After reading the last line to ansate's node about the acceptance of gay men calling for men's liberation, I was reminded of a paper I wrote for my freshmen level university english class a few years back. The class was about fairy tales, and for a final paper I chose to write about fairy tales and the masculinist movement, mostly because it was different and no one else would have done it. Anyway, though I still think a good majority of the so-called men's movement is crap, there were a lot of interesting things in the story "Iron John," selected by Robert Bly, a leader of the men's movement, as the definition of the movement.
“Iron John” was one of the many fairy stories discovered by the brothers Grimm for their collection, and in modern times, has been translated by Robert Bly. It has many of the elements of normal fairy tales: kings, princesses, magic, and heroism. On the surface there doesn’t seem to be anything more extraordinary about this tale than in any other. Some would claim, however that this is not true. The masculinists, for one, would disagree, as they hold this to be, perhaps the greatest example of their view in the literature of fairy stories. Why do they hold this story to be so great? Because they say that it symbolizes a near perfect progression of a male from the beginning of his walk into complete manhood to the end.
Robert Bly writes of the male progression of receptiveness and freedom through the past four decades. He describes the males of these times in general terms. The males he described are the males of the fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties. Our knowledge of what he said about these males, as well as the masculinist view as a whole, will advance as we progress through the story of “Iron John.” Here presented are, what I feel to be, the most important parts of the story, as an entire in-depth look at this story is far beyond the scope of my modest talent and the length of this paper.
The story is simple, though not familiar to many. The first part reads as follows: There was a king who lived near a dangerous forest. No one who entered the forest ever came back out. One day a hunter entered the forest, and saw his dog snatched by a naked arm rising out of a pond. He went to the king and gathered three men, who helped him bucket out the water. At the bottom they found a man, the color of rust, with hair down below his knees. This man they took to the king’s courtyard and had him caged. The king ordered that the Wild Man should not be let out. The key was then given to the queen, who put it under her pillow.
Let’s stop here for a moment to reflect on what meanings masculinists derive from the events already happened. First, they say that the most important step, the step which most males never take, has just been taken. The male has entered the woods alone, and found the Hairy Man or the Wild Man. He has, with the help of other men who will enter the forest, looked deep within the waters of his soul, and found the Wild Man. A step which has eluded males for generations.
As we learn from Bly the male of the fifties was an aggressive, patriotic, provider; he was nonreceptive, and kept himself emotionally isolated. He knew decisively what man was, but his lack of open-mindedness rendered him obsolete. The male of the sixties began to question the fifties image of what a male was. This reflectivness was fueled by the Vietnam War. It caused many men to reflect on their feminine side. If their masculine side was to be nurtured through Vietnam, as many came to believe, they would concentrate on their feminine side. The masculinists see nothing wrong with this, but many men think it is the last step, when in reality, it is one of the first.
The seventies are where the “soft male” began to emerge. The “soft male” is one who can say, “I can feel your pain, and I consider your life as important as mine, and I will take care of you and comfort you. But he could not say what he wanted and stick by it." These “soft males” are life-preserving, but not life-giving; they are compliant, peaceful, and sympathetic, but not happy. He is, in the eyes of feminists and masculinists, superior to his father, however, feminists see the male’s progress as needing to go further in their direction, while the masculinists see males as needing to regain their vitality and travel a different path.
There is a fear of change that is apparent upon the finding of the Hairy Man. His discovery can open up a receptive side that, if developed, means the man “gets to write poetry and go out and sit by the ocean, he doesn’t have to be on top all the time in sex anymore, he becomes empathetic."
The story continues when the young prince loses his golden ball in the cage of the Wild Man. The Wild Man agrees to give it back, but only if the young prince releases him. He runs away, and the same thing happens again on the second day. On the third day, the prince admits he does not know where the key is. The wild Man tells him, the prince retrieves the key, opens the lock, which pinches his finger, and lets the Wild Man out. He then cries because his parents will beat him for disobedience, so the Wild Man takes him to the forest with him.
Something very important has just happened here, probably one of the most significant things, in my opinion. If you agree with Bly’s interpretation, then the golden ball “reminds of that unity of personality we had… a kind of radiance, or wholeness, before we split into male and female, rich or poor, good or bad." We can all, whether you agree or not, look back to a simpler time when we were not male or female, rich or poor, we were just us, and that was good enough, not only for us, but for all of our peers. The Wild Man offers us this ball back, but only at a price.
Now we look at the recovery of the key, which Charles Upton believes to be the key factor of the first part of this story. He states more explicitly that it is “the primary separation of the young male from the maternal principle, which leads to, and is also precipitated by, the liberation of the Wild Man." Bly seems to take to Freudian psychology on this, indicating that “the key is right where Freud said it would be." I have to disagree with this one, as he indicates that Freud’s idea was that the pillow is important because it is where your mother makes love to your father. I do agree with Michael Meade, who says that the pillow comes into play because “the pillow is the place where the mother stores all her expectations for you."
