Leonine Contract

"I should not agree with your young friends," said Marcus curtly, "I am so old-fashioned as to believe in free contract."
"I, being older, perhaps believe in it even more," answered M. Louis smiling. "But surely it is a very old principle of law that a leonine contract is not a free contract. And it is hypocrisy to pretend that a bargain between a starving man and a man with all the food is anything but a leonine contract." He glanced up at the fire-escape, a ladder leading up to the balcony of a very high attic above. "I live in that garret; or rather on that balcony. If I fell off the balcony and hung on a spike, so far from the steps that somebody with a ladder could offer to rescue me if I gave him a hundred million francs, I should be quite morally justified in using his ladder and then telling him to go to hell for his hundred million. Hell, indeed, is not out of the picture; for it is a sin of injustice to force an advantage against the desperate."
G. K. Chesterton, "The Unmentionable Man"

Alice and Bob are making a bargain, but Alice has something Bob must have—it's a Matter of Life and Death—which means she has a free hand. Odds are good that Bob will regret it, even though Alice hasn't threatened to do anything to him. Read the Fine Print if you like—it's not like you have any power to make your objections stick. The lack of any active threat makes it a favorite of the Manipulative Bastard.

Occasionally the bargain is reasonable, even if Bob doesn't want to admit it. This will strongly characterize Alice as just and reasonable. On the other hand, this trope often results in the partner with the advantage constantly Moving the Goalposts. The Revenge-minded may taunt a criminal with this before revealing that since the harm was irrevocable, so too is their desire for revenge; villains are prone to teasing with this.

Even Incorruptible Pure Pureness characters may hold The Promise void if it was part of this. Everyone is prone to insist on Exact Words, or attempting to persuade the other character to engage in Releasing from the Promise. If there's a Magically Binding Contract, though, you're in trouble. Sometimes a Deal with the Devil will take this form.

Super Trope of Boxed Crook. Close cousins with Read the Fine Print.

The name comes from Aesops Fables, "The Lion and His Fellow-Hunters".

This term is occasionally used in contract law to refer to this kind of deal. At common law, such a contract is almost always considered unenforceable under the doctrines of unconscionability (i.e. the exchange was grossly unfair in favor of the more powerful party) and duress (which is more or less "the contract was leonine"). Even under most civil law codes, there's a good chance that you can be freed from a contract if the other party was obviously exploiting an emergency situation.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Kyubey offers Mami the chance to Make a Wish, which he will grant in exchange for her becoming a Magical Girl. He makes her this offer while she happens to be dying from critical injuries sustained in a car wreck that occurred just moments before.
    • He also tries to do this to Madoka and Sayaka after Mami gets decapitated and the witch that did so is about to eat them, but Homura puts a stop it. He tries to force Madoka into contracting to prevent Sayaka's impending death multiple times, but Homura, again (and again), puts a stop to it; it's almost a Running Gag.
  • In Sakura Gari, Souma offers to pay off Masataka's brother's massive debt if Masataka continues to work for him. He made the offer when he catches Masataka trying to run away in the middle of the night after he had raped him. Masataka cannot refuse because otherwise his brother will be killed by the Yakuza.
  • xxxHolic: The granting of wishes runs on the Equivalent Exchange in this world, and so when a desperate Watanuki makes a wish whose price is far beyond his ability to pay, he ends up having to Work Off the Debt.
  • In The Tarot Cafe, when Pamela's mother proves too Genre Savvy to make a Deal with the Devil in exchange for promises of wealth, the demon gets her to agree by saying it's the only way to save her daughter from a violent death. Technically he does not lie, but Pamela still ends up miserable. It's then subverted when it's revealed that because Pamela's mother made her deal out of love, her contract with the demon was rendered null and void and she ended up in heaven.


    Comic Books 
  • In Nth Man, Alfie cures the dying Sgt. Levin in return for a future service. Unfortunately for him, when he tries to collect by having her assassinate John Doe, she tells him to take it back, and he is apparently no longer in a strong position.

    Fairy Tales 
  • "Rumpelstiltskin" and its variants: the girl will be killed if she doesn't get his help, which gives her no way to haggle when he demands her child.
  • In The Goose Girl, the princess promises the maidservant that she will not tell the truth in order to save her life.

     Fan Works 
  • Apollo accepts Kristoph's offer of employment and housing in Dirty Sympathy despite knowing something was extremely fishy because he was going to be kicked out of his student dorm and end up homeless.

