Tuesday, December 14, 2004

My Term Paper: Childrens Lit. (Engl. 304)

Iron Hans the Two Variants

Something about the Iron Hans fable has been greatly confounding me as of late. The two versions are not at all the same. As in the case with most Brothers’ Grimm translations, they opt to edit the sex out and replace it with innuendo. Maria Tatar talks about this in her essay “Sex and Violence: The Hard Core of Fairy Tales” (Norton, p.364), but what is entirely unusual this time is that the Brothers Grimm are placing sexual allusion into Iron Hans where originally there was none. I’m going to discus not only why they reverse their traditional pattern, but also the ramifications it has on the story. Ultimately I will prove that the Grimm’s version dramatically affects the tone, outcome, and reader’s response of the same fairy tale in comparison to the Friedmund Mon Arnim version. Finally, I will expose the fact that the Grimm’s’ did in deed alter the Iron Hans fable at their own creed.

In the Friedmund Mon Arnim version of Iron Hans, published a full year before the Grimm’s version (1844, 1845 respectively) the little boy proceeds to beg Iron Hans to let him play with a ball. In the Grimm’s version the boy is playing with the ball too close to Hans’s cage. These transitions between the two tellings of the story conflict the reader, as having the golden ball seems to be a significant part of the story. The wild man originally has a ball, which would tempt a child, but in the later version (the Grimm’s version) the child is playing with the ball. Changes between various telling of folklore and fairy tales is bound to occur, but never seem to be as contradictory, or rather opposing as the ones which occur in Iron Hans. In the case of Iron Hans, entire symbols get relocated and attached to different characters in the different versions. We as a reader can no longer decipher which is to be more accurate, perhaps, as something may be lost in translation; however, for the time being let us not confuse the issues at hand by dirtying them with ‘what ifs’. For all we know Arnim’s version may be the better translated one. Until we see the original script or hear the first telling of the folklore, we will not be able to judge for ourselves which is the more accurate. Rather, we can’t base the discrepancies on any set ‘original’, but we can superimpose the two variant Iron Hans tales and look at where they differ. It becomes obvious that there are huge discrepancies which continually pop up. These alterations may strike us as odd at first, however, according to Donald Haase’s theories of Fairy Tales and classic stories being injected with a “national spirit” (Yours, Mine, or Ours?, 357), this is a common practice the Grimm Brothers’ adhere to.

Another curiosity is that in the Grimm’s version -the wild man Hans tells the boy that the ‘key’ to let him out is under his mother's bed (Norton, p.330). Shortly after, when the King returns to find that Hans has been let out, it is the Queen who worries. She is afraid that her husband will suspect her, and of what exactly we may ask? The innuendo of a ‘wild man’ knowing that the ‘key’ is “under the Queen’s pillow” makes us suspect and question her immediate response of guilt. Without reading too deeply into the text, we get the underlying impression that mother dearest has been “fooling around” with Hans. It is curious that the Grimm’s decided to include this sexual, even Oedipal, innuendo when it was not in the prior version. Considering they typically avoid this topic of sex to supplement moral values, at least according to what Tatar has to say, then we can assume that something else is at work here.

The boy is of course banished to the woods, and Hans grants him asylum. His task remains the same in each version: guard the magical pool that turns everything to gold. This fits with Jack Zipes' categorizing of an ‘oral tale’. In his essay “Cross-Cultural Connections" he mentions that, “The plot generally involves a protagonist who is confronted with an interdiction or prohibition which he or she violates in some way. Therefore, there is generally a departure of banishment and the protagonist either is given a task or assumes a task related to the interdiction of prohibition” (Zipes, 848). The reference to gold pops up numerous times. There is the “golden key,” the “gold ball,” the “gold finger,” the “gold hair,” and the “golden apple”. The boy fails three times at the task of keeping the pond pure (as aforementioned by Zipes) and Hans exiles him into the ‘adult’ world. This is when the second large discrepancy occurs.

In the version by Arnim, the princess spots Hans in the garden and sees his golden locks of hair, instantly falling in love with him. Yet when she beckons him forth and attempts to remove his handkerchief upon his head, which he uses to conceal his ‘golden’ hair, she fails three times. This ensures that the boy's true identity remains secret when he becomes the mysterious knight. However, the Grimms allow the princess to succeed upon the first attempt in unveiling the young boy. Again, this is a change worth noting, because it could upset the entire order of the stories' progression. The original version stays truer to the ‘oral’ styling rules set down by Zipes of keeping the hero mysterious until his timely unvailing at the stories end, but the air of mystery is lost in the transition to the Grimm’s version. After revealing the child as the ‘golden’ one the Princess attempts the same thing the next day. This appears as more of a flirtation between the princess and the boy and breaks away from the standard foreshadowing and use of mystery that the original tale utilizes. This flirtation leads away from the oral roots and what Zipes explains as the integral concept of wonderment and hope which all oral tales have (848). This brings us to the third big discrepancy in the two versions of Iron Hans.

