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You're either the ruler of the land, or someone else whose job is to arbitrate between people. Either way, you have a problem. There is an object whose true ownership is under dispute. Alice says it is hers, and Bob says it is his.
This is usually a living thing, such as a baby. How do you figure out the true owner? Threaten to destroy the object (traditionally by cutting it in half and giving one half to each claimant, in the knowledge that half of it is no good to either of them).
In the end, Alice would rather see it given up to Bob than have it destroyed, and Bob is all too happy to receive it (or, alternatively, Alice is the first to object). Alice is the real owner, revealed by her compassion.
In straight examples, only one party will object
, because there is no middle ground between the rightful mother and a sociopath who would rather have half a dead baby than none of a live one.
In a common subversion, both claimants (quite rightly) object, leaving the would-be Solomon stumped.
A common variation in logic puzzles is to have both parties already agreeing to split something that is inherently difficult to split fairly, but not being able to agree on the exact method. The most common solution is to have one party decide how to divide the lot and the other party choose which portion to take
— this gives the splitter every incentive to divide it as fairly as they can manage.
Often subverted nowadays. Compare Disney Dog Fight
and Spot the Imposter
. Super Trope
of Solomon Divorce
, where divorcing parents split their children up so there's at least one for each. See also No MacGuffin, No Winner
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- Larry Gonick explained the symbolism of the story in his Cartoon History of the Universe, revealing it to be a political parable; Solomon (the false mother) was the illegitimate king, and Adonijah's family (the true mother) were the rightful rulers. Solomon was willing to divide Israel (the baby) with civil war unless Adonijah's family ceded their claim to the throne.
- Done in Lawrence of Arabia though the possession in dispute was Tribal Honor rather then a material one. An Arab warrior from one tribe murders one from another. For the murderer not to be executed would shame the wronged tribe; For the wronged tribe to execute the murderer would simply escalate the Cycle of Revenge. To fend off the dispute, Lawrence, to his distaste, personally carries out the execution because he has no local connections and therefore no one can take offense.
- Among the legendary stories of the wise Japanese judge Ooka Tadasuke is one where he must figure out the true mother of a baby. He asks each woman to grab an arm of the baby and tells them he is sure the real mother would find the strength to win a tug of war. Actually, much like Solomon, he figured the real mother would refuse to harm the child. Both women are too smart to fall for it, so he tries a variation: putting on a big show of looking into the future, he announces that the child will one day be handicapped and his aged mother will have to work to support him. This time the trick works — the false claimant objects that children are supposed to serve their parents, but the real mother doesn't care what she'll have to sacrifice for her son.
- King Solomon does this with a baby, making it Older Than Feudalism. Note, however, that the original tale can actually be seen as a parable, as Solomon was at war with one of his brothers at the time; the baby was Israel, the sword was war, Solomon was the false mother and his brother was represented by the real mother. The message was "If you don't want me to split the kingdom, give it up." It worked.
- King Pteppic makes this judgement with a cow in the Discworld novel Pyramids. However his ruling is "interpreted" by the overbearing High Priest Dios, who gives ownership of the cow to the more pious man, and adds that it should be sacrificed to the gods immediately.
- A variant in Lords and Ladies: To test who's the greater witch, Granny Weatherwax and her young rival both attempt to out-stare the sun. A child in the audience screams, and Granny immediately turns to check that he's okay. The challenger protests that she won the challenge, but the rest of the village agrees that a great witch is someone who'll set a child's welfare above some petty competition.
- Used in Leo Frankowski's Cross-Time Engineer series. Conrad Stargard, the titular engineer, becomes a feudal lord, and and is asked to arbitrate a dispute. A man and his neighbor each owned a pig, and one day, they only found one pig. They both claim it is theirs. Conrad agrees with both of them, and tells them the court cost from each of them is half a pig. They divide the pig between them, and later give Conrad the other pig when it is found.
- Played straight in Book V of The Faerie Queene, when Arthegall, Knight of Justice, arbitrates a dispute between a squire and a knight over a woman (who is apparently incapable of telling them herself). It turns out the knight kidnapped the woman (and killed his own girlfriend when she objected to his running off with her) and is subsequently sentenced to carry her severed head around for a year as punishment.
- In Queen Zixi Of Ix, two women come to King Bud, both claiming to own a single cow. At the suggestion of his sister, Bud lets each of them try milking the cow, and the one who successfully milks the cow is declared the owner. Subverted, however, when it is then revealed that it was the other woman's cow all along, who was simply bad at understanding cows.
- Done in an episode of Dinosaurs, in which the baby is cut in half and then put back together in a weird cross between this trope and Vegas-style stage magic.
