The Story Of Iron John
So a few days ago Samira recommended that I read this book called “Iron John.”
The story of Iron John has been around for a while. This book that came out in the 1990s is the author’s interpretation of a man’s development.
The author, Robert Bly, analyzes the story, contrasting it with the ideal development of a true man to Western society’s pitiful alternative. Even though it was written in the 1990s, it seems like it’s still relevant today.
A paraphrased version of the story would go like this:
A hunter goes into the woods one day. His dog is pulled into a nearby pond by an unseen hand from beneath the water. In order to get his dog back and clear the pond, he decides to empty the pond using only a bucket.
When he’s done, he finds a wild man at the bottom of the pond. This wild man is as you would expect: naked, hairy and manly.
For some reason, the hunter decides that it would be a good idea give the wild man to the king as a gift.
He does so, and the wild man is kept in a cage in the king’s castle.
One day the king’s young son is playing with a golden ball. It bounces away from him and towards the wild man’s cage. The wild man grabs it.
When the boy asks for it back, the wild man says, “I’ll give it back to you if you let me out of this cage.”
The boy doesn’t even respond, he just runs away frightened.
Several years pass (Bly mentions that the boy could be anywhere from a teenager up to 25 years old at this time), and the boy approaches the wild man’s cage again. He asks for the ball back.
The wild man says once again, “I’ll give it back to you if you let me out of here.”
Instead of running away in fear, the boy says, “Well I couldn’t let you out even if I wanted to, because I don’t know where the key is.”
The wild man tells him that the key is under his mother’s pillow.
Somehow (the story does not specify and neither does Bly), the boy steals the key from under his mother’s pillow. He lets the wild man out of the cage but is then paralyzed by fear at what he’s done.
“Oh no!” he says. “If they see that you’re gone when they come home, they’ll beat me!”
The wild man then says, “So come with me into the forest. You’ll never see your parents again, but I have lots of riches, more than you’ll ever need.”
The boy decides to go into the forest with the wild man, leaving his parents forever.
When he’s in the woods, the wild man gives him a task. He tells him to guard a golden spring, but that he shouldn’t touch it, otherwise the spring will be ruined.
The boy does as he’s told.
However, one day he gets a wound on his finger. He dips his finger into the pond and it turns to gold. No matter what the boy does, he can’t get the gold off of his finger.
Later that day Iron John (the wild man) asks him if anything happened at the spring. The boy tries to lie and say no, but Iron John somehow knows and tells the boy:
“You dipped your finger into the pond, didn’t you? I’ll let it slide this time, but if it happens again you have to leave this place.”
The next day, the boy is guarding the pond again when he accidentally falls in. Or, just his head falls in or something, because his hair is what goes into the water. Like his finger, it turns to gold.
Unable to hide this from the wild man, he makes the boy leave. Before the boy goes, Iron John tells the boy that if he ever needs anything, he can come back to the forest and yell for him 3 times.
So then the boy leaves and goes to another kingdom. He gets some shitty job working in the castle’s kitchen. One day, he gets called before the king.
In order to hide his golden hair, the boy always wears some kind of hat or turban. When he stands before the king, he orders the boy to remove his hat out of respect.
The boy says, “I can’t do that, I have a wound on my head and it’s infected.”
The king turns to the kitchen master and says, “Why the fuck are you letting this retard work in the kitchen? Get rid of him right away and find someone else.”
The kitchen master takes pity on the boy. Instead of firing him, he sends him to go work with the gardener.
One day while working in the garden, the boy decides to rest. He’s hot and sweaty from pulling weeds, so he sits down and removes his hat so he can cool off.
His golden hair falls down around his shoulders. When it catches the sunlight, it is so bright that it shines magnificently into the king’s daughter’s room.
She rushes to the window to see what could be causing such a beautiful reflection. When she sees the boy, she calls out to him,
“Hey gardener’s boy, bring me some flowers!”
The boy rushes to put his hat back on, but it’s too late.
He gathers some flowers and heads toward the room of the king’s daughter. A guard stops him and admonishes him for bringing such ugly flowers.
The guard “suggests” that the boy bring some of the more beautiful flowers that are professionally maintained in the castle, but the boy declines, stating instead that,
“No, these wild flowers are more fragrant. They’ll please her more.”
When he goes to give her the flowers, she tells him to remove his hat.
He says, “Uhh, I’m sorry but I can’t. I have an infected wound on my head.”
Without responding, she snatches his hat away from him and his golden hair goes everywhere.