In the Grimm’s telling of Iron Hans the land is at war with a mysterious foe who seeks to conquer the kingdom. The boy’s journey to adulthood continues, and his coming of age isn’t complete before going to battle. He fights the enemy, and with Hans’s guidance and help gains victory. However, the prior version by Arnim (Norton, p.326) has the boy fight his own corrupt father. At the end the boy transcends to prince and then to king, but he also gains his father’s kingdom. The true journey to adulthood can be seen in this progression. Yet once again the Grimm’s downplay the message, and instead of the boy’s father being the enemy, the evil is unknown. At the end the child’s real parents come to his wedding with the princess and are shocked to find their boy is alive. After the boy becomes a prince, Hans shows up to fill in the details. Hans was apparently under an evil spell, and because the boy was so helpful, Hans being a true King is ever so grateful and so gives the boy everything. In this way the boy becomes a King and inherits two kingdoms. Again the Grimm’s version plays down the symbolic meaning, and Hans plays a benefactor roll and the translation doesn’t require the boy to overcome his father, but just become a man. Ultimately we can’t but feel let down by the Grimm’s, as we get caught up in the powerful themes of the Arnim version of Iron Hans. The more traditional elements remain in Arnim’s version as good son fights evil father and have a climactic battle where in the son overcomes his father. I think Zipes would agree that Arnim’s version is closer to an ‘oral’ beginning than the Grimm’s version. This initiation to manhood between the two stories varies on a level that Giambattist Vico would categorize as two separate ages. Vico would argue that in Arnim’s version of Iron Hans, is founded in an oral telling closer to the age of Gods (as set down by Vico in the Norton Anthology of Literary Criticism, 402.) In fact the symbols of overcoming the “father” or the god figure is another indicator that Vico would acknowledge as a key signifier of its category. The Grimm’s version becomes wordy (which fits into Zipes discussion of oral folk lore transformed into literary fairy tail, p. 845), and its alteration to a less significant understanding of initiation would drop down to the age of Heroes or Man. There are adequate symbols and allegory, but the piece loses its simplistic and pure meaning. The language of a fixed literature dilutes the impact of the oral origin, and the alterations the Grimm’s make to Iron Hans leaves us a little perplexed.

The question then remains, not why the two versions are different, but in the design of why the alterations were opposing ones? Obviously the two initiation stories start the same but both end differently. They both begin with the boy being given a set of tasks (a quest to manhood) then lead to the digressing plot elements. As I have pointed out the major changes are in the 1) original possessor of the golden ball, 2) The addition of the golden key and the sexual psychology behind Hans’s knowledge of its location, 3) The timely discovery of the boy's golden hair, and finally, 4) the conflict with the opposing father figures. One story ends with the King Child overthrowing his evil father, and the other one where the King Child frees Hans from a curse, and we have to ask ourselves if this alteration in plot elements didn’t in fact change the final outcome of the story, or at least the Grimm’s version of it? This isn’t the first time the Grimms have been questioned in their alterations or personalized tellings of fairy tales. Haas also states in his essay, “Ironically, the abuse of the Grimms’ tales by the culture industry of National Socialism has reinforced prejudice against the Grimm’s’ tales” (Norton, 355). Haas goes on to explain that many folks have questioned the German authenticity of the Grimm’s’ stories when we take a look at the ambiguous characteristics of the plots. These characteristics then bring into focus the ‘other’ cultural elements within the fairy tales and folklore that may or may not be uniquely German in origin. I believe this is partly what we are seeing in the two various tellings of the Iron Hans story.

These four key changes in the story really bother me, because as far as fairy tales go, even after the changes, they traditionally don’t contradict each other as in the case of Iron Hans. I believe that the only way to fully discover what has happened here is to retrace the root myth of the story, but seeing how that would be near impossible, we can only speculate between the two variant texts. Haas also agrees with Tatar, and he states, “In fact, for the last fifteen year the Grimm’s’ tales have been the center of considerable discussion and controversy…,” and also, “That Wilhelm Grimm had freely revised, edited, added to, and basically rewritten many of the classic tales to reflect his own aesthetic and moral values renders the universal, transcendent view of these tales untenable” (359, 360). Upon knowing this, we can be assured that finding the original story, or the original meaning to be quite lost. We can only relate the common stories, and compare where they differentiate.

As I pointed out with the two variants of Iron Hans, I believe the Brothers Grimm purposely altered the story, but why they went against their common pattern of alteration, the one that Tatar laid out for us, we cannot be sure. Perhaps it was the Grimm’s own Social views of the time, or perhaps they were imposing nationalistic, ethnic, and cultural values on the Iron Hans tale, but regardless, there is evidence that they did alter it as so far as their familiar pattern of alteration can be seen, and so it is quite clear that the Brothers’ Grimm did in fact alter Iron Hans.


Ed. Tatar, Maria. The Classic Fairy Tales. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, INC., 1999.

Ed. Various. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, INC., 2001.

Ed. Zipes, Jack. The Great Fairy Tale Tradition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, INC., 2001.

No comments: