IRON JOHN

A German Fairytale

Retold by Craig Coss

 

 

There was once upon a time a King lived in a castle next to a huge forest where all kinds of wild animals lived. One day, he sent a hunter deep into the forest after a deer, but the hunter never returned. “Something’s wrong,” said the King, and the next day he sent two more hunters to try and find him, but they did not come back either. On the third day, the King called all of his hunters together and told them, “Search through the entire forest, and don’t stop until you’ve found all three men.”

         The hunters went together into the great forest, and although they took a whole pack of dogs with them, none of them were ever seen again, and none of the dogs returned either.

         After that, no one from the castle dared to enter the forest for many years, and the forest remained still and silent. Only an eagle now and then flew over it.

         Then one day a strange hunter knocked on the doors of the castle, looking for work. He offered to hunt for the King in the great forest.

          “Absolutely not,” said the King. “The forest is not safe. You’ll end up like the others, and we’ll never see you again.” The hunter replied, “Sire, I know the risk, and I am not afraid.”

         So the hunter took his trusted dog with him, and walked into the forest. Before long, the dog picked up a scent and followed it. But the hound had hardly run three steps when it came to the edge of a deep pond, and couldn’t go any further. Suddenly, a huge hairy hand reached out of the water, grabbed the dog, and pulled it back in.

         When the hunter saw that, he ran back to the castle to get three men to come with buckets and bail out the water from the pond. When they got down to the bottom of the pool, they found a Wild Man lying there in the mud, his body covered with hair as brown as rusty iron. His hair hung down over his face, and covered him all the way to his knees. They bound him with ropes and led him away to the castle.

         The Wild Man astonished everyone. The King locked him up in an iron cage in the middle of the courtyard, and he forbade anyone to open the door on pain of death. Then the King gave the key to the Queen to keep safe. After that, people could go into the forest again without danger.

         The King and Queen had an eight year old son, who loved to play in the courtyard with his favorite toy, his beautiful golden ball. One day, when he tossed the ball, it accidentally rolled into the Wild Man’s cage. The boy ran to the cage and said to the Wild Man, “Give me my golden ball back.”

         “Not until you open the door for me, the Man answered.”

         “Oh no,” said the boy. “The King won’t allow it, and I’d get in big trouble!” And he ran away. The next day, the boy returned and asked for his ball again. The Wild Man said, “I’ll give you your ball if you open the door.” But the boy would not. On the third day, while the King was out hunting, the boy came once again and said, “I couldn’t open the door even if I wanted to, because I don’t have the key to the lock.” Then the Wild Man said, “The key lies under your mother’s pillow. You can get it there.”

         The boy, who really did want his ball, threw his fears to the wind, went into the castle and got the key. He put the key into the lock, and began to open the door. But the cage door was hard to open, and the boy pinched his finger. The Wild Man walked out, gave the boy his golden ball, and began to hurry away.

         Suddenly, the boy trembled with fear. He shouted and cried out to him, “Wild Man, if you go away, they will beat me!” The Wild Man spun around, lifted the boy onto his shoulders, and returned to the forest, taking the boy with him.

         When the King returned, he saw the empty cage, and asked the Queen how the Wild Man had escaped. She didn’t know, but looked for the key, and found it missing. She called for the boy, but got no answer. So the King sent a search party to look for him in the fields, but they did not find him. It was not hard to guess what had happened, and the royal family grieved and mourned for their lost child.

 

 

         When the Wild Man reached the dark forest once more, he took the boy from his shoulders and put him down on the earth. He said, “You will never see your mother and father again, but you may stay with me, because you freed me, and I have compassion for you. If you do everything as I tell you, you’ll be fine. I have much gold and treasure, more than anyone else in the world.”

         The Wild Man put the boy to sleep in a bed of moss, and in the morning, he took him to a beautiful spring. “See this spring,” he said, “It is crystal clear and full of light. I want you to sit here beside it, and make sure that nothing falls into it, because if that happens, it will spoil the spring. I’ll come back each evening to see if you’ve done what I have asked.”

         The boy sat down at the water’s edge. Sometimes, he glimpsed a golden fish or a gold snake, and he made sure that nothing fell in. But as he sat there, his finger hurt him so much that without thinking, he put it into the water. He pulled it right out, and saw that his finger had turned to gold.

         When the Wild Man came back that evening, he asked the boy, “Did anything happen with the spring today?”

         The boy held his finger behind his back, to keep the Wild Man from seeing it. He said, “No, nothing at all.”

         “Ah, you’ve dipped your finger in the spring,” said the Wild Man. “We can let it go this once, but don’t do it again.”

         Early the next morning, the boy sat next to the spring again, to watch over it. His finger still hurt, and after a while he ran his hand through his hair. Alas, one of his hairs fell down into the spring. He took it out, but it had already turned to gold.

