Iron John: A Book about Men 
by Robert Bly.
Element, 268 pp., £12.95, September 1991, 9781852302337
Show More
The way men think: Intellect, Intimacy and the Erotic Imagination 
by Liam Hudson and Bernadine Jacot.
Yale, 219 pp., £16.95, November 1991, 0 300 04997 8
Show More
Utne Reader. Men, it’s time to pull together: The Politics of Masculinity 
Lens, 144 pp., $4, May 1991Show More
Show More

In 1919, after prolonged study, the Harvard ethologist William Morton Wheeler pronounced the male wasp ‘an etiological nonentity’. An animal behaviourist had scrutinised the male wasp and found – no behaviour. We can well imagine the male wasp’s response to such a verdict: his initial shock and hurt; his descent into a period of depressed introspection; his eventual decision to improve his act. For nowadays, according to a recent Scientific American, ‘interest in the long-neglected male is flourishing, a tribute to the animal’s broad array of activities.’ Male humans will surely feel for their brothers in the wasp kingdom. After a phase of relative obscurity, we too have rallied. In fact, we seem to have bounced back pretty well immediately, with all kinds of fresh claims on everyone’s attention. Male wounds. Male rights. Male grandeur. Male whimpers of neglect.

What is the deep background on the ‘deep male’? From 100,000 BC until, let’s say, 1792 (Mary Wollstonecraft and her Vindication of the Rights of Women), there was, simply, the Man, whose main characteristic was that he got away with everything. From 1792 until about 1970, there was, in theory anyway, the Enlightened Man, who, while continuing to get away with everything, agreed to meet women for talks about talks which would lead to political concessions. Post-1970, the Enlightened Man became the New Man, who isn’t interested in getting away with anything – who believes, indeed, that the female is not merely equal to the male but is his plain superior. The masculine cultivation of his feminine ‘side’ can be seen as a kind of homage to a better and gentler principle. Well, the New Man is becoming an old man, perhaps prematurely, what with all the washing-up he’s done; there he stands in the kitchen, a nappy in one hand, a pack of tarot cards in the other, with his sympathetic pregnancies, his hot flushes and ‘contact’ pre-menstrual tensions, and with a duped frown on his ageing face. The time is ripe. And now the back door swings open and in he comes, preceded by a gust of testosterone and a few tumbleweeds of pubic hair: the Old Man, the Deep Male – Iron John.

Iron John, a short work of psychological, literary and anthropological speculation by the poet Robert Bly, ‘dominated’ the New York Times best-seller list for nearly a year, and has made, as we shall see, a heavy impact on many aspects of American life. It has not done so well over here. For this there are many reasons, but let us begin with the most trivial. Iron John runs into trouble – into outright catastrophe – with the first word of its title. I don’t know why I find this quite so funny (what’s wrong with me?); I don’t know why I still scream with laughter every time I think about it. Is it the spectacle of Bly’s immediate self-defeat? Or is it because the title itself so firmly establishes the cultural impossibility of taking Iron John straight? Anyway, here’s the difficulty: iron is rhyming slang for ‘male homosexual’. Just as ginger (ginger beer) means ‘queer’, so, I’m afraid, iron (iron hoof) means ‘poof’.

At my local sports club in Paddington, where I do most of my male bonding, there is much talk about irons. Not long ago I joined in a conversation whose notional aim was to select an iron football team. The mood was earnest rather than hostile, and we didn’t get very far with this particular team sheet. ‘Chairman: Elton John. Elton is an iron, isn’t he?’ ‘Centre-forward: Justin Fashanu. He’s an iron. He came clean about it in the Sun.’ So I can easily conjure the fickle leers that would await me if, one morning. I walked into the club saying: ‘Well, guys – there’s a new book about men and masculinity that’s going to straighten out all the problems we’ve been having with our male identity. It says we should spend much more time together and exult in our hairiness and sliminess and zaniness. It says we should leave the women at home and go camping and take all our clothes off and rough-house in the woods. It says we should hang out more with older men. It’s called Iron John.’

Naturally, it’s much too easy to laugh at Robert Bly’s vision. But why is it so easy? Partly because he is one of those writers, like F.R. Leavis and Hermann Hesse, whose impregnable humourlessness will always prompt a (humorous) counter-commentary in the reader’s mind. Then, too, we are British, over here; we are sceptical, ironical, etc, and are not given, as Americans are, to seeking expert advice on basic matters, especially such matters as our manhood. But the main reason has to do with embarrassment. Being more or less unembarrassable, Americans are fatally attracted to the embarrassing: they have an anti-talent for it (the Oscars, the primaries, the hearings, the trials, Shirley Temple, Clarence Thomas, Andrea Dworkin, Al Sharpton, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Swaggart). Whereas, over here, maleness itself has become an embarrassment. Male consciousness, male pride, male rage – we don’t want to hear about it.

This of course is the very diffidence and inhibition that Bly wants to goad us out of. His exemplar is the old tale of Iron John, which ‘could be ten or twenty thousand years old’ (page five), or could be ‘pre-Christian by a thousand years or so’, but which is, at any rate, old. Let us quickly do Iron John, or its first and more interesting half, and without any of the twinkly demotic (‘okay’, ‘there’s no problem.’ ‘yuck!’) that Bly uses to keep his modern audiences reassured. The King’s hunters keep disappearing in the forest. One day a man appears, and offers to investigate. He goes out there accompanied by his dog, which gets tugged into a pond by a naked arm. The pond is bucketed out. At the bottom lies a Wild Man. The King has him locked up in a cage in the courtyard. One day the King’s eight-year-old son drops his best toy – a golden ball – into the cage of the Wild Man. A trade is arranged: the golden ball for the Wild Man’s freedom. The boy agrees to open the cage – but he can’t find the key. The Wild Man tells him that the key is to be found beneath his mother’s pillow. The boy does as he is told but is worried about punishment. So the Wild Man hoists him onto his shoulders, and off to the forest they go.

The Story trundles on from here – the golden spring, the trial, the descent into the world, horses, battles, ending with the usual stuff involving glory/princess/kingdom/treasure – and Bly trundles on alongside it, increasingly drunk on panoptic explication. Late in the book, encountering some conventional guff about the boy’s white horse, Bly has us know that white stands for ‘semen, saliva, water, milk, lakes, rivers ... the sea, and priesthood ... health, strength and all good things ... fellowship and good company ... the masculine principle ... life and fertility ... blessing ... good fellowship and strength ... the purity of children and brides ... persons with high moral purposes ... purification ... [and] a sort of abstract, ideal state’. That’s what white stands for. Bly takes the tale, in any event, as an allegory of male maturation.

Iron John, the Wild Man, smothered in his ginger hair, is the ‘deep male’, the embodiment and awakener of, variously, ‘Zeus energy’, ‘divine energy’, ‘hurricane energy’, ‘masculine grandeur’ and ‘sun-like integrity’, brandishing ‘the Varja sword’ of sexuality, courage and resolve, and championing ‘the moist, the swampish, the wild, the untamed’. Iron John is hard to find and awkward to contain and dangerous to release; but his mentorship brings huge rewards (all his treasure). The story’s single beauty – the location of the key to the cage – is also its crux, for the boy must put aside womanly things in his journey from ‘soft’ male to ‘hard’. The rest of his development (learning to shudder, tasting ashes, warriorhood) comes over as a cross between adolescent fantasy and a middle-aged encounter-group session, with many a crack-up and primal scream. The forest is an arcadia splattered with mud and blood.

What emerges? Feminist writers have done their job on Iron John, and intelligibly. It hardly needs to be pointed out that Bly is phallocentric to the ends of his hair, and rollickingly tendentious even in his imagery: ‘ “The King” and “the Queen” send energy down. They resemble the sun and the moon that pierce down through the earth’s atmosphere. Even on cloudy days something of their radiant energy comes through.’ Yes, but the moon has no energy, and doesn’t radiate; the Queen merely reflects the heavenly power of the King. Not that Bly is at all forgetful of women’s interests. He wants to establish, or re-establish, a world where men are so great that women like being lorded over: ‘We know that for hundreds of thousands of years men have admired each other, and been admired by women, in particular for their activity. Men and women alike once called on men to pierce the dangerous places, carry handfuls of courage to the waterfalls, dust the tails of the wild boars.’ After a few hours of that kind of talk, the women will get their reward in the bedroom: ‘Sometimes in a love affair, the lovers make love with the Wild Man – and Wild Woman – right in the room; and if we are those lovers, we may feel certain body cells turn gold that we thought were made entirely of lead.’ So there will be that: Wild Sex. Bly knows about women’s ascensionism, but he thinks: ‘it is appropriate for women to describe it.’ ‘We will confine ourselves here to men’s ascensionism.’ The dialogue had better start soon, before the yodelling gets any louder.

Bly is a poet. He is a big cat, so to speak, and not some chipmunk or beaver from the how-to industry. Then again, maybe Bly is more like a stag or a peacock, contentedly absorbed in the ‘display’ rituals he so admires. To pick up a book like The way men think: Intellect, Intimacy and the Erotic Imagination, a sober, chatty, palliative study of gender differences, is to be transported into another – dramatically blander – world: but it is the civilised world, the modern world, the real world. Bly’s utopia is as remote in time as the story of Iron John, and can be recreated, now, only as a Rockwellian fantasy – the gruff dads, with their tools and their guileless dungarees. At the end of Lady Chatterly’s Lover Mellors tells Connie that everything would be all right if men sang and danced every evening, dressed in tight red trousers. Bly, who likes his Lawrence, can think of nothing to do about the modern landscape except turn away from it. Iron John finally settles on the mind as a tangled mop of vivid and cumbrous nostalgies.

Turning to a quite elderly copy of the Utne Reader (a monthly digest of America’s ‘alternative press’ – always informative, always revealing), we are confronted by an astonishing and unchallengeable fact: Iron John has transformed male consciousness in the United States. There can be no argument. It has already happened. The Wild Man Weekends and Initiation Adventure Holidays and whatnot, which are now big business, may prove ephemeral. But what does one make of the unabashed references to ‘men’s liberation’ and ‘the men’s movement’, and the fact that there are now at least half a dozen magazines devoted to nothing else (Changing Men, Journeymen, Man!). Men, the male argument goes, are ‘oppressed’, coming out second best on longevity, suicide rates, drug use, homelessness and work hours. The political platform being nailed together includes the Federal encouragement of boys’ clubs and scout troops, male-only early-grade classes taught by men, right down to such things as male-friendly tax breaks for home-based employment. Now that men are just another minority, the way forward, or the way back, lies with ‘eco-masculinity’, an emphasis on husbandry which will ‘affirm the “seedbearing”, creative capacity of the male’. Actually, part of me always did suspect that there was something in it – in Blyism; and now I suppose I’ll eventually have to act on that dawning conviction. When my boys reach a certain age, and the time comes to establish a distance from their mother and introduce them to the rugged lineaments of the male world, then I’ll probably take them to the Hilton for at least a night or two.

It is relevant, I think, to ask what Iron John is like as a husband and father. How tight a ship does Captain Bly run? There he is on the back cover, assuming the stance of a man warming the backs of his legs over a log fire, with wispy white hair, with specs, tapestry waistcoat, crimson cravat, and tight, dutiful, chinny smile. He doesn’t look like a man of iron, but there’s definitely something steely about him. He is unironical about himself, and naively vain (Iron John features a book-length running joke on authorial pretension, in which quoted gobbets from such poets as Rilke, Antonio Machado, the Norwegian Rolf Jacobsen, and many others, including Dante, are all ‘translated by R.B.’). Mr Bly wants respect; he has plenty of bristles and prickles; like Bronco toilet-paper, he takes no shit from anyone. He is, in fact, that familiar being, the ‘strong personality’. This kind of strength is innate and not acquired, and is always looking for ways to expand. ‘Zeus energy is male authority accepted for the sake of the community’. It sounds like a marvellously elemental excuse for getting away with everything. Zeus energy, ‘hurricane energy’: here is something that sweeps all before it. Would you want to tell Zeus to take out the garbage? Would you want to ask a hurricane to wipe its feet on the mat?

Feminists have often claimed a moral equivalence for sexual and racial prejudice. There are certain affinities; and one or two of these affinities are mildly, and paradoxically, encouraging. Sexism is like racism: we all feel such impulses. Our parents feel them more strongly than we feel them. Our children, we hope, will feel them less strongly than we feel them. People don’t change or improve much, but they do evolve. It is very slow. Feminism (endlessly diverging, towards the stolidly Benthamite, towards the ungraspably rarefied), the New Man, emotional bisexuality, the Old Man, Iron Johnism, male crisis centres – these are convulsions, some of them necessary, some of them not so necessary, along the way, intensified by the contemporary search for role and guise and form.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 14 No. 1 · 9 January 1992

With regard to Martin Amis’s review of Iron John (LRB, 5 December 1991), I wonder why it is that so many reviewers of the book find it easier to be snide rather than perceptive. I have read the book, and have even attended a workshop run by Robert Bly and Michael Mead in Dorset recently. Bly is addressing a real problem which Amis’s flippancy does its best to overlook. Maybe Martin Amis feels that the role of men in society is satisfactorily settled, that men cause no problems, that there are enlightened role models for boys and young men to emulate, but I don’t. I don’t find traditional images of men as suit-wearing, money-controlling patriarchs very helpful, but neither do I think that feminism, for all its achievements, has provided any very appropriate position for men, except as apologetic hangers-on. The women I know do not want men to apologise for being male. What they would like, and so would I, is for men to find out what being male entails and develop their own strength and integrity so that they can live alongside strong women in equality, balance and co-operation, with healthy conflict as it occurs.

There are very few men out in the world whom I can look to and say: yes, that’s what I would like to be, or would like my son to be. In fact, I can’t think of one, Robert Bly included. But give the guy credit for addressing the issue and trying to look at it in a way that gets people’s attention. Yes, it’s true that he uses fairy-tales, and talks in terms of myths and archetypes. Would it have been better if he had written an academic treatise, or a step-by-step ‘how to be a man’ book? Amis is distorting the book to present it as about male domination; it is not aimed at women, so it does not address them, any more than The Female Eunuch was written for men. In fact, Germaine Greer’s book received a similarly hostile reception when it was first published over here. Perhaps I should be grateful that Martin Amis did not descend to the level of a woman critic in the Observer who managed to blame Bly for the Gulf War. Bly is not a messiah or a guru, but he does seem to have touched a nerve somewhere. On the one hand, he has won a tremendous audience in the States – and judging by the attendance at the workshop, there is a similar enthusiasm here – and on the other hand, he has inspired the hatred, derision and contempt of every media person in this country for daring to write such a book. For that reason if no other, he must be doing something right.

Philip Raby

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences