Please note that this post contains spoilers for the latest Neil Gaiman novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. If you haven’t read this book yet (why not?) but are intending to and don’t want to see any spoilers, click here for a safe version of this blog post!
One of the things I noticed when I was writing for the #ATaleofDiceandFire challenge was how prevalent the use of the number three is in stories. As a plot device, a metaphor, it even crops up in characterisation. And it’s not only in my stories either. So, I thought I’d take a look at some of the ways that the number three is significant in fiction…
A Fairytale Device
The number three is often significant in fairytales and nursery rhymes. There’s The Three Little Pigs for starters (and mains and dessert if you’re a particularly greedy wolf!) The evil queen in Snow White tries three times to kill the little girl before finally succeeding in poisoning her. In Goldilocks we see three times three as Goldilocks tries three times to find something to her liking, on three separate occasions.
One, two, three, many
It has been suggested that in ages past (we’re talking prehistoric here, I’d guess) humans did not have the linguistic capability to express quantities higher than three. Culturally, this habit still continues in some hunter gatherer societies according to this USA Today article. Working with this theory, we could guess that three represents a number large enough to be a group (ie not just an isolated case) but not so large as to be uncountable.
Balance between extremes
Using the number three allows the storyteller to indicate the middle ground; the balance between extremes. Think of the porridge in Goldilocks – too hot, too cold and just right. The numbers can also be used to reinforce ideas of normality; in One Eyes, Two Eyes, Three Eyes, the middle child is the ‘nice, normal’ one who is destined for better things. The theme of balance and moderation isn’t only found in fairytales, though. Buddhism is also based around taking the central path between suffering and indulgence, and even the Labour Party in the UK built its successful 1997 campaign around a concept of the ‘Third Way’ – a middle ground between socialism and all-out capitalism.
This particular type of three goes wider than stories just for entertainment. The use of trinities – different characters or faces to embody a central being or idea – runs through religion and folklore as well as fiction. In Christianity, there’s the father, son and holy ghost – all elements of the overarching divinity. In Hinduism, three of the main deities, Brahma (birth), Vishnu (life) and Shiva (death) are representations of Brahman, the overall power. Moving back into Europe, you have the Fates of Greece, the Norns of Viking mythology who have power over the past, present and future.
Then there’s the common literary trope of maiden, mother, crone. Eagle-eyed Game of Thrones fans will recognise those names as the female figures in the Seven gods referred to in the books and most recently, the appearance of Lettie Hempstock, her mother and grandmother in Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, where each of the women has different powers in keeping with her apparent age and appearance. Lettie, the youngest, represents action, daring and physical bravery. Her mother, the power of home and hearth with restorative healing powers and as a haven to recover and prepare. As the eldest, Lettie’s grandmother plays the role of the crone – source of wisdom, the distance from action to plan and perceive events as they unfold and to weave them to her advantage. However, like Shiva and the crone, Lettie’s grandmother’s distance from everyday life gives her an element of cold calculation and a ruthlessness that allows her to destroy her foes if necessary.
Finally, there’s the important point that things that come in threes follow a kind of natural rhythym that sounds good – especially for stories that are designed to be spoken aloud. Look at the haiku – a short poem of three lines. The structure of stories themselves – beginnings, middles and ends. Or listen to some of the most famous speeches made by politicians, reformers and writers all over the world (bolding emphasis mine).
In 1852, Frederick Douglass decried slavery America in a speech entitled The Hypocrisy of American Slavery: “America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in 1853 outlined a new vision for America: “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Hilary Clinton explained why women’s rights are central to nations’ success in a UN Speech in China in 1995 called Womens Rights are Human Rights: “What we are learning around the world is that if women are healthy and educated, their families will flourish. If women are free from violence, their families will flourish. If women have a chance to work and earn as full and equal partners in society, their families will flourish.”
Why am I quoting speeches from real life instead of stories? Because the best speechmakers are those that shape reality into a story structure! But that’s a tale for another time…
Have you spotted other ways that the number three is significant in storytelling? Leave a comment below!