This book is more or less lost to the ages, but it was a huge deal when it first came out in the mid1980s. It’s based in research and writing from the previous decades that include workshopping with various men’s groups and psychologists. Its title and premise come from a reading of the fairy tale “Iron John” or “Iron Hans” which involves a mysterious area of the forest where people go in search of but never return. Finally, a huntsman goes, finds a pond, has his dog snatched into the pond, and then he reports back. When the pond is emptied found there is a wooly-haired wild man (Iron John) who is captured and put into a cage. One day the king’s son drops a golden ball, which rolls into the cage. When he goes to get it, he’s told by the wild man to open the cage and he can have the ball back. The boy says, where’s the key, and the man tells him, under his mother’s pillow. So he finds the key, opens the door, and the wild man grabs him and they go off to the forest. There, the wild man instructs the boy on life, through trials and tribulations, and eventually on how to win a contest in a neighboring kingdom using his new skills. He does, and he is able to marry the princess.
So that’s the basic story. In the hands of Robert Bly the story acts as a kind of proto-myth, which he suggests versions of can be found all over the world. In the mythic version, there’s a wild man in every man who doesn’t represent chaos and violence, but instead a kind of untamed assertiveness. By recapturing this lost sense, modern men have a chance to improve their otherwise self-defeating, chaotic lives.
So there’s a lot of reaction to Bly’s book, but I went in kind of expecting something like MRA or Jordan Peterson, and it’s not quite that. It’s also not a clear cut method for improving lives. But there IS something there at least. More than anything, Robert Bly is correct that there’s a hole in the center of masculinity in the United States where some important questions lie. The answer to those questions might be found in some kind of feminism or similar ideology, but Bly suggests that’s pawning off the job onto women, and this is men’s problem to figure out. I don’t know about all that, but I don’t think he’s wrong to suggest that in the absence of a clear answer, the gap will be filled by something either by default (toxic masculinity) or purpose (like a more virulent strain of toxic masculinity). If you have a criticism of Robert Bly’s approach or conclusion, I imagine you’re probably right, but that’s not necessarily the answer to the question the book poses.