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Iron John: A Book About Men (1990)

by Robert Bly

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,744157,403 (3.51)21
In this deeply learned book, poet and translator Robert Bly offers nothing less than a new vision of what it is to be a man.Bly's vision is based on his ongoing work with men and reflections on his own life. He addresses the devastating effects of remote fathers and mourns the disappearance of male initiation rites in our culture. Finding rich meaning in ancient stories and legends, Bly uses the Grimm fairy tale "Iron John," in which the narrator, or "Wild Man," guides a young man through eight stages of male growth, to remind us of archetypes long forgotten-images of vigorous masculinity, both protective and emotionally centered.Simultaneously poetic and down-to-earth, combining the grandeur of myth with the practical and often painful lessons of our own histories, Iron John is a rare work that will continue to guide and inspire men-and women-for years to come.… (more)
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» See also 21 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
Too mystical, too much reliance on shaky metaphors and mythological reinterpretations of bullshit. Also, one gets the impression that Bly is absolutely in love with himself; he'll present poems written by himself as evidence for his point, which would be sketchy under the best circumstances, but when combined with terrible poetry, it becomes unforgivable. Save yourself some time and skip over this one. ( )
  isovector | Dec 13, 2020 |
I registered a book at BookCrossing.com!
http://www.BookCrossing.com/journal/14214165
  slojudy | Sep 8, 2020 |
This was a great book! I have often felt a sense of unfulfillment, a sense that perhaps I had not lived in harmony with my soul's longings or my real sense of purpose, and this book clarified why that feeling exists, both in myself, and in many men. I believe that reading and understanding this book has put me on a new path of discovering the real and true inner "men" and I embrace that journey of discovery with enthusiasm, thanks to the road map this book offers. ( )
  Paul-the-well-read | Apr 18, 2020 |
This book was written under the premise that fairy tales and mythology act like a genetic code carrying certain truths about mankind through the centuries. With their roots in ancient oral traditions, these stories have been used to teach for generations. Much of the writing in this book is a scholarly treatise on metaphor and symbolism. The metaphoric fairy tale used in this book is Iron John written by The Brothers Grimm. Bly uses it to explain two important aspects of manhood; the archetypes that make up a man's personality and the steps of initiation that must be completed to reach "full manhood."

It's important for younger men to interact with older men. Because of economic and societal issues, we've seen a gradual separation of boys from paternal figures. This creates profound feelings of abandonment and distrust. As a result, younger men will now tend to destroy and dismantle what has been built by those that came before them. I think this has resulted in some interesting workplace dynamics. For example, look at the high-tech industry where youth is so highly valued and older mentors are forced out. This connection with our elders is a deep need, however, and men invariably seek to reconnect with their fathers, typically after the age of 40.

In most societies, the elders are responsible for the initiation rites of manhood. Our separation from them has made rites of passage almost non-existent in modern cultures. This can lead to overt risk-taking as youth try to create their own unguided initiation rites. Bly uses the Iron John story to step through each of the important phases of initiation and explains the impact it can have on a man if they do not sufficiently complete the experience. In the Iron John story, Bly highlights some of these "ceremonies" as "suffering a wound," "dropping into the rat-hole/going to ashes," and "cultivating the warrior." In general, the required pattern of male initiation is:
Bonding with and separation from the mother
Bonding with and separation from the father (today, this might not happen until a man is in his 50s)
Arrival of a Mentor (also called the "masculine mother")
Apprenticeship to a hurricane energy (connecting to your wild man or warrior)
Joining with the Holy Woman or Queen

Incorrectly completed or absent initiation steps lead to unfulfilled manhood. For example, a man may tap into his "warrior" and learn to swing a broadsword at the wrong time. If he gets into an argument, he incorrectly turns his words against his "queen" by saying things meant to hurt, like "you always" or "you never." Watch how you use that weapon because the Queen has a few of her own!

A man's psyche is composed of the King, Warrior, Lover, Wildman, Trickster, Magician and Grief Man. A man is the totality of these parts and aspects left uncultivated through initiation leaves him incomplete. One example is that a man unseparated from his mother cannot fully develop his King (sense of self and purpose) nor partner fully with his Queen (for obvious reasons.)

One really interesting point was brought up about the prevalence of the red/white/black sequence in writing. In Iron John, it's three different horses presented to the main character. In Snow White, the Queen says "I want a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as this window frame." I never appreciated how often this appears in stories but it conveys a similar meaning; separation (birth,) wound or trial and move to ashes (life,) and full realization into adulthood (death of the child form.) We all have to go through the full cycle.

When I first picked up the book, I thought it was going to be a lot of metaphysical woo-woo. However, I found it to be an insightful look into male psychology as shown through myths written across time. ( )
  pmtracy | Dec 17, 2019 |
Upped my decades old rating by half a point (0.5)

I was probably just shy of 50 when I first read the book. The re-read was well worth it. One might observe Bly anticipated the #metoo moment. His describes of the decline of both men's and women's lives as a direct result of the industrial revolution, the proximate cause. The "modern" origins he dates to the 11th C, when story-telling killed off the "Wild Man". Other reviewers will/have related the binding thread of the myth/legend/story of Iron John, and its appearance in cultures around the world. It's universal.

A single instance where Bly uses history, non-fiction, if you will, is late in the chapter of the Red, White, and Black horses, where Abraham Lincoln is approached in the White House at 5 a.m. by a woman whose son is about to be hanged at 8 a.m. The good thing about the whole chapter is the leveling of sexual/gender stereotypes. No color horse is better than any other, Red horses aren't exclusively ridden by women, while or black by men. They are ridden in different orders to make different points; the different progressions describe different growth.

Most often, Bly introduces an image, by meditating on a section of the Iron John legend. For example, "Ralph Nader rides a white horse", this without further comment, allowing the reader to make their own judgement about any meaning. While a reference may slip over contemporary readers' event horizon, a bit of research supplies the context.

Risking repetition, the story is timeless. Bly sheds light on the now-emerging social issues of the last nearly 30 years. If he points to a solution, it is this: "Don't become the Wild Man; instead, get in touch with yours". And not in identical words, he suggests a similar solution for women. ( )
1 vote applemcg | Jun 30, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Bly, Robertprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Cumpston, CopenhaverCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ekman, AndersTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Harvey, MillicentPhotographersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Söderberg, LasseTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Timmermann, KlausÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Waldman, BruceCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wasel, UlrikeÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For Noah, Micah, and Sam.
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We are living at an important and fruitful moment now, for it is clear to men that the images of adult manhood given by the popular culture are worn out; a man can no longer depend on them.
We talk a great deal about "the American man," as if there were some constant quality that remained stable over decades, or even within a single decade.
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In this deeply learned book, poet and translator Robert Bly offers nothing less than a new vision of what it is to be a man.Bly's vision is based on his ongoing work with men and reflections on his own life. He addresses the devastating effects of remote fathers and mourns the disappearance of male initiation rites in our culture. Finding rich meaning in ancient stories and legends, Bly uses the Grimm fairy tale "Iron John," in which the narrator, or "Wild Man," guides a young man through eight stages of male growth, to remind us of archetypes long forgotten-images of vigorous masculinity, both protective and emotionally centered.Simultaneously poetic and down-to-earth, combining the grandeur of myth with the practical and often painful lessons of our own histories, Iron John is a rare work that will continue to guide and inspire men-and women-for years to come.

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