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Stone Soup

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A tactic whereby a character acts in a manner that can be perceived as eccentric or insane, in order to prompt other, bickering, characters into cooperation. This usually happens because of shared concern for the welfare of the first character, or a joint desire to "not upset the crazy person." When it works, it results in An Aesop about cooperation and conflict resolution.

Named for the classic folk tale in which a strange wanderer breezes into town asking for a meal. When the greedy villagers deny him any food, he cheerfully offers to make everyone a bowl of his remarkable Stone Soup (made by putting his soupstone — a seemingly ordinary rock — into a pot of water and boiling it). When everyone gathers to laugh at the man boiling a stone, he gradually persuades them to add to the pot, saying Stone Soup tastes best with a little salt... and perhaps a beef bone if you can spare one?... and maybe just a bit of onion... until (magically!) the simple stone has created a wonderful soup for all to enjoy.

The story tends to have An Aesop, but the moral varies depending on how the teller wants to spin the tale. In idealistic versions, the villagers realize that they've been tricked but have to admit that cooperation and sharing meant a better meal for everyone. In (cynical) versions, the stranger is playing a well-rehearsed Con Game: the villagers don't realize they've been had and spend all their money to buy that magical soupstone. In this case, the Aesop is more "If it sounds Too Good to be True, it probably is."

Compare Fence Painting and Bavarian Fire Drill.

For the comic strip, see here.


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    Comic Books 
  • A Walt Disney comic of uncertain vintage once played with this trope by having Gyro Gearloose attempt to make stone soup using "concentrated stone juice".
    • Similarly, in the 1970s Disney book Button Soup, Daisy Duck did this by starting with a single clothing button.
  • In the Archie Comics story "Rock On!" (no longer online?), Jughead makes a "rock hamburger" to lure people away from Reggie's barbecue.
  • Referenced and subverted in Fables. When Jack tries to sell soup stones. Snow White mentions she kept hers, which implies that here, Soup Stones are actually magical.
  • Soup stones are also an alchemical item in Dungeons & Dragons, even coming in different flavours.

  • The earliest known printed version of the folk tale was published in 1720, one year after the death of its author, French journalist Madame de Noyer. Her version is set in Normandy, with two Jesuit priests as the benevolent tricksters and a house full of children rather than presumably adult villagers.
  • The Russian version of the tale features a particularly bright soldier tricking a miserly landlady to give him ingredients for making a pot of cereal by making "a hand axe cereal".
    • Another Russian variant is the traveler uses a spare button to make "button borscht".

  • Used in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, as Jack begins rocking the boat by running back and forth across the deck, pretending to see something. The others follow, at first out of curiosity, but eventually they catch on.

  • Possibly inverted in Discworld, where, among bickering, arguing and ignorant nobles, Lord Vetinari has them form committees, telling them to brainstorm solutions. The real reason he does this is to get them all out of the way so he can work out the problem with people who know what they're talking about.
  • Robert A. Heinlein likes the "form a committee to get all the idiots out of the way" version. Lazarus Long does it in the novel Methuselah's Children, as does Professor Bernardo de la Paz in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by setting up an Ad-Hoc Congress stocked with all of the blowhard do-nothings.
  • The "get rid of the idiots" version also occurs in the backstory of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe; the Golgafrinchan homeworld is threatened by a meteor, so they put all the thinkers on one ship, the doers on another, and the middlemen like hair stylists and phone cleaners on a third...and then send the third away, having made up the meteor story in order to "clear the chaff" from their society. The rest of the Golgafrinchans die off from a disease contracted from a literal dirty telephone, while the "useless" members of their civilization land on an insignificant blue planet and use their advanced technology to build a floating city, which turns out to be a terrible idea.
  • In Aleksander Fredro's fable The Gypsy and The Woman, a gypsy tricks a greedy woman to give him ingredients for making porridge by making "a nail soup".
  • Played with in P Howard's Captain Dirty Fred. The eponymous captain is so universally disliked that people would do anything just to not be on his side. People he agrees with will immediately change their oppinion, people he wants to see dead instantly become loved and supported by everyone, and generally, any time he's around, the most disorganized gangs that were at each other's throats suddenly become best friends and can get almost everything done working together, as long as they do the opposite of what Fred tells them. And of course, every single time they play into his hands, seeing how Fred is an agent of the Intelligence Service, and uses his cranky old man persona to manipulate the other pirates into serving his country.
  • The Australian children's book Wombat Stew features an inverted take on the fable wherein a group of bush animals save the titular wombat from being eaten by a dingo by offering intentionally disgusting ingredients for the stew. Subsequently, when the dingo is convinced to taste-test the stew before adding the wombat, he is so disgusted by the mixture that he gives up on the endeavor entirely.
  • Gordon R. Dickson has a short story named "Soupstone" where a remote colony requests a highly competent advisor to solve their problems. Since such people are always at a shortage, Earth decides to instead send the rather Book Dumb protagonist. He manages to solve everything within a day, simply by making people dig out the talents and resources they have already.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In an episode of Land of the Lost (1974), Rick has had enough of Will and Holly fighting over a trivial issue and pretends to have snapped. By cooking "stone soup" and eliciting their help in finding "a few extra ingredients", the father teaches them what their real priorities ought to be. Later in the episode, he pulls the same trick on the Pakuni leader Taa, though for a different purpose.
  • Little House on the Prairie had a similar episode.
  • The original folk tale was retold on Jim Henson's The Storyteller. However, the usual Aesop is interestingly subverted when the cook figures out he's been had and angrily demands that the stone-soup maker be boiled alive. His attempts to avoid punishment make up the rest of the episode.
  • In The Walking Dead Carol uses the orginal version when Alexandria is going through a lean period.

    Tabletop Games 
  • A (somewhat) literal example in Warhammer Fantasy. The people of Ostland are so willing and able to make a meal out of just about anything that there are about the famous "Stone Soup of Ostland," saying that they can make soup with a single stone to avoid wasting perfectly good rocks.

    Video Games 
  • In My Time at Portia the Winter Solstice festival features a communal hotpot. Before the event starts Minister Lee relates a story about how during the Age of Darkness people shared what little food they had to make a similar pot and so the town has one every year in remembrance and celebration.

  • In Kill Six Billion Demons, Posthumous Character lord Intra once found himself as the stranger in one of these, with a twist on the idealistic version: witnessing the cruelty of a lord and his men racketing poor villagers after killing their old lieges, he confronts them. After the lord declares that the farmers "could eat stones for all he cares", Intra picks up a rock and answers that he will feed the people with it. First he announces that he will turn it into fire, and by striking his sword with it over dry bushes he builds a fire. Then he announces that he will turn the rock into earth and water, and by using it to dig into the muddy ground and carve bricks, he builds a bread oven; in the hole he dug, he draws muddy water and put it to boil clean over the fire. As the cruel lord warns him that he will not allow Intra to take any grain he stole from the people to make bread, Intra announces that he will turn the rock into air. By skipping it on the ribcages of the cruel lord's henchmen, he kills them all and they draw their final breath. After the cruel man flees, Intra reminds the villagers that by working together, even without much more than a rock (which are plentiful and more numerous than tyrants), they can accomplish much.

    Real Life 
  • Gen. George S. Patton wrote in his memoirs that during the supply crisis caused by his rapid drive across France, some of the units under his command made further advances this way, first getting just enough fuel to make a reconnaissance in force, then deliberately getting involved in fighting that required notable reinforcements and, of course, extra supplies.