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Mortons Fork / Literature

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    Examples #—F 
  • 1066 and All That describes the Trope Namer as one of Henry VII's clever advances in statecraft, with Morton extracting large sums of money from rich citizens by driving an actual fork into them if they claimed to be rich and doing the same thing if they claimed to be poor. This policy "always succeeded, except when Morton put the Fork in too far."
  • 1408: "Even if you leave this room, you will never leave this room." In other words, if he stays in the room, the evil presence there will torture him forever until he's crazy; if he leaves the room, the evil presence will stay with him, torturing him forever until he's crazy.
  • Anno Dracula 1899: One Thousand Monsters features a version of Kuchisake-onna (see Folklore section). As with the original, she asks her victims if she's pretty, and then, regardless of the answer, gives them a Glasgow Grin like hers. However, in this case, the reason she attacks when you say "yes" is because she knows you're lying; the third option turns out to be to say "yes" and mean it.
  • Candide: Candide, after unwittingly deserting and being caught, was given by the Bulgar army the choice between being beaten 36 times in succession by 2,000 soldiers or having 20 bullets put into his brain. His wish to Take a Third Option being impossible, he chose to run the gauntlet, but soon realized the second option was more merciful.
  • In Chalice by Robin McKinley, one of the main characters is a former priest of fire and has to concentrate before touching anyone to avoid magically burning them. In order to manufacture a grievance against him, his feudal lord deliberately trips in front of him. If he catches his lord, he'll burn him, which is an insult; if he doesn't, he's letting him fall, which is also an insult.
  • In The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black, we learn that Gavriel's Big Brother Bully put him into this situation by showing up drunk to the duel Gavriel challenged him to to restore his and his fiance's stolen honor (after his brother seduced and scorned her For the Evulz). He can shoot his defenseless brother, gain an honorless victory and be racked with guilt for the rest of his life. Or he can forfeit his honor by walking away and Never Live It Down. Gavriel figured since he was damned either way, he might as well Kick the Son of a Bitch.
  • In Cooking With Wild Game, a (drunk) Ai Fa accuses Asuta of flirting with married women. When he protests that he didn't, she accuses him of flirting with unmarried women note .
  • In Deltora Quest, Lief is challenged to make a single statement. If the guard judges it to be true, he throws Lief over a cliff. If it's false, the guard beheads him. Thanks to some quick thinking, he's able to beat the question by saying "My head will be cut off." And in Deltora Quest 3, the Four Sisters are revealed to be this. If they're left alive, the lands will die slowly of famine. If they're destroyed, something even worse, the Grey Tide, will cover and poison the land, making it a dead plain. Fortunately, the dragons are able to destroy the Grey Tide.
  • Lampshaded in Douglas AdamsDirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency:
    Lady Magna: How do you want me to treat you, as my son or as the editor of one of my magazines? [...]
    Michael Wenton-Weakes: [...] Well, I am your son, but I don't see...
    [Lady Magna tells her son he will stay on as editor for three issues and then the new owner can fire him.]
    Michael Wenton-Weakes: What difference would it have made to all this if I’d said treat me as the editor of one of your magazines?
    Lady Magna: Why, dear, I would have called you Mr Wenton-Weakes, of course. And I wouldn’t now be telling you straighten your tie.
  • Discworld:
    • Guards! Guards!: Several religions in Ankh-Morpork practice human sacrifice, although the laws of the city hold that they can only sacrifice volunteers or those guilty of crimes against the religion. Such as refusing to volunteer.
    • Likewise, in Pyramids, the late Pharaoh's favorite handmaiden and daughter Ptraci is imprisoned for refusing to take poison and accompany him in death. Taking the poison is, explicitly, not mandatory, but it is considered a great honor. Refusing such an honor is highly offensive and worthy of punishment. But it's not mandatory. This makes sense to everyone except the protagonist.
