Between the salt water and the sea-strand,
Plough it with a lamb's horn,
Sow it all over with one peppercorn,
Reap it with a sickle of leather,
And gather it up with a rope made of heather,
Then he'll be the true love of mine."
The Impossible Task is a favorite theme in myths and legends, folklore and Fairy Tales the world over, and is Older Than Feudalism. The task might be undertaken to win a boon, or a bride, to gain land, to break a Curse, because everyone will know about it if you do it, to prove your worth to Baba Yaga (who may agree to be your mentor if you succeed), or because your Evil Uncle wants you—the rightful heir—out of the way. Some creators try to set up one as the Fantastic Fragility flaw.
In general, the person who assigns the task does not expect the hero to succeed and is trying to get rid of them or to make an excuse to not keep their end of a deal. Sometimes the Impossible Task is a quest, often involving killing an unkillable beast, but in other cases the task is a simple paradox or riddle.
Sometimes, the one making the task will be bound by their promise should the hero succeed, or face dire consequences if they refuse. On the other hand, it may be a form of The Cake Is a Lie when the king really doesn't want to hand out the Standard Hero Reward, and the may go on and on with the Impossible Tasks until finally one blows up in his face, or he decides You Can't Fight Fate.
On the other hand, sometimes the task-giver is pleased at the hero's successthey can now be sent out again and again and again!
On the other-other hand, the task-giver may admit that they didn't expect the task to be completed and, on the basis that they never intended to give out the reward under any circumstance...tells the hero off. What happens next tends to depend on the age group the work's for.
- Carrying water in a sieve (stop the holes with mud or moss, carry something able to hold water in the sieve)
- Sorting a huge pile of grains and lentils in a single night (if you helped a wounded bird or ant earlier, it will call its friends to help you)
- Making a rope of ashes (make a rope out of straw, then burn it)
- Appearing before the challenger neither naked nor clothed, neither riding nor walking, neither in night nor day... etc. (come wrapped in a fishing net, with one foot on a goat, at twilight)
Sometimes the challenge is answered like a riddle (e.g. when told to "Bring fire wrapped in paper," the hero returns with a paper lantern), sometimes by finding a witty way to demonstrate its impossibility (e.g. the king tells the peasant to bring him "yogurt made with bull's milk;" the peasant's daughter arrives the next day saying, "My father can't bring you that yogurt you asked for because he's giving birth to a baby.") Sometimes the hero returns a demand for appropriate supplies that are also an impossible task; given some thread to weave a scarf, the peasant's clever daughter sends the tsar a twig and says she needs the loom made of it. Tasks made impossible by exhaustively excluding all possibilities generally entail a Liminal Being or a Liminal Time, where something that is half between two possibilities, and so not fully either, can do it.
These fall into three categories.
- Feats that should be too hard, but the hero is that badass (like killing one hundred Philistines).
- Feats that sound like they break the laws of physics, but the hero treats it as a riddle, exploits a loophole in the requests (like carrying water in a sieve) or succeeds purely because he didn't know it was supposed to be impossible.
- A Chekhov's Gun magic spell solves the problem (like in the Grimm's fairy tale of the seven servants, or Aladdin). The Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter is useful for that.
Sometimes, the hero doesn't solve the task at all, but rather by being kind to others before the task is given. Be it befriending Androcles' Lion, freeing a Benevolent Genie, or otherwise gaining the Disproportionate Reward of a Sidekick Ex Machina.
Another recent variant, if the curse lasts long enough, is to wait until modern or future technology makes the impossible possible. Almost always something the witches and warlocks didn't count on. See Postmodern Magik.
Related to No Man of Woman Born, We Do the Impossible and Cutting the Knot. The Engagement Challenge is often an Impossible Task. The Snipe Hunt can be a comic form of it. See also Impossible Task Instantly Accomplished.
- In AKB49 Renai Kinshi Jourei, producer Akimoto of the idol group AKB48 likes to give tasks which are effectively impossible to the trainee members to force them to improve themselves, such as requesting them to attract a full house performance within 2 months at the price of 10000 yen per ticket (performances by regular members only cost 3000 yen per ticket) or face disbandment.
- Since Mikado of Hayate the Combat Butler wants others to think that there's a possibility of gaining his inheritance from the rightful inheritor, he's set up several 'Impossible Tasks' for them.
- The first, make Nagi cry and apologize which Hayate has accomplished twice before it's revoked.
- After that, it was to steal a Mineral Macguffin her Battle Butler carried. Nagi herself destroyed the stone when it was revealed (to Hayate) that it was the connection a great spirit would be able to use to permanently inhabit the butler's first love interest. Now she's having to learn to live without the backing of the inheritance.
- Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple
- Takeda tried to convince James Shiba to train him. James promptly gives him several impossible tasks to get rid of him. Takeda completes the tasks anyway, and James takes it as a sign that fate must want him to train Takeda.
- Elder says that no one can date Miu unless they can defeat him in combat. Since he is known by names like "Invincible Superman" and "The Man Without Enemies", what he means to say is that he doesn't want anyone dating Miu.
- Sword Art Online: In the Grand Quest of ALO (Episode 22), the guardians are impossible to kill due to their huge numbers. On top of that, once Kirito reaches the door beyond the guardians, he discovers it is locked and cannot be opened by normal players.
- In Preacher, Jesse Custer punishes one of the Big Bad's flunkies by compelling him to go sit on a beach and count three million grains of sand. He does it. The hard way. As far as Custer's punishments go, this is getting off lightly. But it nearly drove him mad. Jesse realizes he'd screwed up and makes amends by using the same powers that drove him to the task to forget the whole thing.
- Erstwhile has this in paradox form, while telling "The Farmer's Clever Daughter".
King: Come to me, not dressed, not naked, not on a horse, not by carriage, not on the road, not off the road, and if you do, I'll marry you.
- From the same comic, "All Fur" has a princess who tries to dissuade her father from marrying her by telling him that she'll marry him only after he gives her a dress as golden as the sun, a dress as silvery as the moon, a dress as bright as the stars, and a cloak made up of the furs of all the animals in his kingdom. Naturally, he succeeds at all of these tasks and she's forced to flee.
- Werner has an impossible (for a good reason) entry ritual for former Bhagwan sect members who want to be his followers: They have to open a bottle of beer with a raw egg. Everyone actually tries.