As he leaves, she gives him some gold coins. Instead of keeping the coins, he gives them to the gardener so he can, “give them to his children as playthings.”
The next day, the same thing happens. The king’s daughter asks for flowers and the boy brings them.
This time, she tries to snatch his hat off again but he’s too quick. Still, she gives him gold coins as he leaves. Once again though, he gives the coins to the gardener for his children.
The next day, the king goes off to battle. The boy wants to fight too, so he asks some of the warriors for a horse. They laugh and tell him sarcastically that they’ll leave a horse for him. Unfortunately, it turns out that the horse is a gimp and not fit for battle.
The boy rides the horse to the forest where Iron John is. He calls for him 3 times after which Iron John appears.
“What do you want?” the wild man asks.
The boy says, “I want to go fight in the war. I need a horse and armor.”
“No problem,” says Iron John.
Out of nowhere, a huge red warhorse gallops into their midst and an empty suit of knight’s armor appears. A band of strong warriors made of iron appear behind the horse as well.
The boy dons the armor, hops on the horse and rides toward the battle. When he gets there, the king’s side is getting whooped. They’re pretty much almost defeated, but the boy and his band of warriors manages to kick the other side’s ass and save the day.
Instead of sticking around, he rides off back into the forest and gives the horse and armor back to Iron John. He rides his gimpy horse back to the village.
When the king returns, his daughter congratulates him on the victory.
“It wasn’t me,” he said. “Some strange knight appeared and saved the day.”
“A strange knight?” she asks.
“Yeah,” says the king. “It was weird too, because he didn’t stick around to talk to me afterwards. And I’m the king and shit.”
“That’s weird,” says the king’s daughter. “You should hold a tournament for all the knights so you can inspect them one by one and see who he is.”
The king thought that was a great idea.
After their conversation, the king’s daughter goes to the gardener and asks where the boy was that day. The gardener didn’t know, but just as she asks the boy approaches on his gimpy horse.
A few of the king’s warriors see him coming and mock him for being a coward, asking him if he was hiding under a rock during the battle.
The boy confidently responds, “I fought well today. Who knows what would have happened if I wasn’t there.”
The king’s warriors have a good laugh about that.
A week or so later, the king holds the tournament. The boy runs into the forest and calls for Iron John 3 times.
He appears, once again asking the boy what he wants.
“I want to compete in the king’s tournament,” says the boy.
“No problem,” says Iron John.
Another warhorse appears with a suit of armor. This horse is white. The boy gets ready and rides back into town.
The boy ends up winning the tournament that day but rides off before going to see the king. This pisses the king off, and says that the next day his warriors should stop him at all costs, even if they have to use their swords.
The next day the boy wins again, but as he turns to leave he’s pursued by the king’s warriors. One of them strikes him in the leg and leaves a wound.
The boy gets called into the king’s presence and admits to being the knight at the tournament. He also admits to saving the day at the battle. The king asks him who he is, because he can’t possibly be a gardener’s boy.
The boy responds that he’s the son of another king of a faraway land and that he has riches beyond comprehension.
The king is impressed by this and says that the boy can have whatever he wants from the king. The boy asks for the king’s daughter’s hand in marriage.
This impresses the king’s daughter and she goes over and gives him a big kiss.
Alright, so I didn’t actually intend on typing all of that out, but since I just did I guess I’ll roll with it.
There’s a lot going on in this story. Bly does a commendable job at interpreting everything, even if some of his interpretations are a bit extreme.
For example, Bly says that modern men are weak because of too much feminine energy and not enough masculine. The apparent reason for this is because men have virtually nothing to do with raising their sons.
They’re at work 40–60 hours a week. By the time they come home, they’re too tired to spend time with their kids.
This, coupled with how men in media/entertainment are portrayed as bumbling idiots, causes young men to despise and disidentify with their fathers.
There’s all kinds of other shit going on in there too, such as the modern boy’s relationship with his mother.
Bly states that boys spend too much time with their mother and not enough with their father. This in turn gives them a feminine view of masculinity. Because the child is impressionable and doesn’t know any better, he is under the impression that the feminine view is the only view.
Another problem is that there’s no more “initiation rituals” into society anymore for men.
Bly states that while this was normally taken care of by the older men in a society, these days older men have also lost their symbolic respect.
Grandpa now lives in Florida or in an old folk’s home, has nothing to do with raising children, nor does he find opportunity to pass on a lifetime full of wisdom.
