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Proverbial Wisdom

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Jonny: Hey, I thought the wise tiger wasn't going to follow his foolish cousins.
Hadji: A yogin has the right to change proverbs!

The tendency of sages, mentors (especially eccentric mentors), and characters who are wise or spiritual to speak in proverbs, riddles, old sayings, and flowery metaphors.

The trope used to be popular in Medieval Western culture (people often had to speak in Riddles or metaphors to demonstrate their wisdom, and it even was a part of initiation rituals and marriage customs), and retained its popularity even in the sixteenth century: for instance, the English queen Elizabeth I was extremely fond of proverbs and wordplay, and during her reign, the abundant usage of them was seen as a sign of wisdom and sharp wit (the whole England was "soaked in proverbs"). However, it was increasingly seen as a Discredited Trope in the Western world since the age of Enlightenment when the role of folklore and "folk wisdom" declined: most notably, Lord Chesterfield wrote that "a man of fashion never has recourse to proverbs and vulgar aphorisms". Nowadays the excessive use of proverbs is considered trite and cliche, typical for elderly people and those who want to seem more thoughtful than they are; likewise, using riddles and metaphors can be seen as a sign that the speaker has nothing substantial to say.

Nonetheless, the trope remains very popular in Eastern culture; the best known example is probably Zen koans which have no definite answer and serve as "thought exercises" to make a person think "outside of the box". Therefore in modern pop culture, a sage who speaks in a flowery and metaphoric fashion is usually of Eastern origin or related to Eastern spirituality (for instance, Yoda, while being non-human, has all the stereotypical features of an Oriental monk).

Sub-Trope of Cryptic Conversation, and often overlaps with Delighting in Riddles. Can be deconstructed or parodied, when the said character simply pretends to be wise, and speaks in Ice Cream Koans. Compare and contrast Spock Speak, Technobabble, and Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness, when "scientifically smart" and tech-savvy characters use lots of technical and encyclopedic terms. See also Appeal to Familial Wisdom.


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  • In Celtic Mythology, Emer, who eventually became the wife of the legendary hero Cu Chulainn, had the reputation of both the most beautiful and the wisest woman in Ireland; the latter meant that she spoke in riddles and metaphors nobody could understand. However, she finally met her match in Cu Chulainn- and during their first meeting, he answered to her in riddles to demonstrate it.
  • Likewise, Slavic folklore, like The Tale Of Peter And Fevronia, has the archetype of a beautiful and wise maiden who demonstrates her wisdom by speaking in riddles, and eventually marries the protagonist.

    Comic Books 
  • In Groo the Wanderer, the Sage is a perfect example: every single sentence he says in the entire run of the comic is immediately followed by a saying of some kind, most of them made up. Many are truly wise, while some are worthy of Groo himself...
  • Sky Pirates Of Neo Terra by Camilla d'Errico has Sera, a mysterious racer who speaks in cryptic metaphors. She is actually a mystic who adheres to some Oriental-style holistic philosophy and sees all things as interconnected.

  • In The Little Prince, a Harry Potter/The Chronicles of Narnia crossover fanfic, the eccentric magician Coriakin, who mentors young Dumbledore and Grindewald, delights in giving them advice in cryptic Koan-like form.
  • In The Vow, Ah-Ma the Soothsayer is a wise old lady and a seer who just loves giving advice in vague proverb-like riddles.
  • Downplayed in Convergent Paths (a Pokémon fanfic) with Terra Caldwell, Belle's mother. She doesn't quote any actual proverbs or metaphors, but when she meditates, she tends to speak in a very flowery fashion, "like a wise elder of a village". Belle is used to her mother having two modes: "Normal Mom" and "Infinitely Wise Mom".
  • In the W.I.T.C.H. fanfic The Alchemist and the Altamere, Hay Lin has a penchant for quoting Chinese proverbs, and "she would always surprise people with her uncannily appropriate fortune cookie wisdom".

  • The Sphinx from Mystery Men, who serves as a mentor to the main characters, always speaks like this.
  • Deconstructed in The Lion King 1 ˝: Rafiki introduces Timon to the concept of "Hakuna Matata" and tells him "To find it, you must look beyond what you see". Timon asks him to clarify, but Rafiki simply repeats the words "look beyond what you see". Timon proceeds to take Rafiki's advice completely out of context, wandering in search of a place where he can live the carefree life he wants.note  Later in the movie, Timon's mother meets Rafiki while searching for her son. Upon hearing the advice Timon received, she chastises Rafiki for engaging in this trope, hitting him with his own stick and explaining that Timon takes things literally.note 
  • Parodied with Sidney Wang, a ludicrous Charlie Chan expy, in Murder by Death.
    Wang: Conversation like television on honeymoon; highly unnecessary.

