Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2016 Iron Hans – Part One

Iron John GrimmFrom a Grimms’ edition

A Wild Man

Thalia’s index finger circles in the air above the table of contents as she stares at the ceiling, then stabs down on a title. “That one!”

“We read that last night,” I say.

The finger rises again and descends. “That one!”

Iron Hans it is. Can you stay awake? This is a rather long one.”

“Of course I can,” she pouts.

“Can Teddy stay awake?” I look at her stuffed bear.

“I’m not sure about him.” Thalia’s brow wrinkles.

Iron Hans is something of a three-act play. In the first act a huntsman, sent into the forest, disappears. Three more huntsmen are sent to find him but do not return. A third party meets the same fate. The culprit is a rusty-looking, hairy man who lives at the bottom of a pond. The king has him captured and put in a cage.

One day (the start of act two) the young prince lets his golden ball roll into the hairy man’s cage, and the creature will not return it until the lad opens the cage. After some reluctance, the prince does and is carried off by the hairy man.

The hairy man, who calls himself Iron Hans, sets the lad the task of guarding a well, not allowing anything to touch the water. Unfortunately the lad’s finger, injured while opening the cage, throbs, and he dips it into the water to soothe it. The finger turns to gold. By the end of the third day the lad has a whole head of golden hair. Iron Hans sends him away to learn poverty, but with the promise to help the lad if he is in need and calls for him.

The third act begins with the young man finding employment at a castle. He hides his golden hair under a cap (How he hides his golden finger the tale does not tell us.) and gets into a bit of trouble for not taking off his cap to the king. Because he is likeable, our hero still ends up as the assistant to the king’s gardener.

The princess spots him in the garden with his golden hair uncovered, and has him bring her wildflowers. She snatches off his cap and he tries to flee, but she forces gold coins into his hands. These he gives to the gardener’s children.

War breaks out, and the lad desires to be part of it. He calls to Iron Hans, who gives him a horse, armor, and an army of iron knights to follow him into battle. It is the lad who turns the tide of battle, but he disappears after his victory.

The king declares a three-day festival, during which the princess will throw out a golden apple to the knights each day. The king rightly assumes the mysterious knight will not turn down the challenge, but each day, dressed in different armor, the lad catches the apple and escapes. On the last day, the king’s men manage to pursue and wound him.

The princess talks to the head gardener about his assistant and learns the young man has shown three golden apples to the children. The youth is brought before the king and the princess once again snatches off his cap revealing his golden hair. The hero confesses all his good deeds and when asked what he will take as a reward, asks for and is granted the princess’s hand in marriage.

At the wedding, Iron Hans reappears restored to his true form as a king.

Thalia breathes gently and rhythmically in my arms. I put her stuffed bear in her lap and lift her up to carry her down the hall. I can’t help but notice Teddy’s button eyes are still wide open.

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2016 Iron Hans – Part Two

Iron John 15th centFrom 15th Century manuscript

A Bit of Smoke

There are only a handful of places I’d rather be than Augustus’ tobacco shop. I am flattered to be a special customer, one who shares his interest in fairy tales and who can offer a valued opinion on his tobacco blends. I lounge in one of his overstuffed chairs in his backroom while he attends to a customer. In my bowl is Wilhelm’s Delight, though I don’t think either of the Grimms smoked.

“What can you tell me about Iron Hans?” I ask when Augustus passes through the heavy curtain.

“Good story, very complete. The Grimm tales can be a little sketchy at times, you know. I’ve noticed the more popular stories are the longer ones, such as Iron Hans. Disney would do well to look at it, and the tale does have it proponents.  Robert Bly wrote his book on men by using this story as its central metaphor, although he called it Iron John. The psychotherapistJim Moyers has things to say about the tale along the same lines.

“And what do you think of the blend?” One of Augustus’ eyebrows rises.

“Too much Cavendish, but I like the light touch of Perique.”

“More Burley?”

“That might help.”

Iron Hans,” Augustus continues on my topic, “was in the Grimms’ 1815 edition, but they called it The Wild Man, which is a somewhat different story than the last edition’s version.”

“Oh?” Again I haven’t done my research.

“Well, the wild man does not live at the bottom of a pond and they catch him by getting him drunk. The lad’s ball is not golden, nor does the golden well appear, so there is no golden hair, nor a golden finger. The wild man put the young prince in dirty clothes and takes him straight to the emperor’s court to be the gardener’s helper. However, the wild man does help with the gardening.