         The moment the Wild Man returned to the spring, he knew what had happened. “You’ve let a hair fall into the spring. I’ll allow it this time, but if it happens again, you’ll have polluted the spring, and you won’t be able to stay with me any longer.”

         The third day, as the boy sat by the spring, he tried very hard not to put his finger in the spring, even though it still hurt. But he became bored, and began to stare at his reflection on the surface of the water. He wanted to look straight into his own eyes, and he leaned over farther and farther. All at once, his long hair spilled over his head and fell into the water. He pulled his head back, but the water trickled over all of his hair, and it turned to gold which shone as bright as the sun. Now the boy was frightened. He took out a handkerchief and covered his head with it so the Wild Man wouldn’t know what had happened. But when he came home that evening, he knew right away.

         “Take off that handkerchief,” he said. The golden hair tumbled down over the boy’s shoulders, and the boy was silent.

         “You failed the test, and you can’t stay here any longer,” the Wild Man said. “Go out into the world. There you will learn what poverty is. I see that you have a good heart, though, so I will give you this one gift. If you are ever in trouble, come to the edge of the forest and call out my name, ‘Iron John, Iron John.’ I’ll come to the forest and help you. My power is great, greater than you think, and I have gold and silver in abundance.”

 

 

         Then the King’s son left the great forest, and walked along many trails, paths and roads. After a long while, he arrived at a great city he’d never seen before. There he went looking for work, but he couldn’t find any because he didn’t know how to do anything. At last, he visited the castle, and asked if he could stay there. Nobody at the castle could find a job for him either, but because they liked him they told him he could stay. Finally, the cook put him to work, and said that he could carry wood and pails of water to the kitchen, and rake the cinders together in the big iron stove.

         One day, when nobody else was available, the cook ordered the boy to carry a meal to the King at the royal table upstairs. When he served the meal to the King, he bowed but did not take off his cap, because the boy did not want anyone to see his hair. This had never happened in the King’s presence before.

         “When at the royal table, you must remove your hat,” the King told him.

         “Ah, Lord, I cannot; I have a sore place on my head.”

         The King called the cook up, scolded him, and asked how he could have taken such a boy as that in his service; he told him to fire the boy and get him out of the castle. The cook, however, took pity on him, and exchanged him for the gardener’s boy. That way, the boy would be out of the castle, as the King had ordered.

 

        

Now the boy had to plant and water the garden, dig with spade and hoe, and let the wind and bad weather do as they wished.

         One summer, he got so hot while working that he took his cap off to let the breeze blow through his hair and cool his head. When the sun touched his head, his hair glittered and flashed so brightly that it sent rays of sunlight all the way up to the bedroom of the King’s daughter, and she sprang up to see what that could be. She spied the boy from her window, and called down to him, “Boy, bring me a batch of flowers!”

         He quickly put his cap back on, gathered some wildflowers from the field, and tied them together. But while walking up the stairs, the gardener met him and asked, “Why are you bringing the Princess such ordinary flowers? Go quickly, and pick another bouquet of the rare and beautiful flowers we grow in the garden!”

         “Oh no,” replied the boy, “these wild flowers are more fragrant, and I think she’ll like them best.”

         When the boy walked into her room, the Princess said, “Don’t you know that it is not proper or polite to keep your cap on in my presence?”

         “I really shouldn’t. I have a sore on my head,” said the boy. She however grabbed his cap and yanked it off. His golden hair tumbled down and around his shoulders and was magnificent to look at. He tried to run away, but she held him by the arm and gave him a handful of gold coins.

         He took the gold coins and left, but since he did not care at all for them, he gave them to the gardener and said, “These are for your children to play with.”

         The next day, the Princess again called for some wild flowers, and the boy brought them up to her. When she tried to yank his cap off this time, however, he held it on his head with both hands. Once more she gave him a handful of gold coins, which he gave to the gardener’s children to play with for toys.

         The third day went the same way. She couldn’t take off his cap, and he wouldn’t accept the gold coins.

        

 

Not long after, the country was swept up in war. The King gathered his forces and thought he might loose to the enemy, who was powerful, and had a large army. The gardener’s boy said, “I am grown up now, and I will fight in the battle if you will give me a horse.” The other men laughed and said, “Look in the stables after we are gone—we’ll leave you a horse behind for you.”

         When they had all gone out to war, the boy went into the stable and led the horse out; it was lame in one leg, and walked hippity, hoppity. Nevertheless, he mounted the horse and rode to the dark forest.

         When he came to its edge, he called, “Iron John!” three times, so loudly that it echoed through the trees.