    • Moist discovers that Vetinari has trapped him in one in Going Postal. He is rescued from being hanged, and offered the job of refurbishing the city's post office. If he refuses the job, he dies (the door he's told to leave by has no floor beyond). If he flees, he will die as a Golem is his parole officer, and will bring him back to face justice. If he reveals his identity he will die, as that man was supposed to be hanged. So just do the job, right? Well, the last few people assigned to it have all died under mysterious circumstances, and the reason Moist is given it is that he's expendable. Luckily he's also good at finding all the angles...
  • Dragonlance:
    • In the novel Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Raistlin refers to this as "the Ogre's Choice—'die fast or die slow.'" The choice at this point being either entering a forest no one has ever come out of alive, or turning back into the pack of draconians hunting them.
    • The novel The Siege of Mount Nevermind offers another fork: leaders of the enemies of the dark knights are offered the chance to defect after being defeated. If they don't take the offer, they are summarily executed as enemies; if they do take the offer they are executed as traitors.
  • The Dresden Files:
    • Summer Knight: Harry is forced into a deal with the Faerie Queen Mab, where he must complete three favors for her to settle a debt. However, the terms of the arrangement dictate he gets to choose which three favors, and if he declines to do something, she can't attempt to coerce him into doing it by hurting him or people he cares about. They both agree, and Mab asks for her first favor. Harry declines it. She immediately attacks him with magic, mostly just to show that she still can. She only agreed not to hurt him because he declined the favor. Hurting him for other reasons, such as spite, is still perfectly valid.
    • He tries to refuse again when she asks for a favor in Small Favor, and this time she doesn't even bother with the pretense: she explicitly says that if he declines, he will die, and he points out that if he accepts, he'll almost certainly still die, because the power that he's up against is far, far beyond him. Mab agrees and gives him the "choice". She doesn't say that she'll be the one to kill him, however.
  • In Ender's Game, one of the games given to him in Battle School had this going for it. In the game Ender meets a giant who places two glasses of liquid before Ender, saying one is poisoned and the other is not. He says he will take Ender to Fairyland if he guesses correctly. Ender plays this puzzle over and over again, always dying, even knowing it's clearly rigged. When he loses his shit over this, Ender decides to Take a Third Option: leaping into the giant's eye, clawing his way through, tunneling into his head, and killing the giant.
  • In The Fall, by Albert Camus, the narrator describes an example of Morton's Fork with regard to a Russian landowner he once knew and admired: "He would have a beating administered both to his peasants who bowed to him and to those who didn't bow to him in order to punish a boldness he considered equally impudent in both cases."
  • Fire & Blood: The remnants of Maegor's Kingsguard meet with this. Jaehaerys I has the ones who turned shipped off to the Wall because he won't abide traitors. But he also punishes those who stayed with threat of execution or the Wall because they remained loyal to Maegor. One, Ser Harrold Langard, noted the contradiction there.
    • Discussed decades later, in the civil war called the Dance of the Dragons. Here, Queen Rhaenyra Targaryen orders Lord Manfryd Mooton of Maidenpool to deliver her husband Daemon to her side—and also to deliver the head of a dragonrider called Nettles, judged guilty of high treason. The problem? Both Daemon and Nettles are guests under Lord Mooton's roof, and Lord Mooton is so terrified at the thought of breaking guest right that he can barely speak. As he puts it in council, "If I obey, Maidenpool shall be forever cursed. If I refuse, we shall be attainted and destroyed." It's then that the lord's maester tips Daemon and Nettles off, allowing the latter to flee into parts unknown, and for Maidenpool to change their allegiance to King Aegon II instead.note 

    Examples G—L 
  • In The Goblin Emperor, Idra uses this on his mother. He argues against her attempt to force Maia to abdicate, and her claims that Maia is unfit, and when she tells him he doesn't understand, he points out that makes him as unfit as Maia, if not more so.
