The Tale of the Three Pigs

About the Story

Back to Contents

    In his book Bettelheim subtitled the section on this story "Pleasure Principle versus Reality Principle", which means, to use the Freudian terms, Id versus Ego. We think of pigs, in our culture, as greedy, gluttonous creatures, perfect representatives of a ravenous Id or of a child who has reached what Freud identified as the oral stage of development, the stage children have reached when they usually hear this story for the first time. But the wolf also represents an uninhibited Id, so the story contrasts someone who gains some control over his Id urges with someone who doesn't.

    In many myths and fairy tales the characters encounter animals that speak human languages. Animals, as totems, can readily represent inner urges; note our readiness to refer to people as pigs, rats, etc. Further, animals act in ways that would not be realistic for human characters. Indeed, Homo sapiens is the only animal that emulates other animals, because we are the only animal that appears not to have instincts, so other animals appear to us to possess a special wisdom.

    The story gives us an excellent example of a rite of passage. The deaths of the two younger pigs are not upsetting to the listener precisely because they are understood to represent earlier stages in the life of only one pig, stages that must be transcended through the drama of symbolic death and rebirth. In this the fairy tale doesn't teach us anything. The tale does its work by expressing the child's unconscious drives and does so by circumventing the censorship of the Ego. Thus the child's repressed needs can come forth for examination: the tale expresses a sentiment and invites the child to share it.

    Bettelheim said, "The fairy tale is the primer from which the child learns to read his mind in the language of images, the only language which permits understanding before intellectual maturity has been achieved. The child needs to be exposed to this language, and must learn to be responsive to it, if he is to become master of his soul."

    Overtly the story involves the pigs displaying in three stages a progressive control over the Pleasure Principle. Each pig displays in his actions (specifically, the building of a shelter) the level of control that he had achieved and then suffers the consequences. The youngest pig, with the least control, is captured easily. The capture of the second pig, who has shown a little more self-control, is a little more difficult for the wolf. The oldest pig, who has developed a suitable prudence, is not captured at all. Indeed, because he has learned to think ahead and to control his urges through foresight, the oldest pig goes on to evade three traps that the wolf contrives in order to capture him.

    But in a rite of passage the overt content is merely a disguise, a cover under which the covert content operates. The process that Bettelheim called externalization is the foundation of the covert content. The child subconsciously projects his own feelings and urges upon the appropriate characters and judges them.

    Further in regard to the process of subconsciously identifying with the characters Bettelheim claimed that only a mentally sick child would identify with the wolf. But if identification is nothing more than the process of seeing our own feelings and urges in others and if the wolf manifests an unconstrained Id, then it is inevitable that the child will identify with the wolf as with the other characters. And just as the deaths of the two younger pigs marks the death of imprudence in the child, so the death of the wolf marks the death of the unconstrained Id. It's true that overtly the child will be disinclined to "try on" the wolf role: in the overt story the child learns that prudence and forethought can help him to protect himself from powers stronger and more ferocious than he is. But covertly the characters are all representatives of the feelings the child knows best - his own. The unconstrained Id destroyed the imprudent younger pigs, but is itself destroyed by the pig that has learned to control his desires.

    But it is not the Id itself that is destroyed, only the unconstrained aspect of the child's growing Id. The pig is also a character upon which the child can project his Id, his personal desires. The difference between the pig and the wolf is important to the story. The wolf has no self-control and is defeated. The pig develops self-control and is able to satisfy his desires without suffering a dire fate. Many modern tellings of the story leave out the pig's excursions to the turnip patch, the orchard, and the fair. Those excursions are important reassurances that the development of self-control does not necessitate the complete suppression of the Id.

    That feature of this story puts extra events between the wolf's failure to blow down the brick house and his falling down the chimney. When I first heard the story, so many years ago, I didn't hear of the more subtle challenges the wolf brought before the eldest pig after failing to blow down his house. But those challenges, in which the wolf, having abandoned his blatant physical attack on the pig in his house, attempts to lure the pig out into the open, may actually give us the best part of the story.

    In the first part of the story the wolf comes out of nowhere, just as one= s urges seem to do, and acts only to satisfy the demands of his Id. Only the pig who had the foresight to plan ahead survives the onslaught. But brick walls do not suffice to keep the pig safe. In the second part of the story the wolf resorts to flattery to seduce the pig into coming outside the protective wall. Again the pig thinks ahead and keeps himself safe from the wolf's traps. And on one of those forays into the outer world at the wolf's behest, he acquires the means of his eventual salvation, the iron cooking pot. In this second part of the story the pig does not confront an obvious danger, but must discern the danger in the trap that the wolf lays for him.

    Of course a child does not understand things like Id and Ego or Pleasure Principle and Reality Principle. The dream imagery of the fairy tale simply implants within the child's deep memory the idea that the wolf and the two younger pigs got destroyed because they did not think ahead and control their impulses, while the oldest pig prevailed, even throve, because he planned ahead and acted on those plans instead of on impulses.

