Iron John

(Der Eisenhans)

[Note: this is again not a tale as actually found anywhere in German oral tradition, but rather a conflation by Wilhelm Grimm of two separate narratives, one obtained from the valley of the Main River, and the other a tale that he got from Elisabeth (Bettina) von Arnim’s collection Märchen aus dem (Böhmer) Gebirge (1844), no. 17, “Der eiserne Hans” (Iron John). About the Grimm Collection.]

There was once a king by whose castle was a big forest in which roamed all kinds of game. On one occasion he sent out a huntsman to shoot a roedeer, but he didn’t come back. “Perhaps he’s met with an accident,” said the king and on the following day sent out two other huntsmen to look for him. But they, too, remained away. On the third day he summoned all his huntsmen and said, “Range through the whole forest and don’t stop until you’ve found all three.” But not one of these came home either, nor was there a sign of a single one of the pack of hounds they’d taken with them. From then on no one was any longer willing to venture into the forest, and it lay there in deep silence and solitude, and only from time to time did one see an eagle or a hawk flying over it. That went on for many years.

Then a foreign huntsman presented himself to the king, sought a position, and offered to go into the perilous forest, The king, however, was unwilling to give his consent, saying, “The forest is haunted. I’m afraid you’ll fare no better than the others and won’t get out of it again.” “Sir,” replied the huntsman, “I’m willing to do it at my own risk; I don’t know the meaning of fear.” So with his dog the huntsman betook himself into the forest. Before long the dog got on the trail of a deer and was going to chase it, but scarcely had it run a few paces when it was standing before a deep pool and could go no farther. Then a naked arm reached out of the water, seized it, and dragged it down. When the huntsman saw that, he went back and fetched three men who had to come with pails and ladle out the water. When they could see bottom, a wild man was lying there whose body was as brown as rusty iron and whose hair hung down over his face and reached to his knees. They bound him with cords and led him away to the palace. Everybody marveled greatly at the wild man, and the king had him put in an iron cage in his courtyard and on pain of death forbade the door of the cage to be opened. The queen herself had to take charge of the key. From now on everybody could again go safely into the forest.

The king had an eight-year-old son. Once he was playing in the courtyard, and while at play his gold ball fell into the cage. The boy ran up and said, “Hand me out my ball.” “Not till you’ve opened the door for me,” answered the man. “No, I won’t do that; the king’s forbidden it,” said the boy and ran off. The next day he came back and demanded his ball. The wild man said, “Open my door,” but the boy wouldn’t. On the third day when the king had gone hunting, the boy came again and said, “Even if I was willing to, I couldn’t open the door. I haven’t the key.” Then the wild man said, “It’s under your mother’s pillow; you can get it there.”

The boy, who wanted to have his ball back, threw all scruples to the winds and brought the key. The door opened hard, and the boy jammed his finger. When it was open, the wild man stepped out, gave him the gold ball, and hurried away. The boy got frightened, shouted and called after him, “Oh, wild man, don’t go away. If you do, I’ll get a beating.” The wild man turned around, picked him up, put him on his shoulders, and with swift strides went into the forest. On returning home the king noticed the empty cage and asked the queen how that had happened. She knew nothing about it, looked for the key, but it was gone. She called the boy, but no one answered. The king sent out people to look for him in the fields, but they didn’t find him. Then he had no trouble guessing what had taken place, and great grief reigned at the royal court.

When the wild man reached the dark forest again, he set the boy down from his shoulders and said to him, “You’ll not see your father and mother again, but I’ll keep you with me because you freed me and I’m sorry for you. If you do everything I tell you, you’ll get along all right. I have plenty of treasures and gold, more, indeed, than anybody in the world.” He made the boy a bed of moss on which he went to sleep. The next morning the man led him to a well and said, “Look, the gold well is bright and clear as crystal. You’re to sit there and see that nothing falls in; otherwise it will be defiled. Every evening I’ll come and see if you’ve obeyed my command.”

The boy sat down on the edge of the well, saw how sometimes a gold fish, sometimes a gold snake appeared there, and watched out that nothing fell in. As he was sitting thus, his finger once hurt him so that he involuntarily stuck it in the water. He drew it out again quickly but saw that it was completely gilded over, and no matter how hard he tried to wipe the gold off again, it was all in vain. In the evening Iron John came back, looked at the boy and said, “What happened to the well?” “Nothing, nothing,” he answered and kept his finger behind his back so that Iron John shouldn’t see it. But the man said, “You dipped your finger in the water. This time we’ll let it go, but watch out that you don’t let anything fall in again.” At the crack of dawn the boy was already sitting by the well and guarding it. Again his finger hurt him and he rubbed it on his head; then unluckily a hair fell into the well. He took it quickly out, but it was already completely gilded. Iron John arrived and already knew what had happened. “You let a hair drop into the well,” he said. “I’ll overlook it in you once more, but if it happens a third time, the well will be dishonored, and you can no longer stay with me.”