- Used in an episode of Seinfeld, when Kramer is decided to be the true owner of a bicycle (as he didn't want to see it ruined) when Newman uses this logic to decide whether the true owner is Kramer or Elaine (who was fed up with the entire argument and willing to take half of the bike).
- Salute Your Shorts: ZZ and Dina each claim ownership of a frog, Wartbreath. Budnick, acting as counselor, follows the Ooka Tadasuke example and gives the frog to ZZ when she lets Dina take Wartbreath because he could see "ZZ couldn't bear to harm the little croaker." However, he confesses the handbook he took the idea from "would have given the frog to Dina. This was my answer."
- Not strictly a cut-in-half situation, but done to some extent in an episode of Season Three of Angel, when vampire hunter Holtz takes Angel's child hostage and threatens to kill him unless Angel agrees to let him take the baby away. Angel, the boy's true father, agrees, preferring to have him raised by someone else than to have him die. This distinction becomes important later in the season, when the boy comes to see Holtz, the man who was willing to kill him rather than see him raised by someone else, as his father.
- Discussed in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. In a case concerning the custody of a child, Stabler mentions King Solomon, and the DA counters that she can't literally split the child. Stabler points out Solomon didn't have to.
- To elaborate: A child was found to be the biological daughter of one woman, who claimed in the beginning that the child was actually her deceased daughter. The child was raised by her surrogate mother, who gave birth to her. The DA uses this trope to make the child cry and be very upset, prompting the biological mother to relinquish custody to the surrogate parents.
- An episode of ER had a doctor resolving a dispute between two cheese-rollers by presenting the prize, a wheel of cheese, to the competitor who would rather forfeit his chance at victory than let the cheese be damaged. As he prepares to present the cheese wheel to the winner, he sees that one of his colleagues has already cut a slice from the cheese and made himself a sandwich.
- Done in a Doctor Who Episode (Daleks In Manhattan) over a stolen loaf of bread... by a guy named Solomon.
- A handful of Magic: The Gathering cards play like the puzzle variation, where one player splits a group of cards into piles that the other must choose to use/keep or discard. Fact or Fiction is one such card.
- Bertolt Brecht also does this with a child at the end of his play The Caucasian Chalk Circle. In his version, the woman who is willing to give up the child rather than see him harmed is not the biological mother.
- One of the quests in Dungeon Siege III has you settle a land dispute between a Goblin baron and a human landowner. You can tell them to just split the land and deal with it and they'll agree, though neither are terribly happy about it (and the Goblin notes that this is a coward's choice).
- In Zap Dramatic's Sir Basil Pike Public School, if you pick the boy's path, the player character feuds with Dave over a bike: you believe he took it from you while you were inside a store, but he says it's his own bike that's identical to yours. Taking the problem to Ted results in him offering to do this to the bike. It doesn't exactly work out, though, because if you tell Ted not to cut the bike up, then Dave will also tell him not to cut it up, which does not solve the dispute at all. If you do tell him to cut it up, then he will give it to Dave. For those who are curious, if you do this path correctly, you later learn the bike is Dave's, the confusion arose because both bikes were placed next to each other outside the store.
- In The Simpsons, there was Ned Flanders' ultra-gory retelling of Bible stories that had Solomon actually cutting the baby in half himself before either can say anything, and then killing himself after he realized what he just did. By cutting himself in half.
- This trope inspired Reverend Lovejoy to come up with a solution when he and his wife were fighting with Homer and Marge over a mattress that somehow seems to invigorate the sex life of any couple that sleeps in it. Marge's only complaint was that Lovejoy cut the mattress diagonally, making it look like a grilled cheese sandwich.
- Susie Carmichael from Rugrats used this method in a Rugrats comic story where Tommy was arguing with Angelica over custody of his star ball.
- One episode of American Dragon Jake Long shows Jake attempting to negotiate between two tribes of fairies over custody of a magic apple (the tree that the apple grew on is in one tribe's territory, but the apple itself hangs over the other tribe's territory). When he suggests splitting it, both sides protest because doing so would destroy its magical properties. Jake's grandpa then steps in and quells the discussion by eating the apple.
Anime and Manga
- Subverted in the All There in the Manual portions of Martian Successor Nadesico. In a competition to see who would get custody of Ruri, Prospector asks Yurika and Minato to each grab an arm and pull. When Minato lets go first (after Ruri cries in pain), Prospector awards custody to Yurika, because she would never let Ruri go.
- An odd variation in the final episode of Steel Angel Kurumi Encore. A contest is held between the Steel Angels as to who will have Nakahito as their master and it's down to Kurumi and a mysterious masked Angel. At the end of the race, the two snag Nakahito and begin a tug of war as they race towards a finish line. Nakahito cries out in pain and Kurumi, frightened for her master's safety, lets go. Because of this, Kurumi is declared the winner. Then, we find out that the mysterious Angel wasn't an Angel at all but one of the two spies working for the government who had a somewhat unhealthy fixation on him, so she would have lost any way!
- Subverted in Ranma Ĺ. Akane and Shampoo try to drag Ranma in different directions, and Mousse says it reminds him of a story about an old ruler who, when presented with two mothers fighting over a baby, told the mothers to have a tug of war, with the winner getting the child. But the mother's love was strong in both of them... so the child was ripped apart and nobody lived happily ever after.
- Subverted in a story from the Batman: No Man's Land bat-crossover with an actual baby that two women lay claim to, but neither of whom is the child's real mother, who entrusted the child to the first woman when she (the mother) was near death and when she set the baby down to get something, the second woman found the baby and assumed the first woman had abandoned it. The "real" and "false" mother both react with horror at Batman's suggestion. Batman's second proposal is that if they care about the child they can learn to look after it together, since in No Man's Land, everyone needs to stick together to survive. This gets through to them and they learn to become friends.
- Subverted in a recent She-Hulk comic - Shulkie, at the time, was being some form of cosmic judge, and was brought a case in which the two (alien) parents were contesting custody of the child. She thinks to herself "oh, it's the Judgment of Solomon", and orders that the child be cut in half, expecting the trope to play out as it did originally. The alien father takes her literally, and cuts the child in two. She's horrified, until someone points out her brilliance, since the species concerned can regenerate from this, and the parents end up with a child each.
- Subverted in Foxtrot. Jason and Paige are arguing over an object, until their mother has finally had enough, and suggests they remember what Solomon said. "Something about cutting children in half." The two immediately try to foist the object on each other.
- Subverted in La Biblia Contada a los Pasotas, a Spanish comic-book adaptation of The Bible. King Solomon uses this trick but only to walk near both candidates and watch them closely. He identifies the biological mother because she has the same eye color as the baby.
- Subverted horrifyingly by the Emperor in Fables. When asked by two brothers to rule on a dispute caused by the fact that they disagree on how to administrate the land they inherited but can't divide it on their own, instead of granting the division, the Emperor says that because strong families are the foundation of the Empire, he will remove the material things that separate the brothers. I.E. commanding that the land and property be forfeited to the Empire and the servants and tenants of the land killed.
- Subverted in the Myth Adventures novel Hit And Myth, where Skeeve (disguised as King Roderick) makes the ruling during a dispute over a cat.
This was supposed to inspire them to settle their difference with a quick compromise. Instead, they thanked me for my wisdom, shook hands, and left smiling, presumably to carve up the cat.
- Happens in a theater performance in one of the Judge Dee novels: Two brothers are complaining that their brother's half of the inheritance is too large. The judge looks at both lists of bequests, and dramatically... hands each brother the other list.
- In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huckleberry Finn tries to explain the story of King Solomon to Jim. Jim fails to get the point of the story, and comments that Solomon doesn't seem very wise, since half a child isn't very useful (he compares it to cutting a dollar in half, with the point that it's worthless). Huck keeps repeating that Jim doesn't get it (though the fact that he doesn't explain the point himself may indicate that he didn't get it himself).
- Subverted in The Cosby Show of all things. Rudy and Olivia are arguing over who gets to play with a toy. Vanessa suggests cutting it in half, so Rudy and Olivia then argue over who gets which half!
- Double-subverted in What It's Like Being Alone, when Sammy tries to settle an argument between Brian's robot parents. First, they argue over who gets which half. And then it turns out that Sammy wasn't trying for this trope anyway, and just wanted to see Brian get cut in half.
- The Israeli skit show Makom liDeaga re-enacts the judgement given, but the women say nothing... and the baby is cut. After a short pause of horror, one woman starts calling Solomon a murderer, slowly saying it louder and louder until she screams at him repeatedly in hysteria and has to be taken out. Solomon says in embarrassment, "Well, I guess the one screaming was the mother... Wasnít she?"
- Spoofed in Jade Empire: the Black Whirlwind regales how he intervened in a romantic dispute over a woman by doing this. He didn't threaten to cut the girl in half, he just came out and did it. He's just that kinda guy.
- Irritability subverts this by having both characters agree to have the cat cut in half.
- In Latchkey Kingdom, a king subjected to this dilemma passes the buck on a "usurper" and goes into exile rather than bother with figuring out a solution. The usurper decides to marry the mothers together... even though each already has a husband.
- Nick Daniel also played with this trope in a side story to his earlier comic 70-Seas, the "God Dog" Sparky is asked to make one of these judgements when he's in an especially hellish mood and tells them to twist the baby's head off and throw it in a river. When they object he barks them off. Later, after getting laid he tells them to share the baby, which they think is pretty stupid.
- C-Section Comics demonstrates that some baby judgments don't require the wisdom of Solomon to settle...