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Originally created as a bedtime story for his own children, The Iron Man is among Ted Hughes’s best known books for children. Its full title, The Iron Man: A Story in Five Nights, is reflected in the book’s structure of five chapters. This is the first edition from 1968 published by Faber & Faber, with drawings by George Adamson.
Melding science fiction with fairy tale, The Iron Man tells the story of a gigantic metal robot who appears out of nowhere, crashing onto the beach and shattering into many parts. He is discovered by Hogarth, a young boy. The Iron Man proceeds to devour farm machinery, until the farmers rise up against him. There is an act of betrayal as Hogarth agrees to lure the monster into a trap where he is buried underground – yet the Iron Man breaks free. Against demands from the farmers to bring in the army, Hogarth speaks out and suggests that the monster should be left to feed from the scrap metal yard.
After a period of coexistence between the metal giant and humankind, the story concludes with a battle of strength between the Iron Man and the ‘Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon’, an alien monster from outer space. Defeated, the alien reveals that he is actually a peaceful ‘Star Spirit’ who sings the ‘music of the spheres’ that produces universal harmony and peace. The Iron Man orders him to sing to Earth and its warmongering people. The spirit lulls them with his music into a state of lasting peace, ending the story with total harmony between man, nature and culture.
The Iron Man has been enduringly popular with children. The British Library holds a large collection of correspondence from teachers and pupils who wrote to Hughes after reading and studying the story (Add MS 88918/37/1-10). Judging by the contents of the letters, children are largely drawn to Hughes’s delightful and poetic use of sound. Onomatopoeia is central, for example, and it is often visually represented like the ‘CRRRAAAASSSSSSH!’ that occurs as ‘the Iron Man stepped forward, off the cliff, into nothingness’.
The Iron Man has been adapted into a ‘rock opera’ musical by Pete Townshend of The Who (1989, 1993), and inspired an animated Warner Brothers film (1999). In 1993 Hughes published a sequel, The Iron Woman, which carries a stronger ecological message about the pollution of the earth’s rivers, lakes and seas.
Adamson was born in 1913 in New York, America, to British parents. Following the death of his parents between 1921 and 1922, he was brought up in Lancashire with his aunts, and later acquired dual nationality. Adamson was an experienced illustrator, a cartoonist for Punch, and had served as an official war artist during World War Two. Faber & Faber and later Penguin commissioned him to illustrate several of Hughes’s works for children, including The Iron Man.
Ted Hughes: © The Ted Hughes Estate. No copying, republication or modification is allowed for material © The Ted Hughes Estate. For further use of this material please seek formal permission from the copyright holder.
© Reprinted by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd.
George Adamson: © George Adamson / Bridgeman Images. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.
Ted Hughes believed that poetry had the power to heal and transform, to change perceptions and to alter states. Like many of us, Simon Armitage first encountered Hughes’s poetry at school and was captivated by his ability to distill the complexity of human experience. Here he explores some of Hughes’s themes and interests and the impact he had on his own life and work.