Iron John: A Book About Men

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Iron John: A Book About Men

Book excerpt

By: Robert Bly

Date: 1990

Source: Bly, Robert. Iron John: A Book About Men. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1990.

About the Author: Robert Bly (1926–) is an American poet, translator, and author. Born in Minnesota, Bly graduated from Harvard University in 1950, and in 1956 received a Fulbright grant to travel to Europe and translate Norwegian poetry into English. While abroad, Bly discovered a number of major poets whose influence had not yet reached the United States, resulting in The Fifties, The Sixties, and The Seventies, a series of literary magazines of translated poetry. While Bly is most well-known for his award-winning poetry, his most influential nonfiction work, Iron John: A Book About Men, was an international bestseller credited as the foundation of the Mythopoetic Men's Movement. Bly frequently leads workshops for men and women throughout the United States.


Iron John: A Book About Men is both an influential and controversial nonfiction book about masculine depth psychology. In it, Bly diagnoses a type of American man that he says developed in the 1960s and 1970s, the "soft male" (later in the book he also calls this figure "the Sixies-Seventies man"). The soft male, Bly says, developed when men reacted too simplistically to the feminist movement, which declared women's strength, independence, and equality; many young men defined their maleness around being eager to please, gentle, nonviolent, passive, and emotionally full of light. This type of man was preceded by the "Fifties man," whose maleness was more energetic but also more brittle, and potentially more violent: he was "supposed to like football, be aggressive, stick up for the United States, never cry, and always provide."

Bly proclaims a "third possibility for men, a third mode" or way of individuating, that is, of becoming an adult. He visualizes a balanced male person who is capable of both quietness and loudness, tears and laughter, civility and wildness—unlike the Fifties man, who was supposed to be a one-sided worker and patriot, never "weak," or the Sixties-Seventies man, who was supposed to be always soft, never angry, never wild. This third mode, Bly argues, can be discerned in the story "Iron John" or "Iron Hans," a Northern European folk tale first collected into print around 1820 by the Grimm brothers. The book Iron John is Bly's at-length, in-depth interpretive read of this story.

In the tale, the servants of a king find a large, hairy man lying at the bottom of a pond in a nearby forest. The wild man is brought back to the castle, imprisoned by the King in an iron cage, and called Iron John. The King gives the cage's key into the keeping of his wife, the Queen. One day, the eight-year-old son of the King and Queen is playing with a golden ball. The precious ball rolls into Iron John's cage. Iron John says the boy can only have the ball back if he opens the cage. The boy is reluctant, but greatly desires the golden ball. Iron John informs him that the key is hidden under the Queen's pillow, and the boy gets it and lets him out. Bly interprets this much of the story in his first chapter, hence its title ("The Pillow and the Key").

Afraid of being beaten for releasing the wild man, the boy accompanies him back to the woods, and a complex series of adventures ensues. By the end of the tale, a number of years have passed. At the very end, a stately King appears at the boy's marriage-feast and says, "I am Iron Hans, and was by enchantment a wild man, but you have set me free; all the treasures which I possess, shall be your property."

Bly was greatly influenced by the psychological theories of Carl Jung (1875–1961). Jungian analysis of fairy tales seeks to relate their events to recurrent or universal aspects of human feeling called "archetypes." Thus, Bly interprets the golden ball in the story as "that unity of personality we had as children—a kind of radiance, or wholeness" that is lost as we approach adulthood. He then argues that a man can recover this sense of wholeness in its proper adult-male form only by separating from his mother (stealing the key from under her pillow) and freeing the wild man within himself—in story terms, by letting Iron John out of his cage and going off with him to the forest. This "wild" self is not, in Bly's system, an uncontrolled, vicious, or evil self, but an instinctive one—a peculiarly male psychological mode that Bly calls the "deep masculine." Recovery of right relationship with the deep masculine or Wild Man self might, Bly teaches, occur at any time of life, not necessarily in youth.


[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]


Because of Iron John's emphasis on maleness and Bly's involvement in the "men's movement," some writers have interpreted him as antifeminist or male supremacist. However, this is inaccurate. Bly claims, rather, that women and men have distinctive forms of deep psychology; consequently (he says), girls need to be initiated into the distinctively female form of wholeness by women, boys into the distinctively male form of wholeness by men. Properly initiated or grown-up men and women can then relate successfully to each other as partners. (Recall that Iron John reappears at the end of the fairy tale to bless the marriage feast.) Yet proper initiation is rare for men, Bly argues, leading to imbalanced men and defective relationships. Bly's concerns are not limited to male figures such as Iron John: some of his earliest writing on mythological and fairytale figures was devoted not to the Wild Man but the Great Goddess. By 2006, Bly had hosted thirty-one annual conferences devoted to interpretation of the Great Goddess or Great Mother figure in religion, mythology, and literature (broadened, in later years, to include "the Great Mother and the New Father").

Iron John enhanced Bly's not-entirely-willing status as an intellectual leader of the men's movement, a very loosely related set of efforts to further male self-understanding that developed starting in the late 1980s. The men's movement includes groups as diverse as the evangelical Christian "Promise Keepers," mythopoetic drumming circles, and father's-rights advocates.



"Interview with Robert Bly." M.E.N. Magazine (November 1995). 〈〉 (accessed March 27, 2006).

Websites "Robert Bly's 32nd Annual Conference on the Great Mother and the New Father." 〈〉 (accessed March 27, 2006). 〈〉 (accessed March 27, 2006).