  • A non-villainous example in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when Harry asks Vernon if he can go to the Quidditch World Cup. Vernon is adamant that he can't, until Harry points out he's writing a letter to Sirius, his godfather (who the Dursleys still believe to be a murderous psychopath). Vernon realizes if he stops Harry going to the Quidditch World Cup, Harry will write and tell Sirius, who'll think he's being mistreated; if he stops Harry writing to Sirius, Sirius will notice and think Harry is being mistreated anyway. He's forced to Take a Third Option and allow Harry to go. The Third Option also qualifies. As the book put it:
    Allowing Harry to go would make Harry happy, something Uncle Vernon had struggled against for thirteen years. On the other hand, allowing Harry to disappear to the Weasleys' for the rest of the summer would get rid of him two weeks earlier than anyone could have hoped, and Uncle Vernon hated having Harry in the house.
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has the protagonists given the choice of dying in the vacuum of space for refusing to say something nice about Vogon Poetry or finding something nice to say about Vogon Poetry... and then dying in the vacuum of space. However, the Vogon Captain only reveals this additional clause to Option B after they've already tried to say something nice, so it's not clear whether he was going to do that all along or just felt offended by their pitiful attempt to compliment his work. Given the way Vogons are portrayed throughout the series, "was going to do that all along" sounds highly plausible.
    Jeltz: "Counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor..." Death's too good for them.
  • The climax of the first Honor Harrington novel, On Basilisk Station involves a battle to the death between Harrington's light cruiser and a vastly heavier-gunned Havenite Q-Ship that results because of this. The Havenite captain is running to call the planned invasion of the system off, but Harrington, who has figured out that the plan involves having the ship run for "help" doesn't realize this as she's assuming he's running to trigger the invasion. Although both ships want the exact same thing—to prevent the invasion—the Havenite captain realizes he can't simply tell Harrington what he wants to do; if he told her the truth, he'd have confirmed Haven's operation and the only way she'd believe him would be to stop and be boarded, which would reveal that the ship was secretly armed, which could cause a war. On the other hand, if he continued to play dumb and keep running, she wouldn't stop pursuing and when her ship got close enough to fire to force him to stop, he'd either have to surrender (and the weapons be found) or fire back, revealing the weapons.
  • At the end of The Hunger Games, the Head Gamemaker (Seneca Crane) can either let two tributes win, or let them commit suicide and have no victor at all. Either way, he basically sealed his fate when he introduced that "two tributes can win if from the same district" rule change in the first place. The rule in question itself was created as a Bait-and-Switch to set up another Morton's Fork. By tricking Katniss and Peeta into thinking they could both win, then changing the rules back at the last minute, each of them has to choose between dying or living with the guilt of murdering a friend for the entertainment of the bastard who put them up to it. Katniss figures out how to Take a Third Option.
  • John Dies at the End: In What The Hell Did I Just Read: A Novel of Cosmic Horror, Ted Knoll storms a NON facility and gets the female NON Agent at gunpoint to get his daughter back. Then, at least according to John's version of events, Ted reveals that he was an interrogator during his time in the Marines, and tells the NON agent that he's going to ask her a series of questions, and he will shoot her immediately if she lies. Through a masterful combination of Exact Words and taking advantage of the fact that Ted has some big misconceptions about what is going on, the NON agent manages to answer them all truthfully, (sometimes only technically or through a generous helping of Loophole Abuse) until they get to the very last question: will the agency keep coming after his daughter? If she says no, she'll be lying, and he'll shoot her. If she tells the truth and says yes, she'll be admitting that she's going to attempt to take away his daughter, (because the daughter is actually a parasite from another dimension that has planted Fake Memories in Ted's head) and Ted will shoot her because she's a threat to his child. The agent is painfully aware of this, gathers herself and tries to say yes but quickly explain why to Ted. He shoots her before she can more than a few words out. Fortunately for her, Death Is a Slap on the Wrist for NON agents.
  • The Lady, or the Tiger?, by Frank R. Stockton. A young man and a barbarian princess, the only daughter of the king, fall in love. Since this is Star-Crossed Lovers, specifically Forbidden Love, the young man is condemned to the possibility of gruesome death in the arena: He must choose between two doors. Behind one is a hungry tiger, and behind the other is a beautiful woman whom he must marry. When he looks to the barbarian princess (who knows which door holds which) for a hint, she faces a Morton's Fork, since whether her lover is killed or given to a hated rival, either way she will lose him. Although she chooses a door at the end of the story, we never find out what was behind it.
  • A case that only becomes clear later in Line of Delirium. While on the run from Imperial Security, Kay and Arthur board a cruise liner that is supposed to take them to Epsilon Volantis. However, they know that, in all likelihood, there will be ISS ships waiting for them, when the ship exits hyperspace. Arthur finds out that some of the passengers are getting off the ship early via a shuttle, as the ship is passing by the Dogar System. Kay manages to convince a woman to give up her seat on the shuttle to him by painting a pretty picture of Volantis and paying her a small fortune. As it turns out, the shuttle is captured by Darlock spies, who plan to turn all passengers into sleeper agents (effectively destroying the original personalities). It seems that the woman lucked out, right? Wrong. What Kay doesn't know is that a cult has become very popular on Volantis, and the woman ends up being sacrificed to the sun on her second day there.

    Examples M—R 
  • MAD issue #199 had a feature on real-life Morton's Forks. Example: If you don't pass all your classes in school, you will have to go to summer school (image of a glum-looking boy in a classroom while the sun shines outside). But if you do pass your classes, you will have to go to summer camp (image of a boy sewing a leather wallet in blistering heat while surrounded by mosquitoes).
  • Magic 2.0: In the third book, An Unwelcome Quest, Martin's group encounters AI constructs that resemble Martin's girlfriend, Gwen, but made sexier and more flirtatious. After the encounter, Gwen asks if Martin found them attractive. He correctly points out that there's no correct answer. If he says no, then he's obviously lying, because they look like Gwen and he finds Gwen attractive, and thus she'll be mad at him for lying. If he says yes, he's being truthful, again, because he already finds Gwen attractive, but she'll be mad anyway for finding sexier versions of herself attractive. Even this third option doesn't make her happy, but she at least drops the topic.
  • Used as an argument in Mistborn: Secret History. After his death, Kelsier meets the god who comforts the newly dead before they pass on to the afterlife. He also discovers that he has a limited amount of time in the Afterlife Antechamber before he fades, and the god doesn't have the power to stop this. So Kelsier says that if he's going to fade whether the god helps him or not, the god might as well comfort him by helping. Kelsier does find a way by picking hints out of the god's tangents.
  • A "Murphy's Laws of Parenting" book has a classic example, how to deal with the baby crying through the night. The book claims the wrong way is to comfort the baby every time he/she cries, which will reinforce the behavior, resulting in both parents getting little or no sleep. The right way is to ignore the crying until the baby stops on his/her own... resulting in both parents getting little or no sleep. (As most parents eventually learn, this sort of situation comes up very, very often).
  • The Neverending Story: Ygramul offers to bite Atreyu, which is fatal but allows him to teleport to the Southen Oracle and have an hour or so to live, or he can stay where he is and let the Nothing consume Fantastica. Subverted in that Ygramul points out the first option does allow for a sliver of hope for success, which does indeed pay off when the gnomes who find Atreyu at the Southern Oracle also happen to have a cure for the poison.
  • William Tenn's "Of All Possible Worlds" is about two catastrophic futures in which time-travel is invented, and a guy (essentially the same one) sent back from each to the moment when an ICBM test with a live nuclear warhead is carried out. The traveller's task is to change the position of the critical switch on the control panel. If in the correct position, the missile detonates in the middle of the Pacific as intended, leading to an epidemic which almost totally destroys human fertility; if in the only other possible position, it detonates in the Brazilian jungle, leading to a blight which wipes out the world's food crops.
