Poet Robert Bly’s Iron John: A Book About Men angered a lot of feminists when it first appeared over a decade ago. Bly’s purpose was to reacquaint modern men with an ancient mythos that allows men to be men, and not feminized, neutered versions of men (what Bly calls “soft men”) or emotional isolated destroyers (“Fifties Man”). Iron John explores stories from the collective unconscious (fairy tales and myths as old as society) that, in Bly’s hands, point the way for men to get in touch with their real selves.
The book opens with the story of Iron John, the hairy man symbolizing all of a man’s psychic primitivism buried deep within our subconscious. Bly uses the tale to show how most men have lost something in life (the golden ball) but are too afraid to approach the Hairy Man and get back what has been lost. Bly blames much of this on the Industrial Revolution, which took fathers away from their sons, leading to both emotional distance and a lack of confidence. “When the office work and the ‘information revolution’ begin to dominate, the father-son bond disintegrates. If the father inhabits the house only for an hour or two in the evenings, then women’s values, marvelous as they are, will be the only values in the house”.
Bly breaks down the Iron John story into its various episodes, and then extrapolates on the hidden significance of the story, often using real-life examples from men he has met at his various talks around the country. “During the last thirty years men have been asked to learn how to go with the flow…how to be vulnerable, how to adopt consensus decision-making”. For Bly, this modern “soft male” is the result of deceptive pressures. Just as women have emerged from centuries of passivity, men have retreated into the opposite direction. Where there were once strong men and soft women, the reverse is becoming true.