The Iron John Book is a modern-day analysis on a very old Grimm Fairy tale. The Fairy tale itself is called Iron John and is not a fairy tale I had ever heard before reading the book. When I did read the fairy tale I completely missed all the underlying story lines that the author (Robert Bly) does a brilliant job of uncovering. Unlike the bulk of the population Robert Bly does not gloss over the problem of diminishing masculinity that western societies are facing.
Unlike most authors or journalists who address this problem with masculinity Robert Bly has taken the approach of looking back into history and throughout literature to find relevant information/solutions and bring them into a modern context.
This is a must read for the bulk of men because it will uncover an entire new range of concepts that you have never been introduced to. Back in ancient times a very thought out education system including an initiation or rites of passage would be given to men for the purpose of getting them to understand their masculinity and put them on a path to cultivate it.
I found the 250 odd pages an easy read which was very enlightening. Below I will touch on just a handful of the important concepts related to masculinity that this book raises.
Most beneficial Concepts
Through the entire book Robert Bly uses the concept of son-hood. The word son-hood can be thought of as not only the experiences when growing up as a son but also the emotions/memories/lessons carries forward with you into adulthood. Your experiences when growing up play a very powerful role in shaping you as an adult.
Shame Is Very Different to Guilt
The concept that a sick society can routinely and overwhelmingly weaken masculinity was a shocking idea when first presented to me as I hope it will be to you. For me the key to understanding how was when the notion of shame was discussed. The thought process which follows this section of the book will surely lead you down a path of introspection that will undoubtedly unshackle you from a few more of those constraints holding you back (not all of them but at least a few of them).
If you are interested in reading more on the concept of shame here are some additional books that I have not read as yet:
- “Healing the Shame That Binds You,” by John Bradshaw
- “Shame,” by Gershen Kauffman
- “Facing Shame,” by Merle Fossum and Marilyn Mason
Robert Bly provides the following:
“The traditional way of differentiating guilt from shame is this: Shame, it is said, is the sense that you are an utterly inadequate person on this planet, and probably nothing can be done about it. Guilt is the sense that you have done one thing wrong, and you can atone for it. Some sons called on too early will feel both shame and guilt.”
The pathway to adulthood (aka initiation) has a linear flow (page 195)
The concept of initiation is an important concept to understand for every boy trying to become a man, for every man who is trying to become a complete man and very importantly for every mother trying to guide a son into manhood.
The book explains that initiation is a linear process which does vary from culture to culture but they all follow a fairly similar path.
The path is linear. If you don’t graduate from one stage you will never complete the next stage.
Infancy (Maternal stage)
Young child bonds with the mother. With the strong focus on females in society today this stage should not to foreign to anyone so I won’t elaborate more.
Interestingly the teenage boy must separate from mother. Historically in the most mature cultures the mothers would forcibly reject the son for his own good and against his will.
For the science geeks reading this look up the term Microchimerism.
Have you managed to progress away from this stage yet? Please comment below.
Infancy (Paternal stage)
The Adolescent boy must bond with the father.
In this stage you will see the foundations being laid for all the future stages. Things like biology, relationships and communication styles will be touched upon.
It is very important to note here that a mother cannot perform the father role required here. For everyone who asks Why? I will simply answer: Because you cannot be a man.
To progress away from this stage the adolescent must then separate from the father sufficient enough to make room for a new relationship to come, that is the one with a mentor.
For those people who ask the question about the need to bond with your parents I want to add the following comment: A child needs to know they come from good people (a good mother and a good father) to get a sense that they have good in themselves. Without the sense that they come from good people they will perpetually struggle with issues of self-worth.
This is particularly relevant to single mothers. If your son can’t establish he comes from a good man (or you won’t let him) he will never establish the sense of self worth needed to succeed in adulthood.
Katabasis (A Journey to the bottom to let go of the old and make way for the new)
This is definitely the most powerful concept of the book and it is not one that I can do just to here but I will try to explain its relevance to you and why every men needs to understand this step in his progression from boy to man.
The term when presented within the book refers to a stage in a boy’s development towards manhood whereby all defenses broken down, the ego is killed for the purpose of clearing out all the all the mental tricks, paradigms and prejudices that dictated their behaviors as a child.
It is very important to clear the decks and reboot the psyche so as to provide a new learning platform to allow an introduction of adult skills and concepts. This makes a clear break between childhood and adulthood.
The book goes into means by which this can be done but it is never an overnight exercise. As with all things in life the reward only comes with effort.
This is a life stage that has become extinct, very few people progress past this stage but most of the time it is due to unexpected life events such as the death of a mother.
Authority & Spirituality (Focus on Spirit aka the context of their place in the world)
Our initiate must now build a relationship with an external mentor. They must now be presented with an existence bigger than themselves, their family and their society and bigger than could have ever imagined on their own.
The introduction of a big picture of life stops them from seeing everything in duality (that means everything black and white or us and them).
The philosophy that life is always a shade of grey allows adult thinking, some situations can be win-win if you are prepared to make sacrifices. The delineation of adult-thinking from childish-thinking is very powerful once someone explains it to you. Adult thinking incorporates a much more holistic approach and very rarely has a clear-cut winner.
