The Sons and the Spears

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Individually we are weak, like a single twig, but as a bundle we form a mighty faggot.
Martin Prince, The Simpsons, "The Haw-Hawed Couple"

An old story, Older Than Feudalism. The story goes something like this:

There is a king, said king has several sons. They don't get along. Fearing for the safety of his kingdom, the king decides to teach his sons a valuable lesson.

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.

Examples of The Sons and the Spears include:

Anime and Manga

Comic Books

  • When Tintin first meets Chang, the latter cites this as a Chinese proverb.


  • 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:

Maurice: *signing* Why cookie Rocket?
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.
  • 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.

Folk Lore

  • 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.
  • 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 a Byzantine chronicle.
  • The Bulgars have a cautionary variant: The sons *didn't* listen and the great Bulgarian empire of Kotrag broke up.
  • There are also legends associated with this motif concerning the founding of the Aztec Triple Alliance.
  • Ecclesiastes 4:12 - Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly 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."


Newspaper Comics

  • 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.

Real Life

  • The Roman fasces, a bundle of sticks tied around an axe, draws on the same symbolism. These fasces were carried by the Lictors, consular bodyguards. It is the origin of the word fascism.
  • 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.

Video Games


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.

Western Animation