Book Review: Men and the Water of Life, Initiation & the Tempering of Men

Michael Meade, Published by Harper, San Francisco, 436 pages. 1993.

“Myth is the foundation of life; it is the timeless pattern, the religious formula to which life shapes itself … Whereas in the life of mankind the mythical represents an early and primitive stage, in the life of the individual it repres­ents a late and mature one.” (Thomas Mann)

Michael Meade is a great storyteller. This book is about story and how stories are powerful carriers of truth. Some of the stories used in this book will be familiar because they come from our own Irish tribal heritage. It is specifically about men and the way men perceive themselves in the world or the way men experience themselves alienated in the world. It is about initiation and what the lack of initiation means for men in the context of the modern world. The book is a collection of stories that Meade has told over the years at men’s conferences and includes reactions from men at different stages of the stories. There are six parts to the book and each part is like a different land with its own unique conditions and laws. It is possible to live in any of the lands for a long period of time before feeling ready to move on to the next place.

I have met Michael Meade and experienced his storytelling at first hand. When he tells a Story it is always simple and at the same time it touches so many complexities of life and raises so many questions that it becomes an adventure in the here and now.

This book is like that. It is impossible to read it from cover to cover and put it away. I found myself taking it chapter by chapter and often returning to re­read a previous chapter. This is not because his writing is difficult, it is because the stories he uses to move along through the book are so absorbing and many faceted that one becomes lost, not in the book so much as one’s own inner journey/adventure.

It is a book for men and the elements of fire and water as ritual media of initiation occur and recur regularly throughout the book. The significance of these elements is so fundamental to the work that there is no straightforward way to describe the appropriateness of the title.

While it is a book about the initiation of men, it is not a book that should remain the preserve of men. This book will speak to women also and perhaps as the author says (p133) “We need the regenerative aspects of both the feminine and masculine territories of the psyche and of myth.”

Michael Meade would not call himself a psychotherapist. Yet, with insight and the gentle way he encourages the reader to explore ever more deeply into himself, is fundamentally therapeutic. In a real sense this book helps us to get in touch with an archetypal world that is so familiar that it leaps from the page and so challenging that it can never be forgotten without a wrenching sense of loss.

From my point of view this is a book that is going to fall apart from being read many times because each time I read a piece I find a new richness in the book and also in myself.

Alan A. Mooney