A Reaction to Iron John

By Alan A. Mooney.

In recent years a great deal of writing about the Men’s Movement has come from America. The essential thesis of these various writings seems to be that while men are the dominant sex in contemporary America, they are, nevertheless, victims.

Robert Bly, in his book “Iron John” has a map that enables him to cons­truct his thesis about men. This map may be described thus: “Only men can transform boys into men… a clean break with the mother is crucial … the traditional tribal rituals of initiation are a good model for us today. Men need to go away together to discover their “earthy”, “wet” masculinity.” (these phrases are taken from various parts of Iron John). He uses the language and position statements of an oppressed minority.

Wild Man

In order to construct his thesis Bly employs an old Grimm fairy tale “Iron John”. This story is about a wild man who is caged by a king but who persuades the king’s son to release him. The boy is taken by the wild man to the woods and a series of events occur that are magical but also help the boy to make his way in the world. The wild man appears at key crisis moments for the boy and helps him in various ways. In the end the wild man is restored to his full human form and the boy marries the princess.

Bly uses this story to explore the issues of contemporary American men, specifically the lack of fathers in society either through divorce, single parenthood or because fathers are not available emotionally to their sons.


Reading the book was somewhat of a strain to me. I wondered why? Was it because the issues were difficult for me and perhaps my own internal resistance was too great? The feeling I had was that the author was trying to “fit a square peg into a round hole”. He seemed to draw willy-nilly from the myths of Europe and the Native American and African cultures, trying to find somewhere his ideas would fit. Perhaps he hoped that by linking his thoughts to ancient myths and traditions he would give them a kind of credibility, like reproduction furniture.

Hands On

Up to quite recently in history people could more easily experience a clear sense of purpose and achievement in their lives. They could make something, conquer a new territory or clear a piece of land for cultivation. A man had a sense of place and worth in being able to go out with an axe, fell a tree and build himself and his family a home to live in. He could do the same by gathering rocks or sods. But the women went too. They had the same com­mitment as the men. They worked as hard and sweated as profusely. Of course having a “hands on” experience of living did not guarantee a con­tented or happy life. Nor did it guarantee personal growth or psychological and emotional health, it did have the effect of letting people know they were alive and contributing.


Specialisation in society inevitably leads to a separation of the person from the product. Very little work done by men or women actually has an end product that can be seen. More and more traditional tasks are automated now or substantially assisted by machines. In many cases the work people do consists in monitoring these machines.


The number of people providing services has grown exponentially but the sense of job satisfaction and the gratification that comes from that becomes less and less.


Life, society and culture no longer present the individual in the western world with the clear status of former times. There is no longer an automatic entitlement to external Identity. In the latter half of the twentieth century all of us have been under pressure to rename or re-identify ourselves against this very changed background. There are no more clear directions. When people experience themselves controlled and directed by outside forces that are beyond their control – they are victims.


Is Robert Bly’s Men’s Movement a response to this latter day shift in the progress of human development as it affects both men and women or is there a genuine case to be made that men are the victims of their own dominance? Does the idea of banding into groups where we can identify with each other in persecution and exploration of “What went wrong”? and “How can we reclaim our truth”? or does it merely create a polarisation between people?


“Successful” people like to associate with other successful people; Human­istic practitioners like to associate with other humanistic practitioners. This is good and it is a natural phenomenon. Equally, people who are oppressed identify with other oppressed groups. The swapping of their stories helps to put flesh on the bones of their experience. It gives solidarity and voice to the oppression and victimization.


We create models of the world, based on our personal history. Such models help us make sense of our experience and help us to achieve the outcomes we desire. Every individual and group creates a map by which to under­stand and negotiate through their individual and collective experience.


By banding together and giving ourselves a name – like the “Men’s Move­ment” we gain comfort, a feeling of belonging and a sense of place. How­ever, the map is not the territory. Ultimately, all of us are obliged to live in the world and not in the map or myth we create to explain it or ourselves.

It seems to me that the map Robert Bly uses is out of date. The territory has changed too much. The industrial revolution and all the subsequent changes to society, family, work etc., mean that the tribal map of Iron John no longer fits.


Of course it is good to go away with other men and to explore the psychol­ogical and emotional issues that undermine or cripple them. It is also good to rediscover the rhythms of drums and to experience the revitalisation of a sweat lodge or sauna. It is a terrific grounding and voice-liberating experi­ence to chant and dance together. Robert Bly, however, tries to synthesise all of this into a quasi religious/philosophical/therapeutic unity that does not work. Indeed, he tries to link the religion, philosophy and myth of the great historical nations like the Greeks and Egyptians and then to apply them, undiluted, to contemporary America.


Joining and healing rituals are not the preserve of men, the same benefits are there for women. The rituals have a universal human validity, not confined to male or female.


In any case it is my belief that the human personality does not reach completion by “getting hold” of itself but by transcending itself. In my experience of visualization work with clients, whether male or female the “wise person” who often manifests is in the form of a woman.


I do not know of any research done that supports this position but it seems that the focus of this person is not the sex but the wisdom displayed. On this higher plane it seems clear that truth is beyond male or female. In the West we tend to associate the Godhead with the male sex but this designation is not universal and before Judaism, Christianity and Islam there were both male and female deities who represented the Archetypal creative and sustaining force.

Bly maintains this “Father”, creating, sustaining and transforming the “son” is missing and that this lack is evident in the directionless anomie of modern American men.

Good Enough

To some extent every man has an absent father. Even in the “best” homes one will not find perfect parenting by mother or father. At best a child will experience “good enough” parenting. There will always be emotional gaps and loss and pain in children’s lives, even with the best of parental intentions. It is good that the Men’s Movement sees this and acts to help men to heal these wounds just as the Women’s Movement continues to help women deal with their specific issues.

Absent Father

Because of the absent father, Bly maintains, men have become soft. They have learned receptivity and how to nurture from women but they are unhappy because they have lost their fierceness. The development of the “feminine side” has been valuable but not enough, (pp. 2, 4).

A New Map

There is truth in much of what Bly struggles to express but I think that the value of men coming together lies not in exploring the historical and cultural myths alone but in developing a new map, myth or model that makes sense now in the late twentieth century. I do not think we need to act out our tribal origins to “find” ourselves. Contemporary men do not need a new religion based on the ancient sacred rituals of other cultures in order to come to terms with the modern world and the personal challenges to which this exposes them. I do think it is valuable to explore, understand and integrate the Shadow identified by Jung as the other side of ourselves, of which we are often unaware or frightened and therefore avoid.

A Gestalt

In the sense that we use what we can rediscover about ourselves through history and the campfire, let it be a Gestalt where men can deal with here and now issues of masculinity but let us not turn this search into a quasi religious cult.