‘Cold Iron’, by Rudyard Kipling

‘Gold is for the mistress — silver for the maid —
Copper for the craftsman cunning at his trade.’
‘Good!’ said the Baron, sitting in his hall,
‘But Iron — Cold Iron — is master of them all.’

So he made rebellion ’gainst the King his liege,
Camped before his citadel and summoned it to siege.
‘Nay!’ said the cannoneer on the castle wall,
‘But Iron — Cold Iron — shall be master of you all!’

Woe for the Baron and his knights so strong,
When the cruel cannon-balls laid ’em all along;
He was taken prisoner, he was cast in thrall,
And Iron — Cold Iron — was master of it all!

Yet his King spake kindly (ah, how kind a Lord!)
‘What if I release thee now and give thee back thy sword?’
‘Nay!’ said the Baron, ‘mock not at my fall,
For Iron — Cold Iron — is master of men all.’

‘Tears are for the craven, prayers are for the clown —
Halters for the silly neck that cannot keep a crown.’
‘As my loss is grievous, so my hope is small,
For Iron — Cold Iron — must be master of men all!’

Yet his King made answer (few such Kings there be!)
‘Here is Bread and here is Wine — sit and sup with me.
Eat and drink in Mary’s Name, the whiles I do recall
How Iron — Cold Iron — can be master of men all!’

He took the Wine and blessed it. He blessed and brake the Bread.
With His own Hands He served Them, and presently He said:
‘See! These Hands they pierced with nails, outside My city wall,
Show Iron — Cold Iron — to be master of men all.’

‘Wounds are for the desperate, blows are for the strong.
Balm and oil for weary hearts all cut and bruised with wrong.
I forgive thy treason — I redeem thy fall —
For Iron — Cold Iron — must be master of men all!’

‘Crowns are for the valiant — sceptres for the bold!
Thrones and powers for mighty men who dare to take and hold!’
‘Nay!’ said the Baron, kneeling in his hall,
‘But Iron — Cold Iron — is master of men all!
Iron out of Calvary is master of men all!’

—Rudyard Kipling, Rewards and Fairies

As most fantasy readers will know, there is a legend, supposedly ancient, that elves, fairies, or other supernatural folk cannot abide the touch of a mystical substance called ‘cold iron’. While there are old tales touching on the antipathy of elves and iron (and the testimony is not unanimous even about that), the idea of cold iron as a substance of special potency, and indeed the phrase ‘cold iron’ itself, seems to come from this poem — which was published only in 1910.

William H. Stoddard observes:

I find it striking that it’s clear in that song that “cold iron” just means the perfectly ordinary iron the Roman legions used for nails to crucify criminals. Yet I don’t know how many people I’ve seen explaining the cold iron is meteoric iron, or iron worked without fire, or any number of esoteric magically potent substances. Even people who’ve heard Leslie Fish sing those lyrics.

Comments

  1. Compare the description of a fired bullet as “hot lead”, where I expect the actual temperature to also be a trivial concern.

  2. Richard says:

    Actually I think the poem deals with Christian redemption: “cold iron” initially referring to the conventional military variety favored by our pugnacious baron, and latterly to the iron rod with which Jesus (who was crucified at Calvary) will (hopefully figuratively) break the world (see psalm below).

    Psalm 2:7–9
    7 I will tell of the decree:
    The Lord said to me, b“You are my Son;
    today I have begotten you.
    8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
    and cthe ends of the earth your possession.
    9 You shall dbreak2 them with ea rod of iron
    and dash them in pieces like fa potter’s vessel.”

  3. Stuart says:

    Surely cold iron is just about the weapons that one can make from it so to be able to rule by force or intimidation..The one who has the most or best fighters wins…cold iron is a reference to the finished blade after being quenched to make it hardened thus stronger

  4. Zacharias says:

    Cold iron out of Calvary. Calvary, or Golgatha, the place of Christ’s crucifixion. The cold iron is the nails and perhaps spear that killed Christ. This poem seems more about the nature of man being secondary to the will of God. It warns us that all earthly desires, from material wealth to piousness, are but secondary affectations of man’s ego, to God.

  5. ‘Cold iron’ is merely a poetical way to say ‘iron’. It has no meaning in itself, and yes, the phrase was used well before Kipling. The phrase was used in a literary/storytelling fashion, it rolls from the tongue in a more sing- song way, and fits into romantic stories of The Little Folk well.

    Touch iron, or most metals, it’s cold to the touch.
    The phrase has no spiritual meaning, or oblique reference to anything but iron itself – argue though they may, whomsoever ‘they’ may be.

    It used to be a quite common turn of phrase… especially at story time. Ask any storyteller, especially a verbal one; the epic scope, the ‘largeness’ of the story, relies heavily on making the mundane things special through descriptors, oft repeated and succinct.

    • Jay Smith says:

      I think or what I get out of the poem is that Gold Silver all the fancy beautiful things (here metals) are FOR those who like to show their standing. The question of “cold” iron not temperature or of forging method but one of indifference. Said iron is the same for the King and the Baron it has simplicity and irreverence to standing. Be it swords cannon balls or chains so cold (simple, easily obtainable) is for the lowly to the highest.
      Allegorical in the Simplicity of salvation. And how salvation was bought for us All from lowest to highest. Through the crucifiction of Jesus who is Master of us all. I love it

  6. why is everybody talking about elves? clearly this is a baron who believed in military force trying and failing a coup, the king tries to forgive him like a good christian, and I think the baron is too proud to accept, says he took his shot and lost, asks why he isn’t being executed and then reafferms his belief in ruling through force as a rejection of the redemption attempt?

    anyway elves have nothing to do with anything

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