An old story, Older Than Feudalism. The story goes something like this:
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.
- Genesis of Aquarion mentions the Japanese version by name.
- In A Silent Voice, the teacher explains with chop sticks how the whole class is stronger if they hold together and include the deaf-mute New Transfer Student Nishimiya.
Teacher: "This single stick is easily snapped in two. But if you bundle all the sticks we call "classmates" together, you'll create an unbreakable rod."
- When Tintin first meets Chang, the latter cites this as a Chinese proverb.
- Adam Susan in V for Vendetta makes reference to the Roman version of this trope (see Real Life below) during an internal monologue to justify the Fascist dictatorship he has forced upon the British - as one arrow will snap easily but a bundle will not, the survival of Britain as a whole must always come before the rights and freedoms of individual citizens.
- The Ultimates (2015) has the Blue Marvel offer a rebuttal to the trope's origins in Rome. He says a bundle of sticks are essentially dead and brittle, and that true strength comes from trees together as a forest, living and deeply rooted.
- 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.
Those "puny little ants" outnumber us a hundred to one! And if they ever figure that out, there goes our way of life!
- 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.
- Together is set in a Stockholm commune where cooked porridge is served on a regular basis for economical reasons, much to the kids' dismay. Goeran tries to sugarcoat the meal to them by comparing the porridge to commune life:
Goeran: You could say that we are like porridge. First we're like small oatflakes. Small, dry, fragile, alone... but then we're cooked with the other oatflakes and become soft. We join so that one flake can't be told apart from another. We're almost dissolved. Together we become a big porridge... that's warm, tasty and nutritious, and yes, quite beautiful, too.
- 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 an Eastern Roman chronicle.
- The Bulgarians 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.
- According to Iroquois legend, during the first meeting of the representatives of the Iroquois Confederation, their founder, Hiawatha asked one of the representatives to give him an arrow. Hiawatha easily snapped the arrow in two. Next, he asked a representative from each of the five nations to give him an arrow. Bundling them together, he could not break them. He used this to demonstrate to the assembled representatives that together, they could not be 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."
- The Boys (2019). Billy Butcher gives his quarreling teammates a pep talk about how the Spice Girls were nothing on their own but great as a team. Whether it works is questionable, but at least the Boys can agree on the fact that their leader gives awful pep talks.
- Iron Fist (2017). Colleen Wing is shown giving this speech to her martial arts students. Subverted with The Reveal that they are all members of the Hand cult, and her students turn against Colleen when she tries to disobey the Hand.
Mary: What was it you used to say, sensei? A single arrow is easily broken? (leans close) Because right now, you look pretty broken to me. (Colleen headbutts Mary in the nose)
- 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.
- In the first Galaxy Angel game, Tact tries to use this metaphor with arrows in a scene with Ranpha, trying to explain why they fled from a battle hoping for reinforcements. Ranpha, however, is strong enough to break the bundle as well, and she instead takes heart from the assurance that next time, she's strong enough to plow through the enemy and any of their reinforcements, no matter how many of them appear. Tact simply rolls with it.
- In Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, during the fifth trial, Touko Fukawa references this proverb when the group discusses how the titanium arrows could have been bound together and made into a bludgeoning weapon.
- In Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth, one Bonus Boss, Zeus possessing Elizabeth, references this trope when mocking the protagonist as "One who lives not for thyself, but as a lone twig in a fasces"(see Real Life) before expressing disdain for the idea of banding together instead of doing as one pleases.
- 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.
- In The Smurfs episode "The Smurfs' Time Capsule", Papa Smurf has Hefty gather a bundle of sticks due to the riddle in the time capsule saying "A stick by itself is too weak; it's sticks in a bundle you seek". With the sticks, Papa Smurf has Hefty break one of the sticks, then him trying to break the whole bundle at once. When Hefty finds out that he can't, Papa Smurf discovers the meaning behind the riddle, that in the unity of the Smurfs there is strength to resist.
- 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, not because of The Power of Friendship, but that each stick only bears a mere fraction of the breaking force. (This is often demonstrated in science class by putting a board on top of a sufficiently large number of eggs as to hold the weight of a student standing on them—find enough eggs and they can hold up an entire car.)