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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 after the protagonist leaves the original home. The various iterations of the King (Sacred King, Earthly King, Inner King) represent the will to power and the characteristics of the individual. The nobility of spirit is expressed in this being, though its potentiality can allow it to become the Poisoned King as easily as the Sacred King. Just so, the Sacred Warrior has a blessed side and a poisoned side, a Constructive Warrior and a Destructive Brutal Warrior. Just as modern bifurcated life has truncated and attenuated the impact of the father, so the ancient Sacred Warrior has often in modern times disintegrated into the mindless soldier, a casualty of mechanized warfare, from Bly’s perspective. Bly is troubled by the ways that he sees contemporary society encouraging warriorhood among women, while discouraging the very same elements in boys and men. Respecting one’s inner warrior is one of the ways that a man comes into a better understanding of the weighty forces involved in making and maintaining human relationships.

Bly identifies the lack of consistent, widespread, cultural initiation by older men and ritual elders in Western society. He emphasizes the importance of developing the Lover, a central element in maintaining what Bly calls one’s “garden.” Connected to the controlling metaphor of the Wild Man is his representation of the positive side of male sexuality; the Wild Man is the male protector of the earth, and his qualities of spontaneity, association with wilderness, honoring of grief, and respect for risk represent elements that Bly considers essential to the fully developed contemporary man. The Trickster, common in North American Indian folklore, provides counterpoint, irony, and insight, his very existence a critique of norms and complacencies. The Mythologist or Cook determines how long “cooking” should continue and the timing between stages or beings. Finally, the seventh being is the Grief Man; Bly emphasizes the value of being able to grieve deeply, to suffer a wound and always to remember it yet to recover from it. Bly investigates the Greek notion of Katabasis, the “Drop” involving the notion of disaster or extreme reversal of fortune towards the negative. Bly realizes that “A wound allows the spirit or soul to enter,” and he seeks to facilitate the process of renewal and insight through loss. In articulating the seven beings of the ideal contemporary man, Bly throws down the gauntlet in creating a new courtier’s handbook for the millennial male.

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