On the third day the boy was sitting by the well and didn’t move his finger, however much it still hurt him. Time passed slowly for him, and he looked at the reflection of his face in the water, and as at the same time he kept leaning farther and farther over and wanted to look himself straight in the eye, his long hair fell down from his shoulders into the water. He straightened up quickly, but his whole shock of hair was already gilded and shone like the sun. You can imagine how frightened the poor boy was. He took his handkerchief and tied it around his head so that the man shouldn’t see it. When Iron John arrived he already knew everything and said, “Untie the handkerchief!” Then the gold hair welled out, and however much the boy apologized, it did no good. “You’ve not stood the test and you can’t say here any longer. Go out in the world where you’ll find out what poverty is like. But because at heart you are not bad and I have only good intentions toward you, I’ll grant you one thing: if you get into trouble, go to the forest and call ‘Iron John!’ Then I’ll come and help you. My power is great, greater than you imagine, and I have gold and silver to spare.”

Then the king’s son left the forest and kept following beaten and unbeaten trails until he finally came to a big city. There he looked for work but couldn’t find any and had, besides, learned nothing to earn his living by. Finally he went to the palace and asked if they would keep him. The court people didn’t know what they could use him for, but they took a fancy to him and bade him stay. Finally the chef took him in service and said he might carry wood and water and sweep up the ashes. Once when no one else was on hand, the chef ordered him to carry the dishes to the royal board, but since he didn’t want to let his gold hair be seen, he kept his cap on. Nothing like that had ever happened to the king before, and he said, “When you come to the royal board, you must take off your hat.” “Alas, sir,” he answered, “I can’t. I have a bad scab on my head.” Then the king had the chef summoned, scolded him and asked how he could have engaged such a boy: he was to dismiss him at once. The chef felt sorry for him, however, and exchanged him for the gardener’s boy.

Now the boy had to plant and water the garden, hoe and dig, and put up with wind and bad weather. Once in the summer when he was working alone in the garden, the day was so hot that he took off his cap to let the breeze cool him off. When the sun shone on his hair, it gleamed and sparkled so that the rays fell in the bedchamber of the king’s daughter and she jumped up to see what it was. She spied the boy and called to him, “Boy, bring me a bunch of flowers.” In all haste he put on his cap, picked wild flowers and tied them together. As he was going up the stairs with them, he met the gardener, who said, “How can you be bringing the king’s daughter a bunch of poor flowers? Hurry up and get others and pick out the fairest and rarest.” “O no,” answered the boy, “the wild flowers smell stronger and will please her better.”

When he entered her room, the king’s daughter said, “Take off your cap; it’s not proper for you to keep it on in my presence.” Again he answered, “I mustn’t; my head’s scabby.” But she grabbed for the cap and pulled it off. Then his gold hair rolled down on his shoulders and was a magnificent sight. He was about to run away, but she held him by the arm and gave him a handful of ducats. He went off with them, thought nothing, however, of the gold, but brought it to the gardener, saying, “I’m making your children a present of it; they can play with it.” The next day the king’s daughter again called to him to bring her a bunch of wild flowers, and as he came in with it, she immediately grabbed for his cap and was going to take it away from him. But he held it tight with both hands. Again she gave him a handful of ducats, but he wouldn’t keep them and gave them to the gardener as playthings for his children. The third day was no different: she couldn’t get his cap away from him, and he didn’t want her gold.

Not long after, a war swept over the land. The king assembled his forces and didn’t know whether he’d be able to resist the enemy, who was superior in power and had a big army. Then the gardener’s boy said, “I’m grown up and want to go along to the war; just give me a horse.” The others laughed and said, “When we’re gone, look for one for yourself. We’ll leave you one in the stable.” When they’d gone, he went into the stable and took out the horse; it was lame in one foot and hobbled along plunk-plunk. Nevertheless, he mounted it and rode off into the dark forest. On reaching the edge of the forest he called out “Iron John!’, three times so loud that it rang through the trees. The wild man appeared immediately and said, “What do you demand?” “I demand a strong steed, because I want to go to the war.” “You shall have that and even more than you demand.”

