Well, not cheating, necessarily… let’s just say liberal interpretation of the rules.
You know those tasks in fairy tales that the hero must accomplish to win the girl? Or the kingdom? Or whatever it is that they want? As the result of many wiki walks and forum lurking, I have compiled a list of tasks that should be completely impossible, but really aren’t if you’re clever enough. Who knows, they could be useful, in case you ever run into a smart-alecky fae, or write a book where the main character has such misfortune, or if you just want to make sure your boyfriend/girlfriend is clever enough. Two notes before we get started:
1) These are not the kind of impossible tasks that are only accomplished with the help of swarms of random animals, witches, or Hermits™ of various kinds. These are the kind of solutions that could reasonably be done with tools we all have around us, by normal people. Because not all of us have a freaking personal genie, Aladdin…
2) Wording is key. Keep that in mind, if you ever get trapped by the Fae or by a group of vicious lawyers. The task is all in the wording, and a single word can dictate whether a task is truly, truly impossible or just your regular breed of impossible. For example, there’s a big possibility gap between “eat a mountain of bread by yourself” and “eat a mountain of bread”.
Without further ado, bring on the tasks!
Carrying water in a sieve. This one’s a classic, but is fortunately not as hard as it is old. Solutions: Plug the holes with mud or moss so that the sieve can carry water. If that’s not practical, or doesn’t actually work (I’ll admit, I’ve never actually tried it myself), there is another way. Carry the water inside of another container placed within the sieve. That way, you’re still technically carrying water within the sieve. Technicalities are beautiful. (On a side note, remember the container within a container trick. Anytime you need to trap or carry something that should be impossible, just whip out this neat little solution. Example: Trapping smoke within a cage or some such thing.)
Making a rope out of ashes. Also a classic, this one shows up in several old tales, with several different solutions. Solution one: make a rope out of straw, then burn it. Easy. But if your going for a stricter interpretation of ’ash rope’, you could soak a rope with salt water and let it dry, then burn it. I heard it will keep it’s shape- but then again, never actually tried it.
Task: Buy with one coin an item that will fill an entire room. Some failed solutions are trying to fill the room with grain or feathers. Honestly, I like the feather idea (how fun!), but it doesn’t cut it. The real solution? Buy a candle, and fill the room with light.
Getting an object (jewel, crown, stuffed duck, etc.) from the middle of a large rug without tools or touching the rug with your feet. Oh, and the rug is too big to just stretch over. So, roll up the rug until you get to the middle. Simple. Even my little sister solved this one, admittedly after coming up with a bunch of other weird solutions involving technology unavailable to your average medieval bloke. (No, you cannot build a robot and have it get the crown for you!! Why? BECAUSE YOU CAN”T!!!! Do you have robot-building material in your pocket? HUH? Do you? Besides, do you even know how to build a robot?!? I thought not…)
Have a man dive into a lake without getting his hair wet. This one is obviously an older one, because the modern invention of swim caps pretty much renders it pointless. But, let’s just say you don’t happen to have a swim cap. Or maybe you’re just the cool kind of person who wants to go with the cleverer, more awesome solution. In that case, what you would do is find a bald man, and have him do it. Or, if you’re desperate (really desperate, if you happen to be a girl), shave your head and do it yourself.
Oh no! Now your task is to fight someone (or do some active thing- run a marathon, perhaps?) without spilling a drop out of a full cup of water. And let’s just assume you’re not Jackie Chan and can’t do this through sheer skill and martial arts prowess. (And if you are Jackie Chan, may I just take this moment to thank you for visiting my blog?) Now, if the judge is stupid and words this one wrong, you could always just set the dang thing down before you begin. But if they specify that you can’t let go of the cup, what do you do? Drink it!
There’s this big bedroom, with a bed on one side, and a candle on the other. Your task? Blow out the candle and make it to the bed before the room goes dark. And trust me, no matter how fast you think you are, you are not faster than the speed of light. The solution: do it during the daytime with the windows open. That way the room is certainly not going dark anytime soon. Alternately, if the room has no windows, you could always pick up the candle, sit down on the bed, then blow the candle out.
Here’s a couple of impossible tasks, from the tale The Wise Old Woman. What if you had to run a single thread through a long, crooked log? Then you tie the thread to an ant, put honey on the other side of the log, and the ant will run it through. (See, there’s a proper example of a creature of some sort helping you. Notice the completely normal behavior of the ant- it’s not talking, offering you advice, or sorting piles of grain at your request…) Next, what if you had to make a drum that sounds without being beaten? You could seal a bumblebee inside a small hand drum, which will beat itself against the sides to try and escape. However, my little sister thought this was cheating, as it is still technically “beating” the drum. In an unusual bought of cleverness, she suggested you could go into an echoing cave, beat the drum once, and listen to the echo. That way, the drum would make sound without being beaten. Two solutions- take your pick.
