‘The Iron Man came to the top of the cliff. How far had he walked? Nobody knows. Where had he come from? Nobody knows. How was he made? Nobody knows.’
Is there a better opening in a children’s book – or any book for that matter – than Ted Hughes’ first few lines of The Iron Man? Brilliant in their simplicity, they establish a sense of mystery which runs like a thread throughout the book. What is most intriguing is that the beginning feels like the end, as the metallic monster appears to have reached the end of his journey at the top of a cliff, then topples over the edge to be smashed and scattered across the sand and the surf. But this remarkable, unusual start to the book entices the reader to speculate, to wonder and, above all, to read on.
Reading this again for the first time in thirty years is as rewarding and as enjoyable as the first time. It was written nearly fifty years ago but it has lost none of its power, perhaps the opposite. The story itself is timeless – it has been called a modern day fairy tale – but the messages within the text are as relevant and as important as ever. The Iron Man is a parable about war and militarism and the futility of both – but it also makes the reader think about how we respond to strangers, particularly ones we perceive as a threat (I couldn’t help but think of the Iron Man as some kind of refugee, alone in a place far from home).
So much is crammed in to sixty-odd pages, yet Hughes has paired-down the story to its most essential parts. There are no digressions, nor are their unnecessary flourishes – there’s nothing to distract the reader from the essence of the story. It is dark, certainly, and there is a greater sense of menace than I recall from first-time round. That’s not to say it is perfect (some of the dialogue is unconvincing), but it’s no wonder this brilliant little book lives on, fifty years after The Iron Man first crashed off the cliff.