         In a moment the Wild Man appeared, and asked the boy, “What is it you want?”

         “I want a mighty war-horse, for I will go to battle.”

         “That you shall receive,” said the Wild Man, “and more than you have asked for as well.”

         The Wild Man went back into the forest, and before long a stable-boy lead from the woods a great steed that snorted air from his nostrils and was hard to hold in. Behind the horse followed a huge band of warriors equipped with iron armor, with their swords shining in the sun. The boy gave his three-legged horse to the stable-boy, and mounted the war-horse, and rode ahead of the soldiers. By the time they arrived at the battlefield, many of the King’s men had been killed, and the not much more was needed to bring them to total defeat.

         The boy galloped with his iron warriors, and charged the enemy like a hurricane, striking down all who opposed them. They began to flee, but the boy kept after them, until not a single man was left. Then, instead of returning to the King, the boy took a roundabout route back to the woods, and called Iron John out.

         “What do you want?” asked the Wild Man.

         “You can have your horse and your men back, and give me my three-legged horse again.”

         The Wild Man did just that, and the boy rode the hippity hop home.

         When the King returned to the palace, his daughter went to meet him and congratulate him on his victory.

         “It wasn’t me who won the battle,” he said, “but a strange knight and his band of warriors who arrived to help.”

         The Princess asked who the strange knight was, but the King did not know. “He galloped off after the enemy, and that’s the last I saw of him,” the King told her. She then asked the gardener where his boy was, but he laughed and said, “Here he comes back now, on his hobbeldy-jig horse! The others made fun of him, shouting, ‘Here comes Moopygoop! What bush have you been sleeping under?’ But he said back to them, ‘I fought very well, and who knows what would have happened if I hadn’t shown up?’ They all started busting up, laughing.”

 

 

The King said to his daughter, “I will arrange a great festival that will last for three days, and you will be the one who throws the golden apple. Perhaps the mysterious knight will show himself.”

         After the festival was announced, the young man rode to the edge of the forest and called for Iron John.

         “What do you want?” he asked.

         “I want to catch the golden apple the King’s daughter is going to throw.”

         “No problem: you practically have it in your hands already,” said Iron John. “I’ll even give you more: red armor for the festival and a powerful chestnut horse.”

         The young man galloped to the field for the event, and took his place with the rest of the knights, and no one recognized him. The Princess stepped forward, and threw a golden apple to the men. All of them tried for it, but the red knight caught it. Once he did, he galloped away.

         On the second day, Iron John gave him white armor to wear and a white horse to ride. Again, we was the only one who caught the apple, and he did not pause for even an instant, but galloped off.

         This made the King angry, and he said, “That is not allowed. He is supposed to ride over to me and tell me his name. If he catches the apple a third time and gallops off again,” the king told his men, “chase him. If he will not return with you, strike him with your sword if you need to.”

         On the third day of the festival, Iron John gave the young man black armor and a black horse, and again he caught the apple. But this time, when he rode off with it, the King’s men galloped after him. One of them got close enough to wound him in the leg with the tip of his sword. The young man escaped, but his horse leaped so powerfully that the young man’s helmet fell off, and they could all see that he had hair of gold. The King’s men rode home and told them everything that happened.

 

 

The next day, the Princess asked the gardener about his boy. “He’s back at work in the garden. The weirdo has been at the festival, and only returned last night. He also showed my children three golden apples which he has won.”

         The King called the young man to his presence, and once again he wore his cap. But the Princess went up to him and took it off, and his gold hair fell down over his shoulders. He was so handsome that everyone was amazed. “Are you the knight who came each day to the festival on a different colored horse, and each day caught the golden apple?”

         “Yes,” he said, “and here are the apples.” He took them out of his pocket and gave them to the King. “If you need more proof, you may look at the wound your men gave me when they chased me down. I am also the knight who helped you defeat your enemy.”

         “If you can perform such deeds as that, then you are no gardener’s boy! Tell me, who is your father?”

         “My father is a mighty King and I have as much gold as I’ll ever need.”

         “It’s clear,” said the King, “that I owe you thanks. Whatever I have in my power to give you, you may have.”

         “Well,” the young man said, “I’d like to marry your daughter.”

         The Princess said, “I like the way he says what he wants. I knew he was no gardener’s boy from his golden hair.” So she walked over and kissed him.

         Many people came to their wedding, including his mother and father. They were very happy to see him, because they thought that they would never see their dear son again.

         As they were all sitting at the table for the marriage feast, the music suddenly stopped, the great doors swung open, and a magestic King entered, followed by many lords, ladies, and servants. He walked up to the young groom and hugged him. Then he said, “I am Iron John. A magic spell had turned me into a Wild Man, but you have freed me. So all of the treasure that I own now belongs to you.”