When I was in grade school, I remember Grandma Alderson reading “The Little Iron Man” to me. It was not my favorite story–perhaps I will write about my favorite stories, “The Donkey Cabbage” and “The Princess Who Flies Like a White Dove,” some other time. Yet it had a character who was emblematic about how I have always felt about fairy tales. So I will retell it here and then I will explain the tale’s deficiency.
The Little Iron Man
There was an orchardist who had three sons, the first two were very clever, with the shrewdness of Eve’s serpent, while the third was foolish and openhearted, and kind to all who met him. Now the orchardist, though not rich, prized his delicious apples. So it was that when the call came out into the kingdom, explaining that the king’s daughter was ill and the king was looking for a cure, the eldest son in the family was sent with some wine to drink and cake to eat along with a basketful of apples.
Now on the road, he saw a little iron man. And the little iron man said, “Where are you going? And what have you in your basket?”
“None of your business,” said the first son. “And it’s hog’s bristles to you.”
“So it is and so it shall remain,” said the little iron man.
Well, he got to the king’s castle and the basket was opened–and there were hogs bristles, instead of the gorgeous red apples he had been sent from his father’s house with. He was thrown out of the castle and beaten, and returned home humiliated.
Now the second son started out. And he met the little iron man. And the little iron man said, “Where are you going? And what have you in your basket?”
“None of your business,” said the second son. “And it’s frogs’ legs to you.”
“So it is and so it shall remain,” said the little iron man.
So it was the second son got to the castle and his basket was opened to produce–frogs’ legs. And the second son was cast from the castle in the manner of the first.
Now the third son insisted that he get his chance. Of course, neither of his brothers had mentioned the little iron man–out of embarrassment for their bad manners and the results–but the third son had a sincere faith in the effigy of his father’s apples to heal the princess. Finally, he was sent out, but whereas his brothers left with wine and cake, he left with water and bread.
On the road he met the little iron man.
“Where are you going and what is in your basket?” asked the little iron man.
The third son sat down, gave the little iron man some of his bread, and then told the little iron man whole story ending with the words, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the apples in this basket should cure the poor princess?”
“Good luck to you,” said the little iron man. “I am sure the princess will get well thanks to you.”
The youngest son laughed, “I hope so. I would not like to have the same fate as my two older brothers had. But they meant well, I am sure.” And so the youngest son went on to the castle.
Now at the castle, the basket of apples was opened, and instead of the beautiful red apples of his father’s orchard, the youth saw even lovelier apples made of gold. And one was taken to the princess, and she bit it, and she woke up, cured by the medicinal powers of the apple.
I will interrupt the story here to describe partially my point. This story does have a wholesome moral (the young man who is kind cures the princess) and the hero is easy for a child to identify with. More, there is a kind of majestic aura of the tale, set as it is in an almost medieval past. Yet when I was a child, what interested me most was the “little iron man” himself. I longed to enter the picture and travel, not to the castle, nor to the orchardist’s house, but to where the little iron man lives. In Road to Faerie, Tolkien–the granddaddy of fantasy–insists that it is the human realm that is most interesting in the folktale, and that the magic in the story merely illuminates the human world. Yet as a child I instinctively felt otherwise. I longed to get to know the “little iron man” apart from his good deeds toward humans in the human realm. I remember reading a book of old Irish myths and thinking that the concept of “Otherworld” where the ancient gods and their fellow magical creatures existed was where I wanted to travel in stories–if only I knew how. Anyway, I will return to the third son and the ‘little iron man’ in the story.
Now the King was very rich and looking at the orchardist’s son could tell he was not one of the nobility. So he said, “I have another task for you to do. Go and get the gold egg of the Phoenix and I will let you marry my daughter.”
The third son cheerfully agreed, and set out. Before he left the King put together some food and supplies for him to take into the woods where the Phoenix was supposed to live. The son was not expected to come back, but on the other hand the savior of the King’s daughter could not go totally without reward. Nobody ever went into the Forest of the Phoenix and came back alive. However, before the Orchardist’s Son could grow desolate and lose hope his friend, the little iron man appeared. Having gotten as far as he had, the Orchardist’s son almost expected the miracle. So he sat down and gave the little iron man a portion of the food that had been given by the King.
The little iron man asked where the Orchardist’s son was going, and on hearing about it acted as though he had known all along. The little iron man told the young man to go up to the cliff, and then the little iron man would distract the Phoenix, “Take two eggs, but no more, for the Phoenix will search for them if they are all gone.”
The Orchardist’s son agreed and with much difficulty climbed the cliff the little iron man took him to. As the young man waited, the little iron man distracted the Phoenix, and the Orchardist’s son, seeing six eggs, took two. Then he climbed down the cliff, and waited for the little iron man to return. After he returned, he walked the Orchardist’s son half way back to the castle. The Orchardist’s son walked the rest of the way back.
Now the King saw that the Phoenix eggs were there and was mystified. How had the Orchardist’s son gotten them? However, he decided to put the young man to another test, one he was certain not to succeed at. The King had a flock of rabbits which nobody could keep from wandering away from the castle, and which the King delighted eating individual rabbits from. So the King told the Orchardist’s son to go into the field with the flock and to come back with all 100 of them–if there were a mere 99, he would have the young man sent back home, empty handed. The Orchardist’s son agreed, believing Providence would intervene, somehow.
Sure enough, in the field, the little iron man listened to the young Orchardist’s tale, and gave him a silver whistle, “If a rabbit runs off, blow this whistle, and they shall all return.”
So the Orchardist’s son watched the rabbits.
Now, the King told the Princess to go out and get one of the rabbits from the young man, so he could not complete his task. The Princess did not want to: she was already in love with the young man who had saved her life. However, nobody–not even the Princess–dared disobey the King, so she went out and asked the Orchardist’s son for a rabbit.
The Orchardist’s son could not say know, smitten as he was with her grace and beauty. However, when she was half of the way back to the castle, he blew his whistle, and the rabbit jumped out of the Princess’ apron and returned to him. Since the cook saw the incident, and could explain that the rabbit getting away from the Princess was despite her good intentions, she left the Orchardist’s son to the fields.
After the Princess left the young man, the King found her crying and asked what the matter was. She wept forlornly, “Oh Papa, why can’t I marry him? He is so kind and handsome.”
So when the King found the 100 rabbits had been well kept, he decided he ought to keep “the royal promise” as he put it, and the Orchardist’s youngest son married the Princess. On his wedding night, he told his new wife about his special friend, and how he believed he saw him at the gateway watching their vows being said.
As readers of the original story can tell (it is a story of the Grimm fairy tale I first discovered in The Gem Fairy Tales), I made some editorial changes to the tale. My Princess is less “spoilt” and more in love with the Orchardist’s son, who in turn has greater faith in his ability to succeed in his mission. However, with fairy tales a person is allowed to do that. They began as Oral Stories, ideally passed down from Grandma to child, and the old lady gets to augment or downplay any parts of the story she wishes to change. In the old days, such stories functioned this way because they weren’t tied to a written text. This was because there was a time before widespread literacy in the West.
Anyway, my point with the little iron man remains the same. Where does the enigmatic saint of the story go afterwards? What does he do when he lives in the mysterious forest in which he spends most of his time?