Iron John

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Iron John
Eisenhans in the cage by Gordon Browne.jpg
Eisenhans in the cage
Folk tale
NameIron John
Aarne-Thompson grouping502
(The Wild Man as Helper)
Published inGrimms' Fairy Tales

"Iron John" (AKA "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".[1]

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 mythopoetic men's movement in the early 1990s after spending 62 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list.[2]


The Brothers Grimm indicated the origin of Eisern Hans as Friedmund von Arnim's book, as tale nr. 17.[3][4]


The prince as a mysterious knight.

A king sends a huntsman into a forest nearby and the huntsman never returns. The King sends more men into the forest where they each meet 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. This time, he is seen without the shaggy hair or iron skin that made him frightening. Iron John reveals he was under enchantment until he found someone worthy and pure of heart to set him free.


  • Germanist Emil Sommer (de) collected another German variant, from Gutenberg, titled Der eiserne Mann ("The Iron Man").[5]
  • This tale is known throughout Europe,[6][7] in such variants as The Hairy Man.[8] The tale type is said to be common in Russian and Ukraine, but "disseminated" in Western Europe. The type can also be found in India, Indonesia and Turkey.[9]
  • A more widespread variant, found in Europe,[10][11] Asia, and Africa,[12][13][14][15] 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.[16] Native American variants of this type were assumed by Stith Thompson to have originated from French-Canadian sources.[17]
  • The oldest variant to be preserved is the Italian Guerrino and the Savage Man.[18] Another such variant is Georgic and Merlin.[18] In chivalric romance the motif appears in recognizable if rationalized form in Roswall and Lillian.[19]
  • Closely related tales in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index are ATU 314, "The Goldener" (a youth with golden hair works as the king's gardener), and former tale type[a] AT 532, "I Don't Know" or Neznaïko (fr) (a sapient horse instructs the hero to play dumb).[20] The latter type happens in Hungarian tale Nemtutka[21] and Russian tale Story of Ivan, the Peasant's Son.[22] These three tale types, which refer to a male protagonist expelled from home, are said to be "widespread in Europe".[23]
  • Author Bozena Nemcova wrote down a version named Prince Bayaya, which Parker Fillmore commented that it is "a mosaic of two or three simpler stories". In the story, twin princes are born to a king and queen. The king asks the queen for his favourite son to inherit the throne. Owing to that, the other brother journeys on his own, in the company of his faithful horse. The horse speaks to him and recommends his prince disguises himself as a peasant with a speech impediment (he should only respond with "I don't know" when asked).[24]


  • A literary version exists with the name The Forest Man, where the Wild Man-like character is named "Forest Man".[25]
  • 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.[26]
  • Alphaville's 1994 song Iron John starts with a sketchy retelling of the first half of the story. The rest is about an opportunistic career in an unspecified profession in a more modern setting.


