“Impossible Tasks” in Folklore: Wondrous Tradition Spanning Continents

When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female; and when you fashion eyes in the place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, and a likeness in place of a likeness; then will you enter the Kingdom” (Jesus Christ, Gospel of Thomas).

In many folklore traditions, mythologies and fairy-tales around the world, characters have to overcome or endure certain trials as a penance, to prove their worth (to marry a princess, for example), break a curse or claim their ultimate prize. These trials may be extremely hard (The Labours of Hercules) or even impossible to overcome or solve. At one end, there are riddles to be guessed, such as the famous riddle of the Sphinx from the Greek mythology (“What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, three legs in the evening, and no legs at night?”) or the puzzles in the stories of Persian poet Nizami, which also found their way to Puccini’s opera Turandot, but another extreme is a truly impossible task set to frighten and confuse characters or heroes. These paradoxical, “undoable” commands often have a wondrous effect.

King Heimer and Aslaug [1856] by Johan August Malmström

The setting of “impossible tasks” seems to be an ancient folklore tradition. For example, in Norse mythology, to tame the ferocious wolf Fenrir, the Gods ordered the dwarves to forge one special chain out of six impossible things: “the sound of a cat’s footfall, the beard of a woman, the roots of a mountain, the sinews of a bear, the breath of a fish, and the spittle of a bird.” The result is the binding called Gleipnir, which is both thin as silk and strong as iron. Also, according to the thirteenth century Icelandic Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok, Aslaug or Kráka was a heroine raised by her foster father Heimer, who hid the beautiful girl in his harp because he was concerned for her safety as she was too beautiful. She was soon discovered by peasants Áke and Grima who raised her as their own, but not before murdering her foster father as they believed his harp contained treasure. When one day the soldiers of King Ragnar saw Aslaug bathing, they told the King of her beauty, but, before summoning her to his palace, Ragnar told Aslaug that she could only come to him “neither dressed nor undressed, neither fasting nor eating, neither by foot, horse, wagon…nor boat, and neither alone nor in company”…Moreover, “it could not be day or night, a month or a year.” Aslaug went to the King dressed in a fishing net, biting an onion, balancing one foot on a sledge and the other on a goat, and with a dog as her only companion. She also went at dusk and on the third day of Yule, which was considered to be outside the normal count of the year. Needless to say, Ragnar was impressed.

In Celtic folklore, impossible tasks can be seen in narratives where a suitor is given a trial before his wedding (Culhwch and Olwen), and some of this tradition even sipped into popular songs. Scarborough Fair is a well-known ballad, but its origin may be traced to a Scottish ballad The Elfin Knight, circa 1670. In this story, an elf threatens to take a young woman as his bride unless she can perform an impossible task. In the original lyrics of Scarborough Fair, this tradition of listing impossible tasks was preserved:

“O, where are you going?” “To Scarborough fair,”
    Savoury sage, rosemary, and thyme;
“Remember me to a lass who lives there,
    For once she was a true love of mine.

“And tell her to make me a cambric shirt,
    Savoury sage, rosemary, and thyme,
Without any seam or needlework,
    And then she shall be a true love of mine.

And tell her to wash it in yonder dry well,
    Savoury sage, rosemary, and thyme,
Where no water sprung, nor a drop of rain fell,
    And then she shall be a true love of mine.

Impossible tasks are also very common in Slavic folklore. In one such Slavic fairy-tale titled Go To I Know Not Where, Bring Back I Know Not What (Поди туда-не знаю куда, принеси то-не знаю что), one Tsar wants to marry Marya the Princess who can do magic, but Andrey the Arbalist stands in his way. So, to get rid of Andrey, the Tsar orders him to do a number of difficult tasks and, later, one impossible one as he tells Andrey to “go there he does not know where”, and to “get that he does not know what”. Similarly, in the popular Russian fairy-tale Twelve Months, which was modelled on an earlier Czech folk-tale, an orphaned girl is sent by her evil stepmother into the woods in the middle of winter to pick some violets. To rescue the girl and complete this impossible task, twelve young men or the personified Twelve Months appear and agree to change the order of their appearance in the calendar so that the girl can collect her violets during the winter season. Also, in Yershov’s fairy-tale poem The Little Humpbacked Horse, which some still attribute to Pushkin, the old Tsar is left flabbergasted when the young maiden demands that he becomes young and handsome by jumping into three cauldrons filled with (i) boiling milk; (ii) boiling water; and (iii) freezing water. Of course, Tsar first wants the young Ivan to try out this miracle transformation first, and the Little Humpbacked Horse comes to Ivan’s rescue.

