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Fairy Tale Origins: Goldilocks & The Three Bears

By Edited Jan 7, 2015 1 4

Hideous Hags & Lovely Lasses

Misogyny, bestiality, homosexual men, and criminality – these are the baser elements of one of the most beloved children’s stories of all time, the tale of “Goldilocks & The Three Bears”.

Goldilocks (sensual makeover)

White-Washed Goldilocks
The current version of Goldilocks is known to perhaps everyone on the planet.  A little blonde girl, Goldilocks by name, tired of walking through the woods, happens upon a home where a family of three bears lives.  The bears were not there upon her arrival.  Hungry and tired, she walks in.  She finds three bowls of porridge set out – she samples each to find one is too hot, one is too cold, but the third bowl is “just right”.  She ate all the porridge in that bowl then retired to the bears’ sitting room.  There she spied three chairs.  Finding one too hard and another too soft, she settled on the smallest chair which was “just right”.  However, this chair – that of the family’s baby bear – could not support her weight, and it broke.  Chagrined, Goldilocks explores the rest of the bears’ home and finds their sleeping quarters.  The room contained a large, a medium, and small-sized bed.  She samples each, finding one too hard, another too soft, but the smallest – that of the baby bear – is “just right”.  She fell asleep in the bed.

When the wandering bears came home, they found their porridge bowls had been tampered with, a piece of their furniture was broken, and someone had messed up two of the three beds before settling into the third for a nap.  The little girl was awakened by their muttering – dependent upon nuances, Goldilocks today either runs away safely into the forest, or is allowed to leave unmolested, or is rescued by her mommy when the bears try to eat her.

Grey Locks & The Three Gay Men
The fairy tale origins of the “just right” girl, Goldilocks, are strange indeed.  The traditional

Robert Southey (portrait, 1800)
setting is not a bucolic woodland where an errant child strays into a bear’s home.  Instead, the action occurs in the Industrial Revolution landscape of a sooty city, replete with squalor, poverty, and petty crime. It illustrated the early creation of an underclass.

The earliest popularized written version of the tale is from 1837.  It was penned by a British poet named Robert Southey (1774-1843). Southey was a British Poet Laureate from 1813 to 1843.  He was also a dabbler in science (in 1799 he experimented with the great scientist Sir Humphry Davy in his work with nitrous oxide).  He was a friend to poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge; he and Coleridge collaborated occasionally.  Southey also wrote the nursery rhyme “What Are Little Boys Made Of?” (“Frogs and snails, and puppy dogs’ tails…”) about 1820.  Southey’s bear story was initially published anonymously by him in a collection of tales and essays he’d written called The Doctor (seven volumes, published from 1834-1847).  The name of the tale was “The

'More English Fairy Tales' (illus, 'Scrapefoot', 1894)
Story of the Three Bears”. 

The story was not original to Southey.  He had first heard a version of it from an uncle; Southey was re-telling this story to others as early as 1813.  There is a variant story, called “Scrapefoot”, where the intruder is a fox (a “vixen”).  The fox escapes after discovery by the bears.  It is in this detail that Southey popularized the bears’ story with a human female lead.

The word “vixen” means a female fox (of the animal variety, in the dog family, Canidae).  The word originated in Middle English (1150-1500) as “fixen” (“she-fox”).  However, over the decades the word also came into use as a slang term: a turbulent, quarrelsome woman.  Southey’s tale, probably originating as a story about an animal fox and some bears, evolved into a new version when he used the other definition of the word “vixen” as a euphemism for an old hag.  This was perhaps not intentional – when Southey was told the story in his younger years he may have always understood the “vixen” in the story to mean a haggish crone instead of an animal (the anthropomorphized fox character would make more sense, à la Aesop and his fables).

The other characters, the bears, were not always bears, either.  The early oral version of this story has the old woman breaking into a flat occupied by three bachelors! And in the 19th century, the word “bachelor” (when applied to an “unmarried” man) many times meant the man was a homosexual.  “Bachelor” was a euphemism, as were the 19th century words “Nancy” or “invert”, to describe homosexual men.  In the existing “bear” story, a homeless and crotchety old hag breaks into the bachelors’ home, samples their goods, and is caught when they return. Livid at finding the intruder, the three bachelors chase her around.  She leaps out a window and runs away.

The disenfranchised of London during Industrialization (beginning about 1760) were considered a blight on society – there was little sympathy, and they were typified as sneak thieves, grifters, and pickpockets, capable of all sorts of larceny if given a chance. The poor were considered amoral, and workhouses were their only refuge.  [Charles Dickens did not create Oliver Twist and The Artful Dodger out of whole cloth.  Such marginalized child criminals existed, working in gangs stealing, shoplifting, begging, prostituting – whatever they could do to get by.]