    Bettelheim contrasts this story with the fable "The Grasshopper and the Ant", a simplistic and depressing morality play. In so doing he contrasts preachiness and sanctimonious smugness to compassion. We see the difference between teaching the virtue of prudence by lecturing the child and by leading the child on a journey of discovery. Note that the pigs are not individuated aside from an implied age difference; the child understands subconsciously that they are different aspects of the same person, largely, Bettelheim says, because they respond to the wolf's demand in exactly the same way.


The Grasshopper and the Ant

    One cold, clear day in the middle of winter a grasshopper came upon some ants who were dragging grains of food out of their nest to dry in the sun. The grasshopper was very hungry, so he asked one of the ants if he could have some of the food to eat.

    "Why are you coming to us for food?" the ant asked. "We spent all summer gathering this grain. What were you doing?"

    "Oh, the summer was so beautiful," the grasshopper said, "that I devoted all of my time to singing."

    "There you have your answer," the ant said. "You spent all summer singing, so you may spend all winter dancing."

MORAL: You can't play all of the time.


    The ant's reference to dancing all winter is a clever way of telling the grasshopper that he will be left to shiver in the cold. In more modern terms, the ant is saying, "I've got mine, Jack. To Hell with you." The fable has the structure of a myth in the psychodynamic sense that it represents an overbearing Superego (represented in the ant) condemning an underdeveloped Ego and its associated Id (the grasshopper) to a tragic fate. For a child still struggling to develop an Id and Ego that can work together in harmony this is a seriously discouraging tale. Contrast it with the tale of the three pigs, which leads the child to develop the virtue of prudence in a step-by-step procedure that does not offend the child's innate sense of fairness (justice).

    Bettelheim points out that the main difference between the two stories lies in the fact that one violates the child's innate sense of fairness and the other doesn't. The fable asks the child to identify with the grasshopper, who must die at the end of the story though he did nothing bad. The fairy tale, on the other hand, invites the child to identify with the third pig, who exacts justice on the wolf for what the wolf had done to his brothers. The fairy tale makes the child feel good about identifying with the pig, making the pig a kind of imaginary friend. The fable also induces the child into accepting the happy-go-lucky grasshopper as an imaginary friend, but then does something horrible to him. The fable tries to get the child to understand what the grasshopper should have done, while the fairy tale shows the child what the pig actually did. One of the first rules we learn in any class on effective writing tells us to "show, don't tell" . The fairy tale follows that rule, while the fable doesn't.

    The real sin of the fable lies in the fact that it asks us to accept the values of the ant, a creature remarkably lacking in compassion. One of the few instincts with which we humans are born is the ability to get inside each others' minds, though not through the medium of telepathy. We are obliged to use our imagination to see into other people's minds; rather, to see into what we imagine people's minds to be. And one of our strongest desires is the wish that others share our feelings. We have the capacity for empathy and we most often use it to demand that others use their empathic capacity on our behalf. Every child discovers quickly, if unconsciously, that they have this capacity and they quickly infer that others possess it as well. We may deny it, but those who deny that others have empathy are merely looking to excuse the non-exercise of their own.

    Bettelheim also noted that justice plays an important role in the story's appeal to a child. In the story the wolf gets what he deserves and the pig gets what he has earned (albeit in the child's understanding of the term "earned"). But justice is a Superego function, one that children embrace readily ("That's not fair!" is a familiar cry heard on playgrounds the world over). So the outcome of the fairy tale also, happily, conforms to the requirements of the child's Superego, making it even more effective as a means of growing a well-integrated personality.

    Bettelheim referred to "integrating the personality", a term that seems hard for the layperson to understand. What does it mean? In one sense it means learning to respond to inner processes other than the urges of the Id. Instead of shoving its urges into action immediately, the Id pauses to conduct a conversation with the Ego and the Superego and to modify its urges according to what those other parts of the tripartite subconscious bring to the conversation. But before any such conversation can take place the participants must exist and have something to say. The story of the clever little pig grows the Ego, the repository of the Reality Principle, and gives it something to say, a set of examples that, through analogy, can put a brake on the too-hasty action of the Id.

    This story has one other feature that the reader may notice. Aside from involving animals that talk and act like people, it contains no magic. It had no pumpkins turning into coaches, no frogs turning into princes, no enchanted castles holding their inhabitants in deathless slumber. So how can we call it a fairy tale?

    In the section following his analysis of "The Three Little Pigs" Bettelheim wrote of "The Child's Need For Magic" and noted that up to the age of puberty children view the world in the most natural way possible - animistically. Like Thales of Miletus, every child believes that "everything is full of gods". What we normally think of as magic - the strange transformations, bizarre abilities, and the like - are not so much necessary to the fairy tale as they are simply natural outgrowths of that childish animism, which we may conceive as a conversation between a person and things that act (i.e. the environment). It only comes into play when it makes sense in light of the child's understanding of the True Nature of Reality. That, Bettelheim said, explains the appeal of fairy tales: they speak to the child, not in the cold rationalism of the adult world, but in the warm spirituality of the enchanted world, the world as the child naturally interprets it. By thus touching and endorsing the child's own worldview the fairy tale finds welcome acceptance in the child's mind where it can foster the growth of the child's personality.


Back to Contents