The novels opens in 1400, only a few months after Richard II has been dethroned and Henry IV has succeeded him as king of England. Unjustly implicated in a plot against Henry, the blind Baron Falworth, Myles's father, flees his ancestral home at Falworth Castle for Crosbey-Holt, an obscure, strawthatched farmhouse on the grounds of St. Mary's Priory. The first quarter of the novel features the country fairs, monastic routines, and quiet peasant farm life of rural medieval England. At sixteen, Myles leaves this idyllic English countryside for Devlen Castle, seat of the powerful Earl of Mackworth. Pyle provides a detailed picture of medieval castle life, its cramped living areas and spacious public rooms, its cold discomforts and splendid pageantry. Made a knight in 1411, Myles goes on a brief expedition to France before returning to London. There he defeats his ancestral enemy before turning his back on the frivolity and political intrigue of the London court for a quiet married life at Falworth Castle, his reclaimed baronial estate. The novel, then, affords a panoramic sweep of rural, castle, and court life in medieval England.
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Men of Iron offers an engrossing plot predicated on two formulas familiar in literature for young people. Roughly the first half of the novel features a "school story," the adventures of a young boy moving from the security of home into an initially alien environment to acquire an education. This part of the novel— modeled on Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857), the best seller by Thomas Hughes that established the genre—features the trials and occasional joys of a central character who must establish his position in his peers' social order as well as accommodate the demands placed on him by adults. The tensions within and between the two worlds of peers and adults provide the central plot interest of the school story, producing in Men of Iron a plot replete with exciting, fast-paced action and adventure as well as subtle psychological insight into character and motive.
The plot of Men of Iron unfolds in an appropriate and compelling sequence. The first section of the novel provides the bits and pieces of the eight-year-old Myles's fragmented and impressionistic recollections of his early boyhood. The second section details Myles's arrival at Devlen Castle and his initial weeks there, during which he must fight for a place in the social hierarchy of the boyworld. The transition from boyhood to reckless adolescence concerns the third section of the plot, and the fourth section portrays Myles's gradual passage from adolescence to...
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Written one hundred years ago, Men of Iron is clearly a "boy's novel," conceived as such and pointedly addressing this audience. Few women appear in the novel, except for Myles's mother, who weeps at his departure for Devlen Castle, and the Ladies Anne and Alice, who spend their lives sequestered in the Earl of Mackworth's private quarters, hungering for tales of bold adventure told them by Myles when he steals into their privy garden. Men of Iron is hardly an exemplar of gender-balancing in audience appeal or in narrative concerns, but readers must remember that the book depicts a time when views regarding the position and occupation of women were narrow indeed.
The violence in the novel is another issue of potential concern. Myles's conflict with Walter Blunt is no boyish skirmish: Blunt attempts to kill Myles with a wooden clog, a dagger, stones, and a broadsword. Pyle declines to detail the broadsword duel between Myles and Blunt, indicating that "fisticuffs of nowadays are brutal and debasing enough, but a fight with a sharp-edged broadsword was not only brutal and debasing, but cruel and bloody as well." As an adult, Myles agonizes over his bloody battle with the Earl of Alban, consulting Prior Edward over the ethics of killing an enemy in fair fight. The priest hesitantly advises him, both before and after the duel, that war and bloodshed, though cruel and ever to be avoided, are apparently placed in the world by God as an occasional...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Myles Falworth and Francis Gascoyne become close friends early in the novel. How do each of these boys round out what is lacking in the other's character?
2. The friendship between Myles and Francis gradually changes as the novel progresses. Discuss these changes and the reasons for them.
3. Soon after Myles's arrival at Devlen Castle, he decides to resist the timehonored custom of serving the senior bachelors. Francis asks him if it is not arrogant for him "to come hither to this place, and then not submit to the ways thereof, as the rest of us do?" Who is right, Myles or Francis?