- Laff-A-Lympics: Yogi uses these words to describe the job of being the Yogi Yahooeys' cook.
- "Rumpelstiltskin", where the eventual princess is forced to spin straw into gold. Also when the eponymous character asks her to guess his name.
- Child Ballad #2, "The Elfin Knight", and its folk-processed descendant "Scarborough Fair."
- The horde of chores heaped upon Cinderella by her Wicked Stepmother were of this nature. Not impossible in and of themselves, but all heaped together they make an insurmountable task.
"I have emptied a dish of lentils into the ashes for thee, if thou hast picked them out again in two hours, thou shalt go with us."
- In Aschenputtel (the German version of Cinderella), the Wicked Stepmother set such a task to let her go to the ball:
- The Russian fairy tale of "Vasilissa the Beautiful" involves many of these. Vasilisa's Wicked Stepmother sends her to fetch fire from Baba Yaga, expecting the girl to be eaten alive. Baba Yaga instead sets her to work on tasks that include threshing a roomful of wheat, stripping 10,000 ears of corn, and picking out a wagonload of poppy seeds from black flour dust, each in a single night. With the help of her magic doll she completes all the tasks and retrieves the magic fire, and when she brings it home, its light burns her wicked stepmother and stepsisters to ashes.
- A Jewish Fairy Tale: The king told some guy to tell him the number of hairs on his head, the number of stars in the sky, and the center of the earth. The guy plucks a hair from the king's head and says "one fewer than there were before", the number of stars in the sky is equal to the number of hairs in his donkey's tail, and the center of the earth is where his donkey stamps its foot. When the king gets upset with those answers, the guy basically says "if you're so smart, then you tell me." He gets to go free.
- Similar to an Arabic one (that for some reason the Chinese love to tell) where the king asks the thief the first two questions, then "When will you die?" as the final question. The thief replies, after convincingly answering the first two "I will die the day before you do". The king recalls his assassins.
- The stepmother in The Well At the World's End sends her stepdaughter to the title well with a sieve.
- In the Brothers Grimm tale "The Peasant's Clever Daughter", a king promises he will marry the heroine if she can appear before him "not clothed, not naked, not riding, not walking, not in the road, and not out of the road". The peasant's daughter wraps herself in a fishnet that is being dragged by a donkey along the edge of the road.
- In The Black Thief and the Knight of the Glen the stepmother plays a game of cards with her stepsons so she can force them on an impossible quest.
- In the Russian Fairy Tale Go To I Know Not Where, Bring Back I Know Not What, the command in the title was used to get rid of a husband. (Fortunately, his wife could turn into a bird and fly off.)
- In another version she had her house turned into a hill and herself into a rock instead, unsealed only when her husband came back.
- From the Arabian Nights: Aladdin gives the sultan a bunch of large jewels in exchange for the sultan's daughter's hand in marriage. The sultan tells Aladdin to bring 40 slaves carrying 40 trays all filled with those kinds of jewels and then he will consider. The sultan considers this impossible. Aladdin of course has a genie, so problem solved.
- In The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, the Moon Princess Kaguya grows tired of being pestered by her five suitors but cannot just blow them off, so she demands they retrieve legendary artifacts in hopes that they'll give up. Three try to trick her with fakes and she denounces them, one gives up and goes home, and the fifth dies trying. Eventually the Moon itself loses patience and sends heralds to bring their princess home.
- In The Wonderful Birch, the Wicked Witch takes her daughter to the feast, and orders her stepdaughter to pick barleycorns from the cinders while she's gone.
- In The Fish and the Ring, Vasilii the Unlucky, The Devil With the Three Golden Hairs, The King Who Would Be Stronger Than Fate, and many other fairy tales, a man who discovers that his child is doomed to marry a poor child tries to kill them with many tasks, before and after the wedding; in the end, he fails.
- In "The Grateful Beasts", Ferko is to cut all the corn in a single night, gather it all into barns the next night, and summon all the wolves in the land. It stops with the wolves because they're wolves.
- The fairy tale type Kind and Unkind Girls often features this.
- In The Three Little Men in the Wood, the stepdaughter is sent out to gather strawberries in the snow. She meets and is polite to the title men, and they send her to a place with strawberries and give her more blessings. So the Wicked Stepmother sends her own daughter, who is rude and so finds nothing.
- In Frau Holle, when the girl drops her shuttle in the well, her Wicked Stepmother orders her to fetch it out again.
- In The Two Caskets, the Wicked Stepmother sets a spinning competition between her daughter and her stepdaughter, with the first getting good flax and the second coarse stuff that no one would spin.
- Many, many folktales of both European and Chinese origin feature a number of brothers with improbable talents given impossible tasks for fame, fortune, the Emperor's service or the hand of a princess. Sometimes they resemble each other closely enough to pass for the same person capable of a wide range of miracles. One specific example called "The Five Chinese Brothers": the first (who can hold the sea in his mouth, which he uses to fish) accidentally drowns a man upon releasing the water and is condemned. Each time, the brother begs to go home so as to say goodbye to his mother, and switches with one of his other (identical) quintuplets. Thus one man supposedly survives beheading (#2 has an indestructible neck), drowning (#3 can stretch his legs long enough to always stand above the waves), burning (#4 is fireproof), and being buried alive (#5 doesn't need to breathe). They finally take this as a sign of his innocence and let him go.
- The third classic example is from a Swedish saga, in which the full list of conditions is that the heroine cannot visit the king by foot, by horse, in a wagon, nor in a boat. She could not visit him either dressed or undressed. It could not be day or night, a month or a year, and the moon couldn't be waxing or waning. As described above, she wore a fishing-net, balanced one foot on a sledge and the other on a goat, and went at dusk. She also went on the third day of Yule, which was considered to lie outside the normal count of the year.
- In "The Three Aunts", the girl is made to do fantastic amounts of spinning, weaving and sewing in a day, when she actually can do none of them.
- In The Dancing Water, the Singing Apple, and the Speaking Bird, the wicked aunts send the children after the three things of the title to kill them.
- In The White Dove, the prince is set to sort feathers and chop wood, and magically prevented from either. The dove knows the trick, though.
- In Jesper Who Herded the Hares, Jesper first uses the help of ants, then a magic whistle, and finally blackmail to evade the task.
- In The Fire-Bird, the Horse of Power, and the Princess Vasilissa, the archer is set to produce the firebird, then the princess, then her wedding dress.