  • The Princess Bride has a Revenge variant. Inigo Montoya has confronted the man who killed his father and has him at swordpoint. Knowing the man's cowardice, he makes a series of increasing demands as a condition of sparing Rugen's life. Of course, what he really wants is impossible, and so he never had any intention of actually making a bargain.
    Inigo: I want my father back, you son of a bitch.
  • In Tangled, Rapunzel gets Flynn to agree to guiding her to Corona with the promise of giving back the tiara he stole, while she has him tied up and is threatening him with violence. Unsurprisingly, he tries to weasel out any way he can except forgoing the tiara.
  • An unintentional version happens in Frozen. Anna gets Kristoff to agree to take her up the mountain to find Elsa by promising him compensation and supplies. Along the way, his sled (pretty much the basis of his livelihood) is destroyed. While Kristoff pretty obviously wants to call the whole thing off, he can't because he knows that if Anna dies while searching for Elsa, he'll never get the replacement sled she promises him.
  • In Beauty and the Beast, Belle agrees to live at the castle with the Beast because it's the only way he'll agree to free her father. While she does intend to honor the promise, she makes it clear she hates the Beast for putting her in the position (the musical even gives her a song where she laments the situation and calls the Beast a monster and a fool for thinking what he did was at all right). She also is perfectly willing to break her word and leave when she thinks the Beast might actually harm her.

  • In A Brother's Price, the protagonist' sisters make themselves vulnerable to that kind of situation by buying something they cannot quite afford. They manage to get a high brother's price for Jerin and marry him to the woman he loves, but it is dangerous. An example with an even worse situation is when Jerin offers to be a willing Sex Slave to the kidnappers so that they don't kill his companion.He totally lied, though.
  • In The Bible, a starving Esau sells his birthright to his younger brother Jacob for some stew. This, however, is viewed by many as an example of how little he valued it.
  • The Aesop fable "The Lion and His Fellow-Hunters", where the lion gets the lion's share (that term, which means all or nearly all of anything, also gets its name from that tale), because none of the smaller animals who hunted with him are able to argue the point.
  • In G. K. Chesterton's "The Unmentionable Man", in The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond, this is alluded to—see page quote—and this is a clue to the man's identity.
  • In John C. Wright's The Phoenix Exultant, Ironjoy is in this position toward the Afloats; they can't even afford to report his crimes against them because they need him. He assumes that Phaethon needs him, too, which is unwise on his part.
  • In Robert E. Howard's "The Scarlet Citadel," one of Tsotha's slaves taunts Conan the Barbarian with the keys when he's prisoner, to ask what he would pay, as if to offer this. Finally he reveals that Conan killed his brother during his pirate days, when he was known as Amra, and that he will settle for nothing less than Conan's life.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire:
    • In the first book, Robb Stark must cross the Green Fork to pursue his war with the Lannisters and attempt to rescue his father and sisters from their clutches. The only available crossing is the Twins, held by Walder Frey. Frey is ostensibly bannerman to the Tullys, who are allied to the Starks, but Frey prevaricates. Robb's choices are to turn around, go back North, and abandon his father and sisters to Lannister mercy, besiege the Twins and be easy pickings for a Lannister attack of opportunity, or meet Frey's terms. Frey demands that both Robb and his sister Arya marry his children. Even the latter would be a better marriage than Frey could normally arrange; the former is an unprecedented boost to his House's fortunes and status and would be out of the question if he didn't have Robb over a barrel.
    • Jaime Lannister vows not take up arms again against the Starks or Tullys while held captive, drunk, and with a sword against his throat. Despite this, the Kingslayer takes it seriously.
  • In The Da Vinci Code, Bishop Aringarosa tries to get a pilot to change landings to a different country, which is in violation of customs. When he offers the pilot one of the bearer bonds, worth about 10,000 Euros, the pilot only sees it as a piece of paper. However, the pilot is very interested in the Bishop's ring...
  • In the Chivalric Romance Roswall And Lillian, Roswall promises to never reveal his true birth to save his life.
  • In The Count of Monte Cristo, Luigi Vampa and his men take Danglars prisoner and deprive him of any food except for what he buys from them at astronomical prices. This was, of course, masterminded by the Count as a means of separating Danglars from his ill-gotten wealth.
  • In Robert A. Heinlein's The Cat Who Walks Through Walls competing rescue parties on the Moon attempt to force a stranded party into one, forcing the survivors to either accept the low bid or die on the lunar surface.
  • In Andre Norton's Ordeal in Otherwhere, the Free Trader tells the colonists that he had fine young men under indefinite term labor contracts because he had been able to recruit the desperate in a refugee camp. He then get Charis to sign one, because she's an prisoner in the hands of religious fanatics.
  • The protagonists of Atlas Shrugged find making these fun—no matter which end of it they're on.
  • Brought up in Shatterpoint by the Confederate leader, Colonel Geptun. He argues that the treaty he's signing (surrendering his Confederate garrison to the Republic) is worthless because it was signed under duress. Mace Windu, being himself, retorts that of course it is, that's what makes it surrender in the first place. Fortunately, Geptun was merely being disagreeable for its own sake, and goes through with the surrender amicably. (Although he's not the only one with an opinion on the matter...)
  • In Pact, any oath sworn by a practitioner acts as a Magically Binding Contract, and dealing with various supernatural creatures is the standard method of gaining power. Powerful practitioners, though, tend to favor deals that are more one-sided, capturing Others and bargaining with them in exchange for freedom or solace, and powerful Others also tend to adopt this method.
  • In the Hush, Hush series, while a Nephilim is the one who actually says the oath of fealty putting him or herself in the service (essentially slavery) of a fallen angel, it's shown that the fallen angels always get their way by torturing them (they can use their powers to force Nephil over sixteen and at one point it's mentioned that several stab and beat up one who is under sixteen to make him agree).
  • Averted in the political thriller Rules of Engagement. An English harbour town has been sealed off for military reasons as World War III appears imminent, but a lawyer arranges for the families of wealthy businessmen to leave on a ship. He notes that if he just made a flat demand for money, he'd never do business with these people again if war didn't break out, so he agrees to manage their business interests while they are away, earning a high percentage in exchange for taking the risk of being nuked.

