it helpful to the child's personality development.

Alan C. Elms in Handbook of Psychobiography describes Southey's tale as "remarkably anal". He views the tale not as one of Bettelheimian post-Oedipal ego development but as one of Freudian pre-Oedipal anality. He believes the story appeals chiefly to pre-schoolers who are engaged in cleanliness training, maintaining environmental and behavioral order, and distress about order disruption. His own experience and his observation leads him to believe children align themselves with the tidy, organized ursine protagonists rather than the unruly, deliquent human antagonist. In Elms' view, the anality of "The Story of the Three Bears" can be traced directly to Robert Southey's fastidious, dirt-obsessed aunt who raised him and passed her obsession to him in a milder form.

Literary elements

The story makes extensive use of the literary rule of three, featuring three chairs, three bowls of porridge, three beds, and the three title characters who live in the house. There are also three sequences of the bears discovering in turn that someone has been eating from their porridge, sitting in their chairs, and finally, lying in their beds, at which point is the climax of Goldilocks being discovered. This follows three earlier sequences of Goldilocks trying the bowls of porridge, chairs, and beds successively, each time finding the third "just right". Author Christopher Booker characterizes this as the "dialectical three", where "the first is wrong in one way, the second in another or opposite way, and only the third, in the middle, is just right." Booker continues "This idea that the way forward lies in finding an exact middle path between opposites is of extraordinary importance in storytelling".

The Goldilocks Principle describes a situation which is just right in a manner akin to that portrayed in the tale. The concept prevails not only in literature, but also in astronomy and economics. A Goldilocks planet is neither too close to nor too far from a star to rule out life, while a Goldilocks economy describes one which is sustaining moderate growth and low inflation, which is seen as allowing for a market friendly monetary policy.



Film adaptations include Walt Disney's black and white animated film version "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" released on September 4, 1922. In 1936, a version of the Three Bears was proposed as a Disney Silly Symphony with Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and other stock Disney characters in the familiar roles, but the film was never made. A short live action film was released in 1958 by Coronet Films that starred live bears and a child.


Bobby Troup wrote a swinging jazz version of the tale. "The Three Bears" was first recorded by the Page Cavanaugh Trio in 1946. It is the origin of the line "Hey Ba-ba Re-bear" said the little wee bear "someone has broken my chair!".


Roald Dahl wrote an alternative version which appears in Revolting Rhymes. Dahl's version elaborates comically on Goldilocks' crimes - that the chair she broke was rare Elizabethan collector's item, and that she smeared mud and dog excrement through the house on her shoes. She ends up being eaten by the baby bear.


On 19 December 1997, Kurt Schwertsik's 35-minute opera, Roald Dahl's Goldilocks premiered at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hallmarker. The opera's setting is the Forest Assizes where Baby Bear stands accused of assaulting Miss Goldie Locks. The tables are turned when the defense limns the trauma suffered by the bears at the hands of that "brazen little crook", Goldilocks.


  1. Cecil Lodge was the country home of Miss Mure's father, James Mure. The house was in Abbots Langley, Hertfordshire and razed in the twentieth century to make way for a housing development. (Ober, p. 2)
  2. Miss Mure's manuscript came to widespread notice in 1949 as part of a collection of children's books presented to the Toronto Public Library.

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