  • In Prey, this is how Jack defeats the Nano bots infecting his wife and colleagues. He spikes the sprinkler system with a phage that is fatal to to Nano bots. Realizing this, Nano-Ricky disables the plants safety system. However Jack anticipated this and had his friend Mae fill the assembly line with the phage where it rapidly reproduces, causing the line to overheat. If infected-Ricky and infected-Julia don't turn on the safety system the assembly line will burst, filling the lab with the phage. If they turn it on, the phage in the sprinklers will destroy them. The infected-team, who are now doomed either way, choose to re-activate the safety network and get drenched with the phage.
  • In Players of Gor Tarl Cabot is given one of these: he is about to have a hunting sleen (think man-eating tiger, only Gorean and therefore worse) set upon him from a hundred yards away, and he can either stand his ground and be killed by it quickly, or panic and run into a pack of urts (think giant rats, only... etc.) where he will die from being eaten alive in hundreds of much smaller bites. His gleeful enemy informs him that many men think they will wait for the sleen, only for their nerve to fail them at the last moment and die of urt bites instead.
  • Although the actual fork doesn't appear, the original scenario crops up in The Redemption of Althalus by David Eddings. In his early days as a thief, Althalus visits an unfamiliar city, but is disappointed when his chosen target, thought to be very rich, turns out to have nothing but bare walls and run-down furniture in his house. He only finds out later that all the rich people pretend to have nothing in order to avoid taxes, and there was actually a large pile of money hidden under the floor. It's mentioned that there's a sort of escalating game where the people get better at hiding their money and the collectors get better at finding it (the target actually made his fortune as a carpenter building secret compartments for other people), but it seems this world hasn't had its equivalent of Morton show up yet.
  • In Rudyard Kipling's Rikki Tikki Tavi, the cobra Nagaina has the boy Teddy cornered at the breakfast table with his parents. As the family is frozen in terror, she hisses, "If you move, I strike. If you do not move, I strike."
  • In the classic story of Robin Hood, Robin is given the choice of hunting the Prince's deer and being arrested for destruction of royal property, and going against a bet, with the penalty being his execution. Robin chooses to hunt the deer to prove his skill and runs away before he can be executed.

    Examples S—Z 
  • Despite what the title is, the poem A Sadistic Choice alludes to this, as the subject, with low funds, has to choose between getting her illness (of what nature isn't said) treated or eating and there is no in-between, thus, if she chooses food, she delays treatment and, if she chooses medicine, she starves.
  • The Schrödinger's Cat Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson contains a somewhat fictionalized description of the British Double Cross System during the Second World War, which puts it explicitly in these terms. It's described as feeding "Strange Loops" to German intelligence—that is, bits of information which if believed lead to one false conclusion, and if disbelieved lead to a different false conclusion. The prototypical Strange Loop is said to be, "Most of your agents are working for us, and are feeding you Strange Loops."
  • In the fifth book of A Series of Unfortunate Events, the Baudelaires are placed under the ward of Prufrock Preparatory School, and Count Olaf follows them and is hired by the school as "Coach Genghis". He then uses this position to force the Baudelaires to run laps at night, exhausting them to the point where they're failing their classes (or job in Sunny's case). The sadistic Vice Principal then threatens to expell them if they can't pass a comprehensive test (or staple all of Nero's paperwork with no staples provided), which would then allow "Coach Genghis" to gain custody of the kids as a homeschool teacher. However, they have running exercises the night before the test, and not showing up would also result in Nero expelling the orphans. They get around this by having their new friends, the Quagmires, and a sack of flour go to their exercises in their place while they study for the test/make homemade staples. The Baudelaires pass, but Olaf catches on and exposes the deception, Nero expells the kids and Olaf makes off with the Quagmires.
  • When it all came down, if Charles Augustus Milverton of Sherlock Holmes had any dirt on you, he was going to ruin you late or soon. If you told him "publish and be damned", he'd make an example of you. If you capitulated to his Blackmail, then he would still ruin you when you no longer had the wherewithal to pay up.
  • This crops up a few times in A Song of Ice and Fire.
