Three Bears

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When Robert Southey included ‘The Story of the Three Bears’ in his miscellany entitled The Doctor (1837, iv. 327), readers took it for granted that he had invented it himself, even though his narrator claims to have learnt it from an uncle. He tells how a bad-tempered, dirty, thieving old woman gets into the bear's cottage, eats the little bear's porridge, and sleeps in his bed; when discovered, she jumps out of a window and is seen no more, having perhaps broken her neck, or got lost in the woods, or been arrested as a vagrant. The story is delightfully told, with repeated phrases, and imitation of the bear's different voices, and Southey's telling ensured its popularity.

But had he invented it? As early as 1849, Joseph Cundall, retelling it in his Treasury of Pleasure Books for Young Children, said it was ‘a very old Nursery Tale’, better known as ‘Silver-Hair’, because the intruder was a little girl of that name. For the rest of the century the story was told that way, with the nice little heroine called Silver-Hair or Silverlocks; then, in an anonymous collection of Old Nursery Stories and Rhymes c.1904, she was renamed Goldilocks, and this is now standard. Meanwhile, Joseph Jacobs, who had originally regarded the tale as Southey's invention, had come round to agreeing that this was a genuine folktale, since a variant had come to light in which the intruder is neither an old woman nor a child, but a fox called Scrapefoot; there are also partial foreign parallels such as Snow White's arrival at the dwarf's cottage. Final proof came in 1951, with the discovery of a version written down and illustrated by hand in 1831, as a birthday present for a little boy. This predates Southey; like him, it has an old woman as the villain (Opie and Opie, 1974: 199–205).

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