‘Iron John’ and The Mythopoetic Men’s Movement
Thank you for having me here tonight. Let’e begin with a discussion about the mythopoetic men’s movement, a group largely made up of psychologists, poets, musicians, storytellers and authors from the early 1980s through the 1990s.
The term ‘mythopoetic’ was coined by psychology professor Shepherd Bliss, one of the early founders of the work. It does not necessarily mean myth and poetry. It means to re-mythologise, to re-story. I like the term, as I believe we need to ‘re-story’ ourselves, in order to re-store the world.
The mythopoetic was largely inspired by the work of poet and activist Robert Bly, influenced by Jungian psychologists Robert A. Johnson and James Hillman, as well as mythologists Joseph Campbell and Michael Meade.
They were influenced by the use of myths and stories as ways to interpret the challenges men face in contemporary society, suggesting that in order to get in touch with their feelings — and the mature masculine — men needed to understand that it is not about ‘up and out’ spiritual ascension, but ‘inward and down’ to the depths of their souls, where they can learn to express both grief and joy.
Grief itself, they assert, is often the gateway to emotional intimacy for men.
“In general, in the west, we ask men not to go down, and we promise him that if he appears at every meeting at 9am and he’s cheerful and vibrant, then wonderful things will happen to him. And, of course, we know what happens, his children become distant, his sons don’t like him, his daughters don’t remember who he is, his wife leaves. So, the grief comes anyway.” — Robert Bly
With such a focus on ascension in today’s society, the concept Bly is aiming at doesn’t seem very appealing these days, but Bly insists that “…the next step in initiation for men is finding the rat’s hole. The rat’s hole is the ‘dark way,’… the trip that the upwardly mobile man imagines only lower-class men take, the way down and out.”
In the mythopoetic, the desire to be spiritual yet manly — a combination of the primal and the divine — is a factor in the way the group understands the nature of gender, thus distinguishing what they regard as genuine or mature masculinity from the problematic ‘toxic masculinity’ of psychologically immature men.
They also emphasise the importance of including multiple generations of men in their gatherings to learn about masculinity from true elders, not simply older men simply passing on their prejudices.
Mythopoets seek to understand their inner lives through a Jungian archetypal framework. They primarily work with the archetypes of the King, Warrior, Magician and Lover — as well as Bly’s Wild Man, whom we shall meet shortly.
The book ‘King, Warrior, Magician, Lover’, written in 1991 by Jungian psychologist Robert Moore and mythologist Douglas Gillette — two early participants in the mythopoetic — has become essential reading. I personally believe that while it offers an excellent framework for men to begin understanding their psyche, it does have limitations in that it offers only partial images, which I will address a little later.
However, the most well-known mythopoetic text is Bly’s ‘Iron John: A Book About Men’, who in it suggests that masculine energy has been diluted through modern social institutions, industrialisation, and the resulting separation of fathers from family life.
Bly urged men to recover a pre-industrial conception of masculinity through brotherhood with other men. The purpose was to foster a greater understanding of the forces influencing the roles of men in modern society and how these changes affect behaviour, self-awareness and identity.
Iron John, published in 1990, is an interpretation of the Brothers Grimm tale, Iron Hans. It spent 62 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list and, to date, is still in the top 25 bestsellers at Amazon under Gender Studies.
Interestingly, Bly began his work with the feminine. Much of his 1973 book of poems ‘Sleepers Joining Hands’ is concerned with the goddess, and was influenced by the thinking of prominent Jungian, Marie Louise Von-Franz.
In the context of America’s war with Vietnam, Bly saw a focus on the divine feminine as urgent and necessary. He founded a conference called the Great Mother Conference in 1975, but in the ’80s there was much discussion among the conference community about the changes contemporary men were going through and the conference was renamed ‘Great Mother and New Father’. In 1984, Bly also founded the Minnesota Men’s Conference. Both continue to this day.
Bly also ran a series of workshops and seminars with Jungian Marion Woodman around a book they co-authored in 1999 called ‘The Maiden King: The Reunion of Masculine and Feminine’, based on a Russian folktale.
The Emergence of Iron John
Bly had been giving talks on mythology to supplement his income, and found that when he told Iron Hans, it hit a nerve with men.
In these early seminars, he asked men to re-enact a scene from The Odyssey, in which Odysseus is instructed to lift his sword as he approaches the symbol of matriarchal energy, Circe, to compel her to restore his men to human form.
