The Iron Man (1968), by poet widower and Laureate Ted Hughes, is a rich, darkly textured story.
An awesome metal man from nowhere wreaks havoc until taught better by a small boy called Hogarth. The metal monster then saves the world from a terrifying, Australia-sized space bat. In five brief, plosive chunks, it’s great bedtime reading for impressionable kids, and was an ideal book-of-the-week for Jackanory in the early 1980s. A shaven-headed, bleak and grey Tom Baker told the sombre tale from a bleak and grey set, and another small boy was utterly mesmerised.
Many favourite books have fallen apart when reread as an... ahem... adult. But, like Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child, The Iron Man is more absorbing and satisfying than I remembered it. Stirring, potent imagery, right from the beginning, delights in hulking metaphors – the Iron Man is,
"taller than a house, [his head] shaped like a dustbin but as big as a bedroom."
Ted Hughes, The Iron Man, p. 11.The images are unwieldy, noisy and jarring, a messy ensemble of everyday bric-a-brac.
We’re immediately drawn into the mystery – who / what is this robot and where is he from? We’re never told, and just learn to accept him. There are clues to some sort of imprisoned past –
"Never before had the Iron Man seen the sea,"
Ibid.- and throughout, his industrial, masculine body contrasts with the natural and feminine (a theme overplayed in the less wowing sequel, The Iron Woman).
The opening moments are shocking – the cold, inhuman machine torn apart, tumbling down the cliff into the sea. Seagulls pick at his severed parts. Eerily reborn – rebuilding himself bit by bit from just one hand and eye - he grows from bird-fodder to saving the world from a terrible pterodactyl.
The Iron Man invades a land of picnics and fox-hunting. Hogarth lives a safe, rural idyll. It’s not just the Britain of the 1960s – Hogarth spends nights out on his own with a gun, while his dad immediately believes him about the monster, even when other adults don’t. This is a child’s world, where adults are just as alien and other as robots and space monsters.
The ever-ready kid carries a handy nail and a knife amongst the clutter in his pockets, and it is he who leads the Iron Man to initial entrapment in the pit, to the scrapyard after that, and then to his duel with the Star Beast.
The adults want to destroy both Iron Man and Space Beast. Big is intrinsically bad; the two strange visitors are feared for their size and scale of appetite. Both, however, ultimately save mankind. World peace, with people,
"blissfully above all their earlier little squabbles,"
Ibid., p. 62.derives from space, the "bigger picture", if you will. As it happens, it was adult, earthly war that originally corrupted the Star Beast so that he wanted to join in with the destruction – the little people and their little squabbles brought the real threat upon themselves.
Proving himself - sprawling in fires of his own making - we’re told that the Iron Man’s
"hair and elbows and toes became red hot".
Ibid., p. 52.His hair? Why does a robot need hair? He’s resplendently, sensibly bald in Andrew Davidson’s stark illustrations. On the cover, however, he’s gazes at us with sensitive blue eyes.
The Iron Man is about a monster growing unmonstrous. It’s unprecedented. King Kong and Frankenstein’s (engineered) monster raged against the adult world, and lost. It’s a small boy who humanises the Iron Man, leading him to glory.
For all their guns and cars and industry, the adults are left feeling sheepish and silly, and have to submit to living a peaceful idyll. Hah.