"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."
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. In general, any mortal court will side with the victim of one of these— but if there's a Magically Binding Contract, you're in real trouble. Sometimes a Deal with the Devil will take this form.
The name comes from Aesop's 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. Even in the Ancient Roman Law of Obligations, a "Societas Leonina" (a corporation in which one participator reaps all the profit, and another carries all the losses) was an invalid one.
- 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 Miki 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, once by having Kyoko Sakura threaten Sayaka, but Homura, again (and again), puts a stop to it; it's almost a Running Gag.
- This is Kyubey's usual tactic, to ensure lot of energy.
- 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 smart 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.
- In Nth Man: The Ultimate Ninja , 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.
- "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.
- Subverted in the Swahili folktale "A Woman for a Hundred Cattle". The poor wife agrees to have an affair with her Stalker with a Crush if he brings her meat, because her father is coming to visit and she feels ashamed of having nothing to have nothing to offer him. She ends up serving the meal to her father, her husband, and the stalker (who stopped by as a guest) and points out how each of the men are fools. Her father is one for marrying his only daughter into a life of poverty for a relatively small dowry (the one hundred cattle) while her husband is one for marrying a woman who cost him all he had and condemned them both to said life of poverty. The stalker she names as one because "you wanted to get with a single quarter of beef what has been bought for a hundred cattle", which frightens the stalker into running away and never trying to collect on their agreement.
- 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.
- In The Bridge, Bagan forces several Kaiju to make a Deal with the Devil with him under duress by proving he was strong enough to kill them all and would if they refused to accept.
- After Draal in Becoming the Mask finds out Jim is a Changeling, Jim cuts Draal with a poisoned knife and offers him the antidote in exchange for his silence.
- 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 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 foregoing 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 (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 Soviet animated film The Flying Ship (loosely based on The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship), the Tsar gets trapped on the eponymous machine floating mid-air, and the greedy Merchant offers him a rope in exchange for the crown.
- In The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader lands troops on Cloud City and forces Lando to betray Han and Leia in exchange for the freedom of his city. However, Vader repeatedly "altered the deal- pray I do not alter it further." Lando ultimately realizes Vader has no intention of keeping his word and helps Leia and company escape.
- As noted in the Film folder, Inigo presents one of these to Count Rugen in The Princess Bride, but has no intention of actually making a bargain because he only wants one thing - which is impossible to get.
- In A Brother's Price, the protagonist's 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. As Conan ups the price, the slave just keeps saying no and gets more unstable. 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. Luckily for Conan, Tsotha's giant snake Satha is attracted by the yells and makes quick work of the slave before dragging him off to eat, which lets Conan get the slave's fallen keys and sword to free himself.
- 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 a prisoner in the hands of religious fanatics.
- 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.
- In one chapter of World War Z, Arthur Sinclair, the head of the US Government's office of Strategic Resources tells about how they had to completely revise the methods of farming within the Californian safe zone after the Zombie Apocalypse. In the case of the cattle ranchers, who protested having to surrender much of their livestock at minimal compensation in order to feed the streams of refugees escaping the zombies, Sinclair told the ranchers that he couldn't compel the ranchers to help feed their fellow people... but Sinclair could point those starving people in the direction of these ranches and refuse to provide protection for the ranchers if they don't help him feed the people. The ranchers capitulated pretty quickly after that point was made.
- Journey to Chaos: Nulso Xialin implies that he had little choice in becoming an ordercrafter, "Order cares not if the contract is Leonine" but Eric retorts that everyone has a choice and he threw his away. For context, Nulso is trying to steal something that could prevent the worst condition of his contract and Eric was hired to protect it.
- Inheritance Cycle: The nobles who swore fealty to Galbatorix simply did so because he would kill them otherwise.
- Occasionally referenced by the presenters on Top Gear (UK): 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.
- 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 Princess: The Hopeful, a Princess with the Charm "Forced Vows Are No Vows" can renegotiate or void a Magically Binding Contract. As the Charm's name implies, the main purpose of this Charm is to deal with oaths that are leonine or otherwise grossly unfair.
- In Dungeons & Dragons:
- This is actually grounds for revoking a contract in the Nine Hells. If a devil used physical or magical coercion to get a mortal to make a Pact Certain, then the deal can be voided after death, and putatively-damned souls have a right to a fair trial and legal counsel to determine whether this is the case. Other forms of duress are considered praiseworthy; this is Hell, after all.
- When a mortal binds an Outsider like an angel or demon to a contract of 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.
