Iron John: Chapter 05. The narrative. The road less travelled.
And now the boy had to plant and water the garden, hoe and dig, and bear the wind and bad weather. Once in summer when he was working alone in the garden, the day was so warm he took his little cap off that the air might cool him. As the sun shone on his hair it glittered and flashed so that the rays fell into the bedroom of the King’s daughter, and up she sprang to see what that could be.
Then she saw the boy, and cried to him, “Boy, bring me a wreath of flowers.” He put his cap on with all haste, and gathered wild field-flowers and bound them together. When he was ascending the stairs with them, the gardener met him, and said, “How canst thou take the King’s daughter a garland of such common flowers? Go quickly, and get another, and seek out the prettiest and rarest.” “Oh, no,” replied the boy, “the wild ones have more scent, and will please her better.” When he got into the room, the King’s daughter said, “Take thy cap off, it is not seemly to keep it on in my presence.” He again said, “I may not, I have a sore head.” She, however, caught at his cap and pulled it off, and then his golden hair rolled down on his shoulders, and it was splendid to behold. He wanted to run out, but she held him by the arm and gave him a handful of ducats. With these, he departed, but he cared nothing for the gold pieces. He took them to the gardener, and said, “I present them to thy children, they can play with them.”
The following day the King’s daughter again called to him that he was to bring her a wreath of field-flowers, and when he went in with it, she instantly snatched at his cap and wanted to take it away from him, but he held it fast with both hands. She again gave him a handful of ducats, but he would not keep them and gave them to the gardener for playthings for his children. On the third day, things went just the same; she could not get his cap away from him, and he would not have her money.
Not long afterwards, the country was overrun by war. The King gathered together his people and did not know whether or not he could offer any opposition to the enemy, who was superior in strength and had a mighty army. Then said the gardener’s boy, “I am grown up, and will go to the wars also, only give me a horse.” The others laughed, and said, “Seek one for thyself when we are gone, we will leave one behind us in the stable for thee.” When they had gone forth, he went into the stable, and got the horse out; it was lame of one foot, and limped hobblety jig, hobblety jig; nevertheless he mounted it, and rode away to the dark forest. When he came to the outskirts, he called “Iron John” three times so loudly that it echoed through the trees.
Thereupon the wild man appeared immediately, and said, “What dost thou desire?” “I want a strong steed, for I am going to the wars.” “That thou shalt have, and still more than thou askest for.” Then the wild man went back into the forest, and it was not long before a stable-boy came out of it, who led a horse that snorted with its nostrils, and could hardly be restrained, and behind them followed a great troop of soldiers entirely equipped in iron, and their swords flashed in the sun. The youth made over his three-legged horse to the stable-boy mounted the other and rode at the head of the soldiers. When he got near the battle-field a great part of the King’s men had already fallen, and little was wanting to make the rest give way. Then the youth galloped thither with his iron soldiers, broke like a hurricane over the enemy, and beat down all who opposed him. They began to fly, but the youth pursued, and never stopped until there was not a single man left. Instead, however, of returning to the King, he conducted his troop by bye-ways back to the forest and called forth Iron John. “What dost thou desire?” asked the wild man. “Take back thy horse and thy troops, and give me my three-legged horse again.”
All that he asked was done, and soon he was riding on his three-legged horse. When the King returned to his palace, his daughter went to meet him and wished him joy of his victory. “I am not the one who carried away the victory,” said he, “but a stranger knight who came to my assistance with his soldiers.” The daughter wanted to hear who the strange knight was, but the King did not know, and said, “He followed the enemy, and I did not see him again.” She inquired of the gardener where his boy was, but he smiled, and said, “He has just come home on his three-legged horse, and the others have been mocking him, and crying, “Here comes our hobblety jig back again!” They asked, too, “Under what hedge hast thou been lying sleeping all the time?” He, however, said, “I did the best of all, and it would have gone badly without me.” And then he was still more ridiculed.”
The King said to his daughter, “I will proclaim a great feast that shall last for three days, and thou shalt throw a golden apple. Perhaps the unknown will come to it.” When the feast was announced, the youth went out to the forest and called Iron John. “What dost thou desire?” asked he. “That I may catch the King’s daughter’s golden apple.” “It is as safe as if thou hadst it already,” said Iron John. “Thou shalt likewise have a suit of red armour for the occasion, and ride on a spirited chestnut-horse.” When the day came, the youth galloped to the spot, took his place amongst the knights, and was recognized by no one. The King’s daughter came forward and threw a golden apple to the knights, but none of them caught it but he, only as soon as he had it he galloped away.
On the second day Iron John equipped him as a white knight and gave him a white horse. Again he was the only one who caught the apple, and he did not linger an instant but galloped off with it. The King grew angry, and said, “That is not allowed; he must appear before me and tell his name.” He gave the order that if the knight who caught the apple, should go away again they should pursue him, and if he would not come back willingly, they were to cut him down and stab him.
On the third day, he received from Iron John a suit of black armour and a black horse, and again he caught the apple. But when he was riding off with it, the King’s attendants pursued him, and one of them got so near him that he wounded the youth’s leg with the point of his sword. The youth nevertheless escaped from them, but his horse leapt so violently that the helmet fell from the youth’s head, and they could see that he had golden hair. They rode back and announced this to the King.
The following day the King’s daughter asked the gardener about his boy. “He is at work in the garden; the queer creature has been at the festival too, and only came home yesterday evening; he has likewise shown my children three golden apples which he has won.”
The King had him summoned into his presence, and he came and again had his little cap on his head. But the King’s daughter went up to him and took it off, and then his golden hair fell down over his shoulders, and he was so handsome that all were amazed. “Art thou the knight who came every day to the festival, always in different colours, and who caught the three golden apples?” asked the King. “Yes,” answered he, “and here the apples are,” and he took them out of his pocket, and returned them to the King. “If you desire further proof, you may see the wound which your people gave me when they followed me. But I am likewise the knight who helped you to your victory over your enemies.” “If thou canst perform such deeds as that, thou art no gardener’s boy; tell me, who is thy father?”
“My father is a mighty King, and gold have I in plenty as great as I require.” “I well see,” said the King, “that I owe thanks to thee; can I do anything to please thee?” “Yes,” answered he, “that indeed you can. Give me your daughter to wife.” The maiden laughed, and said, “He does not stand much on ceremony, but I have already seen by his golden hair that he was no gardener’s boy,” and then she went and kissed him. His father and mother came to the wedding, and were in great delight, for they had given up all hope of ever seeing their dear son again.
And as they were sitting at the marriage-feast, the music suddenly stopped, the doors opened, and a stately King came in with a great retinue. He went up to the youth, embraced him and said, “I am Iron John and was by enchantment a dark Magician, but thou hast set me free; all the treasures which I possess, shall be thy property.”