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Iron Hans

The following tale, “Der Eisenhans” (“Iron Hans” or “Iron John”) is tale number 136 from the Grimm Brothers’ famous collection Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales), and appears in 50 Classic Tales, published in 2021 by The White People’s Press, available here. Illustrations by Otto Ubbelohde, 1910. (2,900 words.)

There was once a king whose palace was near a large forest full of all kinds of wild animals. One day he sent a hunter out to bring him back a deer, but he never returned. “Perhaps an accident has befallen him,” the King said. The next day he sent out two more hunters to search for him, but they also never returned. On the third day, he sent all of his hunters out, saying “Scour the forest through, and do not give up until you have found all three.” But of these men as well none returned or were ever seen again. From that time forth, no one would venture into the forest, so there it stood in stillness and solitude, with nothing seen of it beyond the occasional eagle or hawk flying over.

This lasted for many years, when an unknown hunter presented himself to the King and offered to probe the dangerous forest. But the King could not give his consent, saying, “It is not safe, and I fear you would fare no better than the others and never return.”

“I will venture in at my own risk, as I fear nothing, Lord,” the hunter replied.

The hunter then disappeared into the forest with his dog. It was not long before the dog sniffed out some game and it wanted to pursue, but hardly had the dog entered its stride when it fell into a deep swamp and couldn’t get out. A naked arm emerged from the water, seized the dog, and pulled it under. When the hunter saw this he went back and fetched three men to come with buckets and bale out the water. When they could see to the bottom, there lay a wild man whose body was brown like rusty iron and had hair that hung over his face down to his knees. They bound him with rope and led him away to the castle. Curiosity and speculation about the wild man was rampant, but the King locked him in an iron cage in his courtyard and forbade all from opening the door by penalty of death, while the Queen herself took the key into safe keeping. From this time forward, hunters and all could once again venture into the forest without worry.

The King had a son who was eight years in age then, and was playing in the courtyard with his golden ball when it rolled into the cage.

The boy ran over to the wild man and said, “Give me my ball.”

“Not until you open the door for me,” the wild man replied.

“No,” the boy said, “I will not do that. The King has forbidden it.” He ran away, but came back the next day to ask for his ball again.

“Open my door if you want it,” the wild man said, but the boy still refused.

On the third day, while the King was out hunting, the boy went to the cage once more.

“I could not open the door even if I wanted to, as I don’t have the key.”

“The key lies under your mother’s pillow, you can find it there,” the wild man said.

The boy, who wanted his ball back, cast all sense to the wind, retrieved the key, and opened the cage with some difficulty, pinching his finger in the process. When it was open the wild man stepped out, gave him the golden ball, and hurried off. The boy was afraid and called out after him, “Wild man, do not leave or I’ll be beaten!”

The wild man turned back, scooped him up and set him on his shoulder, and strode with hasty steps toward the forest. When the King returned, he saw the empty cage and asked the Queen what happened. She knew nothing about it, and looked for the key, only to find it had been taken. She called the boy, but he was nowhere to be found. The King sent men out to search for him in the fields, but they could not find him, either. What had happened was clear, and resulted in considerable grief within in the royal court.

When the wild man reached the dark forest he took the boy down from his shoulder and said to him, “You will never see your father and mother again, but I will keep you safe, for you have set me free. If you do what I ask of you, you will fare well. Of treasure and gold I have plenty, more than anyone in the world.” He made a bed of moss for the boy to sleep on, and the next morning the wild man took him to a well. “The gold well is as clear as crystal, sit beside it and make sure nothing falls into it, or it will become polluted. I will come every evening to see if you have obeyed my order.”

The boy sat on the edge of the well and often saw golden fish or snakes surface from within, but he made sure nothing fell in. One day the burning pain in his finger hurt so much that without thinking he dipped it in the water. He withdrew it quickly, but it was already gilded over, and no matter what he did and regardless of how hard he scrubbed, he could not wash the gold off. In the evening, the wild man came back, looked at the boy, and said, “What has happened to the well?”

“Nothing,” he answered, hiding his finger behind his back

“You dipped your finger in the water. This time it may pass, but never do it again, and do not let anything go in.”