“The princess falls in love with the handsome youth and has him bring her flowers on three occasions. On the first visit she gives him a roast chicken filled with gold. On the second visit it is a roasted duck filled with gold, and on the third a gold-filled goose, all of which the lad gives to the gardener, saying he has no need of it. The princess, thinking her lover still has the gold, marries him in secret and finds she is destitute.

“War breaks out and there are three battles into which the youth leads an army given to him by the wild man, thereby winning the war. In the third battle the youth is wounded, then returns to being the gardener’s helper, but allows himself to be identified by the wound as the battle’s hero. The emperor gives him the entire kingdom, and the wild man, released from a spell and returned to his kingship, has the young man and his wife come live with him.”

“Hmmm,” I contemplate, “I am not sure which version I like better. Of course, there will be other versions as well.”

“Many I would think—over time. Have you heard about the study published in The Royal Society about dating the fairy tales?”

“Well, yes, it is all over the press, even the Daily Mail covered it. You’re suggesting this story is very old?”

“Jim Moyer, whom I just mentioned and with whom I agree, suggests it goes back to The epic of Gilgamesh.”

Now that’s old.

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2016 Iron Hans – Part Three

iron hans Wild man, bestiaryWild Man from a bestiary.

Two Men

The comforts of my study await as I return from Augustus’ shop. I sink into my comfy chair, gazing out my bay window overlooking the Magic Forest. There is no better place for rambling contemplation, especially if there is a fire on the hearth crackling in the background. I stuff my pipe with Wilhelm’s Delight (now with a bit more Burley in it) after reading the articles Augustus pointed out to me.

Jim Moyers suggests in his From Wild Man to King that there is a connection between The Epic of Gilgamesh and Iron Hans that spans thousands of years. He is coming from a Jungian/Collective Consciousness standpoint, as opposed to Sara Graça da Silva and Jamshid J. Tehrani’s phylogenic archeology. The signs all point in the same direction; I am intrigued me.

I see the connection in the openings of each story. In both tales the wild man is discovered by a hunter, and the hunter takes action to capture the being. In the case of The Epic of Gilgamesh the wild man, Enkidu, is drawn away from his forest home by the temptations of a temple prostitute brought to him by the hunter. After he lies with the prostitute, Enkidu’s animal companions run away from him, and he finds he cannot run after them, as if he were bound. In Grimms’ The Wild Man, the hunter seduces the wild man with drink; a bottle of beer, a bottle of wine, and a bottle of brandy. When the wild man falls into a stupor the hunter ties him up.  In both stories, when the hunter has played his role he disappears from the action. We are not even told if he gets a reward for his labors.

The later version, Iron Hans, favored by the Grimms, does not appear to be a Wilhelm rewrite—although he was not above such a thing—but is drawn from a different source, one with far more Celtic influences. In this latter telling, Iron Hans is found at the bottom of a pond. The Irish, Scots, and Welsh have many creatures emerging from and submerging into ponds, lakes, and seas, from mermaids and nixies, to silkies and cattle. The Welsh are fond of plunging whole towns and castles tragically to the bottom of lakes.

The theme of iron and gold in Iron Hans cannot so easily be given attribution or understood. Iron comes up in the very title. Hans is described at rusty-colored. Another variant describes him as having iron skin. Toward the end of the story he provides the lad with iron knights.

In counterpoint, the lad’s gold ball rolls into the hairy man’s cage. The careless youth ends up with a golden finger and golden hair. In both versions, the princess pushes gold coins on him; in The Wild Man it is roasted fowl filled with gold. Hans = iron. The lad = gold. Why? I cannot concoct an answer.

I glance up and see the ghost of Wilhelm standing by my fire, peering into the flames. This tale, both versions, must have had special significance for Wilhelm. He and his brother, Jacob, were devoted to each other, all throughout their family’s travails. Wilhelm and Jacob had a comradery not unlike Gilgamesh and Enkidu, not unlike Iron Hans and the young prince. To what degree is this their story, a men’s story?

Your thoughts?

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2 Comments

  1. Syrdon

     /  December 9, 2016

    The story was already told in Straparola’s “Facetious Nights” (16th century) : L’uomo salvatico (The Wild Man), and belongs to the folklore of many nations. If you can read French, I suggest you the following article on the French Wikipedia : https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Front-de-cuivre (“Copper Forehead”), which is about the Russian versions (Medny Lob).

    Reply
  2. Ah, yes. There is ALWAYS another variation. Marian Roalfe Cox took note of that many long years ago in her “Cinderella: Three Hundred and Forty-Five Variants of Cinderella.”

    Reply

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