By Jim Moyers, MA, MFT

Part IX


Reports of golden hair spilling out from under the escaping knight's helmet confirmed the princess' suspicions about a connection between the mysterious hero and the strange gardener's boy.  After learning that the boy had returned from the festival with three golden apples, she went to her father with her conjecture.

The king summoned the gardener's boy to the palace.  As before, the youth came into the royal presence wearing his hat.  But before anyone could object to his lack of respect, the princess uncovered his head.  With his golden hair falling down over his shoulders, it was clear to everyone that he was indeed much more than a mere gardener's assistant.  Confronted the skeptical king, the youth showed his wound and the golden apples as proof of his heroic identity, and further declared himself to be the son of a mighty king with unlimited riches his for the asking.  The grateful king, his anger at the knight who had repeatedly defied him forgotten, acknowledged his debt to the young man.  No longer shy, the newly revealed prince asked for and was given the princess’ hand in marriage.

The story makes no attempt to explain why the prince kept his identity hidden for so long.  His concealment would seem to have only made things more difficult for him.  The prince himself seems to have temporarily lost sight of who he was.

In an ancient Gnostic text, "The Hymn of the Pearl," a royal child sent down into Egypt to recover the "One Pearl" fell into "a deep sleep" in which he forgot both his identity and his mission.  Only after being awakened by a message from home did the prince recall "that I was a son of Kings and my free soul longed for its own kind."   Awakened to his task, the boy enchanted the terrible guardian of the pearl by "naming the name of my Father . . . and of my Mother" as proof of his royal identity.  Seizing the pearl, the hero returned to the glory of his parents’ house to resume his princely position.(1)

While expressly a poetic vehicle for Gnostic teachings about the process of redemption, "The Hymn of the Pearl," like "Iron Hans", depicts an initiatory journey.  In both stories, the hero leaves the blissful innocence of a privileged childhood to be plunged into a dark existence from which there is seemingly no escape.  But the hero eventually emerges from his experience having gained more than he lost.  In "Iron Hans", the gardener's boy draws upon the wild man's promise to save the kingdom.  Having proven himself worthy, he claims the princess as his due, is reunited with his parents, and becomes the heir of Iron Hans.

There is in the tale an assumption that the youth could not have performed his heroic deeds had he not been a prince to begin with.  At first glance this might seem to be an artifact left over from times before the rise of democratic ideals.  But symbolically, it has a deeper meaning.  A royal figure, traditionally the most exalted member of society, symbolically represents the most complete development of human potential.(2)  The royalty of the little prince playing about the palace was primarily latent.  But in the course of his trials, failures, and triumphs, possibilities became realities.  His golden hair and golden deeds finally revealed, the heroic youth's newly recognized royal status was actually more earned than given.

The royal wedding, the joining of the complimentary opposites represented by the two royal male and female figures standing at the head of the realm, is an age old symbol of transcendental wholeness.(3)  The fantasy romance with the golden prince or princess who magically transforms one's life can be a potent force.  But, actual princesses as well as princes being few and far between, literal pursuit of the perfect marriage is a certain recipe for disaster.  But taken symbolically, the quest for the perfect mate becomes, once more, a path for inner healing and wholeness.

More than just an account of male initiation, "Iron Hans"  is also about the process of becoming more fully human.  The ultimate task of the hero is the restoration of humanity's lost potential for wholeness.  Going beyond the boundaries that  stopped those who came before him, the hero reclaims what has been lost, bringing it back to revivify the world.  In a culture ruled by masculine values, the heroic task of necessity involves restoration of the feminine to its rightfully equal place beside the masculine.

Parzival's wandering, confused quest repeatedly brought him into contact with aspects of life and himself totally alien to the manly warrior qualities that had so utterly failed him in his initial encounter with the Grail mysteries.  The curse that tormented king and kingdom was eventually lifted, not through knightly valor, but by Parzival's expression of empathy for the suffering Grail King.  Reconnected to its source of life in the feminine Grail, the Waste Land again became fertile, and Parzival himself became Guardian of the Grail.

At the very end of the Grimms' tale, we learn that Iron Hans was once a great and mighty king.  But then a terrible spell made him a wild man.  The story says nothing about the circumstances of the curse, but other tales hold clues as to what may have happened.

In Grimm's "The Frog Prince," an unfortunate prince becomes a frog through a spell cast by a witch.  The frog reverts to human form when the princess, in a fit of anger at his insistence that he be allowed to share her bed, throws the frog against the wall "with all her might."  In Chretien de Troyes' Arthurian romance, Yvain, the unfortunate knight for whom the tale is titled falls under an evil spell of sorts when his wife angrily, in a manner that might be considered witch-like, rejects him after he has failed to keep his word to her.  After living a long while in the forest as a wild man, Yvain is restored to sanity, human society, and eventually his wife through the kindness of a woman.   Apparently the making and breaking of spells has a lot to do with relations between the sexes.  Perhaps Iron Hans' transformation into a wild man stemmed from some unfortunate encounter with a woman.

