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Literature / Iron Hans

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Illustration by Gordon Brown

Iron Hans (Der Eisenhans) is a German Fairy Tale collected by The Brothers Grimm — sometimes translated Iron John and published in their Children's and Household Tales book (Kinder- und Hausmärchen) under number 136.

In a wood where no one who goes in, ever comes out, a huntsman captures a wild man by draining the pool he was hiding in. The king keeps him in a cage and threatens death to anyone who lets him out. The prince's ball falls into the cage, and the wild man tricks the boy into getting the key and letting him out, then he carries him off to prevent his being punished for it.

In the forest he sets him to watch a well and make sure nothing falls in, lest it become "polluted." He fails three times: first he accidentally sticks his finger in, causing it to turn gold; next a hair from his head falls in, also turning to gold; and finally he tries to see his reflection in the water, causing his long hair to fall in and become completely gilded. The wild man sends him away, but tells him if he calls his name "Iron Hans" he will come to help him.


Hiding his hair beneath a cap, the prince found a menial position at court — demoted from working in the kitchen to the garden when he claimed to have a sore on his head to keep the hair concealed. The princess glimpsed his hair one day and ordered him to bring her a wreath of flowers; then she pulls off his cap and is certain that it's him.

The country is threatened with war. The prince calls upon Iron Hans, who gives him a horse and a troop of soldiers, and he secures the king's victory, and flees before he is caught out. The king has a great feast in which his daughter will throw out a golden apple in hopes that the strange knight will catch it. The prince calls on Iron Hans, catches it on the horse he is given, and rides off. This happens three times, but he is wounded the third, and they see his golden hair. This gives away that he's the gardener's boy, and they bring him before the throne. He reveals he's a prince and asks to marry the princess.


At their wedding, a strange man appears: he reveals that he was Iron Hans, who had been an enchanted king, but the prince has disenchanted him and will receive everything he owns for it.

It is one of the fairy tales retold in Erstwhile.

Full text here and here.

Compare with "King Goldenlocks".

It is classified as an Aarne–Thompson 502, "The wild man as a helper".


  • Baleful Polymorph: Iron Hans was transformed before the start of the story, although it's not explained how, why, or by whom. The curse breaks after the prince wins the tournament.
  • Curse Escape Clause: not really explained. Hans says that the prince freed him, but the story is very vague on what, exactly, he did to achieve this.
  • Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job: The prince finds work as a kitchen boy in the palace, but is demoted to gardener when refuses to remove his hat, claiming he has a sore on his head.
  • Forbidden Fruit: The golden well, which the prince accidentally "pollutes" three times: first by dipping his pinky in it, then by a single hair falling inside, and finally by his long hair when he tries to see his reflection.
  • Knight in Shining Armor: Iron Hans gifts the prince with three exquisite sets of armor, one for each day of the tournament.
  • Love at First Sight: At the very least, the princess is extremely intrigued by the prince's golden hair, and keeps trying to see it.
  • Nice Guy: The prince keeps giving away his valuables to the gardener's children, despite the fact that the gardener is kind of a jerk to him.
  • Rags to Royalty: The prince was royalty to start with, but he poses as a servant to the king's palace for a time before revealing his lineage and asking for the princess' hand.
  • Royal Blood: The prince is, well, the son of a king —although not of the same king he ends up working for.
  • Rule of Three: A three-day festival with three golden apples thrown, with the prince visiting Iron Hans each time. Also the three times that the prince fails to keep the well clean.
  • Secret Identity: The prince hides his true identity while at the palace. He's so successful that if the princess hadn't caught a glimpse of his golden hair, he'd still be a gardener.
  • Standard Hero Reward: Played With. The prince is rewarded with the princess' hand in marriage for collecting all the golden apples during the tournament, but she was already interested in him and organized the tournament specifically so she could test him.