In 1991, Robert Bly analyzed the story in Iron John: A Book About Men. Bly's reading analyzes the story for lessons about masculinity applicable to 20th-century men, and became a major work of the mythopoetic men's movement.[2][27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ D.L. Ashliman, "The Grimm Brothers' Children's and Household Tales (Grimms' Fairy Tales)"
  2. ^ a b Richard A. Shweder (January 9, 1994). "What Do Men Want? A Reading List For the Male Identity Crisis". New York Times.
  3. ^ Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. Kinder Und Hausmärchen: Gesammelt Durch Die Brüder Grimm. 3. aufl. Göttingen: Dieterich, 1856. pp. 218-219.
  4. ^ von Arnim, Friedmund. Hundert neue Mährchen im Gebirge gesammelt. Bauer. 1844. pp. 112-121. [1]
  5. ^ Sommer, Emil. Sagen, Märchen und Gebräuche aus Sachsen und Thüringen. Volume 1. Halle: 1846. pp. 86-91.
  6. ^ Cosquin, Emmanuel. Contes populaires de Lorraine comparés avec les contes des autres provinces de France et des pays étrangers, et précedés d'un essai sur l'origine et la propagation des contes populaires européens. Tome I. Paris: Vieweg. 1887. pp. 138-154.
  7. ^ "Das treue Füllchen". In: Wolf, Johann Wilhelm. Deutsche Hausmärchen. Göttingen/Leipzig: 1851. pp. 268-285.
  8. ^ Stith Thompson, The Folktale, p. 60-1, University of California Press, Berkeley Los Angeles London, 1977
  9. ^ Haney, Jack V. The Complete Russian Folktale: v. 3: Russian Wondertales 1 - Tales of Heroes and Villains. New York: Routledge. 2000.
  10. ^ "Der starke Franz". In: Müllenhoff, Karl. Sagen, Märchen und Lieder der Herzogthümer Schleswig, Holstein und Lauenburg. Kiel: 1845. pp. 438-444.
  11. ^ "Þorsteinn mit dem Goldhaar". In: Rittershaus, Adeline. Die neuisländischen Volksmärchen. Halle: Max Niemeyer. 1902. pp. 96-102.
  12. ^ "The Wonderful Warrior". In: The Golden Ship and Other Tales, translated from the Swahili. With illustrations by Lillin Bell and Alice B. Woodard. [3rd ed.] London: Office of the Universities' Mission to Central Africa. 1909. pp. 75-93.
  13. ^ "The Magician and the Sultan’s Son". In: Bateman, George W. Zanzibar tales told by natives of the east coast of Africa: translated from the original Swahili. Chicago: McClurg. 1901. pp. 183-194.
  14. ^ Histoire du prince et de son cheval. In: Spitta-Bey, Guillaume. Contes Arabes Modernes. Leiden: Brill. 1883. pp. 152-161.
  15. ^ Calame-Griaule, Geneviève. "Amadou Hampâte Bâ, Il n'y a pas de petite querelle. Nouveaux contes de la savane [compte-rendu]". In: Journal des africanistes, 2001, tome 71, fascicule 1. Les empreintes du renard pâle. pp. 265-266.
  16. ^ Stith Thompson, The Folktale, p 59-60, University of California Press, Berkeley Los Angeles London, 1977
  17. ^ Thompson, Stith. European Tales Among the North American Indians: a Study In the Migration of Folk-tales. Colorado Springs: Colorado College. 1919. pp. 347-357.
  18. ^ a b Paul Delarue, The Borzoi Book of French Folk-Tales, p 384, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York 1956
  19. ^ Laura A. Hibbard, Medieval Romance in England p291 New York Burt Franklin,1963
  20. ^ Cooper, David L. (editor/translator); Dobšinský, Pavol (collector). Traditional Slovak Folktales. Armonk, New York; London, England: M. E. Sharpe. 2001. p. 274. ISBN 0-7656-0718-2
  21. ^ Arnold Ipolyi. Ipolyi Arnold népmesegyüjteménye (Népköltési gyüjtemény 13. kötet). Budapest: Az Athenaeum Részvénytársualt Tulajdona. 1914. pp. 196-202.
  22. ^ Steele, Robert. The Russian garland: being Russian folk tales. London: A.M. Philpot. [1916?] pp. 39-49.
  23. ^ Vaz da Silva, Francisco (2000). “Cinderella the Dragon Slayer". In: Studia Mythologica Slavica 3 (May). Ljubljana, Slovenija. p. 187.
  24. ^ Fillmore, Parker. Czechoslovak Fairy Tales. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. 1919. pp. vii and 77-98.
  25. ^ Winnington, Laura, and John C. Conacher. The Outlook Fairy Book for Little People. New York: Outlook. 1903. pp. 43-61. [2]
  26. ^ "Transformations by Anne Sexton"
  27. ^ Morrow, Lance (August 19, 1991). "The Child Is Father Of the Man: ROBERT BLY". TIME.


  1. ^ Stith Thompson doubted the independent existence of this type: "Confined, so far as now appears, to a very limited section of eastern Europe is the story of the hero called "I Don't Know." It is hard to tell whether this should be considered as a distinct tale type (Type 532), or merely as a variety of the Goldener story [Type 314]". Thompson, Stith (1977). The Folktale. University of California Press. p. 61. ISBN 0-520-03537-2

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