He found many men were unable to carry out this task, so fixed were they on the idea of not hurting anyone. These were men who had come of age during the Vietnam war, and they wanted nothing to do with a manhood which seemed to require aggression.
Bly recognised that these men were also distinguished by their unhappiness, which he asserted was caused by this passivity. He aimed to teach these men that simply flashing the sword was by no means an act of war, but showed what he called ‘a joyful decisiveness’, a sense of vivid aliveness.
I’m reminded of the ancient Irish proverb, “never give a sword to a man who can’t dance”.
Iron John: Overview
A king sends a huntsman into a forest that surrounds his castle and he never returns. He sends more men but they never return. The king then sends all his remaining huntsmen out as a group, but again, none return. He proclaims the woods as dangerous and off-limits to all.
Some years later, a wandering young hunter accompanied by a dog hears of these dangerous woods and asks permission to enter, claiming that he might be able to discover the fate of the others. As he comes to a lake in the middle of the forest, his dog is dragged under the water by a giant arm.
The hunter returns to the forest the next day with a group of men to empty the lake with buckets. At the bottom, they find a naked man with iron-like skin and long shaggy hair all over his body. They capture him and he is locked in a cage in the courtyard of the castle as a curiosity. The king declares that no one is allowed to set this Wild Man free on penalty of death. The only key is given to the queen for safekeeping.
Years later, the young prince of the kingdom is playing with a golden ball in the courtyard. He accidentally rolls it into the cage where the Wild Man picks it up and only agrees to return it if he is set free. He tells the boy the only key is hidden under the queen’s pillow.
Though the prince hesitates at first, he eventually builds up the courage to sneak into his mother’s room and steal the key. He releases the Wild Man who reveals his name to be Iron John. The prince fears he will be killed for setting Iron John free, so the wild man suggests taking him into the forest.
Iron John sets the prince to watch over his well, but warns him not to let anything touch the water because it will turn instantly to gold. The prince obeys at first, but begins to play in the well, eventually turning all his hair into gold. Disappointed in the boy’s failure, Iron John sends him away to experience a mundane existence of poverty and struggle.
The prince travels to a distant land and offers his services to a foreign king. Since he is ashamed of his golden hair, he refuses to remove his cap before the king and is thus sent down to live in the basement to perform lowly kitchen duties.
When war comes to this kingdom, the prince seizes his chance. He calls upon Iron John who gives him a horse, armour and iron knights to fight alongside him. The prince is successful, and he returns all that he borrowed to Iron John.
In celebration, the king announces a banquet and offers his daughter’s hand in marriage to anyone who can catch a golden apple that will be thrown into their midst. The king hopes that the mysterious knight who saved the kingdom will show himself for such a prize.
Again, the prince asks Iron John for help. The prince catches the golden apple but escapes unrevealed, and does so again on two more occasions, before he is eventually found.
The prince marries the princess, and is happily reunited with his parents. Iron John too comes to the wedding. This time, he is seen without the shaggy hair or iron skin, revealing he was under an enchantment until he found someone pure of heart to set him free.
Iron John: Insights
Let’s begin with a caveat. We are talking about Robert Bly’s 30-year-old contemplation about the life of men. Much has changed. Myself, I do not steadfastly agree with every posture held in this book, but having said that, many of the positions Bly takes I believe have become even more profound with time. I intend to discuss the book faithfully, as it is presented, for our own reflection here. I also acknowledge that many of assertions that follow equally apply to all genders.
The main premise in Iron John suggests that contemporary fathers, most often not through any fault of their own, fail to give their sons what they need to be men. The required initiation into manhood, and to be welcomed among the fathers of the world, is lacking, and as a result, many men either rage, sulk (or both) their way through life.
Without clear direction as they grow into men, they simply seek to do what society expects of them. Yet even if they work dutifully, even if they ‘succeed’ — in the way our culture defines it — they often find their feelings freezing up and vitality drifting away. In essence, the loss of the golden ball.
Nonetheless, the stories these men tell themselves, and are told by others, about what it means to be a man — toughness, stoicism — do not hold up for a lifetime.
If he allows himself his feelings, they are usually: disappointment that he doesn’t enjoy the anticipated pleasures of manhood, and anger that he was not given what he needed as a boy. In short, he grieves.
This may not even be a conscious realisation, but it is acted out in the world.
That ‘Iron John’ became as popular as did, and continues to be, suggests Bly has tapped into a deep well of largely unspoken masculine pain.
