England’s Dreaming #4 – Any Old Iron?

So, there’s one thing that I don’t understand about this wander through folklore and legend and whatever… Well, okay, more than one thing actually, but one thing in particular. And that’s the whole deal with iron.

See, if you’re ever faced with a rogue elf, all you’ve got to do is get hold of some iron. They don’t like it; it’s mythological Kryptonite. And I don’t understand why. I mean, why iron?

Some say it’s because of its physical properties – it’s magnetic, it’s cold to the touch. Maybe there’s something to that and the Kryptonite analogy is all there is to it – if you’re writing a story, and the hero is faced with a more powerful opponent you need to even the odds somehow, and a nail or a horseshoe are fairly commonplace objects. Maybe iron’s just a plot device that became a superstition.

Or maybe it’s a metaphor. Cold iron is apparently another word for ‘a dirty great sword’, and as we’ve discussed before, swords are badass. I’d be a bit disappointed if that turned out to be the explanation though – it’s like someone said about vampires (I think it was Terry Pratchett, but I might be wrong), sticking a stake through the heart and chopping off the head pretty much works with any bad guy. It’s becomes less about wit and cunning and more about brute force. It’s a bit dull unless you accompany it with a heck of an action sequence.

I have an idea, and it might be completely wrong, but maybe there’s some sort of philosophical thing going on. Iron beats magic, and maybe that’s because iron is, effectively, a symbol of technology, of getting control over the natural world. Shoeing a horse, forging tools for agriculture and building… It’s a symbol of settlement, of civilising the wild places.

(There’s a theory that a similar thing can be seen in the early stages of the book of Genesis, with a tension between nomadic herdsmen and settled farmers/city dwellers. The first murderer also founded the first city. There’s a bit of ambiguity between the two ways of life going on here, but I’m digressing. Again.)

(Although while we’re talking about iron, one of the reasons the Israelites had so much trouble in the David and Goliath scenario is that they didn’t have access to iron-working technology. Which makes things doubly ironic that God’s deliverer sent into the situation is a herdsman using a shepherd’s tools to fight…)

But that’s the Middle East and we’re talking about Britain, which seems to have a different slant on the whole technology thing. Smiths turn up throughout a lot of European myths – Wayland Smith is possibly the most famous (he escaped from some bad guys using some wings he made), but there’s also Goibniu and Gofannon and Hepheastus if we want to get Greek on things. They forge swords and make amazing tools and they work iron and iron keeps away hostile supernatural forces – I like to think there’s a connection.

Of course, as  technology got more advanced, legends started to develop that had a folk hero not just using it to fight off magic, but putting it in its place. The most famous one I can think of is the story of John Henry, a steel-driver on the railroads who challenged a machine to a race – John wins the race but dies in the effort, but all the same, he runs that hammer down. Meanwhile, in the UK we had the figure of Ned Ludd, inspiration behind the Luddites; humans still need to show that they can triumph over machines.

So now we’ve got stories that don’t just tell us that science and technology are going to ward off the darkness and save us all from impending doom (technoutopianism – much as I enjoy Wired magazine, it heads a bit in this direction), but also stories that suggest that we might want to be a bit careful about things. The big one is Terminator, but it’s really just part of a tradition of technodystopianism (if that’s not a word it should be) in sci-fi. Star Trek straddles both camps – everything’s great in the future because we’re so advanced, but every now and then you need to kick a supercomputer’s ass because it can’t comprehend This Human Emotion You Call… Love.

(Don’t get me started on The Matrix again – alien computers are bad, raving hippies are good, although the whole thing seemed to end with a happy ending for anthropomorphic computer programs while most of humanity is turned into Hugo Weaving. I’m willing to admit I might have missed something while my eyes were bleeding.)

So I guess we’ve summoned up new bogeymen to show us that technology isn’t infallible – gremlins, for instance, the superstition not the film. Then there’s the backwash – hackers calling particularly ‘mysterious’ coding tricks ‘Deep Magic‘, for instance. There’s a greater intersection between science and technology and the murkier, less tangible world of folklore and legend than we’d expect. Folklore deploys technology to deal with magic; science develops its own legends. Maybe, once you’ve established the underlying truths, they’re all just ways of putting those truths into a narrative. When it comes down to it, human beings are storytellers, we just tailor those stories to fit the content.

All the same, I don’t think it’s true that typing ‘Google’ into Google breaks the internet…


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