- In Prunella, she is forced to do tasks that are only doable with the witch's son's help.
- In Fred Saberhagen's Empire Of The East, Ardneh makes a threatening prophecy that echoes Indra's vow in the Indian myth above. (The myth is even referred to in-universe.) Ardneh fulfills the requirements almost the same way Indra did, with a few key differences.
- In Schmat-Razum, this is done to the archer as a Uriah Gambit.
Go ye back therefore to the Tsar and bid him command the archer to journey across three times nine lands to the little forest monster Muzhichek, who is as high as the knee, with mustaches seven versts long, and to bring hither his invisible servant, Schmat-Razum, who lives in his master's pocket and doth all that he orders him. Bid the Tsar demand this of the archer, and he shall have his will. For while Muzhichek indeed exists, no man can find his dwelling nor perceive his invisible servant, and Taraban will wander all his life long, though he live forever, without accomplishing the task, and the Tsar may have his beautiful wife.
- In the Grimm fairy tale Six Who Made Their Way in the World, the protagonists are assigned various Impossible Tasks, such as drinking a lake, but as each of the Six has a special ability, the tasks are achieved and the Six receive their reward.
- In the Brothers Grimm's "Spindle, Shuttle, and Needle", the prince has set himself one: he wants a bride who is both the richest and the poorest of women.
- In a German bawdy story, a clever peasant used this as WishPlosion device to get out of a Deal with the Devil: (cue Fartillery) "Catch it and tie a knot into it!" Even the Devil can't do it, so he broke the contract, and the peasant's soul is saved.
- In The Heir to Prince Manor Snape tells the story of how the first of his Prince ancestors fell in love with a fae woman and her father asked him to build a house which was half in the mortal realm and half in the faerie realm, to represent the union-to-be.
- Hope for the Heartless is set after the events of The Black Cauldron. The Horned King, the deceased Big Bad of the movie, is suddenly contacted by the Fates in his endless Hell. For unclear reasons, they resurrect him for the period of 18 months. During that time, he must do something absurd in his ears: he must get a human to love him despite his sins. If he doesn't do this, his spirit shall be trapped inside the Black Cauldron for all eternity. If he succeeds... the only thing made clear is that he shall be free of the Cauldron.
- Kitsune no Ken: Fist of the Fox: Prior to the Hyuga family's annual ball, Hiashi gives Naruto a set of challenges he needs to complete in order to gain entry to the party; among these is the clearly impossible stipulation of being in two different places at the same time, with evidence that the task was done. Naruto accomplishes this by going to the border of Fire and Lightning Counties and standing with one foot on each side of the border-linethe two counties are geographically separate despite neighboring each otherand he records the act on his phone as proof.
- The Tipaan arc in The Keys Stand Alone: The Soft World is centered around an impossible task given by the Circlethe four have to somehow retrieve an extremely well-protected musical instrument. (Paul: We'll have a bash. We're a bit good at the impossible. John: Especially the impossible at a luxury resort.) They confound everyone by succeeding in a completely unexpected way (basically by being nice), though it turns out that the instrument is actually a fake.
- The Flash Sentry Chronicles: The third test of The Great Test is designed to be this. Flash is given the task to cross a twenty foot wide lava pit safely while he has been stripped of his ability to fly. After considering all possibilities, Flash comes to the difficult conclusion that there is no way for him to safely cross the lava pit. This turns out to have been the correct decision, since he realized the task presented was impossible and he didn't attempt it, passing the final test and proving he has the judgment and skills to be a leader.
- In The Golden Rule, several of the Avengers are tricked into eating golden apples, resulting in them having to pass a series of tests to become gods, requiring they pass two out of three tests or else be executed. Odin decides Tony's second test is to lift Mjolnir, something both Thor and Loki call him out on.
- The Twelve Tasks of Asterix: In a parody of Hercules Asterix and Obelix have to fulfill 12 impossible tasks in order to prove they're powerful. If they succeed it will imply that they are gods and Julius Caesar will surrender the entire Roman Empire to them.
- Zootopia: Chief Bogo gives Judy 48 hours to solve the Otterton case or resign if she fails. Nick calls him out on it later, pointing out that there was practically no way a rookie cop could solve a case in two days that the entire force hasn't cracked in weeks.
- From Monty Python and the Holy Grail: "Then, when you have found the shrubbery, you must cut down the mightiest tree in the forest... wiiiiiiith... a herring!" (Scare Chord)
- Also used in the "Happy Valley" sketch on Monty Python's Previous Record. To quickly get rid of any suitors who go after his daughter, King Otto sets them the task, "Tomorrow at dawn, armed only with your sword, you must climb to the highest tower in the castle, and jump out of the window." When the queen gets sick of this, he is forced to change the task to something a bit easier - going into town and buying some tobacco.
- For a modern film version, Chandler Jarrell (Eddie Murphy) in The Golden Child is given a glass of water. He is told he must retrieve an item from across a cavern without spilling one drop of the water in the glass. He somehow manages to keep the glass of water after passing through all of the obstacles until he's standing in front of the hollow holding the Ajanti Dagger. When he reaches for the dagger the fire flares up, foiling him. He drinks the water and the flames die down, allowing him to grab the dagger.
- A visual version of this trope is the third challenge from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — the bridge across the ravine doesn't seem to be there at all until you do what you think is impossible and have enough faith to step off the ravine. It's then that you discover the bridge was there all along, just painted so subtly you couldn't tell it from the far ravine wall. There's also a very powerful metaphor for faith in that visual riddle: faith is sometimes described as jumping off a cliff and landing safely in midair.
- A 1991 Turkish movie had a very strange subversion to it. One of the side-plots of the film involved the lover of the protagonist's daughter trying to convince the protagonist to let him marry her. The protagonist dismissively tells him to bring the feather of a phoenix. The lover, despite fully aware of the impossibility, doesn't argue against because he doesn't want to appear as a naysayer. He eventually returns (with a feather that obviously came from a chicken), and although the protagonist is not fooled, he still judges the lover to be one of the few people around him who's not after his money (the main plot). In the end, however, the whole thing turns out to be a "Shaggy Dog" Story because the daughter moved on to a rich socialite.
- In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (and again in Star Trek (2009), the Kobayashi Maru test administered to budding Starfleet officers is this. Kirk, being Kirk, of course Takes a Third Option.
- In Star Trek Into Darkness, Kirk must learn that he cannot always take a third option, and that failure for a starship captain can mean the death of those under his command.
- John Wick: In a discussion between a Mafiya boss and his son, the father talks about why the title character is someone to fear: When Wick wanted out, the boss set him on what he referred to as an impossible task as a condition for leaving, expecting that Wick would fail. The boss concludes with saying that the pile of bodies left by Wick in the process of completing that task built their criminal empire.
- In Ironside by Holly Black the pixie Kaye is forbidden from seeing the one she loves until she can find a faerie that can tell a lie, but promised his hand if she can. She solves this by claiming she is able to lie, without mentioning that she means lie down on the ground. Which is a sort of lie in itself.
- Impossible by Nancy Werlin is based off of the Scarborough Fair song, explains how it came about, and the entire plot is this trope.
- Discussed in A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold:
Illyan: Do you know all those old folk tales where the Count tries to get rid of his only daughter's unsuitable suitor by giving him three impossible tasks?
Illyan: Don't ever try that with Miles. Just... don't.
- In The Phantom Tollbooth, shortly after arriving in the Mountains of Ignorance, the protagonists meet a gentleman with no face who asks them to complete some impossible tasks: one of them is to carve a hole through a rock with a needle, one is to move a pile of sand with a pair of tweezers, and one is to empty one well into another with a dropper. After Milo uses a magic math-solving pencil he received from the Mathemagician to realize it would take thousands of years to finish the tasks, the man reveals himself to be the Terrible Trivium, one of the Demons of Ignorance and the anthropomorphic personification of wasting time.
- Another dilemma confronts Milo when he needs to convince King Azaz and the Mathemagician to agree to let Rhyme and Reason return from exile. Both rulers are so contrary that whenever one adopts a position, the other automatically takes the opposite stance just to counter him. Milo points out to the Mathemagician that, in fact, they agree to disagree, which is enough of a Logic Bomb to snap him out of his habitual enmity with his brother.
- After Milo succeeds in rescuing Rhyme and Reason from the Mountains of Ignorance, Azaz and the Mathemagician reveal to him that The Quest itself was an impossible task, and he only succeeded because he didn't know the task was impossible.
- In Stardust by Neil Gaiman the protagonist is challenged by a crush to bring back a fallen star from the magical land outside their town in exchange for her hand. Subverted in that she didn't actually expect him to try, much less succeed, but she agrees to marry him anyway. However by this point he's matured a lot and met a better love interest, so he declines.
- In The Silmarillion, Beren is told to return to Doriath with a Silmaril in his hand if he's to be allowed to marry Lúthien. Part just-that-badass, part Exact Words; with Lúthien's help (and by "help" we mean she did most of it) he gets further than he could possibly have been expected to get, but he is called "Beren One-Hand" for a reason... A giant wolf bites off Beren's hand and swallows it, including the Silmaril. Beren returns to Doriath anyway, pointing out that the Silmaril is in his hand (and the hand in the wolf's belly).
- In The Brothers' War, the King of Argive decrees that any suitor for his daughter must move a huge boulder across the town square. Urza builds a machine to lift and transport the stone, declaring that he had moved it with his mind.
- The title story from The Practical Princess (and other liberating fairytales) features the titular princess trying to get rid of her unwanted suitor by sending him on these. (The two tasks, a fire-proof cloak and a jeweled branch, are reminiscent of those used by Kaguya-hime in the Japanese legend, and like Kaguya the princess sees through the fakes offered.)
- In Inheritance Cycle, dragon riders were given impossible tasks to get them really frustrated so they'd learn to use magic. It never mentioned whether or not they actually solved the tasks.
- In Robert Silverberg's story "Double Dare", a team of Earth engineers and a team of alien engineers are engaged in a challenge where each is to duplicate some feat of the other's technology. Both sides cheat by presenting a rigged demo of a device they can't actually build. Both teams, not knowing that what they're trying to do is supposed to be impossible, succeed.
- In the story "The King of Katoren", a young Stach is given seven tasks, each one impossibler than the last, to complete if he wants to become the titular King of Katoren. Those tasks are selected among the worst creatures, aberrations and illnesses that plague the people of the country. To make it impossible Up to Eleven, the last task is to sit on a monument cursed so that only the King of Katoren can rest on it. Needless to say, all of them are solved.
- In The Dragon Hoard, the heroes are required to complete three impossible tasks before entering the grove containing the Hoard: taming a pair of wild, fire-breathing horses; emptying an entire lake into a single jug; and bringing back a magic orange from the grove at the far end of the kingdom in less than a day.
- Theoretically, the evil master in Krabat can be defeated easily - but he twists the words of the condition to his advantage. If a girl who loves one of the master's students asks on New Years' Eve to let him go, this would do the trick. However, she has to recognize her boy for this - and there's nowhere written that they may not turn into ravens. Which lead to the death of one girl and her boy Janko.
- Gest is challenged to do this and succeeds in Power of Three by Diana Wynne Jones.
- The Duke in The 13 Clocks sets impossible tasks to suitors who wish to marry his niece, the Princess Saralinda:
"If you can slay the thorny Boar of Borythorn, she is yours," grinned a traveler. "But there is no thorny Boar of Borythorn, which makes it hard."
- In The Marvelous Land of Oz, the heroes discover Dr. Nikidik's Famous Wishing Pills at the bottom of his canister of Powder of Life, which grant one wish to whoever takes one. There is a small problem: To use one, you are required to count to count to seventeen by twos. At first, even the highly educated Woggle-Bug is at a loss on how to do that, until the Saw Horse suggests starting at half of one. The Wobble-Bug then deduces that this is true, because twice of a half of one is one, and the instructions never said you had to start at one. They try it, and that works.
- From The 10th Kingdom:
Tony: What is it with you people? What kind of twisted upbringing did you have? You know, why can't you just say, 'Oh, that'll be 100 gold coins'? Why does it always have to be, 'No! Not unless you lay a magic egg, or count the hairs on that giant's ass!'?
- Gilmore Girls
Lorelai: The hoops! The hoops! The jumping, and the fire, and the HOOPS!
- Many Reality TV shows invoke this trope with strict deadlines, the most common being ones that deal with Car Restoration or Houses.
- On a later episode of Happy Days, Joanie and Jenny are trying to join a pseudo-sorority called the Rydells. Joanie's task is to get a phonebook, but Jenny (whom they don't want as a member) is given the task of memorizing every number in the phone book. Jenny succeeds, but is then given another impossible task.
- The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Lower Decks" has Worf, instructing a Bajoran crewman in martial arts, take the gik'tal challenge, requiring her to fight him blindfolded. After repeatedly getting effortlessly taken down by Worf, she complains that the test is impossible and unfair, and refuses to continue. At which point Worf declares she has passed the test.
Sito Jaxa: Sir... is there really such a thing as a gik'tal challenge?
- A Flemish TV show from the late 1990s, "De XII Werken van Vanoudenhoven" (1998-1999) had the presenter Rob Vanoudenhoven fulfill an impossible task in every episode, suggested by a local Flemish celebrity. If he succeeded the celebrity would have to fulfill a counter task. If he failed he would perform the counter task. Vanoudenhoven managed to fulfill most of the tasks, but he also failed a few times. For instance, remaining awake for a full week proved impossible after only a few days.
- Classical Mythology:
- The Labors of Hercules. All of them were impossible tasks that were supposed to either take forever or kill him. One example is Labor #5: cleaning the Aegean stables in a day. The cows in the stable were divinely healthy and thus produced an enormous amount of dung, and there were over a thousand of them, and the stable hadn't been cleaned in over 30 years. This labor was meant to be doubly impossible. Not only was it physically impossible, but mucking out livestock pens (one of the lowest jobs around in Ancient Greece) would be the ultimate humiliation for a Son of Zeus. Instead, Hercules took a third option and used his godly might to redirect two rivers through the stables, thus washing them out in a single day. However, some tellings of the tale called Hercules out on not doing it by hand and penalized him with an extra Labor.
- Psyche is given several of these tasks by a jealous Venus in the myth of Cupid and Psyche.
- Another example of the Perseus story has King Polydectes sending Perseus to bring him the head of Medusa because Polydectes wanted Perseus's mother Danae, whom Perseus was very protective of, and wanted Perseus out of the way. When Perseus comes back with Medusa's head, he finds out that Polydectes had enslaved and abused Danae in his absence, and proceeds to turn Polydectes to stone with Medusa's head.
- What is possibly the most sadistic example in the myth: to reclaim his father's throne, Jason was told to go to Colchis and recover the Golden Fleece, a task so hard he was expected to die attempting to reach Colchis (considering that the less dangerous obstacles included the freaking Amazons). Jason, being a Guile Hero, assembled a crew of heroes (including Perseus, Herakles and other professionals in such things) and breezed through the many obstacles (with Herakles specifically dealing with a tribe of giants and the Amazons, with his Ninth Labor being taking the girdle of their queen), and upon arrival in Colchis he succeeded the thanks to a combination of Medea's help and sheer badassery (one of the tasks before tackling the dragon guarding the fleece involved putting to the yoke two gigantic fire-breathing oxens that Hephaestus had made from bronze; Medea only made him fireproof, meaning he had to contend with the immense might of the two bulls at the same time with only his own strength).
- Theseus also fulfills several impossible tasks and challenges, including the most famous one: defeating the Minotaur.
- In The Odyssey, Penelope, to avoid marrying one of her suitors, told them she'd marry the one who could use Odysseus' bow to shoot an arrow through a dozen axe-heads. The impossible part was not the shooting, but threading the bow: not only it was massive and required enormous strength, but, as a recurve bow, required skills that the suitors (who only knew simple bows) didn't have. Still, the narration says that Telemachus, Odysseus' own son, would have succeeded on his fourth try had he not been stopped by the one who actually did complete the whole task... Odysseus himself, who had finally returned home in disguise and was about to slay the suitors.
- In Journey to the West, The Buddha asks Sun Wukong to jump out from his palm. It turns out to be impossible because The Buddha's palm engulfs the entire universe.
- In an African myth, a man tasks his boys with buying enough objects to fill a certain room, to determine who would inherit his farm. The first two boys tried to do it with grain and feathers but failed, while the third son took out a candle and match, filling the room with light.
- Norse Mythology:
- The Norse gods needed to create a chain that could hold the Fenris Wolf. Thor's two attempts to forge such a chain failed, and the Wolf was becoming a major threat. They sent a message to the dwarves, who created an enchanted chain made out of the sound of a cat's footsteps, the roots of the mountains, the breath of a fish, and the sinews of a bear. It did the job. Those things were all used up creating the chain, explaining why they don't exist now.
- In The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok, Ragnar demands of Aslaug that she visit him "neither dressed nor undressed, neither fed nor unfed", and moreover "she must not be all alone, but nevertheless no man may accompany her". Aslaug solves the task by going wrapped in a fishnet, chewing on a leek, accompanied by a dog.
- In the Mayan Popol Vuh, Hunahpu and Xbalanque are assigned several tasks of these during their descent to Xibalba (the Underworld). One of them was to keep a cigar lit a whole night without burning it out. They attached fireflies to the end of the cigar so they would appear lit.
- Examples in the Finnish Kalevala:
- May be a parody: Väinamöinen is a mighty sorcerer and bard who is utterly inept in love. One girl he flirts with tells him she will never marry him unless he cuts a swan in half with a knife without a point, and knots an egg with an invisible knot. (In other words, when hell freezes over.) Väinamöinen, being both clueless and a wizard, proceeds to complete both tasks with his magic.
Then she says she won't marry him unless he pulls birchbark off a stone and breaks off poles from a piece of ice without a chip flying off. He uses magic to do both immediately. Then she says she can't marry him unless he builds a boat out of her distaff and gets the boat in the water without anyone touching it. He uses magic to do this easily as well...but an evil spirit causes him to accidentally cut himself with his axe, and he has to go on an adventure to heal his wound, by which time he has forgotten about her. (There are a lot of moments in The Kalevala that seem like parodies of myths.)
- Louhi, the Mistress of Pohjola also gives type 1 impossible tasks to men who seek to marry her beautiful daughter. This too was related to Väinamöinen's adventures, but ultimately it was his blood-brother Ilmarinen who was badass enough to fulfil every request and got the girl (until her wickedness got her eaten by bears, but that's another story).
- May be a parody: Väinamöinen is a mighty sorcerer and bard who is utterly inept in love. One girl he flirts with tells him she will never marry him unless he cuts a swan in half with a knife without a point, and knots an egg with an invisible knot. (In other words, when hell freezes over.) Väinamöinen, being both clueless and a wizard, proceeds to complete both tasks with his magic.
- A poem tells the story of the Abbot of Canterbury being summoned by the king for execution, for being able to keep a better household than the king does. The king is persuaded to give him his freedom if he can answer three impossible questions and to give him a year to seek the answers. Eventually the Abbot returns and answers all three: "How much am I worth (ie, how much money do I have)?" (Twenty-nine pieces of silver; even Jesus only sold for thirty.) "How quickly can I ride around the Earth?" (Keep pace with the sun, and you should make it in twenty-four hours.) "What am I thinking?" (You're thinking I'm the Abbot of Canterbury, when in fact I'm his clever servant. Please don't kill him.)
- Biblical examples:
- Books of Kings: A young David is told by King Saul that he can't marry Princess Michal unless he brings the foreskins of one hundred dead Philistines. David tops him by bringing two hundred.
- Subverted in the story of Naaman and Elisha. Naaman is a commander in the Assyrian army, but he suffers from leprosy. Having been told that Elisha can cure him, he goes out to the prophet to ask for assistance. Elisha shrugs and sends a messenger who says, "Go dip yourself in the Jordan River seven times"—a trivial task, except that its very triviality makes Naaman furious. He's about to refuse when his servant asks whether he wouldn't have attempted any difficult task required (in one literary version, "if he told you to go climb a mountain of glass"). Humbled, Naaman goes and gets his cure.
- A Roman Vestal Virgin was accused of having had sex, a capital offense. To prove she was still a virgin, she offered to carry a sieve full of water from the Tiber to the Temple of Vesta "in proof of her perfect chastity". (Given that the accusation was political in nature, she may have had help to accomplish the task.)
- In some Middle Eastern story, a King gave a challenge with a great prize if someone could get a valuable gem that's in the middle of a large carpet without tools or setting foot on the material. Many people try stretching as far as they could and failed, until one humble person realized that the challenge didn't prohibit touching the carpet with anything other than feet. So, he simply rolled up half of the carpet and picked up the gem.
- Celtic Mythology:
- Prince Conn-Eda loses a chess game with his evil stepmother, and her geas (her binding condition on Conn-Eda that is her right after she's won) is that he go to the land of the fairies and take the black steed and supernatural dog of the king of the fairies, and return to her with them within a year and a day.
- In the story of Culhwch and Olwen, King Arthur's cousin is given several impossible tasks to complete by the father of the woman whose hand he has asked for in marriage. It appears in the Welsh mythological story collection The Mabinogion.
- In one myth from India, the demon Namuci extracts a promise from the deity Indra, not to kill him "by day or by night; with the staff or the bow; with the flat of the hand or with the fist; on land or at sea; with the wet or the dry." Indra slays the demon at dawn, on the shore, by using the foam of the sea.
- The story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in Arthurian legend has Sir Gawain subjected to an impossible test of his honour and chastity by Lady Bertilak, with the expectation that he'd fail and embarrass Arthur's court. He refuses the Lady's advances, but does accept a gift from her, a green sash, only on the understanding that its enchantments would protect him from death at the hands of the Green Knight. Entirely reasonable, as even a heroic knight fears death a tiny bit.
- In the mythology of the Akan people of West Africa, the sky god Nyame owned all the stories on Earth. When Anansi the trickster spider offered to buy them, Nyame set a price of four dangerous and/or elusive creatures: Onini the Python, Osebo the Leopard, the Mboro Hornets, and Mmoatia the fairy. Anansi managed to capture all of them through trickery and guile, and Nyame keeps his bargain, which is why we have stories.
- Dungeons & Dragons:
- In certain editions the Dungeon Master is expected to provide challenges like this, should players want to create powerful permanent magical items. The win conditions are generally fairly lenient, though.
- Artifacts in the game cannot be destroyed except by a unique method that is different for each artifact, and the method is usually something that fits this Trope.
- Paranoia missions tend to be this, especially after secret society goals and personal agendas are figured in. The game's stance varies from "literally impossible" to "we have no idea how to succeed, but acknowledge that sufficiently devious PCs will come up with something" to "the PCs could succeed by doing X and Y and Z, it's just ludicrously unlikely that they'll be lucky and virtuous enough to actually pull all that off".
- The Merchant of Venice: Shylock's "pound of flesh nearest the heart" is related; in this case, it's the villain who is forced into either doing an impossible task, or giving up what is due him.
- Skillfully subverted in Cyrano de Bergerac: At Act I Scene V, Cyrano claims that fate has decreed that he, being The Grotesque because of his large nose, must love the most beautiful woman there is, implying an Impossible Task. The truth is, given his Mommy Issues, Cyrano himself has chosen the most beautiful so he will fight knowing that he cannot win her love.
Cyrano: Come now, bethink you!. . .The fond hope to beBeloved, e'en by some poor graceless lady,Is, by this nose of mine for aye bereft me;But I may love and who? 'Tis Fate's decreeI love the fairest - how were't otherwise?
- Odin Sphere:
- In "The Pooka Prince," Odin tasks Cornelius with fetching the drinking horn of massive warlord Lord Brigan, clearly not expecting the hard-hearted Brigan to cooperate or Cornelius, currently transformed into a comparably smaller pooka, to be able to make him. Odin's daughter Gwendolyn tells Cornelius that Odin does this kind of thing to people all the time... and, out of sympathy for Cornelius, gives him back his magic sword, armed with which he is able to kick Brigan's ass.
- In "Valkyrie," Onyx tries to do this by asking Oswald to defeat Leventhan, as a way to indirectly Murder the Hypotenuse. Gwendolyn is not having it.
- The backstory for the Touhou game Imperishable Night is heavily based on the aforementioned legend of Princess Kaguya. The final stage is even called "Five Impossible Requests," and Kaguya's spellcards are named after the five requests from the legend, implying that she had the treasures all along. The game's Bonus Boss, Fujiwara no Mokou, is the daughter of one of the men humiliated by Kaguya's impossible tasks, kicking off a Cycle of Revenge that's lasted over a thousand years thanks to the Hourai Elixir.
- In the next installments, she has invented more of those tasks, one of them is bringing her the Red Stone of Aja. The commentary makes it obvious that you have to brave an erupting volcano to obtain it.