Bly compares this to women, who have benefited from the women’s rights movement and are way ahead of men in this respect. Women learn how to be women from other women, whereas the same cannot be said for men. Men are on their own to figure things out.
At best, they can learn from other men their own age. However, when compared to older men, these younger men don’t know a whole lot about life. They are also figuring it out as they go along.
Bly also talks about the golden ball and what it means. He says that the golden ball is the childlike playfulness that we all have as children. We lose that as we get older, and the only way to get it back is to “let the wild man out of the cage.”
He says that society is uncomfortable with the darker side of maleness. As a result, we have tried to completely ignore its place in the world.
Men these days are soft, as he puts it, and are too scared of confrontation to stand up for themselves. They’re too uncomfortable with anger, rage, and the rest of the spectrum of negative emotions.
Bly states that because the world has changed so much, this darker side of masculinity is virtually irrelevant in today’s society. Not only are men not taught to be men, but there is little reason for them to receive those teachings anyway.
In the case of the story however, by letting the wild man out of the cage, the boy has furthered his development. He’s taken a risk by cutting ties with his parents and going to live in the wilderness with the wild man, albeit temporarily.
Once in the forest, Iron John gives him a task. Bly claims this is a form of “initiation.” The boy fails the task (Iron John saw this coming), and as a result he is sent into the real world to fend for himself.
Bly states that this expulsion is similar to when a man has to go out into the world and work. Kitchen work and gardening (more on that in a sec) are not easy work and do not pay well. He seems to imply that some amount of suffering is needed for the boy to fully mature.
When the boy is called before the king the first time and is ashamed of his golden hair, Bly states that what this really means is that young men are afraid to be themselves. They’re afraid to show the side of them that is really fucking awesome.
Once the boy is sent to work in the garden is when he learns about falling in love with that special female. Up until now, he’d had experience with only his mother and maybe a few sporadic sexual experiences along the way.
None of these women really meant anything to him (aside from his mother) and neither did they teach him anything about how to be in a meaningful relationship with the opposite sex.
The fact that the boy gives away the coins given to him by the king’s daughter implies that he doesn’t feel that he deserves the acknowledgement given to him. Because he didn’t actually have to DO anything to receive them, he feels as though he shouldn’t keep them.
When the boy goes to fight in the war, it is because he’s ready to test himself. Because the king has almost been defeated, it’s time for the warrior to show himself.
Bly also makes the case that the “king” is a metaphor for the boy’s inner self. Children are mostly helpless at a young age, have no freedom and are often taught to suppress their emotions. Because of this, Bly claims that our “inner king” dies at a young age.
That said, when the king fails, it’s time for the warrior to clean up.
In other words, when diplomacy and “doing the right thing” don’t work, it’s time to go in there and fuck shit up because that’s all some people will understand.
Furthermore, the boy did not want to let the king (or anyone else for that matter) do his fighting for him. He needed to face the enemy head on.
When he comes back, he’s made fun of because he had chosen to keep his identity as a warrior a secret.
Though Bly doesn’t say this in his interpretation, I think this may be because the boy is still ashamed of that side of him. Similar to his fear of showing his golden hair, the boy is hesitant to show his warrior side because it is new and unknown how it will change his life thereafter.
Bly makes all kinds of assertions here about how things like verbal combat and confrontation are disappearing from Western society.
Naturally, he thinks this is a bad thing, as it handicaps men as they grow older because they never learn to develop their inner warriors.
Another interesting point he repeats here is that in our society, we tend to back off when teenagers begin acting out.
In non-Western cultures, specifically tribal or ancient ones, boys are put through an initiation when they get to this age in order to turn them into real men and quit their bullshit.
The closest equivalent in modern non-Western cultures would be a few years of mandatory military or national service.
Bly states that our society does the opposite.
Whereas in the past boy would go live/work with their fathers around age 12 and cut ties with the mother, these days the bond between mother and son is maintained far beyond where it is necessary.
He also believes that the reason teenage boys start dressing sloppily and being rude to their parents (especially their mothers) is because they’re instinctively trying to distance themselves from their mothers and become men.
However, since there is no formal initiation in Western culture, success here is random at best. Additionally, this behavior is often curtailed by the father, as he peers over his newspaper and admonishes the boy to “respect his mother.”
Furthermore, Bly goes on to say that mothers tend to put too much pressure on their sons.
