The Iron Man Ted Hughes, 1968

Au­thor Jonathan Green in­ves­ti­gates the chil­dren’s clas­sic that be­came a big- bud­get an­i­mated movie

SFX - - Books -

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

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