  • Also sprach Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche is the story of a Hermit Guru who gives his teachings in an extremely poetic and metaphoric way, often using Animal Metaphors. Played With, since the content of his teachings is contrary to what one would expect from an archetypal sage or an enlightened character: for example, he glorifies the will to power, rejects traditional morality, and sharply criticizes believing in an afterlife. The contrast between the form and the content is most likely intentional, stemming from Nietzsche's hatred of religious prophets, so the "enlightened sage" archetype is probably depicted ironically.
  • Deconstructed in Baudolino: when the protagonist becomes a stylite, people often visit him for advice, believing him to be a saint and a Hermit Guru. Playing up with their expectations, he delivers some Ice Cream Koans, and people find them extremely helpful.
  • Charlie Chan is usually ridiculed for speaking this way, and his brilliance as a detective often comes as a surprise.
  • Parodied with the Discworld character Lu-Tze. He noticed the large numbers of city-slickers who traveled for hundreds of miles to find wisdom at mountain monasteries, and decided to see what he could learn from their homeland. Thus he picked up his "Way of Mrs. Cosmopolite," a collection of aphorisms from a middle-class landlady such as "it never rains but it pours" that weird out his fellow monks ("a jug!"). On the other hand, some of those sayings - "I wasn't born yesterday," "there's no time like the present" - are remarkably similar to the wisdom of Wen the Eternally Surprised, founder of the History Monks, so who knows.
  • Parodied in Don Quixote, where the Don frequently becomes irritated by Sancho Panza's over-reliance on proverbs.
  • The Famous Five: Pompous Julian occasionally quotes proverbs.
    • In Five on Kirrin Island Again, when Uncle Quentin does not respond to the children's calls, so they decide to look for him:
      Julian: If Mohammed won't come to the mountain, the mountain must go to Mohammed.
    • In Five Get Into Trouble: Hunchy puts down poisoned meat for Timmy to eat, on the orders of Rooky. The children pretend to feed it to the hens, causing Hunchy to panic, and to sweep the hen run very thoroughly indeed.
      Julian: How true the old proverb is - he that digs a pit shall fall into it himself.
  • Parodied by Master Wu in The Gone-Away World:
    Wu: In unifying your chi with that of your opponent — in aligning the breath of your life and theirs — you will storm the strongest fortress. There! Is that a good Secret?
    Elizabeth: What does it mean?
    Wu: No idea. It's a Secret. Means what you need it to mean. But now we have one, we can refuse to tell anyone about it!
  • Amilyn Holdo from Leia, Princess of Alderaan is a variation: she is very spiritual, into astrology and meditation (in accordance with her home planet's culture), and she tends to speak in riddles and peculiar metaphors. Her speech patterns could be partly the result of her background: her home planet's spiritual teachings are a Fantasy Counterpart Culture of Oriental religions which are known for broad use of proverbs, Koans and metaphors.
  • The mysterious Miss Angie from Paradise Pines series by Delia Latham, who serves as a mentor/spiritual guide to the main characters, is really fond of quoting verses from the Bible.
  • In the Heralds of Valdemar series, the nomadic Shin'a'in people are famous for knowing at least one proverb for every situation... and once a Shin'a'in gets rolling, they don't stop for a while. It turns out to be a trait they share with their parent tribe, the Kaled'a'in.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Stargate SG-1, both Oma Desala (a wise ancient being) and the Kheb monk indulge in this.
  • Parodied in It Ain't Half Hot, Mum. Native bearer Rangi Ram would often close an episode with "There is an old Hindu proverb, which say...".
  • Game of Thrones. Tyrion Lannister tries this stunt on Queen Daenerys, who promptly accuses him of passing off his own opinions as ancient wisdom. Tryion denies that he would ever do this. To her.
  • Star Trek: Voyager
    • Chakotay does this often in the early seasons as part of his Magical Native American shtick.
      "My people have a saying: "Even the eagle must know when to sleep"."
    • Neelix seems fond of a "Talaxian saying" or two.
      "Good news wears no clothes."
      "When the road before you splits in two, take the third path."
    • Even Harry Kim gets in on the act.
      Kim: There's an old Chinese expression. Stay out of harm's way.
      Paris: That's not a Chinese expression!
      Kim: If it works, use it.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Dungeons & Dragons module OA5 Mad Monkey vs. Dragon Claw. The martial arts trainer Hu Sen often makes statements the module calls "fortune cookie philosophy", sayings that may or may not make sense.

  • The trope is frequently employed in William Shakespeare's works due to the aforementioned trends of Elizabethan epoch. Most notably, Portia from The Merchant of Venice, a smart, wise and witty young lady who was allegedly based on the Queen herself, often speaks in proverbs; a trait seemingly passed on to her servant Nerissa.