He also concluded that in almost all indigenous cultures boys are taken from their parents and deliberately initiated into manhood by older men. There they acquire roles which encompass the full range of men’s inner experience.
It is a deepening, a forced discovery of the dark side.
Modern society has few structures for such initiation, and boys can spend their teenage years prolonging their freedom, manifested in bad behaviour, rudeness to parents (particularly the mother), as well as clothing and music that attract attention.
The father cannot himself be the initiator though. As Bly jokingly says, “you’re both in love with the same woman”. However, fathers do have a vital role to play, as protectors and educators of their children. Yet in our culture, fathers seem to fail even here. In situation comedies, in popular media, in commercials, fathers are more often than not portrayed as ridiculous. As a result, says Bly, all you need to do to become a man now is reject your own father.
In Bly’s view, as I stated earlier, a father’s failure has its roots in the rise of industrialisation in the early nineteenth century. Once, young men worked alongside their fathers. This is the characteristic way fathers teach their sons; not face to face, but shoulder to shoulder. Now most sons hardly know what their fathers do at work. Fathers disappear early in the morning and return in the evening exhausted, irritable, frustrated from the demands and abuses of the workplace. Competition has ruled almost every relationship between the men he encounters in his life. Most boys, as Bly says, receive only their father’s temper, not his teaching.
It is interesting to examine the phenomenon of the counter-culture at the time of the book’s writing from the point of view of these ideas. Whether through long hair or a search for alternative philosophies and states of consciousness, young men acted out this rejection of the father. But driving that rejection seemed to be deep grief.
Interestingly, the most successful and permanent manifestation of this rejection of the father proved to be feminism. Feminism’s critique of male aggression, misogyny, and the self-destructiveness of male roles has much to commend it, and many younger men find themselves drawn to it. However, I would gently suggest that feminism does not offer men a fully alternative vision of manhood — nor should it, quite frankly.
Bly and the mythopoetic movement has been misunderstood by many feminists, both female and male, who believe he was advocating some kind of return to macho values. This is untrue. Bly wanted to help men thaw out, to feel who they are, in order that they may find more adaptive ways of being with one another, their wives and their children.
“Male initiation doesn’t move towards machoism. On the contrary, it moves towards developing a cultivated heart before we die.” — Robert Bly
The Wild Man
“There is an old gnostic secret that on the day you were born, your mother also gave birth to a wild twin that was hurled out the window to fend for itself in some strange part of the earth. It is the business of becoming a man to come back into the presence of that figure; a figure lonely in his whole body for you.” — Robert Bly
In our story, the young prince frees a Wild Man, his ‘wild twin’ — or the part of his own psyche that had been exiled because it was fearful, uncomfortable or ‘didn’t fit in’. The parts of us we have rejected and sent into the forest of our deep unconscious. We understand the necessity of inviting this part of ourselves back home, for, as Jung said, “Every part of our personality that we do not love, that we exile, will become hostile towards us.”
“If contemporary man looks down into his psyche, he may, if conditions are right, find under the water of his soul, lying in an area no one has visited for a long time, an ancient hairy man.” — Robert Bly
Bly makes the important distinction here between the Wild Man and the savage man. The savage is the type who has wrecked the environment, is abusive to women and so on, his inner desperation having been pushed out onto the world as a disregard or hatred of others. The Wild Man, however, is prepared to examine where it is he hurts; because of this he is more like a Zen priest or a shaman than a savage. The Wild Man is masculinity’s highest expression, the savage man its lowest.
The point Bly also makes is that a man’s mission is not to become the Wild Man, nor to simply cage him again closer to home, but to learn from him, leaving him to be wild. By reconnecting and learning from the Wild Man, a mature form of masculinity arises, held firm by our ancestors, and carrying us forward into our lives.
The Wild Man will only appear when a man takes the decisive step away from blaming others, away from victimhood and fear, and take responsibility for his own stuff.
“The Wild Man doesn’t come to full life through going with the flow, smoking weed, and being generally groovy. The ecstasy of re-engaging with our wildness comes after work, after discipline imposed on ourselves, after grief.” — Robert Bly
When the prince in the story risks all and goes into the forest with the Wild Man, his parents believe their boy has been taken by the devil, when in fact, it is a profound awakening.