The wild man went back into the forest, and before long a groom came out of the forest leading a steed that snorted through its nostrils and could hardly be held in check. And behind followed a great warrior band, all in iron armor and their swords gleaming in the sun. The boy turned his three-legged horse over to the groom, mounted the other and rode at the head of the troop. As he drew near the battle field, a large part of the king’s people had already fallen and the others were on the point of having to give way. Then the youth raced up with his iron troop, overrode the enemy like a storm, and struck down everybody who resisted him. They wanted to flee, but the youth had the upper hand and didn’t stop until not a single man was left. However, instead of returning to the king, he led his troop by roundabout ways back to the forest and summoned Iron John. “What do you demand?” the wild man asked. “Take back your steed and your troop and give me my three-legged horse again.” Everything he demanded was done, and he rode home on his three-legged horse.

When the king returned to his palace, his daughter went to meet him and congratulated him on his victory. “It’s not I who gained the victory,” he said, “but a foreign knight who came to my aid with his troop.” The daughter wanted to know who the foreign knight might be, but the king didn’t know and said, “He pursued the enemy, and I haven’t seen him since.” She enquired of the gardener for his boy, but the former laughed and said, “He’s just come home on his three-legged horse. The others have been making fun of him and calling out, ‘Here comes our Plunk-Plunk back again.’ They also asked, ‘Behind which hedge have you been lying asleep all the while?’ But he said, ‘I did the best thing and without me things would have gone badly.’ Then they laughed at him more than ever.”

The king said to his daughter, “I’m going to have a great festival announced: it’s to last three days, and you are to throw a gold apple. Perhaps the unknown man will come along.” When the festival was announced, the youth went out to the forest and called Iron John. “What do you demand?” he asked. “To catch the princess’s gold apple.” “You’ve as good as caught it already,” said Iron John. “In addition you shall also have a red outfit and ride on a fine bay.” When the day arrived, the boy galloped up, took his place among the knights and was recognized by no one. The king’s daughter stepped forward and threw a gold apple to the knights, but he alone caught it. However, as soon as he had it, he raced away. For the second day Iron John had him fitted out as a white knight and given a white horse. Again he alone caught the apple, didn’t stop a minute, however, but raced away with it.

The king grew angry and said, “That mustn’t be! He must appear before me and give his name.” He ordered that if the knight who caught the apple again made off, they should set out after him and, if he didn’t turn back of his own accord, to hit him and stab at him. On the third day he received a black outfit from Iron John and a black horse, and he also again caught the apple. When he raced away with it, the king’s people pursued him, and one got so near him that he wounded his leg with the point of his sword. Nevertheless, he escaped, but his horse jumped so violently that his helmet fell off his head, and they could see that he had gold hair. They rode back and reported everything to the king.

The following day the king’s daughter asked the gardener about his boy. “He’s working in the garden. The queer chap was at the festival, too, and didn’t get back till yesterday evening. He also showed my children three gold apples he’d won.” The king ordered him into his presence. He appeared and again had his cap on his head, but the king’s daughter went up to him and took it off him. Then his gold hair fell over his shoulders, and he was so handsome that everybody was astonished. “Are you the knight who came to the festival every day, always in a different color, and who caught the three apples?” asked the king. “Yes,” he answered, “and there are the apples,” took them out of his pocket and handed them to the king. “If you want further proof, you can see the wound that your people inflicted on me when they pursued me. And I am also the knight who helped you to victory over your enemies.” “If you can perform such deeds, you’re no gardener’s boy. Tell me, who is your father?” “My father is a mighty king, and I have gold aplenty and as much as I simply ask for.” “I plainly see,” said the king, “that I owe you a debt of gratitude. Can I do you any favor?” “Yes,” he answered, “indeed you can. Give me your daughter in marriage.”

Then the maiden laughed and said, “He doesn’t stand on ceremony! But I’ve already seen from his gold hair that he’s no gardener’s boy.” Then she went up and kissed him. His mother and father came to the wedding and were very happy, for they had already given up hope of seeing their dear son again. When they sat down at the wedding table, the music suddenly stopped, the doors opened, and a proud king stepped in with a great retinue. He went up to the boy and embraced him, saying, “I am Iron John and was turned into a wild man by witchcraft, but you have disenchanted me. All the treasures I possess shall be your property.”


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