The Iron Man
The Iron Man begs to be read aloud. It is a spoken bedtime story. And it should be read out loud even if the children who will enjoy it can read it for themselves. Perhaps they would enjoy reading it aloud themselves, also. Hughes wrote of its composition: ‘I just wrote it out as I told it over two or three nights.’ That combination of oral storytelling and the sensibility of the poet are there in the tunes of the text. This is not prose overloaded with wow words. Words are carefully chosen; carefully placed on the page so that the reader can slip into the rhythm of the story and imagine what is evoked there. The punctuation and phrasing is part of the music that makes it so compelling. The single word sentences guide the reader’s pace and draws attention when attention is due.
In Poetry in the Making, Hughes gives this advice to young readers wishing to write a novel:
The one bit of technical advice, to set you off, is this: the novel must be written in chapter and these can be as short as you like. Only a couple of pages, if you like. Chapters make it easier for you to concentrate on one stage of the action at a time, or one incident at a time. And it means that you can make up the whole novel out of the most interesting parts of your story. Any necessary but boring bits, you simply miss out between chapters and mention in a sentence or two at the beginning of the next chapter.
Hughes, T. (1967) Poetry in the Making London: Faber.
Each of the five chapters tells one important event. The story moves from the arrival of the Iron Man to his heroic contest with the space-bat-angel-dragon (there is a name to roll on the tongue) at the end. From the tragi-comic fall and reassembling of the Iron Man to his ordeal by fire, the ordinary combines with the extraordinary. Hogarth, the farmer’s son, is observer and actor. He is the character who is the link with young readers and whose actions invite them to ask themselves: what would I have done?
From the very first chapter we are aware of the vastness of the universe
…the stars went on wheeling through the sky and the wind went on tugging at the grass on the cliff-top and the sea went on boiling and booming.
Nobody knew the Iron Man had fallen.
There is the great wheeling sky but there also is the tender, comic reassembling of body parts on the beach, the half-eaten tractors and the disappearance of an ample picnic down a crack in the hill. And there is the Iron Man’s relish of his scrap heap feast:
He picked up a greasy black stove and chewed it like toffee. There were delicious crumbs of chrome on it.
In the contest of the final chapter so many elements of magic and healing are offered to the reader. Hughes mentions the music of the spheres. If we want to find out more about that we can. Above all we witness courage and heroism. And we learn that the fearful behaviour of the space-bat-angel-dragon was prompted by the fun men seemed to be having, at war with one another. He just wanted to join in. The gift of the space-bat-angel-dragon is to make music, and through his contest with the Iron man, to bring peace to the world.
Look out for these differently illustrated editions. Let us know which illustrations you prefer.