Iron John | Robert Bly

Summary of: Iron John: A Book About Men
By: Robert Bly


Delve into the mind of the modern man with the summary of Robert Bly’s influential book, Iron John: A Book About Men. This insightful piece explores the evolution of masculinity in society and its effects on men’s emotional well-being and relationships. By examining myths, fairy tales, and cultural shifts, Bly delves into the inner wild man and discusses how a lack of male initiation rituals has left many men in a state of arrested development. Discover how reconnecting with one’s primal side and finding balance between societal expectations and true self can ultimately lead to a man living a fulfilled, grounded life.

The Evolving Masculine Ideal

In the 1950s, American men conformed to a solitary role model of the hard-working, emotionally isolated male who felt most alive when facing an opponent until the emergence of an alternative masculine type in the 1970s, the “soft male.” These nonaggressive men often formed partnerships with liberated women; however, this new ideal came with a cost, and in 1980, a group of men revealed the grief they felt. Their passivity had led to damaged marital relationships, and some couldn’t differentiate between Odysseus’s joyful decisiveness and a threat of violence.

Unleashing the Wild Man Energy

The fairy tale of Iron John by the Grimm Brothers delves into unearthing the primal qualities within men to achieve wholeness. The story follows a young hunter who retrieves his dog from a pond, only to discover a wild red-haired man called Iron John. The king orders his minions to cage Iron John, but the queen holds the key and entrusts it to their son. The caged man seeks the prince’s help to be freed, and in return, offers him his ball, which symbolizes the radiant energy of children. This energy can help men regain their wild man energy, a decisive and low identity buried deep inside them. The prince, fearing his mother’s wrath, initially refuses Iron John’s offer. It’s only after he turns 35 and becomes courageous enough to steal the key from his mother does he unlock Iron John. The wild man carries him into the forest and teaches him his ways, revealing the hidden aspects of men’s heroic quest towards maturity.

Breaking Free From Mother’s Nest

Sons must detach from their mothers to mature into adult men and lean towards their same sex for guidance and growth. In many cultures, coming of age is marked by rituals, yet mainstream America lacks such customs. The absence of male mentorship can inflict significant harm on boys. The industrial revolution’s decline of traditional father-son relationships compounded the problem as men turned towards office work while women taught children. Nonetheless, some grandfathers fill the mentorship void, aiding their grandsons.

The Importance of Father Figures

The way young men perceive father figures is reflected in various aspects of culture, including media and advertising. Disillusionment with inadequate fathers can lead to anger directed at established figures. However, demonizing older males leaves younger men incomplete. Societal and historical factors can contribute to fathers’ neglectful behavior, and unenlightened mothers may taint their sons’ views of their fathers. But as these sons reach midlife, they often seek reconciliation, which allows them to incorporate the neglected parts of themselves. Ultimately, the search for a father figure is a crucial aspect of male development.

Transforming Wounds

Initiation rituals involve a rupture with parents and some form of wound. Every society has myths where wounds feature in boys’ growth. In Iron John, the prince turns his wound into a gift through initiation ceremonies. Wounded children either excel or become victims or addicts. The transformative power of the wild man lies in turning wounds into art. Recognizing wounds like shame, punishment, or abandonment allows men to lead a complete, mature life. Failure in recognizing wounds leads to immaturity and societal degeneration. Initiation rituals help boys deal with their wounds positively and constructively.

The Symbolism of Hair

In the book, hair symbolizes man’s animal nature, “sexual energy,” and spontaneity. The prince’s introspection and self-awareness while gazing at his reflection are likened to deepening interpersonal relationships. The author argues that American males lack father figures, which leads to either entitlement or premature burden-bearing and suggests that a descent from grandiosity and entitlement can rejuvenate the soul. Overachievers can heal by doing humble work like in a kitchen or construction site.

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