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We Are Defined By Our Actions
on 20 February 2017
It's never explained where the Iron Man came from, and nobody knew how he was made. The Iron Man has no sense of human laws or morals, as he steals and consumes anything made of metal, including expensive machinery belonging to local farmers. So the Iron Man begins this story as the Iron Monster, an unwelcome stranger that the local community is keen to be rid of, understandably so.
There is no evidence in the story that the Iron Man has any compassion for humanity or conscience, or any emotional sense other than for the urgency of his own preservation and the satisfaction of his hunger. The only sign of any discernment is that the Iron Man's eyes change colour at times, sometimes rapidly and dramatically, to indicate variable responses to visual stimuli. But this seems to be an entirely mechanical process. In short, the Iron Man is a man...being....machine...entity...robot...person (I'm not sure) - a thing - without a heart. Or is he?
When he does save humanity, from a still greater monster - in a way, saving the monster in the process - it seems the Iron Man is merely acting in a functional sense, to preserve himself, having been warned that his own destruction would follow if he does not stop a terrible Space-Being - a lizard that threatens to consume everyone and thereby wipe Man from the face of the Earth. And yet, during his elective trials of strength with this Space-Being, the narrator tells us that the Iron Man feels fear. Or maybe it is not fear? Maybe it is just another mechanistic response that the author anthropomorphises? It's not made clear, and the lack of clarity makes the story all the more intriguing.
At what point does a machine become a person? It's not difficult to imagine that in the future machines might assume legal or juristic personality, but here I refer to personhood in the natural sense. I would say personhood requires rudimentary intelligence, including sentience, and a conscience, but in practice this is an entirely subjective designation and I am unclear at where the demarcation would be between machine and person, let alone between human beings and non-human animals. Higher order primates such as chimpanzees and bonobos present a particular difficulty. It's not hard to see them as people, but that being so, should we treat them as such? And if we decide to, what are then the implications for human societies, for human identity, ethics and morality?
The Iron Man is called a 'man', and he displays many of the required characteristics of personhood, but he remains just a machine, or so it appears, and in the early part of the story he is treated as such, as there is an attempt to destroy him on the basis of functional problems he causes, without regard to any rights or dignities he may have. When later he is given some consideration, this is only in an effort to neutralise the issues and conflict he would otherwise cause for the community. There is never any recognition that he is a citizen or worthy of rights as such. This is perhaps because to do so would then threaten the integrity of human identity. If this Iron Monster is actually a person worthy of similar consideration to a human, then the implications would be fundamentally significant, and frightening. But it's interesting to ponder whether the Iron Man in this story, hitherto patronised by humanity, is 'accepted' as an equal after he saves everyone by going through a trial of strength with a terrible and frightening lizard monster. Is he then accepted by the community, and thus designated as a 'person'? Hughes leaves this to our imaginations.
Hughes' story is very 'pagan' in sensibility in that the two great monsters - the Iron Man and the lizard-like Space-Being - are god-like and yet not only susceptible to defeat, but also fallible. This essential fallibility is brought out in the concept of a trial of strength, which features prominently in the story, probably influenced by Norse mythology, specifically the tales of Thor. I detect the influence of the Prose Edda in particular, in which Útgarða-Loki tricks Thor into a trial of strength. Trials of strength were also common among the ancient Northern peoples - for instance, Caesar wrote of how the Germanii tribes would have a rite of passage for their young men, known as a 'trial of strength', which would involve the killing of an auroch.
In the course of being defeated, the lizard is tricked by the Iron Man, much like Útgarða-Loki tricked Thor. Thus the Iron Man reveals himself to be deceptively wily, and not just (or perhaps at all) a simple, blundering mechanical monster, while the Space-Being shows himself to be rather simple-minded, despite his great and imposing physical presence and frightening nature. The lizard is an interesting counterpoise to the Iron Man. They are both monsters, and both have unclear origins. The lizard Space-Being is unequivocally alien in the extra-terrestrial sense, whereas the Iron Man might be terrestrial as unlike the lizard, his composition is recognisable. Both monsters repel humans, but both do good and are of benefit to humanity in the end. This presents the reader with a clear moral: Don't judge somebody on the way they look. But more importantly, I think there is another lesson, which is that we are who you choose to be, and who we are is mainly determined by our actions. In the end, the lizard turns out to be a relatively benign creature, just misguided.
The Iron Man is excellent and will be enjoyed by both adults and children. It's often described as a 'novel', but I think it would be more accurate to describe it as a story, and technically a novella. Incidentally, I recall back in my childhood in West Yorkshire there was a local legend of an "iron man", who it was said lived by the local canal and would snatch young boys and girls away. These sorts of precautionary legends were probably common for children back then - and maybe still are. I would assume that Ted Hughes, also from West Yorkshire, was influenced by similar tall-tales as a child. There are also allusions in the story to Hughes' upbringing around the farms of the Calder Valley. But whatever the origins of Hughes' classic, it's a very enjoyable read.
This review is of the 2005 edition, with illustrations by Tom Gauld.