Neil Strauss On Iron John

Neil StraussNeil

In Emergency I explored how our coddled modern society has led to men (chief among them, myself) forgetting their more fundamental skills and instincts to provide for and protect themselves and their loved ones. One of the books I bought during my research but never read was Iron John. When it came out, it was a phenomenon, both loved and mocked. Now it is entrenched in the canon of the men’s movement, whatever that is and may mean. Here is a chance to figure that out and see what this oft-referenced man-ifesto is all about.

So put away your manscaping razors, rip off your shirt, beat your chest, let out a war cry, and get ready to reexamine manhood in the 21st century with Ramiro’s summary…


on iron john


I am originally from Argentina and although I believe my writing ability in English is acceptable, I apologize in case that the expression of the ideas of the book that I summarized for you is lacking in some way. I summarized this book for “The Inner Circle” because it was a book recommended to me by a well-known Argentinean Therapist and Psychologist named Guillermo Vilaseca, who is an expert in men’s psychology and male gender issues. I hope you enjoy the summary and I wholeheartedly recommend reading the book if you do have the time.

The main theme of Iron John, A Book about Men is male softness and immaturity. The author, Robert Bly, uses the story of Iron John, (an old German fairy tale), as a way to describe and dissect the issue of male initiation and the lack of it in contemporary culture. Robert Bly argues in favor of a masculinity that goes beyond the macho men stereotype but doesn’t end up in the other extreme, the soft male that is only able to be in tune with the feminine and willing to gain the favor and the admiration of women but losing sight of his beliefs and wants in the process.

Iron John: Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale, c. 1820

The story begins in a remote area of the forest near the King’s castle. Hunters go there and never come back. A hunter offers helping the King by going to that area and trying to discover the source of the problem. Upon arrival to the problematic area, the hunter’s dog is pulled by a mysterious hand into a pond. The hunter goes back to the King’s castle and gets more people involved and goes back to the pond to see what is going on in the pond, and they bring buckets with them to dry out the pond and get to the bottom of the pond. They find a hairy man. This hairy man has reddish hair to his feet. They bring the hairy man to the castle and the King names him Iron John and puts him in a cage. This hairy man is a metaphor for the part of men that is lacking in current male culture. Iron John represents the wild man. The wild man represents the primitive male energy that is associated with authentic masculinity, which is different from the other extremes: it is neither the macho-man that is unable to have feelings, nor the receptive and soft male-type.

The rest of the Iron John tale explores the relationship between Iron John (the Wild man) and the King’s son. Letting the Wild Man out of the cage is a metaphor for the male opening his inner psychology and letting out the inner Wild Man to achieve complete male maturity.

The following are some of the main concepts and ideas discussed in the book:

Men’s Lack of Initiation

The main problem with contemporary men, according to Bly, is that so many of us are not properly initiated into manhood. In contrast, most ancient or tribal societies have clear procedures where older men initiate younger men into adult manhood. The lack of initiation in today’s society has led to men’s softness, passivity, and lack of vitality. Women generally mature naturally through the process of giving birth, which gives clear visual indications of their own transition into maturity.

There is an Absence of Positive Male Figures and Mentors

Bly argues that men are not properly initiated into manhood, and this lack of maturity is also connected to the various institutions that are part of the lives of modern men. Men go from one hierarchical, vertically-governed institution to another (schools, businesses, government jobs, etc.) with no time or resources to develop from boys to men. Older men – who in ancient cultures would take the role of initiators of children into mature men – are either not physically present (because they retired and moved away to a warmer climate) or simply take a passive role. Fathers work long hours, sometimes in remote locations, and are physically and psychologically detached from their sons. Women end up doing most of the fathering and this is reflected in the values that the boys grow up with, with a general negative attitude toward men. This collective male identity is further disseminated across the cultural context by the influence of TV, movies, and media in general.

Passivity and Naiveté in Man

Passivity in men can be seen in the lack of involvement in activities that require energy such as finishing conversations at home, setting discipline with children, saying what one wants and what one doesn’t want, and fighting for possessions or beliefs. On the other hand, naiveté is related to a lack of boundaries. The naïve man takes pain from women and carries it; the naïve man is content with absorbing the pain and recovering in isolation. The naïve man shares whatever is in his mind at any time, from personal plans to last night’s dreams, in the belief that “each person is basically noble by nature, and only twisted a little by institutions.” In other words, the naive man is often taken advantaged of or subjected to ridicule, easily cheated, or betrayed.

