The Iron Man Ted Hughes, 1968
Author Jonathan Green investigates the children’s classic that became a big- budget animated movie
In this era of the Marvel
mega- movie masterplan, children are introduced to science fiction from an early age. Fantasy is something that they may come to later in life, via the poorly- lit avenues of YA vamp- lit and urban fantasy. However, it was fantasy that was the first speculative genre I encountered as a child, and the particular brand I encountered first was the fairytale.
The Iron Man – written by one- time poet laureate Ted Hughes and published in 1968 at the height of the Cold War – is subtitled “A Children’s Story In Five Nights” and is very much a modern fairytale, at least compared to the recognised classics. It is effectively three different stories split over five chapters. In the first chapter we meet the mysterious, mechanical Iron Man, with no explanation ever being given as to where he came from or who might have made him. At this stage, the Iron Man is very like the creature of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, seemingly having little awareness of the world around him or his place within it. By the end of the book, though, he’s become a sentient, compassionate being, and a bona fide hero to boot.
In one of the most memorable passages, right at the beginning of chapter one, the Iron Man is destroyed but then proceeds to put himself back together, piece by piece. It is also here that it becomes apparent that The Iron Man is a book that should be read aloud. It is full of exaggeration and inconsistencies, as are many fairytales. The size of the Iron Man, for example, alters to serve the needs of the narrative; at one point his hand is small enough to be carried by a seagull, later his head is described as being as big as a bedroom. But the story follows the tacitly accepted rules of fairytale: bargains are made, challenges are issued, promises are kept, and the dragon is defeated.
At the same time Hughes also subverts these rules: the farmdestroying giant becomes the saviour of mankind, a terrifying monster of continental – nay, apocalyptic – proportions is won over and comes good, and through the Space-Bat- AngelDragon’s redemption we learn that the true enemy all along was man’s own violent and war- like nature, which, unchecked, will be the end of us all.
The coming of the Iron Man at the opening of the story is pure fantasy, while by the end of the book the arrival of the Space- Being brings us fully into the realm of science fiction. But whether it is seen as SF or fantasy, what the book most definitely is, is poetic.
Just as the first storytellers of many early cultures were poets, The Iron Man harks back to the ancient sagas, stories that were told and listened to, rather than read, in which sea serpents are so huge they encircle the earth and a giant’s glove can seem like an entire system of caves, even to a god.
To my impressionable young mind, this tale of giant robots and alien monsters wasn’t SF or fantasy. It was simply magical. It was the first monster movie I ever “saw” – the poetry of the language, as my father read to me, creating incredible visuals that played out like a summer blockbuster inside my head. And it helped to engender in me an enduring passion for all things genre.
So I will say again, The Iron Man needs to be read aloud; not just Hughes’s wonderfully poetic turns of phrase, but even the way the words appear on the page demand an oral recitation. And what better way is there to introduce a new generation of children to the wonders of what we would now term “genre” than by reading to them?
This tale of giant robots and alien monsters was simply magical