aka: The Iron Giant
by Ted Hughes
London: Faber and Faber, 1968
62 pp, 5 chapters
Ages: 7 and up (could be read to younger children, though space creature is pretty scary)
Interests: sci fi, robots, space, dragons
A mysterious giant iron man appears on the coast of England and roams the countryside, eating up whatever metal he can find – tractors, cars, barbed wire fences. The locals dig a great pit and trap him but he escapes. The farmers then want to call in the army but a young boy has a better solution. They lead the giant to the town junkyard, where he can eat all the scrap metal he likes. All is well until a mysterious bat-angel-dragon from space threatens the entire world. The Iron Man is called upon to face the creature and save the earth.
Written by the British poet Ted Hughes, this book is just beautifully written. (And delicious to read if you’ve been going through a spate of clunkier books.) The tale is at once fairy tale and science fiction, and is a critique of warfare and mankind’s aggressive nature, though the Big Lessons never get in the way. Atmospheric and eerie, with great gobs of suspense and mystery, as the origins of the man are never explained. And when the creature from space comes onto the scene it gets quite frightening.
First a star begins growing, moving fast toward the earth, nearer and nearer.
“… if it hit the world at that speed, why, the whole world would simply be blasted to bits in the twinkling of an eye. It would be like an Express train hitting a bowl of goldfish.” (41)*
But then the star stops, and out of the heart of the star comes a new horror,
“… it seemed to be either a bat, or a black angel, or a flying lizard … The nameless, immense bat-angel was flying down at the earth, like a great black swan.” (43)*
When it lands, with a thump that shakes the globe, it covers all of Australia. It demands to be fed living things but the people of earth cannot agree to this and declare war. Their weapons, however, prove useless. The Iron Man is the only one who can challenge the beast.
Enthralling, frightening, and with the dignity of an ancient legend, this story is marvellous for all ages. The ending – and it does have a happy ending – is achieved without violence or bloodshed, astonishingly enough. Highly recommended for all, although a black dragon as large as Australia coming out of the night sky is probably a bit much for the very young. I wouldn’t read it to anyone with night fears or who tends to have nightmares.
NB. in the U.S. the story was renamed The Iron Giant, as was the animated feature film based very loosely on the story, to avoid confusion with the Marvel Comics Iron Man. The movie The Iron Giant (1999) is really fantastic, though be aware its plot is pretty far removed from the original inspiration: no space dragon, here the villains are government men and soldiers. It is still an anti-war tale though, with a lot to say about the fears and prejudices of the Cold War era. Thoughtful, funny and heartbreaking too. Just wonderful – full review to come.
* page references from the 1985 Faber and Faber edition of The Iron Man