Iron John

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Reference books list Robert Bly as one of the leading American poets of his generation, a popular figure on the college lecture circuit. In recent years, however, Bly has gained another audience as the foremost pioneer of the rapidly growing men’s movement, crisscrossing the country for “gatherings” or retreats in which men are encouraged to get in touch with the “Wild Man” at the core of their masculinity.

In IRON JOHN, Bly presents the vision of manhood and its discontents that he has tested in a decade of such gatherings. The book is organized in an unusual way. In a leisurely fashion, and with a lot of repetition, Bly retells a folktale, “The Story of Iron John,” which embodies many of the themes he wants to discuss. Bly relates one episode of the tale and analyzes it in depth, showing how it illumines the dilemmas of the contemporary man (particularly in the United States); then he proceeds to the next episode, and so on to the end. For the reader’s convenience, the complete story is included as an appendix; the text is also supplemented by a brief section of notes. There is no index.

In the course of his analysis Bly ranges widely, drawing on his own experience as well as on studies by historians, anthropologists, and (especially) psychologists and others interested in mythic archetypes. He is particularly concerned with the lack of initiation rites and older male mentors for young men today. There are recurring stretches of psycho-mythic rambling here, yet just when the reader is about to close the book in irritation Bly quotes a marvelous poem (Rumi, Robert Frost, Antonio Machado, William Butler Yeats, and Rainer Maria Rilke are among his favorites; he quotes frequently from his own poetry as well) or makes a trenchant point seasoned with humor. Few men will finish IRON JOHN without having learned something valuable about themselves and their fathers and brothers and sons and friends; many women will find that Bly has given them a better understanding of the men in their lives.