Commentary Magazine


Iron John, by Robert Bly

The Little Prince

Iron John: A Book About Men.
by Robert Bly.
Addison-Wesley. 268 pp. $18.95.

Robert Bly, the award-winning poet who lives in Minnesota, is one of the leaders of the “men’s movement,” the latest in self-help fashions. Imitating the Mother Goddess rituals practiced by outré feminists, gangs of male lawyers, professors, and others from the genteel classes meet in groups or, preferably, head for the woods. There they mimic but do not exactly recapitulate primeval hunting rituals. Most men in the movement, including Bly himself, consider the act of personally killing one’s dinner to be distasteful, and some are undoubtedly vegetarians. So instead of shooting, there is dancing, whooping, beating of drums, chanting to deities from a variety of creeds, hugging of trees, and just plain hugging. There is also much weeping, as men unveil psychic blows dealt them during their childhoods by their fathers and their mothers and the problems they currently endure in their “relationships” with the tough-husked liberated women of the late 20th century.

Although their rites seem laughable, Bly and the others—as the huge sales of this best-selling book suggest—are actually onto something important. The men’s movement is a reaction to a systematic denigration of male society and masculine virtue that has accompanied the rise of feminism over the past two-and-a-half decades. Indeed, most feminists are as suspicious of men’s groups as they are of all other men-only institutions, though Bly goes out of his way to appease them, emphasizing over and over that his book, which attempts to instruct men on their manhood, “does not constitute a challenge to the women’s movement.”

As Bly points out, it has become increasingly difficult for boys to learn from men how to become men. He estimates that from 20 to 30 percent of boys grow up in households without an adult man present, a figure that seems quite plausible, given current divorce and illegitimacy rates. Civil-rights statutes, litigation, and relentless social pressure have made it almost dead certain that boys will be in coeducational classrooms from kindergarten through graduate school. Their teachers, guidance counselors, social workers, and even Boy Scout leaders are likely to be female. All-male organizations? They have almost all been forced to accept women or are bound to do so in the near future, from the august Century Club in Manhattan to the humblest small-town Rotary chapter. Because we now prolong adolescence—that is to say, childhood—well into the twenties, traditional religious rites of initiation into adult life, such as confirmation and bar mitzvah, have lost most of their cultural significance.

Bly, as might be expected, is not particularly sympathetic to the claims of either Judaism or Christianity, which require their adherents to worship one transcendent God and to obey a set of moral precepts that Bly deems repressive. He prefers something less demanding. “Religion here does not mean doctrine or purity or ‘faith’ or ‘belief,’ or my life given to God,” he writes. Bly is a student of Joseph Campbell, the recently deceased and hugely fashionable popularizer of Jung. In the world of Jung and Campbell, there is no transcendent God. All the religious myths and stories that human cultures have devised are versions of a few simple archetypes that describe the workings of the subjective psyche rather than an objective metaphysical reality outside the self.

Thus, for Bly, one god is as good as any other, for none exists in the objective world. Anyone can believe in all of them. Religion is simply a form of autotherapy. He loads his book with references to gods and heroes, myths and fairy tales from every human society from Sumer and Akkad to Papua New Guinea, jumbling them together: the Virgin Mary alongside Demeter and Isis; Jacob and Esau alongside wily Odysseus and the Fisher King. No culture’s religion is too remote in time or place for Bly.

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Iron John derives its title from a Grimm’s fairy tale, whose prolonged exegesis by Bly forms the spine of his book. The tale, about a boy’s growth to manhood, is a wonderful one that lives up to Bly’s billing (though, as we shall see, he spoils it with a reductive interpretation). Here it is, stripped to bare essentials:

Not far from a king’s castle is a forest from which hunters, when they enter, do not return. People eventually figure out that whoever is devouring the hunters lives at the bottom of a large pond in the forest. The king’s men drain the pond. There they find a huge hairy wild man with skin the color of a rusty nail. He is “Iron John.” They take him back to the palace and imprison him in a cage in the courtyard.

One day the king’s eight-year-old son comes out to the courtyard to play, and Iron John grabs his golden ball. He says he will return the ball only if the boy steals the key to the cage and unlocks it. The boy does so but is afraid his parents will punish him. So Iron John takes him back to the forest with him to live. He puts the boy in charge of guarding another pond in his domain in which all creatures swimming about are made of gold. The boy is not supposed to let anything fall into the pond. But while he is staring down at his reflection, his long hair tumbles into the water and turns gold. Iron John tells him he can no longer live with him but says the boy should call on him if ever he needs anything.

The boy wanders about in a neighboring kingdom and nearly starves, but finally finds menial work in the palace, first as a kitchen helper, then as a gardener’s assistant. He wears a cap on his head to hide his golden hair. Years pass. One hot day, while he is hoeing the garden, the youth takes off his cap and the glint of his hair catches the eye of the king’s daughter, who orders the gardener to send the boy up with flowers for her. When he arrives with a bouquet, she pulls off his cap and his hair showers down. She gives him some gold pieces, which he refuses to keep, turning them over to the gardener’s children.

