The Sons and the Spears
Individually we are weak, like a single twig, but as a bundle we form a mighty faggot.An old story, Older Than Feudalism. The story goes something like this: There is a king, said king has several sons. They don't get along. Fearing for the safety of his kingdom, the king decides to teach his sons a valuable lesson. So he gathers his sons together and he tells them that he has a task for them: the son who can complete the task shall succeed him. He then takes out a bundle of spears (alternatively sticks or arrows) and asks his sons to break them. When none of his sons succeed he then takes the spears one by one and breaks them, thus impressing on his sons that in unity there is strength. This is, as said, an old story, and various versions exists. It is also one that is relatively often referenced in various media:
— Martin Prince, The Simpsons, "The Haw-Hawed Couple"
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Anime and Manga
- Sousei No Aquarion mentions the Japanese version by name.
- When Tintin first meets Chang, the latter cites this as a Chinese proverb.
Films — Animated
- In Brave, Elenor illustrates the point to Merida with the story of the four brothers. A king left his kingdom to his four sons to rule together. She sets up a chessboard supported by four pieces to represent the four brothers holding up the kingdom. When one brother became greedy and sowed discord and fought with his brothers, the kingdom fell. She knocks one of the pieces out and the entire board falls over.
- A Bug's Life uses a variation with pieces of grain. Hopper, the grasshopper villain, tosses a seed at a henchman, saying "Let's pretend this grain is a puny little ant." It bounces off the mook's chest, and he's fine, because grasshoppers are much bigger than ants. Next, Hopper triggers a slide of grain onto another henchman, crushing him, to demonstrate the power ants have in groups. Given that the film is a loose adaptation of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, this is probably a Shout-Out to Ran, above.
Films — Live-Action
- In Akira Kurosawa's Ran, Saburo, the youngest son, shows that with a little more effort, he can break the bundled sticks (he holds each end of the bundle in one hand, then drives them downward against his stiffened leg), using this to attempt to drive home that Hidetora's plan to divide his territory among his sons is still a Bad Idea. For this concern, he gets disinherited. Ran being King Lear IN MEDIEVAL JAPAN!, this move turns out to be a huge mistake—especially with Taro and Jiro more than proving that Hidetora's hopes for their cooperation were without foundation.
- Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The Roman usage of this trope (see below under Real Life) makes the name 'Caesar' a very meaningful one.
Caesar: *signing* Apes alone *breaks a stick* weak. *struggles to break a bundle of sticks* Apes together strong.*Some Apes start fighting among themselves*Maurice: *signing* Apes stupid.
- Used as a metaphor for family in David Lynch's The Straight Story, with Alvin convincing a pregnant teenage runaway to go back home to her family, who will eventually understand. Within Alvin's own narrative, it reinforces his plot-driving need to reconnect with his estranged brother.
- Done in Red Cliff, by Zhou Yu with a handful of reeds intended to be woven into footwear, using the resulting strength of woven sandals as a metaphor for Shu and Wu banding together against Cao Cao's forces.
- The Georgian version comes from the fable of Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani.
- A similar story is told about Genghis Khan, and how he used it to demonstrate that the mongol tribes were stronger unified than divided.
- And that story in turn had existed in Chinese literary circles for a long time, and originally concerned a Hunnish king.
- Or the one teaching the lesson is Genghis Khan's mother, Hoelun, to the young Temujin and his brothers after they are cast out from their tribe.
- There is a Japanese version concerning a feudal era warlord named Mori Motonari and three arrows.
- And possibly in relation to this: Ooka Tadasuke (1677 - 1752) was a Japanese judge who became legendary. One of the stories about him involves two of his nephews who constantly fight with each other. So Ooka hires a boy in the village to act as a bully and pick on them. When they complain about it, he gives them each a small stick. They say how the stick is too small to protect them. He then puts the sticks together and explains that it would be more effective that way. The boys then gang up on the bully and defeat him. This teaches them the idea of cooperation and they become friends.
- There is a Slavic version concerning the three (although in reality he only had two) sons of Prince Svatopluk I of Great Moravia, the story can be found in a Byzantine chronicle.
- The Bulgars have a cautionary variant: The sons *didn't* listen and the great Bulgarian empire of Kubrat broke up.
- There are also legends associated with this motif concerning the founding of the Aztec Triple Alliance.
- The Bible: Ecclesiastes 4:12 - Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
- The Pseudo-Plutarch tells this story as performed by King Scilurus of Scythia.
- In Vision of the Future, the batlike alien Qom Jha quote a proverb at Luke and Mara to the tune of many vines woven together being far stronger than the same number of vines used separately.
Luke: "I think there must be a variation of that one on practically every planet in the New Republic."
- Brevity began what looked like a straight version of this, but the kids weren't able to break the individual twigs either. They wound up hitting each other with them, and the parent gave up.
- Great Fairy Wars: The Three Mischevious Fairies completely miss the point:
Luna: The three of us are as one!Sunny: Though a single arrow is broken easily, if you bundle three together...Star: You'll run out of arrows three times as fast!
- The Motonari Mori example mentioned in Folk Lore above gets Played for Laughs in Samurai Warriors 3 when he tries it on the Tachibana, only to have Ginchiyo grab them and break them as well with little effort. Motonari continues to explain, but Muneshige tell him his wife is just being intentionally belligerent.
- This version is also Played for Laughs in Sengoku Rance. Motonari uses the single spear with his daughters and breaks it easily, but when he tries the many spears binded together...he still breaks it because he's so freakishly strong. His daughters tell him that it's ok, they understand what he was trying to tell them.
- The Simpsons in "The Haw-Hawed Couple".
- In The Mummy: The Animated Series, Alex is training with some other Medjai and they're given a bundle of arrows and told to break it, which none of them can. This does not work; a Jerk Jock keeps setting Alex up to fail training exercises until a real problem comes up and they become Fire-Forged Friends.
- The Roman fasces, a bundle of reeds, draws on the same symbolism (one reed breaks, a bundle doesn't). (The widely-known variant with the axe inside wasn't strictly required, and indeed the blade had to be removed in certain parts of Rome.) These fasces were carried by the Lictors, consular bodyguards. This had a peculiar impact later on: On one hand, the association of Rome with republicanism and its embodiment of a republican principle (that the people together are stronger) led various modern Western republics (including France and the United States) to adopt the fasces as a symbol of republican (as opposed to monarchical) values; many of these symbols remain today (including the French national emblem, the Seal of the US Senate, and the Mace of the US House of Representatives.note On the other hand, it is also the origin of the word 'fascism', an ideology that puts a lot of emphasis on enforced unity.
- One etymology has the name of the Hungarian confederation (originally seven Magyar and three Turkic tribes) as the "Ten Arrows" ("An Ogur") for similar reasons.
- Try the metaphor for yourself. A group of sticks working together is indeed far harder to break than a single one of the same type.