The Golden Ball
The story also uses the motif of the ‘golden ball’– one which appears in many myths. Consider ‘The Princess and the Frog’ and the golden ball she loses at the bottom of the pond, or the snitch in Harry Potter which he so desperately tries to catch, or even the ring — my precious — in ‘Lord of the Rings’.
The loss of the golden ball, which almost always happens to us in our youth, is the loss of our aliveness, maybe it is even a loss of contact with our soul which contains our genius, our highest purpose. We will, however, find the golden ball in the possession of that shadowy, exiled part of ourselves — the Wild Man — and it is our job to retrieve it and once again become whole.
Yearning for The Father
We discussed how many men grow up today either without a father figure, or with an emotionally distant one. Bly believes the ‘hole of the remote father’ leaves a wound in a boy’s life that ‘demons can enter through’. Anxiety, depression, anger, addiction — all are common symptoms of such an occurrence.
Men start to think more about their fathers as they get older, and mythology has a lot to say about the heaviness of ‘entering the Father’s house’, leaving behind the expectation and comfort of the mother. Bly says Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, for instance, is an elaborate metaphor for this process.
In contrast, Marion Woodman wrote her book ‘Leaving My Father’s House’ to discover her true feminine identity.
Stealing the Key
The boy will need to find the key to the cage and release the Wild Man, which is his rite of passage. The fact that the key resides under the mother’s pillow — another common mythic motif — perhaps refers to her own hopes and dreams for him. The ‘steal’ is the moment when a boy must move out from under his mother’s wings. It also reminds us that the psyche is a dealmaker. To free me, he says, this is what you must do. It is a sacred transgression.
In the story, the boy cuts his finger on the lock. Breaking away from the parents and releasing the Wild Man will always cause a wound, whether a single blow or a steady drip of shame constantly reminding the boy that he has not been living up to their standards. This is not about cruelty, but profound meaning. Wounds are essential to our growth.
Once we are wounded, we have some options. We can take the road of grandiosity, try and rise above it all, but like Peter Pan or Icarus, we fly too high and for too long, often becoming megalomaniacs or remaining naïve children. Or we can numb it out with addiction, wallow in self-pity and talk about how unavoidable it all was. The other option, as the story suggests, is to descend into the watery depths of our soul, examine our wounds, and gain access to our fullest potential.
A Man’s Wound is His Gift
Taking the road of grandiosity, a young man may spend his twenties and thirties as what Bly calls a ‘flying boy’; the Jungian puer aeturnus, or eternal boy.
In his imagination, nothing can hold him down. But for a man to be made whole, there has to be something that rips him open, a wound which allows entry to the soul. In many myths, a wild animal gets close enough to a young man to gore his leg; in the ‘Iron John’ story, it is a knight who chases after the prince and stabs him in the leg. As he falls off his horse, the golden hair he has hidden underneath his helmet is revealed.
Until then, the boy has seemed two-dimensional. Appreciation of pain and sorrow, the depth of our own grief, Bly says, is just as vital to a man’s potentiality as the ability to soar through the air. In fact, more so.
“Where a man’s wound is, that is where his genius will be” — Robert Bly
However, it seems many men today don’t quite know what to do with their wounds. They become so deeply lost within them that they make identities out of pain, suffering and resentment.
Many men develop grandiose beliefs and compulsive behaviours to hide their wounds, while others display them like trophies, expecting others to feel pity for them and recognise their ‘bravery in speaking out’ about anxiety, trauma and depression. They blame patriarchy, capitalism, toxic masculinity and anything else they can use as an outer target in an attempt to assuage the pain within their own soul.
Others become addicted. They seek oblivion from reality, craving freedom from their own self-limiting life narrative that is endlessly on repeat.
The point we are offered here isn’t to seek out suffering, life will give us plenty of that, the point is to use that suffering to find our unique gift, not work at creating more.
We talked earlier about our culture’s lack of initiation into manhood. Bly argues that any modern initiation needs to include a descent or a ‘going down’. The boy in ‘Iron John’, after a period of unsustainable ‘ascension’, is brought back down, descending into the basement of kitchen work and ashes.
With initiators largely gone from our culture, we do not receive instruction on how to go down on our own. We could use the phrase ‘going into grief’ for the conscious act of descent, but as Bly states, one sometimes feels that a man is supposed to feel grief only at a funeral.
What does Bly mean by “descent”? He describes two kinds. The first involves a dramatic fall that the Greeks referred to as katabasis:
In katabasis, a man no longer feels like a special person. Because he is not. One day he is in college, being fed and housed — often on someone else’s money — protected by brick walls men long dead have built, and the next day he is homeless, walking the streets, looking for some way to get a meal and a bed.