Some time later, the king is at war, and his enemies are winning. The youth wants to fight, but his fellow workers only laugh at him, giving him a crippled old horse for a steed. Uncomplaining, he rides to the edge of the forest and calls on Iron John. The wild man takes the youth’s lame nag and gives him a fine steed, a set of armor, and a troop of iron knights to lead. The youth and his knights ride to the battle and save the day. Then, without identifying himself, he leads them back to the forest, where he exchanges them and his fine horse for the lame nag. He resumes his gardening job.

To lure the mystery knight, the king arranges for a festival at which his daughter will throw a golden apple for a young man to catch three days running. Again, the youth calls on Iron John, who over the three days supplies him with a chestnut horse, a white horse, and a black horse, all with matching suits of armor. He catches the apple each day. The first two days he succeeds in riding off without identifying himself, but on the third day the king’s men briefly stop him, wounding him in the leg and pulling off his helmet so that his golden hair falls down before he gets away.

The king’s daughter remembers the hair and questions the gardener, who recalls that the victorious young man showed his children the golden apples he had caught. The king summons the youth to his presence, and says it is clear he is no mere gardener’s helper. The young man explains that he is a king’s son and has all the gold he needs. The king asks him if there is any favor he can do for him. The young man says there is: he would like the king’s daughter for his wife.

The story ends with the wedding, where the young prince’s mother and father, who thought their son was dead, are joyfully reunited with him. Another king arrives. He is Iron John, who had been turned into a wild man by a spell. The spell is now broken.

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It is easy to see that this story, on its own terms and without embellishments, tells a boy all the virtues he needs to cultivate to become a man. The youth works diligently and without shame at the lowliest of jobs. He is loyal to his sovereign and to his employer. He is brave in battle. He is kind to children. He endures ridicule patiently and does not boast of his achievements. He is self-reliant, running to Iron John only when there is something he cannot provide for himself. When it comes time to go courting, he courts with style and dispatch. The story presents an objective reality in which even the magic is as matter-of-fact as the flowers the boy picks for the girl.

Robert Bly, however, is not interested in the objective world in which one becomes a man by doing manly things. For just as religion is a form of autotherapy for Bly, so is literature. He concentrates strictly on the subjective, treating the Grimm tale solely as a vehicle for adult self-exploration. In fact, says Bly, all the characters in the Grimm story—the wild man, the warrior, the king—are merely symbols of “interior beings” that live inside every mature man’s psyche. Bly makes much of the hidden meaning of the boy’s first kitchen job, inventing a new bit of psychobabble—“ashes work”—as a generic for setbacks and periods of depression and grief. He explores at length the possible symbolism of the chestnut, white, and black horses. Some of this is interesting, if not especially relevant; most of it is pretty tedious.

In Bly’s view, one achieves manhood not by supporting a family or signing up for the 101st Airborne but by heading for the therapist’s couch or the men’s group to get in touch with one’s interior king or warrior. As a method of literary analysis, Bly’s approach is deadly, flattening out characters, robbing stories of their resonance and wonder, and taking the fun out of reading. As a guide for living it is paralyzing.

Bly the poet clearly feels the power of the tale of Iron John, the same power felt by the German yarn-spinners who retold it for hundreds of years and by the brothers Grimm who wrote it down. But Bly cannot take the story straight. That is because he, and perhaps most men in the men’s movement, do not believe that any of the manly deeds the young man does is worth doing. Here is what Bly has to say about serving in the military:

Contemporary war, with its mechanical and heartless destruction, has made the heat of aggression seem disgraceful. Ares is not present on the contemporary battlefield. The Vietnam veterans suffered soul damage in that they went into battle imagining they served a warrior god, and came back out of it godless.

Bly makes other faintly contemptuous remarks about playing football, liking cars, and other male pursuits of this era.

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One might say that Bly has a bad case of post-Vietnam malaise. But he suffers from another, even more devastating, ailment: the belief, common to intellectuals, that this century is somehow radically different from all that have preceded it. In particular, he believes there is no such thing nowadays as objective reality, let alone transcendent objective reality. There are logical problems with this position—if reality is purely subjective, it is of course impossible to assert that reality is purely subjective.

But there is a worse problem. In their efforts to create a mythology that is purely subjective and thus malleable to modernity, or to adapt old myths and religions to subjective ends, people like Bly end up draining the old stories and beliefs of their vitality. The ancient Greeks told and retold myths about Zeus not because Zeus was a symbolic name for the “Zeus energy” inside each of them, as Bly calls it, but because they believed that Zeus existed in the transcendent world, that he was one of the immortal gods whose awesome powers they honored in dramas that were liturgical in function. One reason Jung seems a more convincing writer than Campbell or Bly is that, unlike them, Jung paid full tribute to the objective vitality of the religious myths he wrote about.

Besides killing off post-Vietnam malaise, the Gulf War demonstrated that perhaps the 20th century has not been so different after all. The soldier’s bible in the Gulf turned out to be Sun-tzu’s Art of War, written during the 6th century B.C.E. A viewing of Kenneth Branagh’s film Henry V suggests that medieval warfare was no less gruesome than that of today. So it may be that even men in the men’s movement will discover that the surer way to forge a sense of strong and positive masculine identity is to practice the old masculine virtues than to run through the forest in search of one’s interior warrior. Women will certainly find them more appealing if they do. A headline in the National Enquirer a few weeks ago read: “Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf—Sexiest Man in America.”

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