Iron John

A Book about Men


By Robert Bly

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The 25th anniversary edition of the groundbreaking New York Times bestseller, with a new afterword by the author–which offers a new vision of what it is to be a man

In this timeless and deeply learned classic, poet and translator Robert Bly offers nothing less than a new vision of what it means to be a man.

Bly’s vision is based on his ongoing work with men, as well as on 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 a mentor or “Wild Man” guides a young man through eight stages of male growth-to remind us of ways of knowing long forgotten, images of deep and vigorous masculinity centered in feeling and protective of the young.

At once down-to-earth and elevated, combining the grandeur of myth with the practical and often painful lessons of our own histories, Iron John is an astonishing work that will continue to guide and inspire men-and women-for years to come.


        Chapter One

       The Pillow and the Key

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.

The men who live today have veered far away from the Saturnian, old-man-minded farmer, proud of his introversion, who arrived in New England in 1630, willing to sit through three services in an unheated church. In the South, an expansive, motherbound cavalier developed, and neither of these two “American men” resembled the greedy railroad entrepreneur that later developed in the Northeast, nor the reckless I-will-do-without culture settlers of the West.

Even in our own era the agreed-on model has changed dramatically. 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, labored 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. The psyche lacked compassion in a way that encouraged the unbalanced pursuit of the Vietnam war, just as, later, the lack of what we might call “garden” space inside Reagan’s head led to his callousness and brutality toward the powerless in El Salvador, toward old people here, the unemployed, schoolchildren, and poor people in general.

The Fifties male had a clear vision of what a man was, and what male responsibilities were, but the isolation and one-sidedness of his vision were dangerous.

During the sixties, another sort of man appeared. The waste and violence of the Vietnam war made men question whether they knew what an adult male really was. If manhood meant Vietnam, did they want any part of it? Meanwhile, the feminist movement encouraged men to actually look at women, forcing them to become conscious of concerns and sufferings that the Fifties male labored to avoid. As men began to examine women’s history and women’s sensibility, some men began to notice what was called their feminine side and pay attention to it. This process continues to this day, and I would say that most contemporary men are involved in it in some way.

There’s something wonderful about this development—I mean the practice of men welcoming their own “feminine” consciousness and nurturing it—this is important—and yet I have the sense that there is something wrong. The male in the past twenty years has become more thoughtful, more gentle. But by this process he has not become more free. He’s a nice boy who pleases not only his mother but also the young woman he is living with.

In the seventies I began to see all over the country a phenomenon that we might call the “soft male.” Sometimes even today when I look out at an audience, perhaps half the young males are what I’d call soft. They’re lovely, valuable people—I like them—they’re not interested in harming the earth or starting wars. There’s a gentle attitude toward life in their whole being and style of living.

But many of these men are not happy. You quickly notice the lack of energy in them. They are life-preserving but not exactly life-giving. Ironically, you often see these men with strong women who positively radiate energy.

Here we have a finely tuned young man, ecologically superior to his father, sympathetic to the whole harmony of the universe, yet he himself has little vitality to offer.

The strong or life-giving women who graduated from the sixties, so to speak, or who have inherited an older spirit, played an important part in producing this life-preserving, but not life-giving, man.

I remember a bumper sticker during the sixties that read “WOMEN SAY YES TO MEN WHO SAY NO.” We recognize that it took a lot of courage to resist the draft, go to jail, or move to Canada, just as it took courage to accept the draft and go to Vietnam. But the women of twenty years ago were definitely saying that they preferred the softer receptive male.

So the development of men was affected a little in this preference. Nonreceptive maleness was equated with violence, and receptive maleness was rewarded.

Some energetic women, at that time and now in the nineties, chose and still choose soft men to be their lovers and, in a way, perhaps, to be their sons. The new distribution of “yang” energy among couples didn’t happen by accident. Young men for various reasons wanted their harder women, and women began to desire softer men. It seemed like a nice arrangement for a while, but we’ve lived with it long enough now to see that it isn’t working out.

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 The Odyssey, Hermes instructs Odysseus that when he approaches Circe, who stands for a certain kind of matriarchal energy, he is to lift or show his sword. In these early sessions it was difficult for many of the younger men to distinguish between showing the sword and hurting someone. One man, a kind of incarnation of certain spiritual attitudes of the sixties, a man who had actually lived in a tree for a year outside Santa Cruz, found himself unable to extend his arm when it held a sword. He had learned so well not to hurt anyone that he couldn’t lift the steel, even to catch the light of the sun on it. But showing a sword doesn’t necessarily mean fighting. It can also suggest a joyful decisiveness.

The journey many American men have taken into softness, or receptivity, or “development of the feminine side,” has been an immensely valuable journey, but more travel lies ahead. No stage is the final stop.

