For thousands of years, humans have created and shared stories describing how boys make the transition from childhood to adulthood.
These stories help to pass on traits and values from one generation to another. They are often paired with rites of passage that signify this important moment of youth.
“Iron John” is one of these many stories.
Even though it was written by the Brothers Grimm hundreds of years ago, it still has meaning today in the modern world.
Robert Bly, an American writer and leader of the mythopoetic men’s movement, has been able to take a lesson from the story and compare with the coming of age of boys today.
What Is the Iron John Story?
In the Iron John story, a prince is playing with a golden ball that accidentally rolls into the prison cell of a hairy man. The reason why the hairy man is in the cell is that he was put there by the King.
The man was brought back by a hunter, who was accompanied by a dog that was taken by a mysterious hand which emerged from a lake. In an effort to retrieve the dog, the hunter drains the lake by the bucketful only to find the wild man at the bottom of the lake. So, the hunter brings the wild man back and throws him in prison.
To get his golden ball, the prince agrees to free the hairy man.
Why Is this Story Important?
At first glance, Iron John appears to be nothing more than a fanciful tale. Yet, if you look deeper there is a more profound meaning.
By making a deal with the wild man to open the cage for his ball, the prince is choosing to defy the wishes of his father, the King. In doing so he takes a step from boyhood to adulthood. How so?
Children, generally, follow the wishes of their parents, who take care of and protect them when they’re young. As children transition to becoming adults in their own right, however, they begin to exert their own autonomy.
Similarly, by releasing the wild man, the boy in the story has taken a step to become an adult in his own right, exerting his independence.
What Lessons About Masculinity Can We Learn from Iron John?
Robert Bly made several other important observations about this tale:
1. Types of Men
There are three types of men: the savage man, the wild man, and the civilized man. The savage man has no regard for morals or decency. On the other hand, the wild man is reflective, conscious, and aware. And the civilized man is somewhere in between—he has the capacity of awareness of his actions but is not always perfect.
2. Parental Restrictions
When adolescents don’t have the opportunity to access their own wild man, problems develop. They can’t face challenges, risks, or experience life outside the protective bubble their parents create. Thus, addiction often becomes a substitute or those experiences.
3. Knowing Oneself
Men need to grasp both the feminine and the masculine in order to fully understand themselves. If men don’t have this understanding, they typically exhibit more negative behaviors that can be harmful to both others and themselves.
4. The Warrior Spirit
Bly also maintains that men need to develop a warrior spirit. This spirit helps men to access the power that they already have within themselves. If used correctly, this power can be a positive source for doing good. For example, at work, men may use this warrior spirit to help their organization to accomplish great things.
Yet, that same warrior spirit can also be valuable at home and in their personal relationships. It can help a man do what they need to do for the greater good of their family and/or their partner.
Are you ready to tap into your inner warrior? Taking time to reflect through mindfulness and journaling can help. However, seeking a counselor can also be a valuable resource. Utilizing both reflection and men’s counseling will allow you to find that inner source of strength and bring it to the surface.