The following daybreak the boy remained by the well. His finger still hurt, and when he rubbed it against his head, a hair fell out and floated into the well. He took it out fast, but it was already gilded. The wild man returned later, and instantly knew what had happened before the boy even had a chance to explain.

“You let a hair fall into the well,” he said. “I will give you one more chance, but if this happens again, the well will be polluted and you can no longer stay with me.”

On the third day, the boy sat by the well and did not stir his finger in it, despite how much it throbbed with pain. But time moved slow that day. He looked stood and looked down at the well, at his reflection on the surface, and while leaning over and trying to look himself straight in the eyes, his long hair fell from his shoulders and down into the water. He drew back quickly, but the gold crept up to his scalp until his hair was as gold as the sun. Terrified, he took his handkerchief and tied it around his head so the wild man wouldn’t see it, but when he arrived later, he knew immediately what had happened. “Take the handkerchief off,” he said. The boy took it off and his golden hair streamed down. “You have not stood the trial and can stay here no longer. Go forth into the world and learn about poverty, learn about struggle. As you do not have a bad heart, I will do well by you and grant you one favor: if you ever find yourself in trouble or fall on hardship, come to the forest and yell “Iron Hans,” and I will assist with your needs. My power is great—much greater than you think—and I have gold and silver in abundance.”

The King’s son left the forest and walked the beaten and unbeaten paths, ever onward until he reached a large city. He looked for work, but could find none, as he had no skills of note. Finally he went to the palace and asked if they would take him in. The people of the court didn’t know what use the boy could be, but they liked him and told him to stay. The cook found him serviceable carrying wood and water and raking cinders. Once, when no one else was available, the cook ordered him to carry food to the royal table. He always wore a cap to keep his golden hair hidden, but to the King this was unusually disrespectful.

“When you come to the royal table you must take your hat off,” the King said.

“My Lord, I cannot, as I have a bad sore on my head,” he answered.

The King called the cook in and scolded him, asking how he could take a boy like this into his service and ordering him to be sent away at once. The cook, however, took pity on him, and exchanged him for the gardener’s assistant, so the boy was now tasked with tending to the garden—watering, hoeing, and digging, and bearing the wind, heat, and hard weather. One summer when he was working alone in the garden, it was so hot that he had to take his cap off and let the air cool him for a moment. As the sun shone down on his long, golden hair, it glistened so much that the reflections bounced around the bedroom of the King’s daughter, who sprang up and went to the window to see what it could be. She saw the boy in the garden and called down to him, “Gardener’s boy—bring me a bouquet of flowers.”

He put his cap back on, gathered some wild flowers, and bound them together. When he was ascending the stairs with them, the gardener met him and said, “You cannot take the King’s daughter a bouquet of such common flowers. Go get some different ones and look for the prettiest and rarest.”

“Oh, no,” the boy replied, “the wild ones have more scent and will please her more.”

When he entered her chamber, the King’s daughter said, “Take your cap off, it is bad manners to keep it on in my presence.”

He again said, “I cannot, for I have a sore on my head.”

She reached for his cap and pulled it off, so that his golden hair rolled down his shoulders. He wanted to run, but she held him by the arm, then gave him a handful of ducats.

With these he departed, but he cared nothing for the gold pieces. He took them straight to the gardener.

“For your children,” he said.

The next day the King’s daughter called down to him again and asked that he bring her another bouquet of flowers. When he entered, she immediately reached for his cap, but he held it on with both hands. She gave him another handful of ducats, which he took right to the gardener once more.

“For your children.”

On the third day, the same—she could not get his cap off, and he would not take her money. However, his summer days in the garden were interrupted when the country was overrun by war. The King gathered his men, but was unsure of the opposition he posed to the enemy, who was superior in strength and had a powerful army.

The boy approached the men and said, “I am grown and will fight in the wars with you, so give me a horse.”

They laughed. “Get one yourself when we’re gone. We’ll leave one in the stable for you, gardener’s boy.”

After they had departed, he went to the stable and led the horse out. It had a gimp foot and limped along hobblety jib, hobblety jib. Nevertheless, he mounted it and rode off in the direction of the forest. When he came to the outskirts, he called out “Iron Hans” three times so loud it echoed through the trees.