- In Etrian Odyssey III: The Drowned City, the ninja Kirikaze is sent to complete these so that her master might earn the right to marry Princess Kaguya.
- In Turgor the player is given such tasks by Mantid and Warden.
- The interactive fiction story Firebird is based on the above Russian folklore.
- BlazBlue: Litchi Faye-Ling embarks on a quest to save her friend who got turned into an abomination called Arakune. Litchi has been at her task for a long time out of guilt of not preventing Arakune's transformation, and grief of losing him, a task that everyone that comes across her always says is impossible. It ends up as a deconstruction, as Litchi still attempts to selfishly do the impossible with just her friendship, even if she regretfully had to compromise her morals by joining an Obviously Evil group of people. Nothing comes of it. She even goes along with a world-destroying plan to save Arakune, as it was her only option to save him.
- In the middle of doing her task, she also genuinely reached out and befriended a kid with psychosis issues, Carl Clover. It was enough that Carl eventually stuck with her even when she's going along with the world-destroying plan, and by the end of it, one of them becomes the sidekick of the other as they put the one with the world-destroying plan (Carl's father, Relius) on their leash and possibly direct him to do what they like.
- The Elder Scrolls
Alduin: "You I curse right here and right now! I take away your ability to jump and jump and jump and doom you to [the void] where you will not be able to leave except for auspicious days long between one and another and even so only through hard, hard work. And it will be this way, my little corner cutter, until you have destroyed all that in the world which you have stolen from earlier kalpas, which is to say probably never at all!"
- In Morrowind, Mages Guild Archmage Trebonius Artorius has developed a reputation as a Pointy-Haired Boss who assigns nothing but these. Infamously, he asks the Player Character to solve the disappearance of the Dwemer (and is shocked when the player actually manages to find an answer). Other assignments he has given to other guild members include taking an inventory of all of the silverware on Vvardenfell and digging a tunnel to the mainland. Knowing that he was named as the head of the Vvardenfell branch in a combination of getting Kicked Upstairs and being Reassigned to Antarctica probably helps to explain this.
- According to the developer-written obscure text The Seven Fights of the Aldudagga, this is the case for Mehrunes Dagon, the Daedric Prince of Destruction who serves as either the Big Bad or Greater-Scope Villain for several games in the series. According to the Seven Fights, Dagon was once a kindly demon who attempted to protect parts of Mundus (the mortal world) from being eaten by Alduin at the end of every "kalpa" (cycle of time). Alduin found out and then cursed Dagon with such a task:
- In Fire Emblem Fates, when the Black Mage Odin arrived to the Nohrian court, he was assigned to serve Prince Leo. Leo wasn't really thrilled so he gave his potential retainer some missions that counted as this, some of them involving finding things that Leo made up or otherwise didn't think were real. Odin successfully completed all of them, and, being Odin, he actually enjoyed all of these "impossible" missions.
- In the Heart of Stone DLC of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Geralt is tasked by a mysterious man to complete three tasks as part of a contract he has with bandit lord Olgeird Von Everec. Olgeird deliberately makes it so that each task is either incredibly difficult or outright impossible by normal means, though some can be completed via Loophole Abuse.
- Keith, from TwoKinds is expected to bring the High Templar Trace Legacy back with him so that the conditions of his exile will be revoked, more or less "You can come home if you're bringing George Bush with you for dinner."
- It started out as "Bring George Bush's son with you for dinner. Even though he went missing. While rushing into an enemy encampment. Solo.", then two years later it became "Bring George Bush Junior, the president, with you for dinner.", then Keith got lucky four years later when Trace was ambushed by a manipulative goddess and left stranded and amnesiac while on vacation.
- The test on the 21st Floor in Tower of God involves finding a small parasitic flower in a gigantic beast that flips over all the time and will go underwater after two hours. This is the easy part. The problem begins when they happen to meet a guy inside the beast who also wants the flower. Then they hear he has killed several Rankers before. And then you realize that this guy is Urek Mazino. He himself thinks that that the team was just sent here to face him and die.
- SBURB, the game that the story of Homestuck revolves around, is this for all but the luckiest of players. Most don't manage to even start the game. And even then, the majority of sessions do not result in victory, making them so called null sessions.
- A special form of null session, the so called void session, appears when no kernelsprite is prototyped before entry. Since prototyping is what evolves the battlefield for the universe scale chess metaphor SBURB is built around, and a fully evolved battlefield is needed to win the game, this session is doomed to fail except if someone brings in a fully evolved battlefield from another session.
- Another special null session is the so called dead session. SBURB is an inherently cooperative game, so trying to play it solo results in an entirely different scenario, replacing the chess metaphor with a pool metaphor that is impossible to win unless you are a Determinator with time travel powers. And even then it's frustratingly difficult.
- In Futurama, the Robot Devil challenges Leela in a violin contest, with her having to use a solid gold fiddle. Fry does point out that a solid gold fiddle "would weigh like a hundred pounds and sound really cruddy," and the Robot Devil admits it's "mostly for show." Leela does beat him, though - over the head with the extremely heavy fiddle.
- The "impossible" part here comes not from the nature of the fiddle (the Robot Devil plays the same one), but more from the fact that the Robot Devil is a robot (with extremely dexterous hands as another episode has demonstrated), who on top of that is able to use two bows thanks to an extra arm.
- A modern parody may be the South Park episode "The Wacky Molestation Adventure." Kyle's mom tells him he can't go to a concert unless he cleans out the garage, shovels the snow out of the driveway, and brings democracy to Cuba. Of course he succeeds at all three.
- He still doesn't get to go, being told specifically that they never expected him to be able to pull off that last one. Kyle decides this is unfair and applies some lateral thinking: calling child services and telling them his parents molested him so they'll get arrested and he therefore won't need their permission. It works.
- Some of the Grimorum Arcanorum's spells in Gargoyles seemed to have this as spell conditions, until modern technology made the impossible possible, so to speak. These loopholes are needed to allow humans to cast powerful magic at less cost than a spell without any loopholes.
- The most obvious is the one that woke up the sleeping gargoyles: they would sleep until the castle is above the clouds. Xanatos literally does that, moving it brick by brick to the top of a tall building.
- The spell which turns all who see and hear it to stone at night can only be undone by the sky becoming on fire. So they spread a non-toxic flammable gas across the city's atmosphere and ignite it.
