The Story of Robert Southey and the Three Bears


Edvard Munch, The Fairy-Tale Forest, 1927

by Samuel Jay Keyser

In 1837 Robert Southey (1774-1843), a British poet and a member of the so-called Lake District poets that included Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote a fairy tale entitled The Story of the Three Bears, a precursor to one of the most popular of children’s stories, Goldilocks and the Three Bears.[1] Like so many fairy tales, it has a long oral pre-history. Southey is credited with being the first to write it down. In his version, the protagonist is not a pretty little girl with golden locks, but an old woman, and not a very nice one, at that. Here is a taste (pun intended) from Southey’s The Story of the Three Bears:[2]

So first 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, that 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.

Over the course of the years the tale was modified in ways designed to make it more palatable (pun still intended).  In 1850 Joseph Cundall, in his collection A Treasury of Pleasure Books for Young Children, transformed (with Southey’s approval) the old Woman into a pretty little girl called Silver-hair. The trio of bears remained bachelors. According to Tatar (2002) the three bears became a family around 1852 and Silver-hair became Goldilocks in Flora Annie Steele’s English Fairy Tales (1918). But for quite a long time beneath all those golden locks, Goldilocks retained the character of a nasty old woman.

The story turns out to be grist for a great many mills. Christopher Booker (2004) sees the story in terms of his theory of there being only seven basic plots in all of storyland. For him Goldilocks is an example of plot type No 1: Overcoming the Monster as in, for example, Beowulf, Jaws or Jack and the Beanstalk.

This latter categorisation surely cannot be right. If there is a monster in Goldilocks, it is Goldilocks herself and not the three bears.  After all, in Southey/Cundall et al, Goldilocks is described as not being well-brought up. She is an intruder, an uninvited guest. She is careless. She left the spoons in the bowl. She dislodged the pillow and the bolster and didn’t put them back. She was angry that Baby Bear’s chair bottom broke through. She wasn’t sorry. She was put out; i.e., “ill-tempered.” Other adjectives include – “impudent,” “rude,” “naughty” and “truant.” In other words, she is altogether a “bad girl.”

This picture is in marked contrast to the trio of bears, who are harmless, innocent, hospitable and good-natured. They live in a snug little cottage in the middle of a forest, comfortably, good-naturedly, innocently. There is no hint at all that they are monsters. The worst Southey could muster was, “for they were good Bears—a little rough or so, as the manner of Bears is.” Goldilocks, on the other hand, is an out and out villain.  Not to put too fine a point on it, she is a burglar.  She breaks into a home; she steals food; she destroys property. In Goldilocks typical roles are reversed.  A little girl with golden hair is normally expected to be made of sugar and spice and everything nice. Bears, on the other hand, belong in the class of wild animals up to no good. The wolves in “Little Red Riding Hood” or “The Three Little Pigs” are true to character.  Not so the bears in Southey/Cundall.

Here is Booker’s Goldilocks:

Similarly, little Goldilocks ventures out from home into the forbidden world of the great forest, where she eventually comes to the mysterious house belonging to the three bears. Again the initial excitement of exploring the empty house, with its steaming porridge bowls and inviting beds, gives way to a sense of growing menace as the bears return. As they begin to suspect her presence, the sense of threat comes nearer and nearer until finally they discover the little heroine asleep upstairs: at which moment Goldilocks wakes up, makes a ‘thrilling escape’ by jumping out of the window, and runs back to the safety of her mother and home. (p. 89)

This is a far cry from Southey/Cundall’s little girl who jumped out the window and either broke her neck, got lost in the forest or made her way home to be spanked by her parents, leaving it to the reader’s vengefulness to select one.

Booker has succumbed to the reinventing of Goldilocks along with other modern versions that have bent over backwards to rewrite history.  In one YouTube cartoon,[3] she is a charming, if mischievous, little girl who goes into the forest against her mother’s wishes. She gets lost, stumbles upon the bears’ cabin and makes herself at home. When the bears return and find her sleeping in Baby Bear’s bed, they awaken her.  She runs out the front door and into the forest, still lost. But her parents have come looking for her. She runs to them and after hugs all around, she promises never to disobey her mother again.  That is the tale at its most anodyne.

Bruno Bettelheim is much less satisfied. He sees Goldilocks as a cautionary tale modified over time into an unsatisfactory fairy tale-like story, one about a child’s struggle to overcome Oedipal issues. In the Uses of Enchantment (1976, 224) he concludes his discussion of Goldilocks this way:

This is the solution with which we are left in “Goldilocks.” The bears seemed unmoved by her appearance in and sudden disappearance from their lives. They act as if nothing had happened but an interlude without consequences; all is solved by her jumping out of the window. As far as Goldilocks is concerned, her running away suggests that no solution of the oedipal predicaments or of sibling rivalry is necessary. Contrary to what happens in traditional fairy tales, the impression is that Goldilocks’ experience in the bears‘ house made as little change in her life as it did in that of the bear family; we hear nothing more about it. Despite her serious exploration of where she fits in—by implication, of who she is—we are not told that it leads to any higher selfhood for Goldilocks

I think Bettelheim is right to think of Goldilocks as having first been a cautionary tale. Consciously or otherwise, Cundall transmogrified the story into an English version of the German Struwwelpeter stories by Henrich Hoffman (1844), published six years before Cundall’s 1850 version of the Southey tale. Even the name is redolent of hair. In German Struwwelpeter means something like ”Shock-headed Peter” or “Shaggy-haired Peter.” Each of the rhyming stories in Hoffman’s book is a riff on Silver-hair (a.k.a. Goldilocks), or more likely vice versa. Unlike Goldilocks, however, there is no wishy-washy-ness in the Hoffman tales. A naughty child behaves badly and is in no uncertain terms punished.

Here is an English translation of The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb:

One day Mamma said “Conrad dear,
I must go out and leave you here.
But mind now, Conrad, what I say,
Don’t suck your thumb while I’m away.
The great tall tailor always comes
To little boys who suck their thumbs;
And ere they dream what he’s about,
He takes his great sharp scissors out,
And cuts their thumbs clean off—and then,
You know, they never grow again.”
Mamma had scarcely turned her back,
The thumb was in, Alack! Alack!

The door flew open, in he ran,
Th yeahe great, long, red-legged scissor-man.
Oh! children, see! the tailor’s come
And caught out little Suck-a-Thumb.
Snip! Snap! Snip! the scissors go;
And Conrad cries out “Oh! Oh! Oh!”
Snip! Snap! Snip! They go so fast,
That both his thumbs are off at last.

Mamma comes home: there Conrad stands,
And looks quite sad, and shows his hands;
“Ah!” said Mamma, “I knew he’d come
To naughty little Suck-a-Thumb.”

Bettelheim’s unhappiness with Goldilocks and her bears borders on irritation. John Updike (1976), in a review of Bettelheim, (1796) captures the dissatisfaction:

Bettelheim discusses, in a rather grumpy tone, one fairy story which refuses to fit his pattern: “at its end there is neither recovery nor consolation; there is no resolution of conflict, and thus no happy ending.” Yet the story’s popularity, rising through the 19th century, forces it upon his attention.

Updike prompts an interesting question. Why should a flawed fairy tale be so popular? Even Bettelheim (1976, 224) felt compelled to offer an explanation for the anomaly:

Even more important in this respect is the story’s greatest appeal, which at the same time is its greatest weakness. Not only in modern times, but all through the ages, running away from a problem—which in the unconscious means denying or repressing it—seems the easiest way out when confronted with what seems to be too difficult or unsolvable a predicament.

Bettelheim is saying that “Not only in modern times, but all through the ages,” the originators of the tale, be they the oral author(s) or Southey and his literary descendants, were catering to the tendency to take the easy way out. This is special pleading.  If this were true, then one would expect to find similar plain vanilla endings in other tales. But one doesn’t. Certainly, in Bettelheim’s own collection it is sui generis. As Updike implies, Bettelheim is forced to pay attention to it because of its popularity despite its singularity of form.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham in Flora Annie Steel’s English Fairy Tales (1918)

I would like to offer an explanation for the popularity of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, one that leaves oedipal predicaments at the door. In her book, On Repeat (2013) Elizabeth Margulis describes a remarkable experiment. She introduced repetition into music where it never was. Starting with music by the atonal masters Luciano Berio and Elliott Carter, she copied a segment from early in a piece and pasted it later on, sometimes immediately after, sometimes several segments away. Then on separate occasions, she asked ordinary music listeners and PhDs in music theory to tell her which version they liked best. They preferred the doctored version. The results stunned her because, as she said, “the original versions were crafted by internationally renowned composers and the (preferred) repeated versions were created by brute stimulus manipulation without regard to artistic quality. Margulis drew an inescapable conclusion:

The simple introduction of repetition, independent of musical aims or principles, elevated people’s enjoyment, interest, and judgments of artistry. This suggests that repetition is a powerful and often underacknowledged aesthetic operative.

And here, I think, lies the secret of Goldilocks’ success. Booker (2004, 229-30) observes “Few childhood tales are built more conspicuously round the number three than Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” Although he focuses on the central porridge/chair/bed trio, Goldilocks is chock-full of threes; that is, of repetitions. Outside the cottage she looks in at the window, peeps in through the keyhole and lifts the latch.[4]  This threesome is balanced in the original Southey version by the choice of three possible endings: “Out the little old 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 and sent to the House of Correction for a vagrant as she was, I cannot tell.”[5] And then, of course, there are the three bears themselves,  bachelors in Southey/Cundall and a family two years after Cundall.

