Meaning of 3 - Rule of Threes

by Tolovaj

Why is number three so important in life? Let's explore the rule of threes with examples from the classic fairy tales!

Number three has been an extremely important number since the beginning of civilization. It represents divinity, harmony, and perfection. Did you notice, how I used the so-called rule of three in the last sentence?

Number three is the lowest number to present a pattern or rhythm. It is used in conversations, learning, and literature as an effective way to communicate accents, data, and messages. It's not surprising to be called a fairy tale number but unlike seven, we can find the use of number three in all areas of life.

If you know how to use the rule of threes, your communication will definitely improve. Three is very often presented in fairy tales, one of my favorite subjects: we have three brothers, three bears, three pigs, three challenges, ... This article will present some of the most typical uses of the number three with 10 examples from classic fairy tales.


When something happens three times in a row, you have a pattern. You can predict what comes next and there is actually no need to see it because you already recognized the pattern.

1. The title character in Brave Little Tailor has to prove his worth to the king with three seemingly impossible tasks: he needs to kill the giants, a wild boar, and catch a unicorn. After completing all of them, he earns respect and marries a princess. By winning every single time he clearly shows he is competent and deserves to become the future king.

Brave Little Tailor by Anne Anderson
Brave Little Tailor by Anne Anderson

2. Snow White and Rose Red are very nice girls. At least the story claims that from the very beginning. Yet, we can't take this claim for granted, even after we learn they are willing to take a bear into their home throughout the winter. So we see them in three challenges. They save the life of a wicked dwarf three times.

The dwarf is ungrateful. Even more, he is threatening them. Still Snow White and Rose Red help him again and again. Their character is impeccable. They deserve to become future queens.

Snow White and Rose Red by Frances Brundage
Snow White and Rose Red by Frances Brundage

3. Brother and Sister is another fairy tale by the Grimm Brothers. They had a powerful enemy - a witch - and escaped to the woods. But the witch puts a spell on the water and drinking from a brook would change them into beasts. The sister is capable of resisting the thirst and she manages to stop her brother twice. The temptation is too strong for the third time and he changes into a fawn.

Later, the girl becomes a queen and is killed but can still visit her baby boy by night. Her time is limited, though. The king should wake up within the last three nights to save her and punish the evil witch. Of course, he succeeds just in time - the third night.

Brother and Sister by Paul Hey
Brother and Sister by Paul Hey


Three is the lowest number where you can establish supremacy. There is one character (as the protagonist) and two enemies (antagonists). The math is simple. Two are superior to one.

4. Cinderella has all kinds of troubles but since the appearance of two stepsisters, she is obviously in an inferior position. She is alone and she is facing two adversaries. Of course, the stepsisters are not her only opponents but the use of number three in this case is clear. One against two gives her very bad chances.

And by the way - she has to go to the ball three nights in a row!

Cinderella by Anne Anderson
Cinderella by Anne Anderson

5. Golden Bird is a classic example of a fairy tale with two incompetent, jealous, and ungrateful brothers who can't stay awake while guarding precious golden apples. They later become thieves and are condemned to death.

The youngest son saves them only to be robbed and killed by his own blood. This story has a happy ending but the message is again: two defeat one.

Golden Bird by Anne Anderson
Golden Bird by Anne Anderson

6. Beauty and the Beast is another example of two sisters who want to destroy the success of their sister Beauty. She is the only one willing to sacrifice for her father but when her luck changes and things start looking good for her, they try to delay her return to the magic castle until Beast dies.

Interesting note for nerds: in earlier versions, there were initially six brothers and six sisters (twelve is another fairy tale number) but from the dramatic point of view brothers were completely irrelevant and three sisters were enough to establish the imbalance: two sisters are not willing to meet the Beast but the Beauty is willing to go.

Beauty and the Beast by Andre Richard
Beauty and the Beast by Andre Richard


Escalation is one of the oldest tools in storytelling. We can find it in the grammar of all languages in the world: good, better, best is a simple but fine example. Adverb - Comparative - Superlative. Fairy tales sometimes use this in simplified form: action with failure, action with failure, action with success. In most cases, they are trying to show that initial failure should not dissuade you from trying again. Of course, the third try doesn't guarantee success, but it gives you a pattern of persistence.

The third time is a charm, right?

7. Snow White (and Seven Dwarfs) is a perfect example of the use of number three. I intend to make a special article just about that number in this popular fairy tale, but for now, let's look at one example only.

When Snow White establishes her temporary home at the seven dwarfs, her wicked stepmother comes to kill her. She is not successful at first. While Snow White is naive enough to be killed, dwarfs are still able to revive her. Next time the same thing happens again.

Snow White by Walter Zweigle
Snow White by Walter Zweigle

But for the third time evil queen succeeds. Snow White dies and dwarfs can only put her into a casket. In this case, the queen proves her competence. She is a mighty opponent and the dwarfs, despite their numerical advantage, can't protect the girl.

8. Wolf and Three Little Pigs made a list of examples for an escalation as well. In this case, each pig builds his home in his own way. The first one is completely careless. The second one is just a bit better. Each one of them is a case of immaturity. The first two pigs are obviously incapable of living on their own.

