BOOK (1968)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 July, 2011, 12:00am


The Iron Man
by Ted Hughes
Faber & Faber

How's this for heavy metal? The late Ted Hughes' wondrous prose-poem for children begins with the titular Iron Man standing on the brink of a cliff: 'How far had he walked? Nobody knows. Where had he come from? Nobody knows. How was he made? Nobody knows.'

What we do know is that he lifts his 'enormous iron right foot ... stepped forward, off the cliff, into nothingness. Crrrraaaassssssh!' Despite the 'Crash! Crash! Crash!' as he tumbles from 'rock to rock, snag to snag', 'nobody knew the Iron Man had fallen'.

Luckily, the Iron Man pulls himself together and wanders 'deeper, deeper, deeper' into the sea. In chapter two, he is spotted roaming at night by Hogarth, a farmer's son. The next morning, the farmers awake to find their own metal machines have been removed: 'Where were the tractors? Their earth diggers? ... From every farm in the region, all the steel and iron farm machinery had gone. Where to?' The answer is into the Iron Man, who feasts on these metal morsels like we might on crisps.

The farmers dig a pit to try to capture their foe but escape is child's play to Iron Man who is soon back at large eating barbed wire. Luckily, Hogarth realises the Iron Man could be the answer to the planet's recycling problems, and suggests he eat all manner of rust and junk - which the metal giant does endlessly.

In chapter four, a Space Dragon, a 'nameless, immense bat-angel', swoops down to earth. Metal is again the key: 'Please think of something,' cried Hogarth. 'If this space-bat-angel-dragon licks all life off the earth, that'll be the end of your scrap iron - there'll be no people left to make it.' Thanks to the efforts of China, Japan and Australia, the Iron Man wins the day.

The story was shaped by tragedy. Written in 1968, it was dedicated to Hughes' three children, Frieda, Nicholas and Shura. The story was composed to comfort Frieda and Nicholas following the suicide of their mother, Sylvia Plath. Sadly, a year after its publication, Hughes' second wife, Assia Wevill, committed suicide, killing Shura, then four, with an overdose of sleeping pills.

Iron Man has transcended these sad beginnings. Not unlike its hero, the story has been made and remade in different forms. There are illustrations by George Adamson, and later by Andrew Davidson. The Who's Pete Townshend turned it, firstly, into a musical, and then into an animated film, The Iron Giant. Hughes wrote a sequel, The Iron Woman (1993), a parable of environmental collapse.

Seek out the 1985 edition, brilliantly illustrated by Davidson. Never has the Iron Man looked more (ahem) magnetic.