Review: ‘Iron John’ by Robert Bly

Iron John: A Book about MenIron John: A Book about Men by Robert Bly

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In my ongoing attempt at self-improvement — or self-understanding, or whatever — I finally picked up “Iron John,” Robert Bly’s 1990 bestseller that gave rise to a thousand drum-beating retreats.

I’ve been a male for all of my 51 years, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been a man, or what “being a man” means. I’m hopeless with tools and my last experience with playing football was in junior high school. I’m not a huge fan of action films or explosions. I used to not cry — “boys don’t cry,” right? — but I realized the foolishness of that when I suffered the painful, irreplaceable losses that every human being goes through, whether breakups or death. I’ve tried to be compassionate and good, and I hope that counts for something, but whether it’s manly or simply humane is beyond me.

Bly uses the story of Iron John, which comes to many of us through a Grimm fairy tale, to illustrate his points. Iron John is a wild man (or Wild Man, as Bly has it) who lives in the forest. He is eventually captured by a nearby kingdom and housed in a cage, but is freed by the king’s son and returns to the forest with the kid. Iron John then becomes a father figure to the boy, urging in him caution, then industriousness, then warlike strength, and finally wisdom and confidence. Bly departs from the tale many times to explain its symbolism and lament the lack of men in Western society, noting that icy distance nor wanton violence nor pure sensitivity makes a man.

I think he makes some good points, and given my fascination with Jungian psychology, there was plenty of food for thought. But oh, this book became a slog after awhile.

Bly grasps for ancient tales and mythology as if trying to round up all buried knowledge, but instead of clear connections, his meandering writing feels more like digressions surrounding his main point. A poet, he quotes himself (and, to his credit, some others), weakening the book. (His poetry, at least the material in “Iron John,” is far weaker than, say, Yeats, Blake or Frost.) What’s worse is that he comes across as an anthropology dilettante — which is not to say that he doesn’t know his stuff, just that he’s so enthusiastic about offering it that it comes across as messy and unfocused. This may have made a better longish essay. (It does make me want to read a book on the Grimm brothers to see how they compiled their fairy tales, and if they were aware of all the psychological resonances we see today.)

He does make one excellent point towards the end. When “Iron John” came out, it was criticized as suggesting that men get back in touch with nature and their own raw interiors to become better men — that is, promoting the undisciplined, beastly side of males. But that isn’t Bly’s point at all, as he notes: “The aim is not to BE the Wild Man, but to be IN TOUCH WITH the Wild Man … in American culture, past and present, we find people who want to be the Wild Man — writers as intelligent as Kerouac fail to make the distinction between being, and being in touch with.”

And, indeed, the tale of Iron John ends by revealing that Iron John was a king himself who had been enchanted, presumably for some violation of nature or spirit. He, too, had to learn discipline.

It’s a nice message and one that resonates with me. But it took a long time to get there with Bly’s book.

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