In doing research for this article, I came across different views on the moral lessons in the fairytale Goldilocks and the Three Bears. They range from protecting privacy, intrusion, entitlement, individual actions hurting others, selfishness, not wandering around alone and more. But there’s a greater lesson to be learned here – what was so wrong with the original story that people have felt the need to change it?
This fairytale has a long history and was originally published anonymously by English poet Robert Southey in 1837 – although its origins as an oral story pre-date his involvement. Robert Southey titled his work The Story of the Three Bears and interestingly, it is quite different to the tale many of us know today.
In Southey’s tale, Goldilocks is an ugly old woman and the bears are three male human like bears. The bears are referred to as a little, small, wee bear, a middle sized bear and a great, huge bear. They live in a cottage in the woods, eating porridge everyday after having a walk outside whilst they wait for it to cool down.
We all know how the next parts of the story go. First the old ugly woman (aka Goldilocks) breaks into the house and tests each of the bears’ porridge and eats the one that’s just right, tries their armchairs and breaks it then sleeps on their beds. Southey’s version didn’t explain why the old ugly woman entered the house, however the evolution of this version by others has suggested she entered because the house was messy and needed tidying.
The life lessons the story suggests to us are all valuable and reflect societal expectations at the time. Yes our individual actions can hurt others. Yes we shouldn’t be too selfish. Yes we must be respectful of other people’s privacy. No we must not take things that don’t belong to us. No we must not go through life with a sense of being entitled to things. The lessons go on.
However, the real lesson to focus on here is imposing our beliefs and values on others. Authors over time have chosen to change the story so much that it no longer truly reflects Southey’s tale. Each time it changed, another belief and value is written into the story.
Gender stereotypes have been imposed on the bears – they’re no longer all male and a father, mother and baby have been introduced instead. It was a fairytale, an untrue, impossible story; so why was it necessary to change who the bears are? Would it have been so disastrous if the bears all remained male and their only defining feature was their size?
This did occur in another author’s version of the story. The bears remained male, however were described in the story as siblings. Societal values at the time must have been shocked by Southey’s tale and lack of description of the bears’ relationship, hence this author needing to establish the family relationship to explain why three male bears would live together.
The bears were also friendly and didn’t harm the old woman. But we all know bears are vicious, angry and will harm anyone who gets in their way. At least that’s how other authors wanted us to perceive the bears.
Let’s look at the evolution of ugly old woman to beautiful young girl with golden hair. As the story has aged, the old woman has become younger – why? Perhaps an old woman walking through the woods who’s just looking for a meal and a rest isn’t anywhere near as appealing as an obnoxious young, blonde haired girl who breaks into a cottage, eats her way through porridge before needing a nanna nap to sleep off her full stomach and then be chased home.
Stories also tell of Goldilocks entering the home to clean up after the messy bears, introducing another gender stereotype. We can also look at this as imposing a personal value of a clean house onto others. So what if the bears lived in a house that didn’t meet someone else’s standard for cleanliness?
Coming back to the main life lesson…imposing our beliefs and values on others. Every time the tale of Goldilocks is told to a child (or adult!), it now imposes societal beliefs and values woven into versions of the story. The original tale is perfect in today’s society where equality and homelessness are issues surrounding us. The versions of stories we choose to tell are a subtle way of us imposing our beliefs and values on others. Reflecting on how we tell this fairytale, and indeed how we interact with other people, is something we all should do.