There was a time when the elderly were respected and revered.  After the American Revolution, though, the terms “oldster” and “old goat” came into common use as disdainful and irreverent appellations for older people.  Other pejorative terms developed as well.  Elderly people had fallen out of favor after the American Revolution. 

Southey’s 1837 anti-heroine is an unpleasant, ugly, and impoverished harpy.  Southey, for his written version, had two groups to skewer in his tale: the poor and the elderly. Neither group was beloved in Britain.  The extant oral story of the old crone and the three gay men was altered somewhat.  The three bachelors became three bears (although all of them were still male).  The male bears were Great Huge Bear, Middle-sized Bear, and Little Small Wee Bear.

Per the familiar story, the bears made their porridge.  [Probably not oatmeal as might be supposed, but more likely pease porridge, a milk-thickened gruel made from barley and peas.].  The bears went for a stroll while their porridge cooled.

Meanwhile, a nameless “little old Woman” happened by the bears’ abode.  Southey is quick to point up her character flaws (she is, after all, both poor and old; therefore, she must be a miscreant):

“And…a little old Woman came to the house. She could not have been a good, honest old Woman; for first she looked in at the window, and then she peeped in at the key-hole; and seeing nobody in the house, she lifted the latch. The door [was] not fastened, because the Bears were good Bears, who did nobody any harm, and never suspected that anybody would harm them. So the little old Woman opened the door and went in; and well she was when she saw the porridge on the table. If she had been a good little old Woman, she would have waited till the Bears came home, and then, perhaps, they would have asked her to breakfast; 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. But she was an impudent, bad old Woman, and set about helping herself.”

Southey can barely contain his disdain in this passage.  He continued with the adventure of the porridge:

“…she tasted the porridge of the Great, Huge Bear, and that was too hot for her; and she said a bad word about that. And then she tasted the porridge of the Middle Bear, and that was too cold for her; and she said a bad word about that too. And then she went to the porridge of the Little, Small, Wee Bear, and tasted that; and that was neither too hot nor too cold, but just right; and she liked it so well she ate it all up: but the naughty old Woman said a bad word about the little porridge pot, because it did not hold enough for her.”

Southey makes it clear this woman is not to be pitied.  She broke into the bears’ home; then, not finding the food she is stealing from them to her liking, she uses foul language.  She moved into the next room and sampled the chairs, with the “just right” chair the last in line:

“So she seated herself in it and there she sat till the bottom of the chair came out, and down came hers, plump upon the ground. And the naughty old Woman said a wicked word about that too.”

She broke the bear’s chair and cursed with expletives.  Afterward, she found the sleeping quarters.  The biggest bed was too high at the head end, and the middle bed was too high at the foot end.  The smallest bed was settled upon, and the old woman went to sleep.

The bears returned from their constitutional. They realize someone has been in their house when they inspected their porridge:

“…the middle Bear looked at his. He saw that the spoon was standing in it too. They were wooden spoons; if they had been silver ones, the naughty old Woman would have put them [in] her pocket.”

Thus, the bears are spared the loss of their tableware at the hands of a thief.  They discovered the cushions in the two larger chairs had been disarranged, and the smallest chair had been broken.  They went into the bedroom and discovered the largest bed’s pillows had been pulled out-of-place.  The middle bed’s bolster (a long, narrow pillow of the same width as the bed) was pulled askew, as well.  The third bed, of course, contained the nasty old lady:

“…there was the bolster in its place; and the pillow in its place upon the bolster; and upon the pillow was the little old Woman's ugly, dirty head - which was not in its place, for she had no business there.”

It was the shrill voice of the Wee Bear that caused her to stir:

“Up she started; and when she saw the Three Bears on one side of the bed, she tumbled herself out at the other, and ran to the window.

Now the window was open, because the Bears, like good, tidy Bears, as they were, always opened their bed-chamber window when they got up in the morning. Out the little old Woman jumped; and whether she broke her neck in the fall, or ran into the wood and was lost then, or found her way out of the wood and was taken up by the constable and sent to the House of Correction for a vagrant as she was, I cannot tell. But the Three Bears never saw anything more of her.”

'Story of the Three Bears' (illustrations, 1837)

The moral, apparently, is that old women should not be breaking into good people’s homes.  Southey’s story reeks of British smugness and class snobbery.  It was truly a moral story for the early Industrial Age. For Southey (and the middle and upper crust of Britain) the poor were a separate species, not even fit to breathe the same air as the landed and well-off. 

Another author asked Southey’s permission to reprint the story in a slightly different version a few years later – Southey was delighted that the story would become more widely known.  Southey, though, may have been a Johnny-come-lately to writing down the tale.  Although he presumably had never seen it, another version of the story had already been written in 1831 (Southey knew of the oral story for almost two decades by then). This one was penned by a Canadian woman

Three Bears (tossing old lady in fire, 1831)
named Eleanor Mure (who, in the parlance of the day, was called a “maiden aunt” rather than a lesbian).  Like Southey later, she also used male bears instead of bachelors.  She wrote it in verse form for a sick nephew, hand-bound it, and presented it to him on his birthday.  It was later self-published and copies sold.