Three Little Pigs by Leslie Brooke
Three Little Pigs by Leslie Brooke

Only the third pig builds his house right.

When the wolf, the personification of any life trouble (and each life can be presented as a series of troubles) comes, he blows the first pig's house demonstrating the pig's inability to take care of himself. The wolf needs just a little bit more power to blow the second pig's house away.

The third pig's house can resist and its owner proves he is responsible enough to take care of himself. Maybe for somebody else too?

9. The escalation can go both ways which can be seen in the use of number three in Puss in Boots. In the beginning, we are informed about the inheritance of miller's sons. The first got a mill. A mill is a treasure. Even if you don't work as a miller, you can rent it and probably live from the rent. The second son gets a donkey. A donkey is a good tool but you need to work with it. Donkey won't work without you and you need to feed it. And eventually dies. So it's obviously worse than a mill.

The third son gets a cat. A cat is a kind of luxury. It can be useful if you have a mill, but the youngest boy doesn't get one. Just a cat, which can't be used even as a tool. A mill is good, a donkey is worse, a cat is worst.

The action of the story uses number three in another way: the boy gets a friend (a king), a home (a magician's castle), and eventually status (marrying a princess).

Puss in Boots by Paul Hey
Puss in Boots by Paul Hey


As you partly already noticed, number three can be used in different ways and even in the same story you can use it for repetition, escalation, and so on to make things more attractive to the audience.

Wishing Table by Paul Hey
Wishing Table by Paul Hey

10. The Wishing Table is a great example of a combination of different ways of applying the rule of threes. We can start with the number of the sons. There are three, of course. Each one of them has the same task. They have to take care of the goat.

Well, the goat tricks all of them and their father punishes each one of them the same way. This is repetition.

Each of the boys finds a job and gets a reward: a magical object. The first (wishing table) is great but the second (donkey coughing golden coins) is better. What about the third one (cudgel)? At first, it doesn't look so great because can't satisfy the needs of the owner like the first two. Escalation is not so obvious.

Only after the first two boys lose their treasures we learn how important can be a cudgel. It can protect the owner and his family (and property). So it is actually better than both magical objects of the older brothers. Escalation is here.

Even more - all three objects can work together for a good life of the whole family. In this case, number three demonstrates another meaning: perfection.

What is your favorite fairy tale number?
Updated: 09/22/2023, Tolovaj
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Tolovaj on 10/14/2023

Thanks, Veronica. As I said, the rule of threes s aplicable in many aeas. We had a professor of chemistry, who explained everythin in so-called triades. He could do differentlybut this kind of organizing data suied him best and we (students) adapted very well.

Tolovaj on 10/14/2023

I don't think the age is relevant in this case. But you are right about his time to 'catch up', of course.

Tolovaj on 10/14/2023

Universality is the key, yes.

Tolovaj on 10/14/2023

Yes, DerdriuMarriner, the girl later visits her baby and her husband has three chances to save her.

DerdriuMarriner on 10/13/2023

It's interesting that the mill initially looks like the best bet.

But might there not be a problem of upkeep? Might that not become as financially challenging and mentally and physically worrying as making sure that such sentients as cats and donkeys are fed and rested and sheltered?

DerdriuMarriner on 10/12/2023

Your 8th fairy-tale example of the number-three rule really makes it clear how much conscientious work matters.

It seems like that fairy tale might be particularly effective for those contemplating construction or self-help careers. The wolf tells us that there will be consequences when one prioritizes getting work done quickly as opposed to well, correct?

DerdriuMarriner on 10/12/2023

The number-3 rule intrigues me more and more as I progress through your 10 sample fairy tales.

Seeming defeats followed by ultimate happy victories make me ponder Christian influences in terms of the intermediate and the ultimate fates of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.

The two latter heroines meet with seeming death, which I mean no sacrilegiousness when I say almost Christ-like in rising from the dead and revealing forms not immediately recognizable with those of before.

For example, would not one say that Sleeping Beauty and Snow White were somewhat unrecognizable -- just as the risen Christ to disciples on the Emmaus road - in their princess attire?

DerdriuMarriner on 10/11/2023

The fifth, Golden Bird fairy tale involved golden apples.

This is a bit related, as dealing with apples, and a bit unrelated, as dealing with color symbolism in a number-symbolism article ;-D.

But might there be different color symbolisms for golden, green, red, yellow apples?

DerdriuMarriner on 10/09/2023

The computer is so crashable today that it's conflicting with my completing number-rule comments and questions in one fell swoop.

This is somewhat related as the title image and somewhat unrelated as Goldilocks lacks an entry among your 10 examples.

But the title image kindles quite a few questions.

For example, who might the artist be of such a detailed and yet simple image?

DerdriuMarriner on 10/09/2023

The computer is so crashable today even as I have so many title image-related comments and questions.

For example, how might one interpret the colors of the black bear with the white pattern around the neck? And might the golden brown color of the littlest bear convey the soul, as you mentioned elsewhere, or might it represent something else because of the brown contribution to its golden brownness?

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