The wild man appeared at once and asked, “What is it you desire?”

“I need a strong steed, for I am going to the wars.”

“Then that you shall have, and more.”

The wild man went back into the forest, and soon returned with a horse that snorted with flared nostrils and could barely be restrained, and behind it followed a troop of warriors covered in iron armor and carrying swords that flashed in the sunlight. The boy traded in his three-legged horse, mounted the wild steed, and led the soldiers at the head. By the time they neared the battlefield, a large number of the King’s men had fallen and the rest were close to giving way, but blazing in was the boy and his iron brigade, who broke through the enemy like a storm and beat them down until they fled. The boy pursued and didn’t stop until no man was left alive. Instead of returning to the King, he ordered his troops back to the forest and called Iron Hans.

“What is it you desire?” the wild man asked.

“Take back your steed and your troops and give me my three-legged horse,” the boy said, whose wish was granted and who was soon riding back on the gimp horse.

When the King returned to his palace, his daughter went to meet him and congratulate him on his victory. “I am not responsible for the victory,” he said, “but a strange knight who came to my assistance with his soldiers.” She wanted to know who the mysterious knight was, but the King himself did not know. “He followed the enemy onward and I did not see him again.”

She then went to the gardener and asked where the boy was. He smiled and said he had just returned on his three-legged horse, and that the others were mocking him and saying, “Here comes our hobblety jib back again!”

“Under what hedge were you sleeping the whole time?” they asked.

“I did the best of all, and it would have gone far worse without me,” the boy replied, only to further ridicule.

The King told his daughter, “I will announce a great feast that will last three days, and you will throw a golden apple. Perhaps that will make the knight show himself.”

When the feast was announced, the boy went out to the forest and called Iron Hans.

“What is it you desire?” he asked.

“That I may catch the King’s daughter’s golden apple.”

“It is as certain as if you had done so already,” Iron Hans said. “You will wear a suit of red armor for the occasion and ride a spirited chestnut-colored steed.”

When the day came, the boy galloped in, took his place among the knights, and was recognized by no one. The King’s daughter came forward and threw a golden apple to the knights, but none caught it but he, and as soon as he had it he galloped away. On the second day Iron Hans equipped him as a white knight and gave him a white horse. Again he caught the apple, and did not linger for a moment, but galloped off with it.

The King grew angry. “This is unacceptable,” he said. “He must appear before me and give me his name,” sending out the order that the knight who caught the apple would come willingly or be tracked and cut down.

On the third day, the boy received from Iron Hans a suit of black armor and a black horse, and again caught the apple. But when he rode off with it, the King’s men pursued, and one got so close that he wounded the boy’s leg with the tip of his sword. He managed to escape, but the horse thrashed so wildly that the helmet fell from his head and exposed his golden hair. Upon their return, they reported this to the King.

The following day, the King’s daughter asked the gardener about the boy. “He’s working in the garden, but has been at the festival, too, and only returned last evening. He also gave my children three golden apples he said he won.”

“Did he?”

The King summoned the boy, who entered with his cap on, but the King’s daughter snatched it off his head and caused his golden hair to fall in waves down over his shoulders, stunning all and revealing his handsomeness.

“Are you the knight who came to the festival in different colors and caught the three golden apples?” the King asked.

“Yes,” the boy replied. “Here are the apples,” taking a bag out and returning them to the King. “If you desire further proof, you may see the wound your men gave me, but I am the knight who gained your victory and destroyed your enemies.”

“If you can perform such deeds, you can be no gardener’s boy. Who is your father?”

“My father is a mighty king, and I have gold as great as I require.”

“I see,” the King said. “Then I owe my thanks. What more can I do to please you?”

“You can give me your daughter to wife,” the boy answered.

The maiden laughed, “He may not be one for ceremony, but I could tell by his golden hair that he was no gardener’s boy,” and then she went and kissed him.

His father and mother attended the wedding and were overjoyed, for they had long since given up hope of ever seeing their son again. During the marriage feast, the music suddenly stopped, the doors opened, and a stately king entered with a large band of men. He approached the boy, embraced him, and said, “I am Iron Hans, by legend a wild man, but it was you who set me free, so the many treasures I possess shall now become your own.”

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