In Mure’s version the old woman breaks into the bears’ house for having “snubbed” her during a recent social call!  She went through the porridge/chairs/beds triumvirate.  This time, though, when the bears came home and found her in the small bed, they stood around discussing what they should do to her.  They first threw her in a fire, but she wouldn’t burn.  Then they tossed her into water, but she wouldn’t drown.  Then, in perhaps the only recorded instance of impaling by bears, the three (in view of the “wondering people”) heaved the old woman up into the

Goldilocks in small bed (early 20th century)
air and impaled her on the steeple of St. Paul’s Church!  The story ends with Mure telling her nephew he might still see the old bag today stuck up on that steeple if he just takes a look.

Cute is Better, Sexy is Best, Brainy is also Good
By 1849 the story (whether the original “bachelor” version or Southey’s popular “old crone and bears” version) was common.  In an adaptation from November 1849, the biggest change was made toward the more modern and familiar – the homeless old woman was turned into a teen girl named “Silver-Hair”. The

Hot Locks (web art, unknown artist)
driver behind this alteration of character was an anthologist, Joseph Cundall, who said fairy tales had enough old crones in them.  He wanted a girl.  In 1918, Silver-Hair became Goldilocks (an even younger girl).  Later in the same century the male bears were transmuted into a bear family of father, mother and son (there is an early variant wherein the two older bears are brother and sister).

Thus, like Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks’ story was made benign, stripped of her headier, edgier elements: misogyny, class warfare, foul language, and boorish behavior. The sexual undercurrent of Little Red Riding Hood was phased out over time.  Goldilocks, however, managed the opposite – she is sexy today for many.  Over the years she has been aged into a teen nymph.  Her image (or reference to her) has been used in soft-core porn books, movies and cartoons, and the little innocent Lolita factor is played upon in pop art.  Also, the metaphor of the bears as ravenous ravishers has been featured, with a hapless, but erotically charged, Goldilocks terrorized by approaching doom.

Goldilocks & the Bears (web art)

Goldilocks’ impact on the language of pop culture is most recognized in the condition known as “The Goldilocks Effect”.  This is a term used (surprisingly) by scientists to describe optimum

Goldilocks & the 3 Bears (modern)(78836)
conditions for a desired outcome, when things are “just right” (not at extremes, but meeting minimal criteria for satisfaction).  In fact, in astronomy, there are searches for celestial bodies known as “Goldilocks Planets”.  They are termed thus because the environment of an unknown planet, its place in the cosmic timeline, distance from its parent star, etc., if found to be “just right” in theory could yield one with life similar to our own (at least in terms of civilization maturity).

“Goldilocks & The Three Bears” is a simple story, a “don’t-talk-to-strangers” morality tale.  But in today’s version nothing bad happens to Goldilocks.  She is either rescued or gets away clean.  Maybe if she was thrown out a window or impaled on a church steeple a time or two, she wouldn’t be so quick to break into bachelors’…umm…bears’ homes!

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Comments

Jan 11, 2012 9:32am
mommymommymommy
Vic, another home run of an article! I learn so much from you. I used to teach an entire unit on fairy tales to my third graders, but never the origins of them!
Jan 11, 2012 10:27pm
vicdillinger
Thanks.

Although perhaps little children don't need to know that Goldilocks was born of class warfare (and her first robbery vicitims were gay men) it still dosen't mean the more mature reader should not know these things (Rapunzel gets it next, and I'll be ending this series with her).
Jul 10, 2012 11:15am
yummy-treasures
I skimmed through this too...I will be back ok. But I just thought as I was reading you should do an article on ...what shall I call it..... the hidden pictures in pictures and cartoons..You must be already knowing about it right..Disney, skittles etc.

Lots of research has been done vic. Comment to be continued...........
Jul 10, 2012 11:23am
vicdillinger
Or, YOU could write the article about subliminal sexual imagery in Disney 'toons (I've seen "The Little Mermaid" artwork debacle). That would be a good piece for you to branch out with. C'mon -- it would be fun...
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Bibliography

  1. Richard Zacks An Underground Education. New York City, NY: Doubleday, 1997.
  2. Carl H. Grabo "Robert Southey." American Peoples Encyclopedia. 1963.
  3. Robert Southey, 1837 "The Story of the Three Bears (from Robert Southey's "The Doctor")." edsanders.com. 6/01/2012 <Web >
  4. "The Story of the Three Bears." en.wikipedia.org. 6/01/2012 <Web >
  5. "Robert Southey." en.wikipedia.org. 6/01/2012 <Web >

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