4. Some readers have seen Myles as too aggressive at Devlen Castle, as extreme in pursuing every opportunity for confrontation with Walter Blunt. Other readers have seen his resistance to Blunt as in every case admirable and justified. Who would you agree with? Why?
5. After Myles has entered the privy garden and met the Ladies Anne and Alice, he writes a letter home describing this event. His father has a letter sent to the Earl of Mackworth to tell him of Myles's repeated entries into the garden, whereupon Mackworth catches Myles there. Why does Myles's father tell on him? Is this the right thing for his father to do?
6. After Myles is prevented from meeting the Lady Alice in the privy garden, he writes her a letter that falls into the hands of the Earl of Mackworth. The Earl forbids Myles to write to her again. What harm is...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. At one point in the novel, Sir James Lee says to Myles, "Thou art a foolish boy and knowest naught of the world," a judgment later echoed by the Earl of Mackworth. How is Myles ignorant of the ways of the world? What important lessons does he learn as the narrative progresses?
2. Men of Iron is set at the turn of the fifteenth century, just after Richard II has been dethroned by Henry IV. Henry makes several appearances in the novel and Richard II is referred to repeatedly. After reading at least one reliable source concerning this change of dynasties, write a report filling in the historical background for this novel.
3. Pyle provides a shortened account of the preparations for the ceremony of knighthood with the Order of the Bath. Locate a source recounting this ancient ceremony, and report on the details that Pyle omits from his account.
4. When Myles is knighted by the King, he is repeatedly compared to Sir Galahad of King Arthur's court. Who is Sir Galahad, and why is this comparison a great compliment to Myles?
5. William Shakespeare wrote two plays—Henry IV, Part I, and Henry IV, Part II—concerning Henry IV's accession to the English throne and his troubled relationship with his son, the Prince of Wales. This relationship is briefly alluded to in Men of Iron. What additional insights do Shakespeare's plays afford in understanding this uneasy fatherson relationship?
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Other historical novels for young people by Howard Pyle include Otto of the Silver Hand and The Story of Jack Ballister's Fortunes. Otto of the Silver Hand, perhaps the best of Pyle's historical novels, is set in a medieval Germany ruled by ruthless robber barons. The novel ends with the triumph of civilization and order over brutality as the robber barons are suppressed and the enlightened reign of the Emperor Rudolph of Hapsburg begins. The novel is acclaimed for its realistic, unromanticized portrayal of life in the Middle Ages. The Story of Jack Ballister's Fortunes is set in eighteenth-century England and in the American colonies. Kidnapped from England and sold in Virginia as a "redemptioner," or indentured servant, Jack flees a brutal master to join Blackbeard's notorious pirates in North Carolina. Sickened by the pirates' brutality, Jack helps a captive heiress escape from them, and her grateful father champions Jack's rights to his inheritance in England. Pyle's most ambitious novel in this genre, The Story of Jack Ballister's Fortunes offers a large cast of interesting characters, an intricate plot, and a series of exciting adventures. For older readers, Pyle's Within the Capes (1885), The Rose of Paradise (1888), The Buccaneers and Marooners of America (1891), The Price of Blood (1899), Stolen Treasure (1907), and The Ruby of Kishmoor (1908) offer pirates, mysterious murders,...
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For Further Reference
Abbott, Charles D. Howard Pyle: A Chronicle. New York: Harper, 1925. This is the standard biography.
Agosta, Lucien L. Howard Pyle. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Offers the most recent and most thorough critical introduction to the life, literary works, and illustrations of Howard Pyle.
Children's Literature Association Quarterly 8 (Summer 1983). "Howard Pyle Commemorative" edition, marking the publication centennial of The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. A collection of critical essays on Pyle's life, career, and works.
Morse, Willard S., and Gertrude Brinckle. Howard Pyle: A Record of His Illustrations and Writings. 1921. Reprint. Detroit: Singing Tree Press, 1969. A...
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