Iron John

Robert Bly

Created on Saturday, January 16, 2016.
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The German fairy tale of Iron John (Der Eisenhands) interpreted as an allegory about manhood.


During the fifties, for example, an American character appeared with some consistency that became a model of manhood adopted by many men: the Fifties male. He got to work early, laboured responsibly, supported his wife and children, and admired discipline. Reagan is a sort of mummified version of this dogged type. This sort of man didn’t see women’s souls well, but he appreciated their bodies; and his view of culture and America’s part in it was boyish and optimistic. Many of his qualities were strong and positive, but underneath the charm and bluff there was, and there remains, much isolation, deprivation, and passivity. Unless he has an enemy, he isn’t sure that he is alive. The Fifties man was supposed to like football, be aggressive, stick up for the United States, never cry, and always provide. But receptive space or intimate space was missing in this image of a man. The personality lacked some sense of flow.


I first learned about the anguish of “soft” men when they told their stories in early men’s gatherings. In 1980, the Lama Community in New Mexico asked me to teach a conference for men only, their first, in which about forty men participated. Each day we concentrated on one Greek god and one old story, and then late in the afternoons we gathered to talk. When the younger men spoke it was not uncommon for them to be weeping within five minutes. The amount of grief and anguish in these younger men was astounding to me. Part of their grief rose out of remoteness from their fathers, which they felt keenly, but partly, too, grief flowed from trouble in their marriages or relationships. They had learned to be receptive, but receptivity wasn’t enough to carry their marriages through troubled times. In every relationship something fierce is needed once in a while: both the man and the woman need to have it. But at the point when it was needed, often the young man came up short. He was nurturing, but something else was required – for his relationship, and for his life. The “soft” male was able to say, “I can feel your pain, and I consider your life as important as mine, and I will take care of you and comfort you.” But he could not say what he wanted, and stick by it. Resolve of that kind was a different matter.


In our culture there is no such moment [Bly means a formal way to leave boyhood behind]. The boys in our culture have a continuing need for initiation into male spirit, but old men in general don’t offer it. The priest sometimes tries, he is too much a part of the corporate village these days.


The traditional way of raising sons, which lasted for thousands and thousands of years, amounted to fathers and sons living in close – murderously close – proximity, while the father taught the son a trade: perhaps farming or carpentry or blacksmithing or tailoring. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, the love unit most damaged by the Industrial Revolution has been the father-son bond. There’s no sense in idealizing preindustrial culture, yet we know that today many fathers now work thirty or fifty miles from the house, and by the time they return at night the children are often in bed, and they themselves are too tired to do active fathering.


A man takes up desk work in an office, becomes a father himself, but has no work to share with his son and cannot explain to the son what he’s doing. Lawrence’s father was able to take his son down into the mines, just as my own father, who was a farmer, could take me out on the tractor, and show me around. I knew what he was doing all day and in all seasons of the year. When the office work and the “information revolution” begin to dominate, the father-son bond disintegrates. If the father inhabits the house only for an hour or two in the evenings, then women’s values, marvellous as they are, will be the only values in the house. One could say that the father now loses his son five minutes after birth. When we walk into a contemporary house, it is often the mother who comes forward confidently. The father is somewhere else in the back, being inarticulate.


Jung said something disturbing about this complication. He said that when the son is introduced primarily by the mother to feeling, he will learn the female attitude towards masculinity and take a female review of his own father and of his own masculinity. He will see his father through his mother’s eyes. Since the father and the mother are in competition for the affection of the son, you’re not going to get a straight picture of your father out of your mother, nor will one get a straight picture of the mother out of the father.

That's all there is, there isn't any more.
© Desi Quintans, 2002 – 2022.