Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Folk Tale Secret Stash: Iron Hans.


You know, I try to start these posts out with something clever or some set-up that leads to me explaining why I like a story.  But the truth can sometimes be that I like these stories for some of the simplest reasons.  I mean, it seems like a given for a fairy tale, but sometimes I just like them for the fantastical concepts and imagery in them.

For example, one of my favorite obscure Grimm tales is “Iron Hans” (sometimes called “Iron John”).
No scene like this actually appears in the story.
The story starts out with a forest that no one goes into anymore.  Those who do don’t come out.  Then one day a hunter from outside the kingdom is hunting in the forest and finds out that people are disappearing because they’re getting dragged into a pond by something from beneath the water.  He goes and gets men with buckets.  They drain the pond and find in the bottom a wild man covered in hair the color of rusted iron.

The hunter chains up the wild man and brings him back to the king who puts him in a cage on display in the courtyard and gives the keys to his wife for safe keeping.  It’s here that the wild man became known as Iron Hans.

And Iron Hans would have stayed in that cage if it weren’t for the actions of a young prince.
You see, this prince loses the ball he’s playing with when it goes into Iron Hans’s cage.  He tries to get the ball back unsuccessfully a couple of times.  The first two times, Iron Hans won’t give the ball back and says that the prince can only have it if he unlocks the cage and lets him out.  Finally, the prince steals the keys from under his mother’s pillow, unlocks the door (pinching his finger in the process) and Iron Hans just strides right out.  Knowing that he’ll be in trouble if his royal parents return and find Iron Hans gone, he tries to convince Iron Hans to go back into the cage.  Instead, Iron Hans picks up the boy, throws him over his shoulder and carries him off into the forest.

What follows is a journey for the prince, first as Iron Hans’s servant and then out in the world.  I’m not going to give anything else away (in my earlier “Secret Stash” posts I had a tendency of giving away 90% of the plot).  But I will give you a link to the story of “Iron Hans” right HERE.

Overall though, I just like a lot of the fantasy ideas here.  Just the idea of a “wild man” is great.  Iron Hans’s wildness as well as his actions summon up that old idea of the “noble savage”.  There’s also some serious archetypal mojo going both forward and backward in time.  Along the same lines you’ve also got Enkidu from the Epic of Gilgamesh but following after “Iron Hans”, there’s also Mowgli from The Jungle Book and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan.  Heck, I could even make an argument for Wolverine from the X-Men.  Also, while the story does describe Iron Hans as having long hair the color of rusty iron, it actually leaves a fair bit of wiggle room for the imagination.  Personally, I tend to imagine Iron Hans as looking like kind of an odd mix of Tarzan, Bigfoot and Hagrid from the Harry Potter movies.

There are some other good fantastical bits too.  For example, there’s a spring that turns things golden and horses and armies that Iron Hans can seemingly produce out of thin air.  But even the more mundane bits are interesting.  The prince having to find work is interesting.  There’s a princess (as usual in these stories) and the prince’s interactions with the princess are interesting.  A war happens in the story (which actually is a mundane thing by fairy tale standards) and the description of the battle is interesting.

So that’s really the basis for why I like the story.  But just because I don’t read so much into this story doesn’t mean that nobody does.

You see, back in the ‘90s a poet and storyteller named Robert Bly grew concerned for the mental and emotional well-being of men.  To this extent, he wrote a book about masculinity, initiation and mentorship all based around an allegorical reading of the story of “Iron Hans”/”Iron John”.  The book is simply titled Iron John.  It was rather popular too.  Popular enough that when NBC’s Grimm did an “Iron Hans” episode, they based it much more around Bly’s whole “masculine initiation” concept than they did around the actual story.

Now let’s have some points for commitment to a blog post.  I actually read Bly’s book in preparation for this post.  It’s the most research I’ve ever done for a Folk Tale Secret Stash.
I find this book a little hard to explain.  It’s not a bad book, really.  You can tell from his constant drawing on mythology and folklore that he’s partial to writers like Bruno Bettelheim and Joseph Campbell.  He also frequently illustrates his ideas through snippets of poetry.  He has some interesting ideas.

I don’t know if I agree with everything Bly writes.  A lot of his examples seem anecdotal at best.  Also, he seems to skip obvious bits of mythology that don’t really work with his allegory.  For example, he talks about what it means for the prince to find work in the garden, but doesn’t mention the Garden of Eden from Judeo-Christian myth.  Even if it didn’t fit, it would have been nice for him to acknowledge that it didn’t fit and say why.

I’ve never been much for allegory, anyway.  Before we can accept any kind of hidden meaning in fairy tales, we first have to accept them at the surface level.  There are still so many stories that the wider public has not accepted even on that basic level.

But I guess it just shows that everyone can see these stories and love them for different reasons.

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