A woman once told me that her lovers always seemed to turn her into a witch.  She tended to be attracted to men who apparently assumed that women were primarily responsible for what went on in relationships.  This fit in well with her natural inclination to take charge of things.  But when difficulties arose, she was blamed, even when she was clearly not the source of the problem.  Her lover would accuse her of having, as if by magic, made him feel and do things that were totally alien to him.

While witches are represented as both male and female in folklore all around the world, we usually think of them  as women.  If the fairy tale princess is the perfect picture of young womanhood, the (usually old) witch is womanhood gone wrong.  Much like the wild man in relation to civilized man, the witch is the shadow of civilized woman, the inverse of what is expected of females in a male dominated society.  If women are supposed to be beautiful, devoted, and nurturing helpmates to men, the witch is ugly, malevolent, and beholden to no man.(4)

When women are denied access to political and social power, whatever power they manage to obtain will be condemned as an illegitimate, malevolent threat to the established order.  Forbidden even the basic right of self determination, disenfranchised women learn to get what they want by manipulating men.  Men come to fear the "subtle wiles" that women supposedly use to surreptitiously gain the upper hand.  Women become mysterious creatures possessing magical powers inaccessible to men.  Such an image can be exciting - the seductive temptress is more or less a beautiful witch.  It can also be horrifying.  Men fear the apparent ability of the witch to unman them, but fail to realize that the witch herself is a product of that very fear.  If the witch is to release the man, the man must first release the witch.

The medieval tale of "Gawain and the Lady Ragnell"(5) tells of the breaking of one such spell.   Once upon a time, so the story goes, King Arthur encountered a terrible giant.  Helpless before the giant's great strength, Arthur seemed doomed.  The giant, however, offered Arthur the chance to gain his freedom by answering a riddle.  But if he did not give the right answer, the king and his kingdom would be the giant's.  Having little choice, Arthur asked for the riddle.  The giant responded, "What one thing above all else do women desire?"  Arthur went throughout the land, asking every woman he met what she most wanted.  He collected a multitude of responses, but all were different and he feared none would satisfy the giant.

Then Arthur came upon a most hideous woman, a sort of witch, in the forest.  So appalling was her appearance, he nearly fainted away at the sight.  The loathly lady berated him for his disdain, saying that while she might be able to help him in his distress, she would aid no one who was not courteous.  Arthur pulled himself together to tell her his problem.  After making him swear to grant whatever boon she asked of him, the woman gave Arthur the answer to the giant's riddle.  Unlike all the other answers that he had collected, this one rang true.  Arthur met the giant at the appointed time and give him the hideous damsel's answer:  "A woman desires above all else the right to freely exercise her own will."  With a terrible oath, the giant confessed that was indeed the correct response.

Arthur joyfully returned to the woman to thank her, only to be utterly dismayed by her demand that she be wed to a knight of the Round Table.  Arthur returned to his castle to reluctantly relate his adventure and the loathly lady's request for something that he could not bring himself to ask of any man.  Gawain, however, without hesitation offered himself as husband to the ill-favored dame.

After their wedding banquet, Gawain led his bride to their chamber. With sinking heart, he turned towards her.  To his great astonishment, he saw not the hideous woman, but the most beautiful maiden he had ever beheld.  She explained that an enchantment had caused her to take on the hideous form.  The spell could only be broken if the greatest knight in Britain married her of his own free will, as had happened that day.  But she was not yet entirely free.  She told Gawain that he must decide whether she was to be beautiful by day and ugly by night, or ugly by day and beautiful by night.

Gawain thought for a while before telling his now beloved wife that the choice was hers to make.  Joyfully, the lady told Gawain that the spell was now completely broken.  She would henceforth always be her beautiful self, for he had truly grasped the answer to the riddle.

Some versions of the tale say that Lady Ragnell was the victim of a plot by her evil stepmother and giant stepbrother.  Others assert that the giant was actually Ragnell's brother, who too had been cursed by their terrible stepmother.  The evil stepmother is a variant of the witch, and once again, as with Eve in the Bible and Pandora with her box of ills in Greek mythology, it seems that a woman is responsible for everything that goes wrong.  But reading between the lines, we find another interpretation.

While the complexities of mother-daughter relations are well beyond this discussion, the evil stepmother who persecutes the heroine in many tales is an all too accurate description of the process in which mothers, denied "the right to freely exercise their own wills," collude with patriarchy in keeping their daughters in the place assigned to women.   Women, as well as men, often fear the feminine and try to deny it its rightful place beside the masculine.  Internalized misogyny is a powerful, unrecognized force in the lives of many women.  The ability of a man to lovingly respect a woman for who she is can go a long way towards breaking the spell that has led her to believe that she is an inadequate human being, doomed to a lifetime of victimization simply because she is female.

