Iron John illustration from the Brother's Grimm tale published in 1812
(The Wild Man as Helper)
|Published in||Grimms' Fairy Tales|
"Iron John" (a.k.a. "Iron Hans" or "Der Eisenhans") is a German fairy tale found in the collections of the Brothers Grimm, tale number 136, about a wild iron-skinned man and a prince (The original German title is Eisenhans, a compound of Eisen "iron" and Hans, like English John a common short form of the personal name Johannes). It represents Aarne-Thompson type 502, "The wild man as a helper".
Most people see the story as a parable about a boy maturing into adulthood. The story also became the basis for the book Iron John: A Book About Men by Robert Bly which spawned the Men's Movement in the early 1990s after spending 62 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list.
A King sends a huntsman into a forest nearby, and the huntsman never returns. The King sends more men into the forest, each meeting with the same fate. The King sends all his remaining huntsmen out as a group, but again, none return. The king proclaims the woods as dangerous and off-limits to all.
Some years later, a wandering explorer accompanied by a dog hears of these dangerous woods and asks permission to hunt in the forest, claiming that he might be able to discover the fate of the other hunters. The man and his dog are allowed to enter. As they come to a lake in the middle of the forest, the dog is dragged under water by a giant arm. The hunter returns to the forest the next day with a group of men to empty the lake. They find a naked man with iron-like skin and long shaggy hair all over his body. They capture him and he is locked in a cage in the courtyard as a curiosity. No one is allowed to set the wild man free or they will face the penalty of death.
Years later, the young prince is playing with a ball in the courtyard. He accidentally rolls it into the cage where the wild iron-skinned man picks it up and will only return it if he is set free. He states further that the only key to the cage is hidden beneath the Queen's pillow.
Though the prince hesitates at first, he eventually builds up the courage to sneak into his mother's room and steal the key. He releases the wild iron-skinned man who reveals his name to be Iron John (or Iron Hans depending on the translation). The prince fears he will be killed for setting Iron John free, so Iron John agrees to take the prince with him into the forest.
As it turns out, Iron John is a powerful being and has many treasures that he guards. He sets the prince to watch over his well, but warns him not to let anything touch it or fall in because it will turn instantly to gold. The prince obeys at first, but begins to play in the well, eventually turning all his hair into gold. Disappointed in the boy’s failure, Iron John sends him away to experience poverty and struggle. Iron John also tells the prince that if he ever needs anything, simply to call the name of Iron John three times.
The prince travels to a distant land and offers his services to its King. Since he is ashamed of his golden hair, he refuses to remove his cap before the king and is sent to assist the gardener.
When war comes to the kingdom, the prince sees his chance to make a name for himself. He calls upon Iron John who gives him a horse, armor, and a legion of iron warriors to fight alongside him. The prince successfully defends his new homeland, but returns all that he borrowed to Iron John before returning to his former position.
In celebration, the King announces a banquet and offers his daughter's hand in marriage to any one of the knights who can catch a golden apple that will be thrown into their midst. The King hopes that the mysterious knight who saved the kingdom will show himself for such a prize.
Again the prince asks Iron John for help, and again Iron John disguises the prince as the mysterious knight. Though the prince catches the golden apple and escapes, and does so again on two more occasions, he is eventually found. The prince is returned to his former station, marries the princess, and is happily reunited with his parents. Iron John too comes to the wedding, but now without the shaggy hair or iron skin that made him frightening. He reveals he was under enchantment until he found someone worthy and pure of heart to set him free.
- This tale is known throughout Europe, in such variants as The Hairy Man. A more widespread variant, found in Europe, Asia, and Africa, opens with the prince for some reason being the servant of an evil being, where he gains the same gifts, and the tale proceeds as in this variant; one such tale is The Magician's Horse.
- The oldest variant to be preserved is the Italian Guerrino and the Savage Man. Another such variant is Georgic and Merlin. In chivalric romance the motif appears in recognizable if rationalized form in Roswall and Lillian.
- Iron John was featured in Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics under its Iron Hans alias.
- The story is featured as an episode of American McGee's Grimm, in which the tale is twisted into a Terminator-like setting.
- An episode from the fourth season of Grimm titled "Iron Hans" is loosely based on the story, and the episode "Cat and Mouse", from the first season, uses a line from it as an opening quote.
- The Iron John tale appears in Harry Harrison's 'The Stainless Steel Rat Sings The Blues' as an allegory for children coming of age.
- Anne Sexton wrote an adaptation as a poem called "Iron Hans" in her collection Transformations (1971), a book in which she re-envisions sixteen of the Grimm's Fairy tales.
- D.L. Ashliman, "The Grimm Brothers' Children's and Household Tales (Grimms' Fairy Tales)"
- Richard A. Shweder (January 9, 1994). "What Do Men Want? A Reading List For the Male Identity Crisis". New York Times.
- Stith Thompson, The Folktale, p 60-1, University of California Press, Berkeley Los Angeles London, 1977
- Stith Thompson, The Folktale, p 59-60, University of California Press, Berkeley Los Angeles London, 1977
- Paul Delarue, The Borzoi Book of French Folk-Tales, p 384, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York 1956
- Laura A. Hibbard, Medieval Romance in England p291 New York Burt Franklin,1963
- "Transformations by Anne Sexton"
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