    Video Games 
  • In Assassin's Creed: Odyssey, Sokrates is a variation. Rather than speaking in proverbs and riddles, he is known for asking tricky philosophical questions in order to guide people to wisdom. Pretty much Truth in Television, as the real historical Socrates was also like this (see the section Real Life).
  • Mario Party 7: The Koopa kung fu master of Pagoda Peak speaks in strange, meaningful-sounding sayings, and is also fond of calling the players "grasshopper."
  • In Metal Gear Solid, Mei Ling is a teenage prodigy who works on data analysis and provides assistance to the protagonists. She has a penchant for quoting Chinese proverbs.
  • Parodied with Herman Toothrot in Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge, when he becomes a "philosophy teacher" and meditates in a tent. He gives Guybrush what seems to be a Zen-style Koan: "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, what color is the tree?"
    Guybrush: [after guessing about eighty different colors] All colors?
    Herman: Exactly! Now what has this experience taught you?
    Guybrush: That philosophy isn't worth my time.
    Herman: I'm very impressed. It takes most people years to reach this point.
  • In Shop Heroes, much of what the shaman Azula says takes this form, although some of her proverbs are more mystical-sounding than others.
  • Spelling Jungle: Yobi speaks almost entirely in these when he isn't telling the player what word to spell, or complimenting them on doing so correctly. Examples include:
    "To spell a single word correctly is to avoid many mistakes."
    "A correctly spoken word is heard at an instant. A correctly spelled word is permanent."

    Visual Novels 
  • Subverted with Lily's sayings in Daughter for Dessert. The protagonist and Amanda are impressed with her life philosophy at first, but they realize after she leaves that Lily's supposed "wisdom" assumes that responsibility is absent or even bad.

    Western Animation 
  • Phileas Fogg of Air Programmes International's Around the World in Eighty Days cited such maxims Once an Episode. These always puzzled Passepartout, but later in the episode turned out to be crucial for solving situational hazards or surmounting Fix's tricks. Most pointedly, the first episode's "The motto of the wise is: be prepared for surprises," explains how and why Fogg is always Crazy-Prepared in his travels.
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender: Iroh tends to overdo it sometimes. (Although at least once the aphorisms made up a sign/countersign for the Order of the White Lotus.) In an early episode his completely literal statement "are you so busy fighting that you don't notice your own ship has set sail?" is mistaken for one, and he concludes afterwards that it actually would be a good proverb.
  • In Dragon Hunters, Lian-Chu is wise in spite of his naivety, and has a Koan for nearly every occasion.
  • Jackie Chan Adventures: the old monk from the "Lotus Temple" episode, who is initially seen as a wise yet somewhat eccentric person, always speaks in riddles and proverbs (beginning with "Ancient wisdom"). Subverted, since he turns out to be Evil All Along.
  • Hadji from Jonny Quest: The Real Adventures often speaks like this. He is the most spiritual person in the group and a student Yogin. Sometimes parodied:
    Hadji: Every great fiction held strongly in human belief is the mistaken image of some great truth.
    Jessie: What the heck does that mean?
    Hadji: To be completely honest, I'm not entirely certain. But you must admit, it does sound profound!
  • Kim Possible: Sensei does this on occasion, notably in the episode "Gorilla Fist":
    Ron: So you want to tell me again exactly why we're going back?
    Kim: 'Cause it is the right thing to do.
    Sensei: A weed that never grows does not need to be cut down.
    Ron: Hmm, yeah, that's a good gardening tip. So why are we doing this again?
    Yori: What Sensei is saying is that even though Monkey Fist is bad, he has not done us wrong this day. It is our honor to save him.
    Ron: Oh, we're rescuing the bad guy!
    Kim: Yeah, but it sounds better the way he says it.
  • The Lion Guard: "The Wisdom Of Kongwe" features the tortoise Kongwe, regarded as the wisest animal in the Pridelands. She expresses said wisdom primarily via this trope.
  • Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus often quotes proverbs and sayings, beginning with "As I always say..." or "As [relative] always says..."
  • Zecora from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic gives her advice in the form of proverb-like rhymed couplets.
  • Xiaolin Showdown: Master Fung gives advice to the Dragons-in-training when they need to learn a valuable lesson, but more often than not they don't unserstand the meaning behind his phrases.

    Real Life 
  • Socrates was a variation. Rather than speaking in riddles and proverbs, he was known for asking people tricky philosophical questions in order to make them discover answers for themselves.


Video Example(s):


Ancient Wisdom

Jackie and Jade go on searching for the mystical Lotus Temple, guided by an eccentric monk who constantly annoys them with his "Ancient Wisdom" aphorisms.

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Main / ProverbialWisdom

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