Many Men Fear and Distrust Authority

Fathers have transitioned, since the Industrial Revolution, from making things with their hands and being able to show their sons the trade, to abstract labor that makes the relationship between men and work more vague and difficult to understand, and communicate between fathers and sons. That process of physical to intellectual work has created a metaphoric hole in the son’s psyche. Most young men don’t know what their fathers actually do in the office and they become suspicious of their father’s occupation. This disconnect can lead sons to make the assumption that the fathers’ work is inherently evil. This negative attitude toward fathers’ occupations is what is behind the general disdain for authority in many young males; this lack of knowledge of what the father does is what underlies the idea that men in positions of authority are suspicious. Robert Bly says, “There is a general suspicion now that every man in a position of power is or will soon be corrupt and oppressive. Yet the Greeks understood and praised a positive male energy that has accepted authority.” This lack of trust and respect in everything that revolves around the father’s work is one of the reasons why boys tend to gravitate more toward the feminine, which is represented by the mother’s values and ways of being.

Why Some Women Prefer Passive Men

Many women today prefer passive men who avoid conflict at any conflict at any cost. This same pattern is seen in institutions such as corporations, universities, and the church, where men comfortable with conflict are rare and conformity and compliance is encouraged across the board. Team-worker is often a euphemism to describe the lack of passion required to fit in corporate environments.

The Inner King and How to Bring Him Back

The Inner King represents what we are passionate about and what we desire. At some point during our childhood, it sometimes happens that our father carries a huge Inner King and our Inner King is diminished and eventually we become numb to our Inner King. The process turns us from being boys that are able to freely express our desires, to sulking teenagers that have repressed emotions because there is only space for one Inner King in the house (typically our father’s Inner King). With our own Inner King being dormant and useless, we can’t express our wants and preferences, and we become passive and dull. To recapture the Inner King later in life, we should pay attention to our tiny desires and become sensitized to what we enjoy and prefer. The key to being a more active and persuasive individual lies in developing and nurturing the Inner King, which is another way of saying that we should make a conscious effort to put our passions and desires first and reduce our need to please other people all the time.

How to Go past Shame and Liberate the Inner Deep Masculinity

Mainstream culture, through the years, has made it shameful to be a man. Notice the embarrassment that expressing our desires can bring, and the fact that manliness in general is often a source of ridicule. How can we reclaim our inner King, our Wild man? The first step would be to understand the cultural problem and how it affects us individually. The second and subsequent steps need to entail getting in touch with our deep masculinity and our desires and nurture them. We need to turn the passive, numb individual that is a guest in his own house, to a person that is in close contact with his emotions and his passions. We will not be able to find this deep masculinity by spending time watching TV or drinking alcohol, but we are more likely to grow and mature if we become in contact with an older man that we admire and try to obtain some guidance on how to be a man.

Top 5 Takeaways

1) Issue of Boundaries (Or Lack Thereof)
We must build boundaries that are rigid enough to protect our desires and wants from outside psychological aggression (usually in the form of put-downs or ridicule), while at the same time flexible enough to be able to sustain relationships with others. In other words, the boundary has to be semipermeable so that some influence from others is welcomed. But on the other hand, we need to be firm when it comes to protecting our inner desires. The boundary has to turn into a membrane that lets good stuff in and keeps the harmful influences away. This is something that we need to work on and get better at. The concrete message to take away is that we need to protect our desires and opinions firmly and not let anyone ridicule us for what we want and believe.

2) Learning to Say No
This is related to the issue of boundaries. Without boundaries, we let others dictate our agenda and our objectives. If we are passive and we “go with the flow”, we are not in control of our life and how it unfolds on a daily basis. We need to be in touch with our objectives and have a level of self-respect such that we are able to say no, especially to those that are closest to us.

3) Expressing Our Desires
When we are confident in our ability to protect our inner psychological health from outside attacks, we are secure and more likely to articulate our desires and express those desires to the outside world without repression or inhibition, and thus able to someday reach those objectives or simply live and affirmative life; a life that is in line with our intrinsic values.

4) Making a Clean Break from our Mother and later from our Father
We need to cut the umbilical cord that attaches us to our mothers and that stunts our maturity as men. The break has to be clean and peaceful instead of messy and violent. Many immature boys mistakenly become hostile to their mothers as a way to create some psychological distance. Robert Bly talks about stealing the key to Iron John’s cage from our mother’s pillow as metaphor to describe the need for becoming psychologically independent from our progenitors.

5) Setting the Wild Man Free
Lastly, we need to gradually become in tune with our passions and tiny desires, and expressing them to the outside world. The sulking boy that many of us have inside has to evolve into a man that respects himself and is willing to take risks by just listening to our wants and needs and going after what we want. The key is to go after what we want and do this consistently. We need to be more expressive, more assertive. As men, we need to understand that we decide the persons we want to become and that we are not relegated or limited by a stereotype.

Here is an audio version of the book that is free to download.

Also, here is a video on YouTube where Robert Bly is introduced and where his views on being a man are discussed.

Iron John, A Book about Men Robert Bly