The war of the sexes is a contest in which there are no winners.  Tales of courtly love and knightly quest remind us that the goal is achieved not through power but by courtesy and respect.  The royal wedding, the joining of the two into a whole much greater than the sum of its parts, occurs only when each partner honors the inherent right of the other to freely choose who she or he will be.  Men and women alike have been too long held spellbound by gender expectations.  As women are freed from traditional roles, the power of the male stereotypes that drive men to destroy themselves and others in futile attempts to prove themselves men is also lessened.

Most obviously, the tale of "Iron Hans" is about the process by which a boy becomes a man.  The story concludes with its hero a married man assuming his place in the world.  But the story  can also be read as an outline of the lifelong process of individuation which Jung described as a progressive encounter with persona (one's adaptation to the social world), shadow (aspects of oneself that are denied in adapting to the world), anima/animus (the inner image of the opposite sex), and self (the totality of the psyche). While this schematic description of psychological growth can, like any other, be twisted into a mechanistic formula, many people have found it a useful map.

In "Iron Hans", the king at the beginning of the tale corresponds to the persona, the social role with which one is identified.  But the king was inadequate to the challenge of the wild man (the shadow), for the shadow requires a response from a deeper level.  The little prince with his golden ball is a beautiful image of the undeveloped, largely unconscious self of early life.  The princess, who perhaps knows more about the boy than he does himself, is of course representative of the anima.  Finally, the royal couple (multiplied threefold by the presence of the prince and princess’ parents) at the wedding feast is an image of the realized self, a concept also represented by the figure of the Mighty King who arrived just as the wedding feast was getting under way to announce himself as Iron Hans.

By becoming the person he was meant to be, in fulfilling his destiny, the prince had unknowingly restored Iron Hans to his real identity, and received Iron Hans’ riches without measure as his reward.  Iron Hans was the prince's second, initiating father who did what his first father could not.  As the restored great king, Iron Hans represents the highest development of the boy's golden potential, a development that could be realized only after the wild man, the shadow of the king, had been duly acknowledged.  In effect, the boy redeemed both his father and the wild man, joining them together in the figure of Iron Hans the Great.  The spell that had hung over the kingdom since the beginning of the story was broken as prince and princess, the two royal families, and Iron Hans joined together in joyful celebration.  So always, redemption of the world proceeds hand-in-hand with redemption of oneself.


(1) In Willis Barnstone (ed.), The Other Bible (New York:  Harper & Row, 1984), pp. 309-313.

(2) J. E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Traditional Symbols, 2nd edition (New York:  Philosophical Library, 1971), pp. 167-169.  Maria Leach & Jerome Fried (eds.) Funk & Wagnall's Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend (San Francisco:  Harper & Row, 1984 [1949]), pp. 578-579.

(3) C. G. Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis (Collected Works Vol. 14), (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1977 [1955-56]), pars. 349-543.

(4) Maria Leach & Jerome Fried (eds.), p. 1179-1180.

(5) My retelling of "Gawain and Lady Ragnell," a tale which exists in many versions, is based on Polly Young-Eisendrath's interpretation in Hags and Heroes (Toronto:  Inner City Books, 1984) as well as M. I. Ebbutt, Hero Myths and Legends of the British Race (Boston:  David D. Nickerson & Co., 1910), pp. 266-285. 


Contrary to popular belief, few tales recorded by the Brothers Grimm conclude with, "And they lived happily ever after."  While a particular problem may be resolved or someone established in her or his place in life, the future is usually left open.  So it is with "Iron Hans".  The tale concludes with the arrival of Iron Hans the Great King.  The transformed wild man is indeed a symbol of completeness.  But the prince and the princess have, in the words of a song, "only just begun."  Having wed the princess, the prince must learn to live with her, and she with him.  If he continues to depend on her to draw him out, there undoubtedly will be trouble ahead.  But that is another story, and the one we are telling has come to an end.

Every psychological commentary is, as Jung put it, "a subjective confession."(1)  My amplification of "Iron Hans"  in relation to the problems of contemporary manhood is, of course, a product of my own experience and personal process.  Looking back over what I have written, I recall a dream from many years ago that seems to me to reflect both my personal struggle and those of many other men whom I have known:

There is a terrible drought.  To relieve it a glass vial must be filled with water from Niagara Falls and then emptied into a local stream.  A young man is chosen to carry out the task.  But I know that he often blunders, and am afraid that he will fall and break the vial.  I follow him as he obtains the water and pours it into the stream bed.  I fear that he has done it wrong, but then a geyser of water erupts in the dry river bed, and a woman opens a sluice gate to let the water flow again.

The hero may well be a blundering fool.  But he persists and, with help from the feminine, succeeds.   So my dream continues in the hope that this, with my foolish blunders and all, will go out as a vessel conveying a few drops of the healing water of life to the parched land in which we, men and women alike, find ourselves.


(1) C. G. Jung, Modern Man In Search of A Soul (New York:  Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1933), p. 118.

©1999 James C. Moyers

More about the male psyche: Impotent Rage and the Myth of Attis




Contact Me: