Fairy Tale Tuesday No.18 – The Iron Man

This week’s fairy tale comes from the Children’s Press 1974 collection Grimm’s Fairy Tales and has an intriguing parallel to another Grimm brothers’ story, ‘The Goose Girl’, only with the genders reversed. The story starts by introducing us to a king who is very fond of hunting. He frequently rides out into the great wood that lies behind his castle to kill things, but one day it is one of his huntsmen who disappears, and though he sends out searchers, none of them return either. The forest becomes forbidden territory until at last a mysterious stranger arrives to offer his services. Don’t get too excited, he’s not the hero, he’s just a really good hunter. Like, when his dog runs off the road and gets dragged down into a forest pool? He has the pool drained before he goes to take a look. That turns out to be a good idea, because in it is a man whose body resembles rusted iron and who seems so wild that the king has him locked in an immense cage in the castle courtyard with orders that anybody who tries to free him will be put to death. You just know he’s going to regret that.

Sure enough, one day while the king’s own eight-year-old son is playing in the courtyard (in front of a dangerous prisoner. Excuse me, what happened to security?) his ball rolls into the cage and the Iron Man refuses to give it back unless the young prince lets him out. The boy runs away, but comes back the next morning to ask again, and receives the same answer. On the third morning he caves. Stealing the key from under his mother’s pillow, he runs back to the courtyard and opens the cage door. The Iron Man emerges, throwing the boy his ball, and heads straight for the forest. In a panic, the boy calls after him, begging him to return to the cage before the king and queen find out he’s gone. Instead the Iron Man snatches him up and carries him away, leaving his parents to search, and mourn.

But their son is not dead. The Iron Man, returning to his pool, keeps the little boy in a sort of illegal adoption and gives him the task of watching over the water, to make sure nothing falls in and befouls it. As the boy sits on the bank, though, his finger throbs so badly that he tries to cool it in the water. It doesn’t really work. Instead, when he draws out his finger, it is the colour of gold. The Iron Man knows, of course. He overlooks the error this once, and again when the boy accidentally allows a strand of hair to fall into the water, but when the young prince allows the hair that is actually on his head to touch the surface of the pool – thereby turning it all to gold – the Iron Man has had enough and sends him forth into the world to look after himself, with the caveat that if anything really bad happens he can come back to the forest and ask for help. The boy travels a long way alone, searching for work, but finding none that he has been taught how to do. He is, after all, a prince, and also eight years old. Of course he doesn’t know how to do things!

By now he is far from familiar ground. He reaches the palace of another king and, asking for work there, gains employment as a kitchen boy. His good looks even earn him the honour of carrying a dish to the royal table, but when he refuses to remove his cap in the king’s presence – his excuse being that his head is diseased – the king understandably enough wants him out of the kitchen. The cook likes him, though, and finds him a different job with the palace gardener. It’s hard work in all weathers, and one hot summer day he lets his guard lapse, removing his cap. The glitter of gold catches in the mirror of none other than the king’s daughter. She immediately decides that she needs a nosegay straight away and the boy must bring it to her. The cap is back in place when he arrives, but the princess just pulls it off so that she can see that extraordinary golden hair. She even tips him with a handful of ducats. For days afterward, the same scene is played out; she demands the boy bring her flower, then tries to bribe him out of his cap with money that he just gives away.

Then war is declared. The king summons up his army and the boy tries to enlist – apparently he’s not eight years old any more – but he is left with only the lame horse nobody else wanted. That’s all right, it gets him as far as he needs to go, which is to the forest borders. Once there he calls on the Iron Man for help and is provided with not only a fiery warhorse but a band of armed warriors as well, and together they rescue the king from imminent defeat. When the enemy has been decimated with disturbing efficiency, the boy leads the Iron Man’s warriors back into the forest, reclaims his horse, and rides back to the palace where everyone is alternately gossiping about their mysterious saviour and making fun of the gardener’s boy on his three-legged horse. The only person who suspects the truth is the princess, but she says nothing, even though her father is determined to find out his saviour’s identity. He announces a grand festival, at which the princess will throw a golden apple, and with the Iron Man’s help the boy – in his persona as the Mysterious Knight – is the only one who can catch it. He rides away as soon as it is in his hand and no one else can catch him either. He’s a contrary sort of a person, I think.

The king is quite stubborn, though, and on the second day of the festival the princess throws another apple, which is caught again by the elusive knight. By the third day, the king’s gratitude has soured into a kind of vindictive indignation. He gives orders that if the knight does not willingly return after he has claimed the third apple of the festival, he should be pursued and cut to pieces. Nothing says reward like a death threat! The boy does not, of course, linger – he catches his apple and rides away with the king’s men behind him. One comes close enough to wound him, but then the Iron Man’s horse leaps forward and the boy’s helmet falls away in its headlong gallop, so that his golden hair blazes behind him like a banner.

The princess’s suspicions are confirmed. She asks the gardener about his boy and discovers that not only has the young man been to the festival each day, he has brought home three pretty golden apples for the gardener’s children to play with. Hearing of this, the king demands the boy come into his presence, but it is the princess who pulls away his cap and reveals his true identity to the court. Plus the sort of hair that guarantees work in shampoo advertising. The boy then tells them that yes, he is the mysterious knight, and a prince himself to boot, at which point the king reverts back to gratitude. Instead of having him hacked to pieces, he lets the boy marry his daughter.

It is dramatic wedding. Not only is the boy reunited with his parents, during the bridal feast the doors are thrown open for a third king, who greets the prince fondly and introduces himself as the Iron Man – now freed from his wild nature and planning to settle his enormous fortune on the boy who rescued him. The story ends before we see what the boy’s parents do to him. Hopefully violence was averted.

This story is sort of what you might get if you crossed ‘Cinderella’ (the Iron Man in place of a fairy godmother) with ‘The Goose Girl’, only with the genders reversed and more flirting. The princess here is not just a pretty reward to be parcelled off to a worthy knight – she is the one who works out who the boy really is and it’s her who picks him long before her father gets involved. It’s also one of the few fairy tales that comes to mind where it’s the hero’s hair that’s central to the plot. In short, yes, I do like it.

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