(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In what is arguably his most culturally significant publication, Bly reprints a pre-Christian northern European folktale, “Iron John,” and addresses each and all of the major plot elements in the tale in chronological order over the course of eight chaptered essays, which is followed by an epilogue and then the entire text of the folktale. Bly uses the folktale to show how the fully developed, fully realized adult man is a combination of personae which can be identified at successive points in the tale.

Bly posits that the self-actualized adult male is in fact an entire community of beings—to be exact, seven distinct beings: King, Warrior, Lover, Wild Man, Trickster, Mythologist or Cook, and Grief Man. Bly criticizes the aspects of modern culture which do not allow for the adult male who has taken risks, been wounded, and even temporarily defeated. Bly argues that every man needs to engage in a personal journey of risk-taking and initiation. He argues that one of the problems of contemporary postindustrial culture lies in the fact that the father works but the son does not usually see him work or learn from his professional experiences and competencies. When the father arrives home in the evening barely in time for dinner, “his children receive only his temperament, and not his teaching,” and the temperament is likely to be problematic due to the technocratic daytime existence in which many fathers toil.

Bly uses the circumstances and conflicts of the folktale to delineate each of the beings that populate the fully realized adult male. The King figure initially represents the father figure, then a secondary tutelary figure...

(The entire section is 677 words.)