Though this doesn’t come from a place of malice (most of the time), the harm that mothers are doing to their sons as a result of coddling them and refusing to sever the bond lasts long after the boy eventually leaves home.
Things like “psychic incest,” where the mother and son share an inappropriate emotional bond in response to the void filled by the absent father, become more common.
Oftentimes the mother will attempt to create a “substitute husband” out of her son, trying to fill the gaps left by the boy’s father.
Bly is careful to mention here that the same thing often happens with fathers and their daughters. As mentioned previously, however, the damage tends to be worse with sons and their mothers because boys lack the external support of older men that young women have with older women.
Regarding the tournament, the boy subconsciously knows that it’s almost time for him to get his due credit. In other words, he knows he won’t be able to hide his true self forever.
Bly doesn’t state this explicitly, but I would posit that the boy knows that the ruse can only last so long. The more he exposes himself, the higher the chance that his true identity will be found out.
Eventually, he’ll be forced to live with the consequences, both good and bad.
Bly claims that the three different horses the boy receives from Iron John correlate to different phases in a man’s development.
The first horse (the red one) represents a man’s savage side. This is the side that is quick to anger, ready to stand up for himself and will fight at the slightest provocation. Appropriate when you consider that this is the horse the boy chose to ride into battle.
The second horse (the white one) represents the opposite of the red one. In other words, this horse in effect turns the boy into a “white knight” of sorts.
The classic white knight is the one who rescues the damsel in distress, follows the rules no matter what, and generally doesn’t take outside circumstances into consideration when deciding what to do in a given situation. He follows the rules and that’s that.
The third horse (the black one), represents the boy’s desire to get what he deserves. It takes the best of the red and the white horse and discards the negative. This is the horse the boy uses to get shit done.
Bly claims that each of these three horses that the boy rides correspond to a different stage in a man’s life.
The first stage requires him to “prove himself to himself” as it were, by acting as he thinks a man must act.
The second stage happens when the man “calms down,” so to speak.
He realizes that living as a “red man” is unsustainable and unfulfilling, so he swings to the other side of the pendulum and starts living by “rules” and “doing the right thing”. Not in the sense of thinking for himself, but “doing the right thing” as in what the corporate-Disney-pg13 society tell him is right.
The third stage takes place when the man realizes that there is no such thing as good or evil. The absolutes he believed in during his white knight phase are too one-dimensional to be of any use in the real world.
In this stage, the man is able to assess every situation independent of any surrounding stigma and make the correct decisions.
The wound on the boy’s leg left by one of the king’s warriors implies that the boy deepens his sense of feeling.
In a practical sense, the boy has been marked and can no longer hide his true identity. In effect, the wound he received is a turning point in the boy’s life.
Despite the fact that wounds generally are harmful, this one neither not fatal nor crippling.
Bly states that in ancient cultures, part of the initiation of young men would include a superficial wound. This would serve to remind the boy that he was a man, that he was mortal, and that pain exists in this world. It would mark his transition into manhood.
When the boy receives this wound it is much the same. Since he can no longer hide who he truly is, he decides to go all out when he is called in front of the king.
With no shame or fear, he admits to being the knight who won the tournament as well as the one who saved the day on the battlefield.
Finally, the boy has become enough of a man to accept his gifts and wear them on the outside. But without the superficial wound, who knows how long he would have kept them hidden?
Since the jig is up, the boy admits to being a prince from a far away land. There is no sense in trying to hide who he is anymore, so he reveals his royal background as he fully accepts both his birthright and his true nature.
The king is so impressed at the man-sized balls this boy has, that he offers him anything he wants. The boy immediately says that he wants the king’s daughter’s hand in marriage.
According to Bly, the girl then says, “I like how he doesn’t beat around the bush.”
Though he doesn’t state it directly, it seems that Bly is implying here that women are impressed with and attracted to assertiveness in men. Saying what you mean and going after what you want are commonly thought to be highly sought-after male characteristics .
At the end of the story, the boy and the king’s daughter get married. The boy’s parents are invited as is Iron John. The boy’s parents are extremely happy to see him, as they thought he was either dead or worse for many years.
The wild man then gives all of his gold to the boy, implying that since the boy has FULLY accepted his dark side, he is worthy to accept everything that the wild man (his animal side) can give him.
Then the wild man becomes king, replacing the boy’s “inner king” with one who is truly wise.
Phew! That was a long explanation.
I was even going to give my personal take on it, but I’m kind of over writing at this point. I’m just going to leave this like it is and figure out the rest tomorrow.