Sorting ash from lentils, or barley from wheat, or (huge piles) of any such annoying grain. Note, this task isn’t so much impossible as it is really, really annoying. If you added a time limit, then it could become an impossible task. And there are two sets of rules for tasks of this nature. In one, you have to sort the grains, meaning both types must be there in the end. In the other, you merely have to separate two or more annoying things- it doesn’t matter where they end up. For the second kind, you could get a flock of birds to eat the lentils or the type of seed they like. Hey- they’re separated, even if those lentils are not coming back. For the first kind, where you have to actually have the piles, the only solution I can come up with is using wind to separate them. Such as blowing the ashes into a bag. Admittedly, not the best, but Cinderella’s solution involves talking to birds. *sigh*
Cutting water. Or any liquid. Solution: freeze the water. There’s not much to elaborate on, really.
Next, the fiendish task of capturing a rainbow… There are two solutions to this one. Firstly, you could put a mirror inside a jar, and angle it to reflect a rainbow. Secondly, (if you happen to be really rich), you could always show up with an opal!
And finally, we have some riddle-style commands, such as having to appear before a challenger neither naked nor clothed, neither riding nor walking, in neither day nor night. To get around this tricky set of conditions, make like a fish and wear a fishnet, show up with one foot on a goat, and at twilight (or an eclipse, if you’re the dramatic type). You could also crawl, but hobbling along balanced on a goat is just cooler.
Very lastly, here’s a rather riddle-ish solution, from a character who could have a career as a lawyer. (From Ironside, by Holly Black) The faerie Kaye is forbidden from seeing the one she loves until she can find a faerie that can tell a lie, but is promised his hand if she can. She solves this by claiming she is able to lie, without mentioning that she means lay down on the ground. Yep, a promising future in the law field!
Well, that’s all for my comprehensive list of impossible tasks and how to solve them. You could also check out this page on TV Tropes (I got some of the tasks off of there), but I found it was mostly a list of books and stories that had impossible tasks in them, not the tasks themselves. Not exactly the straight list I was looking for. Actually, there was no list like that, so I just made it myself.
Now for a special addition: step-by-step solving ! Here’s some steps for coming up with solutions for these kind of things by yourself. Let’s go with a well known impossible task from the song Scarborough Fair, which doesn’t have a solution presented as part of the song. “Tell her to make me a cambric shirt… without a seam or needle work.”
Hmm… seemingly impossible at first glance, right? Well, never fear! Lawyer-man and his comprehensive dictionary are here!
The first step is to look up the definition for “seam”, to see how liberal a meaning we can get away with, here. Copied word for word from Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary: seam \sém\ n 1: the joining of two pieces (as of cloth or leather) by sewing usually near the edge.
Well, yay! That makes things easy. All we can’t do here is sew. So, what other ways are there to join two pieces of cloth together? The solution is to use glue, and just stick the piece of the shirt together, technically (man, I love that word) leaving no seams. If you need to go medieval, you could use bookbinder’s glue. Or dried honey, if you want to be a druid and go eco-friendly.
Unfortunately, if you continue reading the dictionary, there is a second definition of seam that seems to eliminate this solution. ²seam vt 1 a: to join by sewing b: to join as if by sewing. Well, crap. A seam can also be joined as if by sewing. If you have a strict task-giver, glue might not cut it (remember: it always depends on the wording and how adherent to being a jerk the judge is. I would say most would pass the glue thing, since it follows the first and primary definition of seam, and the other definition appears to refer to welding.) But just in case… It looks like Lawyer-man just has to go deeper into the exciting world of definitions, loopholes, exceptions, and dictionaries!
If we look at the definition of shirt, Webster’s own tells us that a shirt is really “a garment for the upper part of the of the body: as a cloth garment usually having a collar, sleeves, a front opening, and a tail.” Well, alright then. There is one very important word in this definition that allows success- the word usually. Which means “not always.” So a shirt usually has sleeves and whatnot, but it doesn’t have to. Which means any garment covering the upper body is technically (there’s that word again) a shirt.
Square piece of cloth. Cut a hole in the middle. Boom. Poncho.
Oh, the heroic work of lawyers.
PS. If you have any more of these tasks, or another solution to any of the ones mentioned above, please add them in the comments!