Iron John (Book Review)

First, thank you to my Uncle, Pete Kogut, for sending this book my way before I left the country. I read it twice while in Japan and it was a fantastic catalyst for inner contemplation at the commencement of my pilgrimage.

I’m attempting to write this review 6 weeks later, but the key messages stuck with me such that I feel I can cover it, especially what it conveyed for me. For some reason I just never sat down to type this. The author is Robert Bly, a famous American Poet. 

51KFRQEQS3L._SS500_The entire book explores masculinity throughout the ages via a Grimm Brothers fairy tale called Iron John which is all of 4 pages in entirety. Bly breaks the fairy tale down into many sections, commenting on each as a ‘gate’ in a mans development of masculinity. The story begins with the rumor of a ‘Wild Man’ in the forest. When any of the King’s men go in search of him they never return. Ultimately a brave hunter asks the King for work and the King challenges him to bring the Wild Man in. The hunter does just this – after realizing the Wild Man is at the bottom of a lake he brings back a hundred men and they empty the lake, bucket by bucket, bringing the Wild Man back to the kingdom where he is imprisoned. Every little bit of the story is riddled with metaphor – for example the concept of uncovering the Wild Man (really our inner wild man) bucket by bucket, not by brazen force.

The story then proceeds with the King’s son losing his ball in the Wild Man’s cage, and the boy ultimately sets the Wild Man free and goes off to the woods with him. Bly is very Freudian and in one of the most controversial parts of the story the boy finds the key to the Wild Mans cage underneath his mother’s pillow. This did cause an uproar amongst many feminists who think Bly is simply blaming women for men’s apparent lack of masculinity today. But Bly is actually blaming other men (I’ll get to this in a minute). Without repeating the entire fairy tale, the story proceeds with the development of the boy as he enters the woods, exits the woods, returns to the kingdom as a cook, meets the king and his daughter, goes to war and receives a wound, and eventually reveals his true identity, marries the king’s daughter and ultimately enables the Wild Man to return to society. Bly weaves in historical fact, mythology and poetry in an attempt to uncover a common theme in the development of masculinity among all people and societies. He defines classic initiation as follows:

  • Step 1: Bonding with the mother and separation from the mother
  • Step 2: Bonding with the father and separation from the father
  • Step 3: The arrival of the male mother, or the mentor, who helps a man rebuild the bridge to his own essence
  • Step 4: Apprenticeship to a hurricane energy such as the Wild Man, or the warrior energy (drinking from the waters of God).
  • Step 5: Marriage with the Holy Woman or the Queen

I believe in the book and throughout the fairy tale, we actually uncover about eight steps, but the five above are common in almost all historical accounts of male development. Returning to Bly’s premise, he believes that in general, today’s American male generally fails at step 3, because our society has done away with traditional male initiation. He describes a specific American Indian initiation where boys are forcibly taken from their mothers and enter the world of men at the age of 12, only returning to the tribe after learning of the tribal myths and developing the skills to be a man. While that is one end of an extreme, historically in American society we had larger families living together and men worked closer to home, therefore a boy was ‘initiated’ by men not through dramatic ritual, but by slow immersion. Today, in our post-industrial society, most boys have no idea what their father does on a daily basis (if they even have a father), and rarely have the opportunity to spend long hours with older male relatives. Most boys are initiated by other boys (think about frat parties or gangs), the blind leading the blind. Today this has created an issue that is many generations deep and many men really have no idea what being a man even means, outside of the rigid societal interpretations.

The book is rich in meaning and has really allowed me to look at the various aspects of my own development and that of the society around me. Its helped shed some light on past relationships, to release fear around slowly unbridling the Wild Man inside of me and also has helped explain many of the actions and words of both my male friends and today’s leaders. Bly describes the boy’s work in the kitchen as a descent into ashes, one of the steps pulled out in his book. Apprentice Viking warriors used to literally sleep in the ashes near the fire until their time came for full duty. Bly believes that many men never really make that descent, tasting the earth and poverty. While I can’t say I’m physically sleeping on the dirt (I’ve been close), I often liken this trip to some form of descent. After my long rise in financial and societal status at home I now write vagabond for occupation and for the first time in 10 years have no income or definition for who I am in the conventional sense.

Another important aspect worthy of discussion is that of the figurative ‘king’ in the book. Their are three kings in our world – sacred, political and inner. The sacred is often found through faith and in secular societies like ours, the political king often holds the sacred and political chairs. In addition to mentors, men need these Kings. I usually laugh when I’m in Thailand or Singapore and see the King’s face everywhere, and such a strong attachment and love that all of the people have for these leaders. But there is something very powerful in this that acts as an underlying glue for these societies and from what I can gather mostly a positive one.  Its been a long time since American society has seen such a political king – many older men point to the days that MLK or JFK died that they lost a big part of themselves. I started to look at my world – do I have a hero, a ‘king’? The frenzy behind Obama is an outcome of many years of a vacant seat at the throne. He has a tremendous opportunity to fill this role, as people have given him the opportunity. Lets hope he does or otherwise we as a society will dive even further into skepticism of political leadership. The inner King is a discussion in itself but the book alludes to the fact that for many of us today, that inner King is badly injured and quite inactive.

Bly does not attempt to provide solutions, so the reader is left to ponder themselves the initiatory processes and work in their own life. I have already sent this book to several of my very close male friends, and suggest anyone interested in exploring this further to pick up a copy. The tag line is something like ‘a book about men’ but I would argue that women would also gain some amazing insight into their partners, brothers and fathers by reading this. I’m actually searching for a feminist companion that may help me develop an understanding and compassion for the female process. I actually got so into the book at one point I was investigating academic programs around men’s studies and masculine theory. I don’t think I’ll go that route, but I am thinking seriously about building active mentor/mentee relationships, joining a men’s group and simply being much more active (cultivating intent) on my own process.

If anyone out there has read or will read it, please let me know as I’d love to continue the discussion!

3 thoughts on “Iron John (Book Review)

  1. Keith, ok so you’ve already left Bangkok, I started reading at the beginning of the trip and sent you the comment about Chumpon thinking you were still en route. In my mind’s eye I’m still back in May. At any rate, I will eventually catch up to you on the trip but at my own pace. Nubi

  2. Pingback: Man Training « Pilgrimage to Nowhere

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