    Live Action TV 
  • Occasionally referenced by the presenters on Top Gear: when a presenter's vehicle inevitably breaks down in an awkward place (like while floating in a harbor), another might jokingly offer to tow them to safety for a million quid, if they don't just abandon them.
  • Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue: In order to make sure his son Ryan wouldn't die from a car accident, Capt. Mitchell agreed to let Diabolico raise the son until Ryan is 21.
  • Super Human Samurai Syber Squad: When Sam's little sister needed an operation, their family couldn't afford it because a Mega-Virus Monster had stolen money from theirs (and everybody else's) bank accounts. Sam's only hope was Malcolm Frink, who'd only help if Sam threw a pie at the face of the girl both of them like. Fortunately she understood and forgave Sam in the end.
  • Played with by The Roommate Agreement in The Big Bang Theory. It appears to be this, but with one important exception: Leonard could walk away at any time, and there is absolutely nothing Sheldon could do about it legally. (Emotionally, on the other hand...)
    • Leonard tends to run afoul of obscure clauses that must have seemed ludicrously unlikely to ever occur ("If you ever get superpowers, I get to be your sidekick"), and when they turn out to be not as unlikely as previously believed, Sheldon sometimes offers to amend them if Leonard agrees to concessions involving much more common situations.
  • In the Supernatural episode "All Hell Breaks Loose, Part Two" (S02, Ep22), the crossroad demon knows that Dean is willing to do anything to have Sam back, and she can set the terms. Instead of the typical 10 year contract, she only gives Dean one year before the hellhounds collect.
  • The Dollhouse specialized in this in order to acquire its Dolls. Subverted and lampshaded in an episode where it's pointed out that it's legally impossible to sell yourself into slavery.
  • Silicon Valley: Piped Piper must accept the investment of Russ Hanneman, who knows that they will go under unless they accept his terms. As such, he gives himself disproportionate power over the company.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Exploited gleefully by the Fae and their agents in Changeling: The Lost: not only are fey Pledges completely valid when made under duress, the signing party doesn't need to understand the terms or even be aware that they're making a pact. It dings the Karma Meter for a Changeling to do that, but it works all the same.
  • In Dungeons & Dragons, the only way a Pact Certain with Hell can be nullified once the terms are met is to prove that it was made under duress, specifically magical or physical coercion by an agent of Hell to sign the contract. Other forms of hardship are considered adorable but irrelevant: these are devils, after all.
    • Conversely, when a mortal binds an Outsider like an angel or demon to service, the mortal can do anything: imprisonment, torture, even crippling the Outsider's ability to understand or negotiate the contract. Of course, the mortal had better have an airtight grasp of contract law and be ready to spend the rest of their life looking over their shoulder, since most things worth binding are immortal, well-connected, and extremely vindictive.

    Video Games 

    Visual Novels 
  • There's not an official contract, but the effect is the same: in Scandal In The Spotlight, the protagonist can't really refuse to ghostwrite lyrics for Revance when her own budding career as a scriptwriter is in peril because she offended a lecherous producer. If she helps the guys, they're willing to use their considerable influence on her behalf; if she doesn't, she's all but guaranteed never to work in the entertainment industry again.
  • In the second Ace Attorney game, Phoenix only agrees to be Matt Engarde's defense attorney because Maya had been kidnapped and her life was threatened if he didn't. When he learns that Matt really did commit the crime, he is forced to continue to defend him anyway, until Maya can be rescued.

    Web Comics 
  • Mocked in Troops Of Doom, when the leader of the Imperials is charged 50 grand each for a grenade by the leader of the mercenary union because she is in the middle of a firefight and cannot get out alive without them. Also, said leader wasn't particularly happy with her disrespect for the union building's neutrality rules.
  • In Impure Blood, Roan is contemptuous of Dara, until she reveals she has the key to his cell.
  • Girl Genius with its European Overlord. At least, Klaus was reasonable in his demands.
    Klaus: One rule, Beetle. I made one rule when I left you this city. "Report any unusual discoveries. Devices of The Other are to be turned over immediately." You agreed.
    Dr. Beetle: A pledge made under duress is worthless, Wulfenbach! You threatened my city, my university—I'd have agreed to anything! You were in control then!
    Klaus: And now? (while his clanks point at Dr. Beetle with machineguns about the size of himself)
  • In Freefall, one reason Florence is so nervous about dealing with Ecosystems Unlimited is that she's an Uplifted Animal created by them, and there aren't enough of her species around yet for a stable gene pool. She fears that if she ticks them off, EU might simply discontinue the Bowman's Wolf experiment.

    Western Animation 
  • In Tripping the Rift, the Devil forces Chode into selling his soul in exchange of rescuing his ship from four simultaneous black holes that have suspiciously appeared out of nowhere. His crew travels in time to hire the legendary lawyer Webster who defeated him in the past, but end up with the kid actor who played television's Webster instead. Being used to deal with agents and lawyers, the kid rapidly found a major loophole in the contract, claiming the deal was signed under duress. The Devil denies duress, blurting out that there were no real black holes, thus dooming his case as he never filled his side of the agreement. Chode walked away scott-free.
  • In Adventure Time, Finn sees Marceline abusing a poor old man who she claims is her minion, and he reluctantly agrees to take his place. Marceline then orders him to fulfill a series of evil orders that all turn out to be less evil than they appear. Eventually Finn realizes this is all an elaborate prank, so Marceline fires him.
  • How Kuvira is taking over the Earth Kingdom in Season 4 of The Legend of Korra; her army is the only cohesive force active in the nation after the Earth Queen's death, so she offers provinces military protection in exchange for resources and their loyalty. She disingenuously calls them "Generous Offers".
  • Bill Cipher in Gravity Falls, pulls this on Dipper in the episode "Sock Opera". He tries to make a deal with Dipper earlier for information on the password to unlock a laptop. Diper is too Genre Savvy to agree. However the second time he offers him Dipper's facing a laptop that will delete all it's data in five minutes unless he gets the password. Cipher uses Exact Words to both take Dipper as his "puppet" and to outright destroy the laptop. Technically the insides of the laptop DID contain a hint, which is all Bill agreed to.

    Real Life 
  • William the Conqueror justified the Norman Conquest because Harold had sworn fealty to him—while he was his prisoner, as a condition of release.
  • Robert Ringer tells the story of a man he worked for who was bargaining with a man who desperately needed the agreement as he was in bankruptcy and would lose everything. Knowing his desperation, the man forced him to accept really onerous terms on threat of walking away from the deal. The man comes up with the fees he has to pay, signs the agreement and after he leaves, Ringer mentions to his employer that he hoped the guy could keep terms of the agreement. His boss smiled and said, "He won't. If he'd bothered to read the contract he'd realize he was in technical default before he even signed it. I won't have to do a thing except keep the advance payment he made."
  • Payday lenders are often seen as this, with more than a little justification. It's for this reason that many jurisdictions have been able to go after payday lenders to stop them and get restitution for injured borrowers.
  • The basis for the entire concept of wage slavery. Not as relevant in the West anymore, as most developed countries don't let the unemployed starve to death due to the efforts of socialists and modern/social liberals (who hold that that kind of thing is evil).