It’s as if life itself somehow ‘discharges’ him. There are many ways of being discharged: a serious accident, the loss of a job, the breaking of a long-standing friendship, a divorce, a ‘breakdown,’ an illness.
The descender then makes an exit — from ordinary and respectable life — through the wound. The wound is now thought of as a doorway.
This doesn’t require poverty, homelessness, physical deprivation, kitchen work necessarily, but it does seem to require a fall from status, from a human being to a spider, from a middle-class person to a derelict. The emphasis is on the consciousness of the fall.
The second type of fall is milder, but also serves to transform. Bly calls it ‘ashes work’ or ‘cinderbiting’, and claims a man can go through this period of life while still staying married, holding down a job, and so on.
Ashes present a great diminishment away from the living tree with its huge crown and abundant shade. The recognition of this diminishment is a proper experience for men who are over thirty. If a man doesn’t experience this diminishment sharply, he will retain his inflation, and continue to identify himself with all in him that can fly: his sexual drive, his mind, his refusal to commit himself, his addiction, his transcendence, his coolness. The coolness of some men means that they have skipped ashes.
Once a man realises his suffering contains the seed of connection and the potential to help others, he opens his pain from inward obsession, to an identification with the world. It is about learning to be part of a community.
Narcissus was a man stuck in his wounds, and crucially as the myth tells us, separated from his tribe. In his loneliness with his wounds, he fell in love with his own image. This is the story of a man who rejects society to stay a man-child, using grandiosity to hide himself from the world.
So, we must first go out alone, understanding that too much safety means suffocation, and allow ourselves to find our tribe in the wild.
In the fire of life, with no safety net, we learn personal responsibility, discipline, and a respect of our elders in order to survive, and we are given the gift of discipline, a lesson that can carry us through grief, all the way to our higher purpose.
We have experienced the love and care of our mother, and we’ve discovered that it has to have limits, and we have also stood in our father’s shoes. We can now become men by walking our own path.
Hence, the wild forest of the descent into our wounds — into grief — bestows ultimate responsibility on a man. If he is willing to heed the call of the Wild Man, he is rewarded with life itself.
Alchemical Colours of Life
In Iron John, the prince, disguised as a knight, rides a red, then a white, then a black horse. These colours have a logical symbolic progression in relation to a man’s life: the ‘redness’ of his emotions and unbridled sexuality in younger years; the ‘whiteness’ of work and living according to law; and the ‘blackness’ of maturity in which compassion and humanity have the chance to flower.
You tend to know a man who has begun to move into the black because he is trustworthy. There are no hidden corners, because he has eaten his own shadow. This movement through the colours of black, white, red (and yellow) is an alchemical process, a symbolic representation of individuation.
The Second Mythopoetic Wave
The mythopoetic approach often comes at times of cultural chaos, much like we have now, I’d suggest. The original movement went largely underground in the early 2000s, chased there by the media and others ridiculing the underlying concepts, claiming it was return to the macho with bands of men retreating into the forest with their drums and beating their bare chests.
However, I believe what we are seeing arise now is a ‘second wave’ — a much more nuanced and inclusive approach, which considers emerging masculinities and a story beyond the ‘hero myth’ to which our culture has attached itself for so long now.
It asks of the Hero’s Journey, “What next after the hero has returned?” and allows for older and deeper archetypes such as the ecologically-focussed Green Man and the Shaman/Trickster to emerge. This is a more expansive story than the rather rigid, partial and codified images of the King, Warrior, Magician and Lover.
A Final Word
For me, much continues to evolve and change in so-called ‘men’s work’. I am still a firm believer that Bly is in the great healing tradition of the poets. Dante himself awoke to find himself at midlife in a dark wood, not knowing where he was or where he was going. It was not Beatrice who helped him to find himself and reintegrate his fragmented being, but his mentor, Virgil. His reunion with Beatrice did eventually come, but only after a long and arduous descent where he found out who he truly was.
Bly’s work, and Iron John, while potentially in need of an update for the times, still stands for me as solid, foundational bedrock to help men understand their sacred inner world, which Bly often called ‘the fifth direction’, the vertical one, inside us, with the heart at the centre of it all.
This lecture is kindly reproduced with permission of the Jung Society of Melbourne.