Iron John: A Book About Men by Robert Bly
One Line Summary
Get in touch with the Wild Man
As I mentioned in my introduction, I help run a self-development group in Miami, Fl. What I haven’t mentioned is that the group is made up of only guys. We made it that way not because women don’t have their own problems or because we hate women, but simply because as guys we’ve shared common interests that women didn’t seem to be interested in. And so we naturally grouped together.
Iron John by Robert Bly espouses a philosophy that is close to our group’s core. Many men in modern society have lost touch with what Bly calls their Wild Man, and part of what we do is try to help guys get back to that. The book is a best seller and largely is credited to spawning the Men’s Movement.
The book itself shares the ancient story of Iron John, with commentary being made throughout by Bly. He touches on topics such as male initiation, male negative and positive energy and male wounding. It’s an interesting story and Bly’s commentary fills in many of the conceptual gaps since the story itself is largely metaphorical. This book was published 26 years ago, yet his points about modern society remain as relevant as ever.
Here is the 5-second version of the fable of Iron John.
A man is found living at the bottom of a lake by a King. The King, afraid of this Wild Man, locks him up in a cage for many years. Eventually a young prince frees the Wild Man from his cage, and the Wild Man (named Iron John) takes the prince into the woods.
Iron John turns out to have magical powers. He is in debt to the prince, and so he tells him the prince can call on him for whatever he wishes. The prince uses the powers of Iron John to eventually save the Kingdom and marry a princess. Iron John is revealed to have been under a spell, and because of the prince, has been set free.
Why it’s Awesome
What is the Wild Man?
I have to be careful when I say that our group helps to get men back in touch with this side of them because I can easily be misunderstood. Does that mean we teach guys how to break shit and go crazy, like some sort of animal? Is it like Fight Club?
Not at all. To Bly, the Wild Man represents a part of masculinity that all boys must get in touch with in order to grow into a man. It’s that part of a man that seeks risk, freedom and even anger. The point is not to become a Wild Man, but to know him. That is why the prince in the fable is able to become a man by releasing Iron John.
Bly argues that in modern society, this intentional process in which boys are initiated and put in touch with their Wild Man has been lost. Instead, the focus has been on Women’s liberation and curbing male aggression. While this has had many positive effects for women, it does not offer an alternative for men.
As I mentioned in my review of The Rational Male, this is not about Men vs Women. Or at least it shouldn’t be. Both genders have problems, Bly is simply arguing for the other side.
To me, the Wild Man represents the letting go of social conditioning. It’s the part of you that isn’t held down by other people’s opinions or unnecessary psychological fear. You could call it the basis of all personal development work.
Another central theme to Iron John talked about by Bly is that of wounding. In modern culture, we shy away from wounds. We don’t want to be hurt or let others see our hurt. But not only is this unrealistic, wounding is essential for anyone to grow into their full potential.
Wherever your deepest wounding is, that is where your greatest gift to the world will lie.
In my review of Neuroculpting, we met Lisa Wimberger, a regular women driven to the quest to solve her mental health problems because of the pain it brought her and her family. This wounding that she went through ended up birthing what she brought to the world, in the form of that book, the Neuroculpting Institute, private lessons and who knows what else.
I’m not a fan of the image of the tortured artist, and I don’t want to put the idea in people’s heads that they must suffer. But given that most people DO suffer anyway, despite our best attempts to avoid it, this metaphor of turning a wound into a womb for something great can be very pleasant.
It reminds me of the quote from Marcus Aurelius, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way”, which I shared in my review of Mediations. It also aligns with the philosophy of being Anti-fragile.
Bly also argues that part of the male growing up process involves passing through three stages: red, white and black. The red stage in men involves anger and aggression; they are literally seeing red. This stage does not last, and eventually men transition into the white stage, which involves compassion and non-violence.
However, the point Bly makes is that our society shys away from the red stage. They want men to simply inhabit the white stage without having passed through the lower level. The result of this is a “false” white stage, or men who are in the red stage but have suppressed it. It is not true compassion and is usually filled with resentment. And what is suppressed usually always finds an outlet anyway.
I see this all the time and it fits in with Spiral Dynamics and Ken Wilber’s theory of integral psychology. It’s great to be selfless and help other people, but only when it’s done from a genuine place. Guys who never express that more selfish, egotistical side of themselves are unable to appreciate genuine selflessness because they haven’t seen the direct damage that ego can cause to themselves and others.
Why Does It Suck
A lot of this book is just the “wouldn’t things be better if we did it the old way?” noise you sometimes hear from conservatives. The old way is gone, it’s not coming back. We don’t live in tribes where the elders are going to pick up the boys and initiate them.
Rather, what should be looked for is alternatives. Bly argues that men in today’s age lack a father figure and that men are looked down upon as bumbling and foolish in mainstream culture. I don’t buy this argument at all. Sure, I’ve seen Everybody Loves Raymond and Married…With Children. And I understand that some men really are like that, hence the joke that everyone can laugh at because they relate.
But I also see more examples than ever before of men who are not like that. It would take me just seconds to rip off tons off role models of mine in mainstream culture. Most guys I know could also do the same. If anything, it’s women who lack role models.
The Wrap Up
There’s a ton of value in this book if you’re a guy. It will open your eyes to some cultural phenomena that is happening around you. But there’s also a lot you can ignore. As always, take what is useful to you and discard the rest.
Buy Iron John here on Amazon: