The Obstacle Flight
Welcome to Weird Wednesday! Today we’re going for a run, with a magical twist.
‘Quick! quick!’ called out the giant’s daughter, ‘take my comb from my hair and throw it down.’
Nix Nought Nothing took her comb from her hair and threw it down, and out of every one of its prongs there sprung up a fine thick briar in the way of the giant. You may be sure it took him a long time to work his way through the briar bush, and by the time he was well through, Nix Nought Nothing and his sweetheart had run far, far away from him.
Let’s say you’re a plucky hero who’s just stolen a magical item from an evil ogre. That’s the good news. The bad news is, the bad guy’s onto you, and he’s fast. Something needs to change.
Let’s start with what you’ve got with you. Hopefully, you’re carrying a comb, brush, mirror, handkerchief, pinch of salt, or flask of water. If not, grab a stick or a drop of your own sweat, and throw it behind you. With a little magic (usually provided by the villain’s resourceful child), that object will transform into a barrier between you and your pursuer. This is called the obstacle flight, and it’s one of my favorite fairy tale motifs.
A little after this the princess [the White Dove] said again to the prince, ‘Look round; do you see anything behind us?’
‘Yes,’ said the prince, ‘the big black cloud is there again.’
‘Then throw the glass of water over your head,’ said she.
When he had done this there was a great lake behind them, and this the witch could not cross until she ran home again and brought her dough-trough.
This motif is part of The Magic Flight, type 313 of the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index, or type D672 of the Stith Thompson motifs. Check the sources at the end of this post for more on that, plus links to stories using this trope and some textual analysis.
For the rest of this post, though, we are going to transform this motif into writing prompts!
- Object class. The obstacle chase usually centers on household and personal care items like brushes and sewing needles. But what would happen if a musician threw a tuning fork? Or a writer a pen? What about emotional objects, like a souvenir from a beloved trip, or a ring from a broken engagement?
- Update your objects. Yes, we still have combs and mirrors, but what would happen if your heroes threw something much more modern behind them? What about a rubber band, pack of chewing gum, or key chain? How about a reusable grocery bag or an automatic umbrella? What on earth would a fidget spinner turn into?
- Serendipity. Sometimes the fleeing heroes make do with what they find on the ground, like sticks and pebbles. But how about using a living organism like a mushroom or some berries? Of course, the faeries are fond of their mushrooms, so using one of those might unlock a whole new magical enemy. Or what if your heroes found something really weird, something you would ordinarily not mess with, if you came upon it in the forest, like a bloody knife or a shoe with animal bite marks on it?
- Terraforming. Say you live by a stream and make your living as a humble sheep herder. And then one day, some heroes ride by and now there’s a new mountain in your backyard, or a forest blocking the road to town. Do these magical barriers last forever or do they vanish with time, turning back into pebbles and combs? Are they safe places to go, or dubious magical locales where the veil between worlds is thin? If the lake turns back into a mirror, is that mirror still magic, or perhaps cursed?
- I have nothing on me. What if your heroes’ pockets are empty, and no sticks or pebbles can be found? This is supposed to be an obstacle chase, and they’re unarmed. Would they have to steal an object from someone, or try throwing something they need, like their own clothes? Or what if they’ve got their objects, but the magic fails? It might be interesting to see how far could they could get by faking an obstacle chase. Is a non-magic comb enough to scare off an ogre who believes it will become a forest?
I hope you’ve enjoyed some Weird Wednesday exercise. Perhaps we’ve discovered a new reason that women’s dresses should have pockets!
If you like fairy tales, feel free to check out Clamour and Mischief, which contains my story “Branwen and the Three Ravens”: The creepy adventures of a woman seeking to free her brothers from a curse.
And you can read my free story Two Branches, about a changeling and a mother’s love.
Obstacle flight tales:
The Twins and the Snarling Witch: Wiki ; Tale
Nix Nought Nothing: Wiki ; Tale
The Battle of the Birds: Wiki ; Tale
The Green Man of Knowledge: Wiki ; sorry, could not find the tale online
Lady Featherflight: Wiki ; Tale
Sources & further reading:
The transformation chase on Wikipedia
The Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index on Wikipedia
The Stith Thompson motifs on Wikipedia
Stith Thompson motifs list from Center of Folktales and Folklore
Some analysis from Center of Folktales and Folklore and some analysis from The Gold Scales of obstacle flight stories