Note this authority figure was typically not the father, it was a male elder who specialized in this role. This task is not something anyone off the street can just step into. This role was sometimes performed by someone like a Shaman.
External Mastery (Focus on Body)
The initiate must now master skill or a trade which will set them up physically to make a living but also mentally for later stages.
This is yet another foundation stage and it allows the boys to start building self-esteem, learning techniques, resilience, persistence, communication skills and determination.
This is also the stage where you will see the stereotypical strength and stamina tests.
Internal Mastery (Focus on Mind)
Herein our initiate is taught how to understand the non-physical world (History, art, culture, romance.)
In this stage the initiate draws on lessons learned in all the previous stages to build self-esteem, new self-identity, self-assessment skills, responsibility, and autonomy.
This is really the stage where the outside world is being combined with the inside world.
Integrate back into their society as an adult. (Focus on Society)
Following on from the previous step the concepts of society are laid on top of the previous foundations (Rules of society, consequences, caste systems, customs, government structures, expectations, etc.)
Finally a path is set down by the elders/mentor for the initiate to work on alone.
Whilst this book discusses initiation (traditionally thought of as a 15 year old boy thing) nowadays the bulk of these concepts are more relevant to middle aged men who find themselves in their 30s or 40s but stuck in earlier stages of the process.
Beyond the process of initiation (or whatever you want to call it) Robert Bly also introduces a bunch of other idea well worth mentioning here.
Bringing the interior warriors back to life (p155)
In this section of the book the term inner warrior or interior warrior is referred to as an inner strength required to protect the barrier of one’s psyche from indignation. The author speaks at length about the varied circumstances in which a dysfunctional family services to destroy a young boys inner strength and then how this weakness is exaggerated or continued inside him well into adulthood (which only services to deepen the wounded more). Understand such mechanisms can be a breakthrough. Also the fact that you are not alone with be a much greater breakthrough in your recovery.
The darkened father (p103)
This concept brings together a lack of spirituality coupled with the sharp focus on industrialization and a distance imbalance of the feminine and masculine. If you get to read this section you are going to have a lightbulb switched on inside you. I will attempt to summarize below:
- Spirituality is rare. This takes away a man’s connection to earth and to a larger picture of the world. His world becomes confined a small location.
- Industrialisation has taken fathers away from the home and away from their children & wives for long period of time. If they do come home at night they will usually only get to spend a hour or two a day with their children.
- Sons crave for time with their fathers, mothers are convinced they can plug the gap but fall short
- Mother feels inept, son feels longing, father feel emptiness.
I hope I have done enough here to portray the importance of such an issue to those of you trying to figure out what you are missing. Read the book, you will get a lot more out of it.
Warriorhood in marriage and relationship (p177)
Funnily enough this section is about fighting. Fighting in a marriage and how an argument within a marriage can be done fairly or unfairly. A lot of effort is place on the weaponry used within such fights. Emotionally weaponry such as childhood baggage, anger, aggression, shame, guilt.
Ultimately the conclusion is a philosophy on how fighting (in a fair and constructive way, above the belt, with respect) can be beneficial to a relationship and beneficial to the individual sense of worth.
Such lessons would be invaluable to anyone thinking of marriage or wanting to tame their marriage.
Disturbance in son-hood (p97)
I found this subject disturbing because of its truth to us all and to our vulnerability to such an evil giant. Firstly, the author discusses the concept of modern society training boys that they need to reject their fathers to become men. How is this done? In traditional (old school) culture men and boys worked together all day every day and had to form a bond to get the job done and inevitably put food on the table for the rest of their family. Industrialization has changed that, fathers are absent most of the time in a boy’s life. Not only is industrialization to blame but also growing political agendas of minimizing a boy’s time with the father.
The result is a complete misunderstanding of the frequency that a masculine psyche (and body) needs to attune to. In the absence of such knowledge boys are left to attune to a feminine centered society, to their own detriment.
Battle amongst men (p223)
Leading on from the previous concepts is the arrangement that most men find themselves in, that is the need to fight with other men. Competition between men has been the normal. Competition is needed to prove worthiness. That is, the type of worth that the feminine society craves for. As men are separated from each other they become more aligned to the feminine and more out of tune with their healthy life alignment.
How Can This Book Be Useful for Men?
This will provide the bulk of men with a plethora of different thought provoking ideas which will undoubtedly set you on a path of personal growth. Without the formal process and traditional roles required to initiate men into adulthood masculinity has become tainted by feminist political agendas.
How Can This Book Be Useful for Teenage Boys?
Whilst reading this book will not make you into a fully-fledged adult it will set you on a well-trodden path towards adulthood. Lost pieces to the puzzles will be presented to you and you will be given a big head start on your journey toward adulthood and masculinity.
Once you know you’re missing puzzle pieces they should be a hell of a lot easy to find.
How Can This Book Be Useful for Single Mothers?
Hopefully if you are a single mother who cares for your son enough you will make the effort to give him the skills and the influences he needs to succeed in adulthood. Far too many single mothers are selfishly preventing this from happening and the result is a perpetuating problem of grown men stuck in their childhood or paralyzed by emotional baggage from their childhoods and completely oblivious to it.
Thousands of years of history have done the hard work to provide us with a system that works. It is only in recent years that the past has been shunned.