Iron John : a book about men

by Robert Bly

Book, 1990



Call number


Call number



Reading, Mass. : Addison-Wesley, 1990.

Original publication date


Physical description

xi, 268 p.; 25 cm

Local notes

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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member varielle
My ex-husband was obsessed with this book. Finally reading it after many years I understand its appeal to fatherless men or those with dysfunctional fathers. That guided transition from boyhood to manhood is largely missing in modern society. This book may prove helpful to those who are trying to guide a boy and to help those who missed that step of development in understanding their loss. The mythological analogies can be tiresome, but Bly is a poet after all and without them the impact would be lost. Iron John can be helpful for a woman to understand the men in her life and for men to understand themselves.… (more)
LibraryThing member squarespiral
The author uses an old european folk legend that he interprets over the length of the book to transport his views about the development of the collective male psyche (in the sense of C.G. Jung).
While the author succeeds in striking a cord every now and then, most of the book consits mostly of - sometimes very confused - personal, mythological views of how especially men can develop their "fully personality". This personality in turn is a strange amalgam of various archetypical figures (lots of different kings, warriors, maidens, crones, hunters, trickster, magicians and the like) which all need some kind of initiation to become fully developed. Enjoy if you are heavily into mythology and have a affinity to Jungian Psychology everyone else can probably find something better to spend their time with.… (more)
LibraryThing member HoraceSPatoot
I have a lot of respect for this book. It is centered around a particular myth. If you follow the whole Jungian/ Joseph Campbell/ archetype thing, you will immediately recognize Iron John to be something more than a story or a parable -- it is a peek into an experience shared by men, not just those who might have been abused or neglected.

I don't think it would be a particularly useful book for women, children or aliens to understand men, and I would not encourage the women in my life to read it because like many personal things, it looks silly and perhaps even trivial to an uninvolved observer. It's a book to help men understand themselves.
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LibraryThing member aegossman
I read this in 2004. I didn't like it much then. Now I decided to read I again as my wife and I are expecting a son in Feb and it was awesome.
LibraryThing member applemcg
Upped my decades old rating by half a point (0.5)

I was probably just shy of 50 when I first read the book. The re-read was well worth it. One might observe Bly anticipated the #metoo moment. His describes of the decline of both men's and women's lives as a direct result of the industrial revolution, the proximate cause. The "modern" origins he dates to the 11th C, when story-telling killed off the "Wild Man". Other reviewers will/have related the binding thread of the myth/legend/story of Iron John, and its appearance in cultures around the world. It's universal.

A single instance where Bly uses history, non-fiction, if you will, is late in the chapter of the Red, White, and Black horses, where Abraham Lincoln is approached in the White House at 5 a.m. by a woman whose son is about to be hanged at 8 a.m. The good thing about the whole chapter is the leveling of sexual/gender stereotypes. No color horse is better than any other, Red horses aren't exclusively ridden by women, while or black by men. They are ridden in different orders to make different points; the different progressions describe different growth.

Most often, Bly introduces an image, by meditating on a section of the Iron John legend. For example, "Ralph Nader rides a white horse", this without further comment, allowing the reader to make their own judgement about any meaning. While a reference may slip over contemporary readers' event horizon, a bit of research supplies the context.

Risking repetition, the story is timeless. Bly sheds light on the now-emerging social issues of the last nearly 30 years. If he points to a solution, it is this: "Don't become the Wild Man; instead, get in touch with yours". And not in identical words, he suggests a similar solution for women.
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LibraryThing member pmtracy
This book was written under the premise that fairy tales and mythology act like a genetic code carrying certain truths about mankind through the centuries. With their roots in ancient oral traditions, these stories have been used to teach for generations. Much of the writing in this book is a scholarly treatise on metaphor and symbolism. The metaphoric fairy tale used in this book is Iron John written by The Brothers Grimm. Bly uses it to explain two important aspects of manhood; the archetypes that make up a man's personality and the steps of initiation that must be completed to reach "full manhood."

It's important for younger men to interact with older men. Because of economic and societal issues, we've seen a gradual separation of boys from paternal figures. This creates profound feelings of abandonment and distrust. As a result, younger men will now tend to destroy and dismantle what has been built by those that came before them. I think this has resulted in some interesting workplace dynamics. For example, look at the high-tech industry where youth is so highly valued and older mentors are forced out. This connection with our elders is a deep need, however, and men invariably seek to reconnect with their fathers, typically after the age of 40.

In most societies, the elders are responsible for the initiation rites of manhood. Our separation from them has made rites of passage almost non-existent in modern cultures. This can lead to overt risk-taking as youth try to create their own unguided initiation rites. Bly uses the Iron John story to step through each of the important phases of initiation and explains the impact it can have on a man if they do not sufficiently complete the experience. In the Iron John story, Bly highlights some of these "ceremonies" as "suffering a wound," "dropping into the rat-hole/going to ashes," and "cultivating the warrior." In general, the required pattern of male initiation is:
Bonding with and separation from the mother
Bonding with and separation from the father (today, this might not happen until a man is in his 50s)
Arrival of a Mentor (also called the "masculine mother")
Apprenticeship to a hurricane energy (connecting to your wild man or warrior)
Joining with the Holy Woman or Queen

Incorrectly completed or absent initiation steps lead to unfulfilled manhood. For example, a man may tap into his "warrior" and learn to swing a broadsword at the wrong time. If he gets into an argument, he incorrectly turns his words against his "queen" by saying things meant to hurt, like "you always" or "you never." Watch how you use that weapon because the Queen has a few of her own!

A man's psyche is composed of the King, Warrior, Lover, Wildman, Trickster, Magician and Grief Man. A man is the totality of these parts and aspects left uncultivated through initiation leaves him incomplete. One example is that a man unseparated from his mother cannot fully develop his King (sense of self and purpose) nor partner fully with his Queen (for obvious reasons.)

One really interesting point was brought up about the prevalence of the red/white/black sequence in writing. In Iron John, it's three different horses presented to the main character. In Snow White, the Queen says "I want a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as this window frame." I never appreciated how often this appears in stories but it conveys a similar meaning; separation (birth,) wound or trial and move to ashes (life,) and full realization into adulthood (death of the child form.) We all have to go through the full cycle.

When I first picked up the book, I thought it was going to be a lot of metaphysical woo-woo. However, I found it to be an insightful look into male psychology as shown through myths written across time.
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LibraryThing member Audacity88
I can see how someone would really like and get a lot out of this book. For me, the mix of legend and self-help was more frustrating than compelling.

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