Finding Iron John

One of the fairy tales that speaks of a third possibility for men, a third mode, is a story called “Iron John” or “Iron Hans.” Though it was first set down by the Grimm brothers around 1820, this story could be ten or twenty thousand years old.

As the story starts, we find out that something strange has been happening in a remote area of the forest near the king’s castle. When hunters go into this area, they disappear and never come back. Twenty others go after the first group and do not come back. In time, people begin to get the feeling that there’s something weird in that part of the forest, and they “don’t go there anymore.”

One day an unknown hunter shows up at the castle and says, “What can I do? Anything dangerous to do around here?”

The King says: “Well, I could mention the forest, but there’s a problem. The people who go out there don’t come back. The return rate is not good.”

“That’s just the sort of thing I like,” the young man says. So he goes into the forest and, interestingly, he goes there alone, taking only his dog. The young man and his dog wander about in the forest and they go past a pond. Suddenly a hand reaches up from the water, grabs the dog, and pulls it down.

The young man doesn’t respond by becoming hysterical. He merely says, “This must be the place.”

Fond as he is of his dog and reluctant as he is to abandon him, the hunter goes back to the castle, rounds up three more men with buckets, and then comes back to the pond to bucket out the water. Anyone who’s ever tried it will quickly note that such bucketing is very slow work.

In time, what they find, lying on the bottom of the pond, is a large man covered with hair from head to foot. The hair is reddish—it looks a little like rusty iron. They take the man back to the castle, and imprison him. The King puts him in an iron cage in the courtyard, calls him “Iron John,” and gives the key into the keeping of the Queen.

Let’s stop the story here for a second.

When a 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.

The mythological systems associate hair with the instinctive and the sexual and the primitive. What I’m suggesting, then, is that every modern male has, lying at the bottom of his psyche, a large, primitive being covered with hair down to his feet. Making contact with this Wild Man is the step the Eighties male or the Nineties male has yet to take. That bucketing-out process has yet to begin in our contemporary culture.

As the story suggests very delicately, there’s more than a little fear around this hairy man, as there is around all change. When a man begins to develop the receptive side of himself and gets over his initial skittishness, he usually finds the experience to be wonderful. He gets to write poetry and go out and sit by the ocean, he doesn’t have to be on top all the time in sex anymore, he becomes empathetic—it’s a new, humming, surprising world.

But going down through water to touch the Wild Man at the bottom of the pond is quite a different matter. The being who stands up is frightening, and seems even more so now, when the corporations do so much work to produce the sanitized, hairless, shallow man. When a man welcomes his responsiveness, or what we sometimes call his internal woman, he often feels warmer, more companionable, more alive. But when he approaches what I’ll call the “deep male,” he feels risk. Welcoming the Hairy Man is scary and risky, and it requires a different sort of courage. Contact with Iron John requires a willingness to descend into the male psyche and accept what’s dark down there, including the nourishing dark.

For generations now, the industrial community has warned young businessmen to keep away from Iron John, and the Christian church is not too fond of him either.

Freud, Jung, and Wilhelm Reich are three investigators who had the courage to go down into the pond and to accept what they found there. The job of contemporary men is to follow them down.

Some men have already done this work, and the Hairy Man has been brought up from the pond in their psyches, and lives in the courtyard. “In the courtyard” suggests that the individual or the culture has brought him into a sunlit place where all can see him. That is itself some advance over keeping the Hairy Man in a cellar, where many elements in every culture want him to be. But, of course, in either place, he’s still in a cage.

The Loss of the Golden Ball

Now back to the story.

One day the King’s eight-year-old son is playing in the courtyard with the golden ball he loves, and it rolls into the Wild Man’s cage. If the young boy wants the ball back, he’s going to have to approach the Hairy Man and ask him for it. But this is going to be a problem.

The golden ball reminds us of that unity of personality we had as children—a kind of radiance, or wholeness, before we split into male and female, rich and poor, bad and good. The ball is golden, as the sun is, and round. Like the sun, it gives off a radiant energy from the inside.

We notice that the boy is eight. All of us, whether boys or girls, lose something around the age of eight. If we still have the golden ball in kindergarten, we lose it in grade school. Whatever is still left we lose in high school. In “The Frog Prince,” the princess’s ball fell into a well. Whether we are male or female, once the golden ball is gone, we spend the rest of our lives trying to get it back.

The first stage in retrieving the ball, I think, is to accept—firmly, definitely—that the ball has been lost. Freud said: “What a distressing contrast there is between the radiant intelligence of the child and the feeble mentality of the average adult.”

So where is the golden ball? Speaking metaphorically, we could say that the sixties culture told men they would find their golden ball in sensitivity, receptivity, cooperation, and nonaggressiveness. But many men gave up all aggressiveness and still did not find the golden ball.

The Iron John story says that a man can’t expect to find the golden ball in the feminine realm, because that’s not where the ball is. A bridegroom secretly asks his wife to give him back the golden ball. I think she’d give it to him if she could, because most women in my experience do not try to block men’s growth. But she can’t give it to him, because she doesn’t have it. What’s more, she’s lost her own golden ball and can’t find that either.

Oversimplifying, we could say that the Fifties male always wants a woman to return his golden ball. The Sixties and Seventies man, with equal lack of success, asks his interior feminine to return it.

The Iron John story proposes that the golden ball lies within the magnetic field of the Wild Man, which is a very hard concept for us to grasp. We have to accept the possibility that the true radiant energy in the male does not hide in, reside in, or wait for us in the feminine realm, nor in the macho/John Wayne realm, but in the magnetic field of the deep masculine. It is protected by the instinctive one who’s underwater and who has been there we don’t know how long.

In “The Frog Prince” it’s the frog, the un-nice one, the one that everyone says “Ick!” to, who brings the golden ball back. And in the Grimm brothers version the frog himself turns into the prince only when a hand throws him against the wall.

Most men want some nice person to bring the ball back, but the story hints that we won’t find the golden ball in the force field of an Asian guru or even the force field of gentle Jesus. Our story is not anti-Christian but pre-Christian by a thousand years or so, and its message is still true—getting the golden ball back is incompatible with certain kinds of conventional tameness and niceness.

The kind of wildness, or un-niceness, implied by the Wild Man image is not the same as macho energy, which men already know enough about. Wild Man energy, by contrast, leads to forceful action undertaken, not with cruelty, but with resolve.

The Wild Man is not opposed to civilization; but he’s not completely contained by it either. The ethical superstructure of popular Christianity does not support the Wild Man, though there is some suggestion that Christ himself did. At the beginning of his ministry, a hairy John, after all, baptized him.

When it comes time for a young male to talk with the Wild Man he will find the conversation quite distinct from a talk with a minister, a rabbi, or a guru. Conversing with the Wild Man is not talking about bliss or mind or spirit or “higher consciousness,” but about something wet, dark, and low—what James Hillman would call “soul.”

The first step amounts to approaching the cage and asking for the golden ball back. Some men are ready to take that step, while others haven’t yet bucketed the water out of the pond—they haven’t left the collective male identity and gone out into the unknown area alone, or gone with only their dog.

The story says that after the dog “goes down” one has to start to work with buckets. No giant is going to come along and suck out all the water for you: that magic stuff is not going to help. And a weekend at Esalen won’t do it. Acid or cocaine won’t do it. The man has to do it bucket by bucket. This resembles the slow discipline of art: it’s the work that Rembrandt did, that Picasso and Yeats and Rilke and Bach did. Bucket work implies much more discipline than most men realize.

The Wild Man, as the writer Keith Thompson mentioned to me, is not simply going to hand over the golden ball either. What kind of story would it be if the Wild Man said: “Well, okay, here’s your ball”?

Jung remarked that all successful requests to the psyche involve deals. The psyche likes to make deals. If part of you, for example, is immensely lazy and doesn’t want to do any work, a flat-out New Year’s resolution won’t do any good. The whole thing will go better if you say to the lazy part: “You let me work for an hour, then I’ll let you be a slob for an hour—deal?” So in “Iron John,” a deal is made: the Wild Man agrees to give the golden ball back if the boy opens the cage.

The boy, apparently frightened, runs off. He doesn’t even answer. Isn’t that what happens? We have been told so often by parents, ministers, grade-school teachers, and high-school principals that we should have nothing to do with the Wild Man that when he says “I’ll return the ball if you let me out of the cage,” we don’t even reply.

Maybe ten years pass now. On “the second day” the man could be twenty-five. He goes back to the Wild Man and says, “Could I have my ball back?” The Wild Man says, “Yes, if you let me out of the cage.”

Actually, just returning to the Wild Man a second time is a marvelous thing; some men never come back at all. The twenty-five-year-old man hears the sentence all right, but by now he has two Toyotas and a mortgage, maybe a wife and a child. How can he let the Wild Man out of the cage? A man usually walks away the second time also without saying a word.

Now ten more years pass. Let’s say the man is now thirty-five . . . have you ever seen the look of dismay on the face of a thirty-five-year-old man? Feeling overworked, alienated, empty, he asks the Wild Man with full heart this time: “Could I have my golden ball back?”

“Yes,” the Wild Man says, “If you let me out of my cage.” Now something marvelous happens in the story. The boy speaks to the Wild Man, and continues the conversation. He says, “Even if I wanted to let you out, I couldn’t, because I don’t know where the key is.”

That’s so good. By the time we are thirty-five we don’t know where the key is. It isn’t exactly that we have forgotten—we never knew where it was in the first place.