- The terms of Zuko's banishment in Avatar: The Last Airbender. "Find a nigh-all powerful person, catch him, and bring him back alive, and then you can come home. Oh, and he's been missing for a hundred years." It's a win-win for Ozai: either he rids himself of an embarrassingly incompetent and occasionally disrespectful heir so that he can promote Daddy's Little Villain in his place, or on the off chance Zuko succeeds he gets the historical thorn in the side of the Fire Nation taken care of for him. The cool part is that he actually succeeded, although not quite how his father (and banisher) wished...not to mention the Avatar brings himself to the Fire Lord.
- In a US Acres segment of Garfield and Friends, Orson and Wade set up a restaurant that's guaranteed to serve any food you order - if they can't make it, you get free food for a month. Roy attempts to take advantage of this with several attempts at Impossible Orders... and then gets served exactly what he orders, to his own shock. He eventually wins with "an elephant foot sandwich with mustard". Even though Orson and Wade had found an elephant, it wasn't theirs to kill and put in a sandwich, so to screw with Roy, they just showed him the elephant and pretended that they were out of mustard.
- Throughout an episode of Animaniacs, Yakko is shown singing all the words in the English language (though he's only shown singing words beginning with the letters A, F (briefly), L, and Z). At the end, it is said that in the next episode he would sing all of the numbers above zero. He didn't.
- In the Ned's Newt episode "Trouble Indemnity", Ned and Newton work together to destroy several "valuable" things around their house in impossible ways, so that they can get Ned's parents' money back and confuse a crooked saleswoman, who made them lose their money on a crooked insurance policy.
- La Ballade des Dalton: The Daltons have to fulfill a quest where they must murder eight people living in far away locations in the Wild West in order to obtain their uncle's fortune.
- It turns out in Gravity Falls, Stan was kicked out by his parents for ruining his brother Standford's science project, robbing them out of their Meal Ticket. He was then not allowed to return home until he could make them a fortune. Even worse is that Stanley hadn't graduated high school, being seen as "the dumber twin" by the others, and even Stan admitting to having no marketing skills. Stanley does attempt to make a fortune, but only of his own volition. He doesn't bother trying to go back home.
- In Episode 73 of Kaeloo, Mr. Cat dares Kaeloo to transform without getting angry. Despite the fact that she has been seen doing this in other episodes, she claims that she can't and her consciousness is sent to a dimension for people who can't perform tasks. At the end of the episode, Kaeloo gets revenge by giving Mr. Cat an impossible task of his own: going out while coming in.
- The Simpsons: In "Lisa's Rival", Lisa plays an anagram game with Allison and her father. Mr. Taylor gives a famous person's name and the anagram has to be a decription of that person. Allison is given Alec Guinness and comes up with "genuine class". Lisa is given Jeremy Irons and, stumped, comes up with "Jeremy's... iron". Subverted, as this was intended to be possible for a genius in-universe. In real life there's no possible answer.
- The Fairly OddParents! Timmy, the human child, sets a task for Wanda, his fairy godmother, in order for her to be sufficiently delayed while he and Wanda's husband Cosmo set up for a surprise anniversary party. The task: train a cat, she can even use magic. She couldn't do it.
- In Dora the Explorer: Dora's Fairytale Adventure, Dora is assigned a number of tasks, several of which seem impossible, in order to become a "true princess" and save Boots from a sleeping spell. Included among these tasks are, "teach the giant rocks to sing," "turn Winter into Spring" and "Bring the moon to the Queen and King." She accomplishes the tasks with the aid of a variety of magical tools and artifacts acquired during her quest, such as a magical music box which teaches the rocks to sing.
- In Help Wanted, the premiere episode of Spongebob Squarepants, Mr. Krabs tries to prevent Spongebob from joining the Krusty Krew by tasking him with finding a "hydrodynamic spatula, with port and starboard attachments, and a turbo drive", an item he makes up off the top of his head. Spongebob buys one at a Bargain Mart and returns in the nick of time to save the restaurant from a horde of hungry anchovies.
- My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: In "Tanks For the Memories," when Rainbow Dash realizes that her pet tortoise needs to hibernate for the winter, she sets it upon herself to stop winter so they can have more time together. While winter is created by ponies in Equestria, so her task is theoretically possible, her attempts to disrupt the coming winter just cause a big mess and don't slow it down at all. The Aesop of the episode is accepting that times change and sometimes your friends have to leave for a while.
- The University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt traditionally has an impossible task or two among the list of things to find, make, or do. One year it was "build a working nuclear reactor in a shed on the Quad", which, in best Impossible Task fashion, turned out to be not quite as impossible as the organizers had expected.
- Winning Giro d'Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España in one year. Some have tried, nobody has ever succeeded. For the record, completing one of the three tends to require extreme levels of physical conditioning and leave you pretty much exhausted and needing a lengthy recovery. The pace of all three together doesn't give you that luxury.
- Joseph-Armand Bombardier, founder of the Bombardier group, wanted to be hired as a mechanic as a teenager - but the boss didn't want him. Instead of saying no, he just tasked him with figuring out how to fix an engine he had laying around that he was sure couldn't be fixed, hoping to crush his dreams in the process. He succeeded. He went on to eventually invent the modern snowmobile, and today the company is the only one that can boast making both trains and aircraft (along with a recreative vehicles group) and is one of the biggest employers in Quebec.
- In 1958, when Alaska and Hawaii were about to become states of the USA, Robert G. Heft and his classmates in school were assigned to design a 50-star flag. He received a B- on the project, but his design was sent off to Congress anyway (along with those of his classmates). Heft protested to his teacher about his grade, and his teacher promised that if his flag was chosen to be the national flag, it would get bumped up to an A. Guess whose flag design now flies on every government building in the United States and is waved around the country on Independence Day. (Indeed, his grade was changed to an A.)
- For the longest time, physicists were convinced that it is impossible to levitate a magnet through repulsion (having two of the same poles face each other), as the magnet in the air would simply flip over, exposing the opposite pole and sticking to the magnet below. Roy M. Harrigan pulled it off in the late 1970s by shaping the magnet like a top and spinning it, a top's tendency to stay upright overpowering the magnetic force that would ordinarily flip the magnet over. He pulled it off because he was never taught that it was impossible—physicists before him all agreed it couldn't be done, and thus never tried it.