- In The The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim DLC Dragonborn, Hermaeus Mora engineers one by letting his wayward minion Miraak, the First Dragonborn, run rampant over Solstheim. His aim? Acquire the shamanistic secrets (Which are functionally worthless save that Mora does not know them) of the Skaal, who live on Solstheim. His offer? The only means to stop Miraak; a Thu'um that bends the will of even dragons to the shouter's will, given to the Last Dragonborn.
- According to Resident Evil 3 and Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles, this is what happened to Leon after the events of Resident Evil 2; the government threatened to imprison him and to experiment on Sherry, the only known carrier in the world for the G-Virus and the Devil Vaccine, unless he agreed to become their elite anti-Bioterror operative.
- Happens in the form of a Deal with the Devil in the Hearts of Stone expansion of The Witcher 3. Geralt kills a frog monster that turned out to be an Ofieri prince under a curse, and is arrested by his guards and put on a boat to be taken to Ofir and executed. Gaunter O'Dimm then appears, and offers to save him in exchange for a seemingly innocuous favor, knowing he has no choice but to accept.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- When Florence is asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement, she's initially reluctant to, as she's not legally a person, and the person who would be punished for her breaking it is her owner, who she doesn't want dragged into this — or worse, Sam, who would see it as an incentive. The person giving her the contract points out that her other option is a memory wipe, making it one of these and therefore impossible to legally enforce, and the real reason she's signing it is so that she can be ordered to abide by its terms.
- In Meagan Kearney's Beauty and the Beast, Beauty's father considers all promises worth keeping, even ones made to monsters. One of his daughters argues that a promise made under duress isn't binding, but he insists on fulfilling his side of things.
- Flipside: Marvollo sends its criminals to the local fighting arena, where murderers pay off their sentences with honor or ruthless pragmatism. The arena's administrator has a nasty habit of ensuring that none of these psychopaths get out by bribing their opponents to kill them before their sentence is finished, forcing them into fighting debt to get a resurrection spell. Unfortunately for him, the last battle couple he tried to pull this on were knights that were incarcerated for forcing healers to save the sick for free, AND he demanded sexual favors to boot. The warden had him executed for going too far.
- 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 dealing 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".
- Much like the aforementioned Puella Magi Madoka Magica example, Bill Cipher of 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 smart 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.
- William the Conqueror justified the Norman Conquest because Harold had sworn fealty to him—while Harold was William's prisoner, and Harold swore such as a condition of release. He also tricked him into swearing it on a saint's relics without knowing (they were inside of a closed box he swore over), which made the oath particularly binding on Harold according to Christian belief at the time.
- 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, except worse, because it still leaves the victim in a bad position.
- Souperism was a practice during the Irish Potato Famine in which Protestant "relief" organizations would set up soup kitchens where, in returning for getting free food, the starving families must enroll their children to receive Protestant religious education (or sometimes just convert wholesale). The practice was widely condemned in Catholic Ireland and was seen as another indignity in the long list of crimes the English did upon them. Even today, the phrase "taking the soup" is used to describe people who give up their convictions under stress.
- No matter who is doing it, religious persecution is basically an attempt to invoke the leonine contract of "give up your faith if you don't want various terrible things happening to you and your loved ones".
- This is a common complaint against the pharmaceutical industry: People with life-threatening illnesses or other health conditions need certain drugs and/or equipment in order to live, and because of that, the suppliers drive the prices way up. This is particularly true if there is only one supplier, such as EpiPen. This complaint is less common in Europe and South America than it is in the United States, however, as their governments tend to have this stance too and create regulations to keep those prices down, though it does happen time to time — see, for example, the 2016 scandal about Martin Shkreli, "the most hated man in America". After all, medical expenses is the main reason of personal bankruptcies in the US.
- To wit, an up and rising investment speculator turned pharmaceutical executive, Mr. Shkreli come to own a company producing Daraprim, a drug to combat a parasitic infection called toxoplasmosis, which it sold for a rather modest price of $13.50 a pill — not exactly pocket change, but not an arm and a leg either. Shkreli, however, jumped at a chance for profiteering, and immediately jacked the price by as much as a factor of fifty, to $750 a pill, while being vocally cynical about it.
- Similarly, the ludicrous expenses involved in hospitalization fall under a similar trope. Hospitals don't provide medical bills in advance, and when you don't know whether you're experiencing heartburn or a heart attack, you're willing to sign off on whatever testing or treatment they suggest. Insurance means that the majority of the cost gets defrayed, but that means those without insurance are between a rock and a hard place, and even people with insurance are likely to max out their deductible just getting the initial ambulance ride.