The story says that when the King locked up the Wild Man, “he gave the key into the keeping of the Queen,” but we were only about seven then, and in any case our father never told us what he had done with it. So where is the key?

I’ve heard audiences try to answer that one:

“It’s around the boy’s neck.”


“It’s hidden in Iron John’s cage.”


“It’s inside the golden ball.”


“It’s inside the castle . . . on a hook inside the Treasure Room.”


“It’s in the Tower. It’s on a hook high up on the wall!”


The Wild Man replies, “The key is under your mother’s pillow.”

The key is not inside the ball, nor in the golden chest, nor in the safe . . . the key is under our mother’s pillow—just where Freud said it would be.

Getting the key back from under the mother’s pillow is a troublesome task. Freud, taking advice from a Greek play, says that a man should not skip over the mutual attraction between himself and his mother if he wants a long life. The mother’s pillow, after all, lies in the bed near where she makes love to your father. Moreover, there’s another implication attached to the pillow.

Michael Meade, the myth teller, once remarked to me that the pillow is also the place where the mother stores all her expectations for you. She dreams: “My son the doctor.” “My son the Jungian analyst.” “My son the Wall Street genius.” But very few mothers dream: “My son the Wild Man.”

On the son’s side, he isn’t sure he wants to take the key. Simply transferring the key from the mother’s to a guru’s pillow won’t help. Forgetting that the mother possesses it is a bad mistake. A mother’s job is, after all, to civilize the boy, and so it is natural for her to keep the key. All families behave alike: on this planet, “The King gives the key into the keeping of the Queen.”

Attacking the mother, confronting her, shouting at her, which some Freudians are prone to urge on us, probably does not accomplish much—she may just smile and talk to you with her elbow on the pillow. Oedipus’ conversations with Jocasta never did much good, nor did Hamlet’s shouting.

A friend mentioned that it’s wise to steal the key some day when your mother and father are gone. “My father and mother are away today” implies a day when the head is free of parental inhibitions. That’s the day to steal the key. Gioia Timpanelli, the writer and storyteller, remarked that, mythologically, the theft of the key belongs to the world of Hermes.

And the key has to be stolen. I recall talking to an audience of men and women once about this problem of stealing the key. A young man, obviously well trained in New Age modes of operation, said, “Robert, I’m disturbed by this idea of stealing the key. Stealing isn’t right. Couldn’t a group of us just go to the mother and say, ‘Mom, could I have the key back?’?”

His model was probably consensus, the way the staff at the health food store settles things. I felt the souls of all the women in the room rise up in the air to kill him. Men like that are as dangerous to women as they are to men.

No mother worth her salt would give the key anyway. If a son can’t steal it, he doesn’t deserve it.

“I want to let the Wild Man out!”

“Come over and give Mommy a kiss.”

Mothers are intuitively aware of what would happen if he got the key: they would lose their boys. The possessiveness that mothers typically exercise on sons—not to mention the possessiveness that fathers typically exercise on daughters—can never be underestimated.

The means of getting the key back varies with each man, but suffice it to say that democratic or nonlinear approaches will not carry the day.

One rather stiff young man danced one night for about six hours, vigorously, and in the morning remarked, “I got some of the key back last night.”

Another man regained the key when he acted like a wholehearted Trickster for the first time in his life, remaining fully conscious of the tricksterism. Another man stole the key when he confronted his family and refused to carry any longer the shame for the whole family.

We could spend days talking of how to steal the key in a practical way. The story itself leaves everything open, and simply says, “One day he stole the key, brought it to the Wild Man’s cage, and opened the lock. As he did so, he pinched one of his fingers.” (That detail will become important in the next part of the story.) The Wild Man is then free at last, and it’s clear that he will go back to his own forest, far from “the castle.”

What Does the Boy Do?

At this point a number of things could happen. If the Wild Man returns to his forest while the boy remains in the castle, the fundamental historical split in the psyche between primitive man and the civilized man would reestablish itself in the boy. The boy, on his side, could mourn the loss of the Wild Man forever. Or he could replace the key under the pillow before his parents got home, then say he knows nothing about the Wild Man’s escape. After that subterfuge, he could become a corporate executive, a fundamentalist minister, a tenured professor, someone his parents could be proud of, who “has never seen the Wild Man.”

We’ve all replaced the key many times and lied about it. Then the solitary hunter inside us has to enter into the woods once more with his body dog accompanying him, and then the dog gets pulled down again. We lose a lot of “dogs” that way.


On Sale
Nov 10, 2015
Page Count
288 pages
Da Capo Press

Robert Bly

About the Author

Robert Bly is a poet, author, translator, activist, and leader of the mythopoetic men’s movement. Bly has received many awards, including the National Book Award, for his poetry; in 2013, he was awarded the Poetry Society of America’s Robert Frost Medal, a lifetime achievement award. He lives in Moose Lake, Minnesota.

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