Further afield, an interesting impossible or near-impossible task can also be seen in one seventeenth-century Neapolitan fairy-tale The Flea by Italian poet Giambattista Basile, which is also part of The Tale of Tales collection of fairy-tales. In this story, one king raised his flea to be the size of a sheep, skinned it and then told every man in his kingdom that whoever guesses to which creature the skin belongs would marry his daughter the Princess. The task is “impossible” since a flea could not be of any size to be skinned and thus “guessed”. However, an ogre guesses that the skin belongs to a flea and takes the young Princess away. On the other side of the world, there is the tenth century Japanese Tale of the Bamboo Cutter which tells of Kaguya, a Princess that asks from her suitors impossible tasks, including bringing the legendary robe of the fire-rat of China and one coloured jewel from a dragon’s neck. There are many other examples, including from France – fairy-tale Donkeyskin and South Africafairy-tale The Lost Spear. As the above examples show, impossible tasks are often performed by the hero’s “helpers” simply because the hero is associated with us, the readers/listeners or ordinary people, and only some creature possessing truly supernatural powers could have accomplished them. However, the fact that these tasks are “doable” in the end satisfies our inner desire to believe that miracles do happen and that the impossible can be done.

Riding a Flying Carpet [1880] by Viktor Vasnetsov 

At times, however, instead of some “helpers” performing impossible tasks, objects do so. A magic or flying carpet appears in the Arabic collection of tales One Thousand and One Nights, and with its help, not only the heroes of the Arabian myths could accomplish many seemingly impossible feats, but also the Slavic folklore hero Ivan the Fool. Moreover, numerous objects in the Harry Potter world, which also borrowed much from the British/European folklore tradition, are a testament to seemingly impossible tasks being easily accomplished with the help from some all-powerful and supernatural “devices”. These may possess knowledge beyond human or an ability which is incomparable to those of mere mortals. Thus, the dead can be returned back to life (the Resurrection Stone), one can prolong one’s life indefinitely or turn any metal into gold (the Philosopher’s Stone), visible things may become invisible (the Invisibility Cloak), one’s inner desires may be revealed (the Mirror of Erised), and the performance of impossible feats of magic accomplished (the Elder Wand), among many other examples.

Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!“, exclaims the Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and it seems that the very prospect of some seeming impossibility entices us, readers around the world, like few other things do, maybe the same way that paradoxes appeal to our innate sense of curiosity and mystery. I am concluding with this riddle from James Joyce’s Ulysses: “The cock crew/The sky was blue/The bells in heaven/Were striking eleven/’Tis time for this poor soul/To go to heaven“. (Answer (highlight): the fox burying his grandmother under a hollybush“. Yep.)

8 thoughts on ““Impossible Tasks” in Folklore: Wondrous Tradition Spanning Continents

  1. Such a wonderful post! I didn’t know many of those tales and loved to read more about them. I never thought too much about “impossible tasks” before, but now that I think of it, they are present in many stories, books and fiction works!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I have just wanted to post two replies on your Montreal posts, but was unable as I don’t see the “publish” your reply button to post them after my replies are ready. I don’t know if this is just my browser problem or something else; thought I’d just let you know.

      Like

      1. Hi Diana! Thanks for letting me know! I have noticed the same in some other blogs yesterday: the “publish” button for comments didn’t appear… It only did when I hover my mouse under the reply box but it is a bit strange, I’ll contact WordPress!

        Like

  2. What an interesting topic you touched on! always want a person to push the boundaries of the possible. and where to do it – if not in fairy tales. Therefore, all over the world, people hope that they can do everything – you just need to want to. And they broadcast this to others in their folk art.

    Liked by 1 person

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