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The Moral of Goldilocks.

"There is general agreement that the original source of "Goldilocks" is an ancient Scottish tale of three bears which are intruded upon by a she fox. The bears devour the trespasser - a cautionary tale warning us to respect others property and privacy.

In a small homemade book written by Eleanor Muir in 1831 as a birthday gift for a little boy and discovered again only in 1951, she told the story with an angry old woman as the intruder. It is possible that in doing so she mistook the "vixen" of the original to mean not a female fox, but a shrewish woman.

Whether this alteration was a case of mistaken identity, a "Freudian" slip, or deliberate, it was the change which began the transition of an old cautionary tale into a fairy story.

In 1894 another probably quite old rendering of the story became known from the oral tradition, in which the intruder helps herself to milk, sits in the chairs, and rests in the beds of the bears, which, in this version, live in a castle in the woods.

In both these stories the intruder is most severely punished by the bears, which try to throw her into the fire, drown her, or drop her from a church steeple.

We do not know whether Robert Southey, who published the story for the first time in printed form in 1837 in his book The Doctor, was familiar with any of these older tales. But he made an important change, since for the first time the intruder jumped out of the window and her further fate remained unknown.

His story ends: "Out the little woman jumped; and whether she broke her neck in the fall; or ran into the wood and was lost there; or found her way out of the wood, and was taken up by the constable for a vagrant as she was, I cannot tell. But the Three Bears never saw anything more of her."

There was immediate positive response to this published version of the story.

The next alteration was made by Joseph Cundall, as he explains in a dedicatory note of 1849 to the Treasury of Pleasure Books for Young Children, which appeared in 1856: he made the intruder into a little girl and called her "Silver-Hair" ("Silver-Hair" or "Silver-Locks" became in 1889 "Golden-Hair" and finally, in 1904, "Goldilocks").

The tale attained great popularity only after two more important changes. In Mother Goose's Fairy Tales of 1878, "Great Huge Bear," "Middle Bear,"and "Little Small Wee Bear" became "Father Bear," "Mother Bear," and "Baby Bear"; and the heroine simply disappears out of the window -no longer is any bad ending for her anticipated or told about.

With this spelled-out designation of the bears as forming a family, the story unconsciously came to relate much more closely to the oedipal situation. While it is acceptable that a tragedy should project destructive results of oedipal conflicts, a fairy tale cannot.

The story could become popular only because the outcome was left to our imagination. The reason such uncertainty is acceptable is that the intruder is seen to interfere with the integration of the basic family constellation thus is threatening the family's emotional security.

From a stranger who invades privacy and takes property she changed into one who endangers the family's emotional well-being and security.

It is this psychological underpinning which explains the sudden great popularity of the story."

*Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment, Vintage Books Edition, April 1989, New York, Random House, Inc., pp 216-217. Paragraphed for web reading!


"When a story exists only in oral tradition, it is largely the teller's unconscious that determines what story he relates, and what of it he remembers. In doing so, he is motivated not only by his conscious and unconscious feelings for the story, but also by the nature of his emotional involvement with the child to whom he tells it.

In many such oral repetitions of a story, over many years, by various persons to different listeners, a version is finally reached which is so convincing to the conscious and unconscious of many people that no further change seems appropriate. With this, the story has attained its classic form."

*Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment, Vintage Books Edition, April 1989, New York, Random House, Inc., p 216. Paragraphed for web reading!


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