Follow TV Tropes


Proverbial Wisdom

Go To

Jonny: Hey, I thought the wise tiger wasn't going to follow his foolish cousins.
Hadji: A yogin has the right to change proverbs!
Jonny Quest The Real Adventures, "Ezekiel Rage"

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

The trope was on the peak of its popularity in Western culture around 16th century, during the reign of English queen Elizabeth I. The queen was very fond of proverbs herself, and in Elizabethan era, the whole England was "soaked in proverbs": abundant usage of them was seen as a sign of wisdom and sharp wit. However, it was increasingly seen as a Discredited Trope since the age of Enlightenment: 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.

However, the trope remains very popular in Eastern culture. In it, proverbs are often cryptic in their meaning and serve as "thought exercises" to make a person think "outside of the box" (Zen koans being the best known example).

Sub-Trope of Cryptic Conversation and Hurricane of Aphorisms, 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.


    open/close all folders 

    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 is depicted as the mentor of young Dumbledore and Grindewald. He delighted 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".

  • The Sphinx from Mystery Men, who serves as a mentor to the main characters, always speaks like this.
  • Parodied with Sidney Wang, a ludicrous Charlie Chan expy, in Murder by Death.
    Wang: Conversation like television on Honeymoon; highly unnecessary.

  • 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.
  • Charlie Chan is usually ridiculed for speaking this way, and his brilliance as a detective often comes as a surprise.
  • 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.
  • 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 of Oriental religions which are known for broad use of proverbs, Koans and metaphors.

    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.

    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.

    Video Games 
  • 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: All colours?
    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.

    Western Animation 
  • 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!
  • Phileas Fogg of Air Programmes International's Around the World in 80 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.
  • Zecora from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic gives her advice in the form of proverb-like rhymed couplets.
  • Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus often quotes proverbs and sayings, beginning with "As I always say..." or "As [relative] always says..."
  • 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 Dragon Hunters, Lian-Chu is wise in spite of his naivety, and has a Koan for nearly every occasion.