28 AUGUST, 2015
By: Maria Popova
A parable of peace, a love letter to the cosmos, and a reminder of the vulnerable and vivacious humanity that unites us beneath our surface squabbles.
“The Iron Giant 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. Taller than a house, the Iron Giant stood at the top of the cliff, on the very brink, in the darkness. The wind sang through his iron fingers. His great iron head, shaped like a dustbin but as big as a bedroom, slowly turned to the right, slowly turned to the left. His iron ears turned, this way, that way. He was hearing the sea.”
So begins the extraordinary 1968 novel The Iron Man by English poet laureate Ted Hughes (August 17, 1930–October 28, 1998), published in North America as The Iron Giant — a magnificent modern-day fairy tale for all ages. Written at the height of the Cold War and two years after Umberto Eco’s similarly-spirited children’s book about tolerance, the story is a parable of peace, a warning against warfare, and a reminder of the vulnerable and vivacious humanity that unites us beneath our surface squabbles. Burning with the cosmic enthusiasm of the Space Age, it is also a love letter to astronomy and space exploration.
Hughes dedicated the book to his children, Frieda and Nicholas, for whom their tragically fated mother, Sylvia Plath, had written a very different children’s book a decade earlier.
In 2010, the immensely talented London-based illustrator Laura Carlin was commissioned to illustrate a special edition of The Iron Giant (public library), imbuing with new life the Hughes classic that, half a century later, continues to bear rattling relevance to our divisive world.
Carlin’s artistic style, while unmistakable, evokes the aesthetic of mid-century illustration and the die-cut surprises inside the book call to mind legendary graphic artist Bruno Munari’s vintage “interactive” children’s books.
Hughes tells the story of the Iron Giant, who emerges mysteriously and begins devouring tractors and plows in a small farming town, to the great terror and dismay of the farmers. They enlist a little boy named Hogarth, a farmer’s son, to befriend the giant and lure him into a giant pit. But as soon as the giant is trapped and silently buried, Hogarth begins to feel intense remorse.
When spring comes, the giant unburies himself as if awaking from a long slumber. In an act of redemptive kindness, Hogarth leads him to a local junkyard where the Iron Giant can feast himself back to life. Just then, astronomers announce some terrifying news — a space-monster, a “nameless, immense bat-angel,” is headed for Earth. As all nations declare futile war on the menacing space invader, the Iron Giant comes to the rescue — only he has the caliber to stand up to the monster.
But when the Iron Giant defeats the “space-bat-angel-dragon” and orders the strange creature to become Earth’s slave for perpetuity, the monster answers that he’d be of no use in any earthly labor. “All we do in space is fly, or make music,” he laments. Curious, the Iron Giant inquires about the music and the story takes a turn for the even more poetic:
“Haven’t you heard of the music of the spheres?” asked the dragon. “It’s the music that space makes to itself. All the spirits inside all the stars are singing. I’m a star spirit. I sing too. The music of the spheres is what makes space so peaceful.”
Perplexed, the Iron Giant asks what could possibly possess such a peaceful creature to want to eat Earth. Here, Hughes reminds us that there are contradictory impulses in everything and the parts of us that prevails are the parts we feed through the ideas and people we surround ourselves with, or what William Gibson has elegantly termed our “personal micro-culture.” After a moment of wistful contemplation, the dragon answers that he overheard the warring cries of earthlings and got caught up in the collective intoxication of destruction, so he simply wanted to join in — a sentiment that calls to mind Nobel laureate Elias Canetti’s enduring ideas on crowds and power.
The Iron Giant then suggests that instead of slaving for the Earth, the space-bat-angel-dragon could sing to earthlings instead. And so he does:
The whole world could hear him, a strange soft music that seemed to fill the whole of space, a deep weird singing, like millions of voices singing together.
Meanwhile the Iron Man was the world’s hero. He went back to his scrap-yard. But now everybody in the world sent him a present. Some only sent him an old car. One rich man even sent him an ocean liner. He sprawled there in his yard, chewing away, with his one ear slightly drooped where the white heat of that last roasting had slightly melted it. As he chewed, he hummed in harmony to the singing of this tremendous slave in heaven.
And the space-bat-angel’s singing had the most unexpected effect. Suddenly the world became wonderfully peaceful. The singing got inside everybody and made them as peaceful as starry space, and blissfully above all their earlier little squabbles. The strange soft eerie space-music began to alter all the people of the world. They stopped making weapons. The countries began to think how they could live pleasantly alongside each other, rather than how to get rid of each other. All they wanted to do was to have peace to enjoy this strange, wild, blissful music from the giant singer in space.
Complement Carlin’s terrific take on The Iron Giant with Hughes’s moving letter to his son on the universal inner child and the story of his fateful first meeting with Sylvia Plath.
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