My Three Sons and the Mystic Power of 3


Three Musketeers and D'Artagnan, 3+1, by Norman Price

The Three Musketeers, illus. by N. Price and E. C. Van Swearingen

Yesterday I was talking to my wife about our children—who, at 27 and 25, I admit are no longer children.  Being the proud parents that we are, we were noting with wonder how they are identifying their gifts, building upon their strengths, and developing into fully self-actualized human beings.  As we talked, however, we didn’t limit ourselves to Darien and Toby.  We included Betsy, my daughter-in-law.

The way we were going on, it was as though we had three children and that Darien, Toby and Betsy had always been a three-some.  For me, this suddenly took on profound significance.

That’s because we once had three children, three sons.  I have written a number of times about the death of my oldest son Justin, in a drowning accident, at 21.  You can read about the account here. Today I want to talk about how magical the number three seemed then, how difficult is has been to think in terms of two, and how amazing it has been to be thinking in terms of three again.

There is something archetypal about having three sons.  Many of the great fairy tales have three sons, of course: “The Three Feathers,” “Puss ‘n Boots,” “The Three Sons of Fortune.” Then there are the three brothers in John Ruskin’s King of the Golden River, the three Karamazov brothers, the three musketeers, the three harpoonists and the three mates in Moby Dick.

Fairy tales feature the number three in other ways than three sons and three daughters: three wishes, three tasks to be performed, three different outfits to be worn, three nights to be negotiated.  Literary theorist Peter Brook says that three is common in oral tales because it is economical, the lowest number you can have that hints at a sequence.  (One, of course, stands alone and two points to balance.)  Whatever the reason, I grew up reading fairy tales about three sons and, from 4-9, before Sam showed up, I was one of three sons, just as my father had been.  So when I found myself the father of three sons in turn, it felt momentous.  I sensed as though we were in an adventure tale and would experience magical worlds. I saw myself descended from, a part of (for five years), and then progenitor of a mystical triad.   The alliteration seemed to capture its power: the Bates Boys.

For psychologist Carl Jung, four rather than three is the mystic number, being the number associated with the mandala, the image of wholeness and psychic health.  And yet, when he talks about literature, Jung notes how four is always getting broken down into 3+1: the three musketeers and D’Artagnan, the three mates and Captain Ahab, the three harpoonists and Ishmael, the three Brothers Karamazov and their father, the three daughters and Lear, the three Reed children and Jane Eyre, Benjy and his three siblings in Sound and the Fury.   Adventures occur when the number is odd and unsettled.  A stable four means either peaceful stasis or stagnation.

For years after Justin died, even after the sharp grieving had subsided, I could not give up this idea of three.  It was not just because I refused to accept his death, although that was a large part of it.  It was also because the idea of having just two sons seemed cosmically wrong.  When people asked me how many children I had, I had to wrestle with how to respond.  I wanted to say three, but that would invariably lead to my revealing that one of them was dead, which did not always seem appropriate for casual conversation.  

Yet I couldn’t bring myself to say two.  That would mean that Darien was my first son, not my second, but he has that wonderful dissatisfied striving about him that is so characteristic of second sons.  (First sons, by contrast, claim primacy as an entitlement, don’t feel the need to prove themselves, and can’t understand why brother #2 is so bent out of shape–I speak as a first son.)  It would mean that Toby was my second son, even though he fits the classic third son mold.   As a child he opted out of the competition engaged in by his overachieving older brothers and then, like the third son in fairy tales, revealed unsuspected depths and achieved unexpected success.  Sometimes I just didn’t say how many children, letting my descriptions of Darien and Toby answer the question by itself.

After about five years I was finally able to force myself to say I had two sons.  But I had to distinguish them as “the older” and “the younger” and could never say first and second.  And even then my words dug at me as I felt Justin looking over my shoulder.

During our family vacation last week, however, suddenly I felt as though I was the father of three again.  Three years ago Darien, Betsy, and Toby lived together for a time in Baltimore and are thoroughly comfortable with each other.  In our living quarters, two were always pairing off to playfully spar with each other, only the two were continually changing: sometimes brothers, sometimes husband and wife, sometimes brother and sister-in-law.  I did not forget Justin as I watched them, but his absence no longer threw a shadow over my happiness.  Instead, I reveled in the way the triad pulsated with life while I imagined the fourth, a part but apart, looking on.  The fact that Betsy entered the reunion so thoroughly, getting everyone’s names right and claiming the clan as her own, helped keep my illusion alive.

I know Betsy has parents who have a greater claim to her than I have, and I am not trying to usurp them.  I am just saying that I experienced a sense of peace and a joy of completeness that I have not felt in nine years.   It was 3+1, all for one and one for all.  My joy was as intense as it was unexpected.

Sometime in the future I imagine Toby will partner up and then there will be a new number to deal with, with its own dynamics.  And maybe there will be grandchildren.  Those numbers will be special too.

Additional note: The illustration that I use above has special meaning for me.  It is from the illustrated junior library edition of The Three Musketeers that I had as a boy, the collaborative work of Norman Price and E. C. Van Swearingen (who continued the work after Price died).  I loved that book and remember  thinking that the three oldest Bates boys were the three musketeers: I was the oldest, the ringleader, and therefore Athos.  Jonathan, the tallest, strongest, and most passionate, was Porthos, and David, the cerebral one, was Aramis.  Then along came Sam, five and a half years after David, so he had to be D’Artagnan (even though he didn’t have D’Artagnan’s fiery temperament), the youngest who must work his way into the mix.

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  1. By Big Sis, Baby Bro on August 17, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    […] I’ve written about how, in my own life, there was something very special about having three boys—another archetypal configuration—and how, in addition to the agony of losing my oldest, there also seems to be something archetypically wrong with having only two sons.  That’s how my mother must feel about Rob.  “He was supposed to come to my funeral,” she says. […]


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