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  • Writer's pictureCramer & Del George

The Wild Man, Part 2—Danielle Sahm, Guest Blogger

Today we share the second of a two-part post by Danielle Sahm, who was a student in our Fall 2022 Introduction to the Fairy Tale course.

Danielle Sahm has a bachelor’s degree in English literature. She enjoys reading fairy tales, myths, and poetry, and finding the connections between them.

The prince rides away on the wild man's back.
Illustration by Ignaz Taschen for Grimms' Märchen

The Grimms’ tale “Iron Hans” begins with a king whose huntsmen keep disappearing into an ominous forest, never to be seen again. One brave huntsman volunteers to investigate and discovers a deep pool. There, a hand snatches his dog and pulls it under. He determinedly drains the pool, one bucket at a time, until he reveals a wild man at the bottom, whose “body was brown like rusty iron” and whose hair “hung over his face down to his knees.” The Wild Man’s name is Iron Hans, or sometimes Iron John in other tales of this type (Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 502). Back at the castle, the king puts him into “an iron cage in his courtyard, forbidding, on pain of death, that the cage door be opened.”

In her poem “Iron Hans,” Anne Sexton tells this tale with some small but significant alterations. Her changes pick away at the loose threads in the tale, exploring the gaps. For instance, when her Iron Hans is revealed at the bottom of the well, she writes, “Perhaps he was no more dangerous / than a hummingbird.” Other tales from the Grimms reveal a preoccupation with forensic evidence. No dark deed remains secret when sisters gather up bones and bury them, or when bones can sing the name of their killer. Yet here in “Iron Hans,” there is no mention of bones or bodies, just that one “naked arm” reaching from the water and snatching a dog. Sexton’s “perhaps” signals an uncertainty that is never resolved.

In the Grimm version, the eight-year-old prince rolls his golden ball into the cage on accident and asks Iron Hans to roll it back. Iron Hans won’t return the ball until the prince has stolen the key from his mother’s pillow and released him. Sexton expands on Iron Hans’ time of imprisonment. She writes,

The court gathered around the wild man

and munched peanuts and sold balloons

and not until he cried out:

Agony! Agony!

did they move off.

Though Sexton draws on the brothers Grimm as her source, her depiction echoes elements found in other versions of the tale. In Serbia, for instance, there is no golden ball. Instead, we hear that “the wild man cried and groaned incessantly to be set free, and these unceasing lamentations at length so moved the young prince that one night he went down and opened the dungeon door, and let out the prisoner.”

My past reading of myths and fairy tales conditioned me to expect this to end badly for the prince. Ever since Pandora fell for Zeus’s trick, opening a forbidden door has almost inevitably served as a (frequently fatal) lesson in obedience. But not here. Once he’s unlocked the door of the cage, “the wild man stepped out, gave him the golden ball, and hurried away.” He only stops when the prince calls out, “Oh, wild man, do not go away, or I shall get a beating.” At this plaintive cry, he turns, scoops the boy up, and takes him along. He gives the prince a home in the forest, saying, “you have set me free, and I have compassion for you.”

Iron Hans helps the prince (who disguises himself as a servant) secure victory in battle and the hand of a princess in marriage. Anne Sexton moves over this part of the tale rather rapidly. It’s obviously not what interests her. What does interest her appears almost abruptly in the last few sentences of the story. At the wedding of the prince to his princess, a grand king suddenly appears, saying, “I am Iron Hans. I had been transformed into a wild man by a magic spell, but you have broken the spell."

Sexton’s summary is communicated almost word-for-word from the original, but the short lines help to emphasize the abruptness of this sudden revelation. This poem appears in her volume entitled Transformations, and it’s the transformation of Iron Hans that seems to preoccupy the poet. Sexton fills in the gaps with the anachronistic references which pepper the other poems in Transformations:

Without Thorazine

or benefit of psychotherapy

Iron Hans was transformed.

No need for Master Medical;

no need for electroshock –

merely bewitched all along.

Known for her confessional poetry, her personal struggles with mental health make an appearance here as she remarks on this effortless transformation with a mixture of longing and skepticism.

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