I worked at NATO for a while. There was a lot of sitting in big meetings hearing diplomats take turns to speak. The best speakers often began with the phrase “Thank you, Mr Chairman. I have just three points…”
You’ve got something to say - a joke, a speech, a story, it doesn’t matter. How do you keep people listening to you? Try putting it into a structure of three. “There was an Irishman, and Englishman and a Scotsman…” How many is that? Three. How many people passed the wounded man on the road to Jericho? Three, the third being the Good Samaritan. The oldest fiction in the English language is Beowulf. It’s a story in three parts, of a man who fights three monsters, and the third causes his death. (Did anyone see the film? Not a bad effort, I thought). Our minds like things that come in threes. The first time we just see what happens. The second time we recognise it. The third time we are ready for the twist or the punch - whatever it is that’s coming. Three has a power. For the storyteller, it’s like a force of gravity. It bends things into a new path.
I was not planning a third book in The Cup of the World series. I could almost hear the yawns. Another fantasy trilogy? Who was going to take that seriously these days? The Widow and the King had a good, solid ending, and I thought of leaving it there. I also thought at one stage of breaking The Fatal Child into two, to make four books, just so there wouldn’t be three. But the power of three is very strong. Right from the start I had given myself - yes - three monsters. They were Phaedra’s husband Ulfin, his mentor the prince Paigan and the goddess Beyah. (This in itself is a good illustration of how the power of three works: I actually had at least ten monsters, the other seven being the brothers of prince Paigan. But what the mind sees is the pattern of three.) By the end of The Widow I had dealt with the husband and the prince. I had not yet dealt with the goddess.
She had begun as a moment of spontaneous invention during the first draft of The Cup. A world figure, weeping for a dead child. (Lots of resonances there - our guilt towards our parents, a sense of original sin, our fears about the way we are treating the Earth…) At that stage I just wanted her for the mood music, pointing implicitly to the danger that Phaedra and her own child faced. Then I decided that those divine tears must be the source of the magic. This conveniently joined up a couple of loose creative threads. But from that moment the goddess became one of Three - the three from whom the bitter magic of that world came. You don’t see her often - just twice, fleetingly, in the whole series. Yet the idea of her is immensely powerful. She underlies everything that happens. It was because of her that the third book was written.
Today my first copy of The Fatal Child has come through the post from my publishers. I have put it on the shelf beside The Cup of the World and The Widow and the King. There they are together, unashamedly three.