    • Ned Stark (and his whole family) was always going to get screwed by the start of a civil war, whatever move he made: too many other parties were wanting to spark one off, and he was a handy trigger on legs. Had he tried to turn Robert's offer down to stay North, Robert would have been faced with a rebellion in Court if he didn't try to take "the traitor in the North" down a few pegs. Yet, leaving the North to do the King's bidding still wound up making "traitors" out of the Starks. Had Catelyn stayed behind with Bran and Rickon with convincing excuses, war would still have found her, with the others very likely dead, captured and/or married in unions disadvantageous to House Stark.
    • Daenarys Targaryen can try being The High Queen all she likes, but being a foreign conqueror with three dragons along with it was always going to alienate a significant portion of any of the places she would try to rule, whatever socio-political tricks she was willing to experiment with. The only thing that could possibly differ would be which particular segments of the population would see her as nothing but a disruptive terror to oppose.
    • It's easy to blame Robb's naivete for the various betrayals that happened to him. But, the reality was that the ever-"trustworthy" Freys could have easily found a way to have him over a contractual barrel whatever he'd done, depending on which direction they judged the political wind was blowing. He was effectively screwed the minute he needed to cross the aptly-named Green Fork. He just handed them the simplest way to get into bed with Tywin Lannister, not the only one.
    • Note to anybody either defending or besieging Winterfell at any point: win, lose or draw... it's going to suck (almost all sieges are depicted as miserable to suffer through, but Winterfell adds "large to guard, solidly built, a tricky position and a horribly unforgiving climate" into the mix). Your plans won't work as planned. Almost everybody involved is doomed to suffer, no matter what moves you try to make. If you're not a Stark, the North won't take kindly to you trying to either rule from there or hold up in it, however nice or nasty you try to play it. To the North, Winterfell is of the Starks, and the Starks are of it — nothing but the end of both will change that attitude. It's explicitly not your usual "take the capital; rule the region" scenario, however tempting it is to make that assumption.
  • One of the stories in The Stinky Cheese Man has Jack the Narrator captured by the Giant. "Once upon a time, there was a giant. The giant squeezed Jack and said, 'Tell me a better story or I will grind your bones to make my bread. And when you're finished, I will grind your bones to make my bread anyway. Ho ho ho." Jack is able to get out of this by telling a Nested Story (Jack cleared his throat and began his story: "Once upon a time there was a giant...") until the giant falls asleep.
  • Temeraire: Lord Kaneko is duty bound by his office to deliver all foreigners to the State for interrogation, and by his religious vows to grant Sacred Hospitality to any person in need, causing him some trouble when he finds a foreign traveler unconscious on the road. Said traveler refuses to Take a Third Option by committing Seppuku and resolves the dilemma by escaping while Kaneko is stalling for time.
  • In Dan Abnett's Warhammer 40,000 novel Brothers of the Snake, Khiron asks to be exposed to the sea serpents of their home world: if they eat him, he is acquitted and will be mourned, and if they refuse, his fellow Space Marines will know he is tainted and execute him. He wants to Get It Over With, as the evidence against him is very strong. Fortunately, new evidence turns up in time to rescue him. This is only Morton's Fork due to Values Dissonance. To the reader, the outcome is equally bad either way (death). The Adeptus Astartes, however, are extremely honor-conscious; a fatal acquittal is a FAR better fate in their eyes than being seen as tainted.
  • Soviet-era Lithuanian literature was quite fond of this. E.g., one well-known short story is about an old man who is brutally beaten and dragged away (possibly to be murdered) by the Nazis for speaking Lithuanian, which was prohibited during their occupation. Consequently, his daughter stops speaking Lithuanian and does whatever she can to please the occupiers—so they brutally rape her. In other words, whether or not you collaborate with the enemy, you're in for mind-shatteringly terrible physical violence!
  • The Franz Kafka short story The Trial involves this. The protagonist's denial of guilt is taken as a guilty plea, and spawned the related concept of a "Kafka trap-" Only a the worst sort of criminal would plead innocent (of whatever he was accused of; we never find out).


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