Once inside the cottage, Goldilocks embarks upon three separate forays, the first with porridge, the second with chairs, the third with beds. Here is the heart of the attraction of Goldilocks. There is something special about these forays. They are all same/except repetitions.

I first encountered the same/except relationship in Culicover and Jackendoff (2012) where they discuss same/except constructions in English (This vase is the same as that one except it is blue.  This vase is identical to that one, except it is red. The vase looks just like that one, only it’s a bit smaller., etc.). In the course of their illuminating discussion they cite William James’ Principles of Psychology, who pointed out that the ability to detect repetition necessarily entails the ability to detect difference. They conclude (reasonably) that detecting same/except relationships is a part of the general domain of cognitive functions. It is a natural extension of Margulis (2013) to propose that detecting same/except relationships turns out to be a source of aesthetic pleasure.[6]

The same/except relationship goes further than that. Within each episode there are three objects; three bowls, three chairs, and three beds.  Each object shares a special relationship with its siblings. The big bear’s bowl is the same as the other bowls except it is bigger. The middle bear’s bowl is the same as the others except it is bigger than one and smaller than the other. The little bear’s bowl is the same as the others except it is smaller than both. Thus, the same/except relationship is true not only of the episodes but of the things they are about. It is recursive, a form of repetition.

This same/except relationship abounds elsewhere in literature. For example, it is precisely what rhyme is in riming poetry. Think of the rhymes in The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb. Thumb and come rhyme because they are the same [-ome] except that one starts with the sound [th] and one starts with the sound [k]. That’s the trick. Rhyme is repetition constrained by the same/except relationship. There seems to be something special about repetition. For repetition to be aesthetically pleasing, it can’t be exact. Rhyming come with come just doesn’t work.

Consider these two couplets:

Monty Woolley was such a ham
That all he ever ate was ham.


Monty Woolley was such a ham
That all he ever ate was spam.

You choose.

One might speculate that the pleasure comes in locating the boundaries between similar elements.

So, the argument goes like this:

1. Repetition is aesthetically pleasing. But not just any repetition. Its elements have to be of the same/except variety, like rhyme in poetry.

2. Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ is made up of a hitherto unrecognized form of same/except rhyme where the rhymes are not made from the sounds of words but from the properties of objects as well as the structure of events.

That is why Goldilocks is such a poor story and yet such a popular one.  Like Dr. Seuss, its rhymes are clever.[7]

About the Author

Samuel Jay Keyser is Peter de Flores emeritus professor of linguistics at MIT. His most recent books include The Mental Life of Modernism, MIT Press, 2020 and Turning Turtle:  Memoir of a Man Who Would ‘Never Walk Again,’ 2020. The latter is gratis at He is editor in chief of Linguistic Inquiry, an MIT Press journal and its sister monograph series. He is a jazz trombonist with The Dixie Sticklers, a Dixieland band and with the avant-garde jazz orchestra, Aardvark, the oldest continuing jazz ensemble in the United States. Keyser’s The Pond God and Other Stories won the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award in 2004.


[1] I am indebted to Fred Lerdahl for awakening my interest in Goldilocks and Ray Jackendoff for many, many enlightening conversations that helped to shape what follows.

[2] The full version complete with illustrations can be found here:


[4] Bettelheim (op.cit.) makes this observation.

[5] The Cundall version destroys this symmetry: “Out little Silver-hair jumped; and away she ran into the wood, and the Three Bears never saw anything more of her.”

[6]  Although the Margulis experiment establishes the reality of aesthetic pleasure attached to repetition, it does not shed light on why this should be so. That is something for the neuroscientists to conjure.

[7] I argue elsewhere that repetition of the same/except variety is found in poetry, in painting and in music as well as Goldilocks and the Three Bears.


Bettelheim, Bruno. 1976. The Uses of Enchantment, Penquin Books, Thames and Hudson publishers, London.

Culicover, Peter W. and Ray Jackendoff. 2012. “Same-except: A domain-general cognitive relation and how language expresses it,”Language, Volume 88, Number 2, June 2012, pp. 305-340.

Cundall, Joseph. 1850. A Treasury of Pleasure Books for Young Children, Joseph Cundall, Old Bond Street, London.

Booker, Christopher. 2004. The Seven Basic Plots Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Margulis, Elizabeth Hellmuth. 2013. On Repeat. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Southey, Robert. 1848. The Doctor, &c. Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, London.

Tatar, Maria. 2002. The Annotated Classic Fairy TalesW.W. Norton & Company, New York.

Updike, John. 1976. Review of Bettelheims The Uses of Enchantment in the New York Times, May 23, 1976.


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