Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Even more than Seven, 3 represents completeness – the beginning, middle and end; past, present and future; or the three dimensions of space – though with 3 the implications of perfection are stronger, as exemplified by the Holy Trinity. The Greeks expressed many aspects of life in forms of 3, such as the Fates, the Graces and the Furies. In stories of Quests the treasures sought sometimes fall into a pattern of 3 for completeness, as in The Magic Three of Solatia (1974) by Jane Yolen. Children become acquainted with the completeness of 3 from its frequent use in Fairytales and nursery tales, like "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" (see Robert Southey), "The Three Billy-Goats Gruff" and "Three Blind Mice" (1609).

As in all Superstitions, there is an ambivalence about 3. We may say "third time lucky" – an expression that can be traced back to a reference in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (see Gawain) – but if things go wrong we also believe "accidents come in threes". In Fantasy and Supernatural Fiction the number often takes on this trickier or more sinister aspect, as in the Three Wishes motif. The approach of allowing two people or events to set the scene and the third to resolve is a frequent Plot Device, as with the three Christmas ghosts that visit Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (1843) – it is the third who is the most sinister. Similar images are created in the Ghost Stories "The Shadowy Third" (1916 Scribner's) by Ellen Glasgow (1874-1945), "The Third Time" (in Powers of Darkness coll 1934) by Kenneth Ingram and "Three Gentlemen in Black" (1938 WT) by August Derleth.

Fantasy's fascination with 3 is also exemplified by the proliferation of trilogies. [MA]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.