At the close of his discussion, Bly makes a statement that fascinates me, and should initiate some thought. He states that “No mother worth her salt would give the key. If a son can’t steal it, he doesn’t deserve it." However, this “theft” can take a long time. It is suggested by both Bly and Upton that perhaps the first time the boy asks for his ball back he is eight years old, as suggested in the story. The second time he may be as old as twenty-two, and the third time he is even as old as thirty-five.
Then we have the pinched finger. I was not able to discern what the general idea of it represented, other than a self-inflicted wound we receive when we try and release the Wild Man. The releasing of the Wild Man does something to this wound though. When we finally release him, this wound is no longer regarded as bad luck, but a gift. This follows from the process of initiation.
An overview of a complete initiatory process is given by Bly, but further simplified by Upton into the following stages of “’Classic Initiation’ … as: bonding and separation from the mother; bonding and separation from the father; the drawing of the mentor, or ‘male mother’; apprenticeship to a god; and the Sacred Marriage." The first three of these stages, bonding and separation from mother and father and drawing a mentor, are achieved early in the story, by the theft of the key, the releasing of the Wild Man, and then running off with him into the forest. However, Bly and Upton disagree on the “male mother.” Bly insists that the mentor must be male, Upton doesn’t believe it has to be that way.
Towards the end of the story, the prince, returned from war, attends a festival in disguise. The princess throws out a golden apple on each day of the festival, and on each day the prince arrives in a different color of armor, red, then white, then black. Both Bly and Upton place similar themes to this, though through different stories.
Bly sticks to his evaluation of “Iron John” to give us meaning behind each of the colors. Red, he says, is a Martian hue. When the man is in the red, he will shout and be angry; he will fight and is not afraid. The next color is that of white, and because of today’s society, often males are rushed to the white stage, thereby being deprived of the valuable red stage. However, this takes away knowledge of how to use your anger, and lessens the experience you have with it; it makes the anger harder to control in the later years. White is an emblem of a warrior on the side of good; he is no longer “randomly antisocial” in Bly’s words. Saint George and the Dragon is a tale he refers to. The men of today who are pushed quickly through the red stage try to aspire to St. George, but are often insufferable due to the lack of time spent in the red. These people will “characteristically set up a false war with some concretized dragon, such as Poverty or Drugs.” Black symbolizes a descent into woundedness, further supported as the prince is wounded by a sword as he rides from the festival on the third day.
Bly summarizes his own theories of the meanings of the colors in a simple rumor about an event during the last years of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.
A mother once got into the White House and woke Lincoln up at five in the morning, saying her son had been sent by train to Washington a few days before, had had no sleep, had been assigned to guard duty on arriving, had fallen asleep, and now was going to be shot at eight that morning. If Lincoln had been in the red, he might have shouted for the guards, “Who let this woman in here? Get her out of here!” If he were in the white he might have said, “Madam, we all have to obey rules. Your son didn’t obey the rules, and I feel as bad about as you do, but I can’t intervene.” He didn’t say either of those things. He said, “Well, I guess shooting him wouldn’t help much,” and he signed a piece of paper. We notice that humor comes with the black.
Upton expresses similar thoughts on the colors, but uses an entirely different story, that of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The protagonist, Portia, is being pursued by three suitors. She conceals a portrait of herself in one of three caskets: a golden one, representing the red; a silver one, emblematic of the white; and a leaden one, symbolic of the black. Further each has an inscription: The golden reads, “Who chooseth me shall get what many men desire”; the silver reads, “Who chooseth me shall get as he deserves”; the leaden one reads, “Who chooseth me must hazard all he hath.” Here Upton calls upon terms originated by the Sufis to further describe the colors.
The first (red) represents the state of an individual ruled by lower desires and willfulness, what the Sufis call “the commanding soul.” The second shows an individual ruled by scruples; the Sufi term is “the accusing soul.” The third is the state of an individual ruled by the Spirit of God; the Sufis name this state “the soul at peace.”
These certainly seem to correspond to Bly’s definitions. The red is equated with displays of anger, then with an individual ruled by primal urges. The white is equated with a man who is certain of his righteousness and may even fight false dragons, then is given the name “the accusing soul.” And the black, equated with woundedness and humor, is later named “the soul at peace.” The black is the one, to me, which seems to carry the tones of justice, and is the most refined of the three.
The masculine movement is a reality in this day and age. It is often laughed at and scorned by many. And, while many of the stereotypes associated with it --men out in the woods naked, beating on drums—have served to cripple its public image, it continues on, undaunted. I can see a certain validity in many of their interpretations. They try and give examples of a perfect ascension from child to man, the bulk of which I haven’t even scratched. However ludicrous I find some of their assumptions and ideas, I see a certain validity in many of the things they have presented: The golden ball interpretation, the definition and progression of the three colors, and the idea of the initiation. They are not only present in the stories mentioned here, but elements of them can be found all over literature. The golden ball can be found in the “Frog Prince”, the colors in “Prince Ivan and the Firebird”, and the idea of initiation in almost any classic story told to children. In fine, despite its lack of credibility and often ridiculous notions, the masculine viewpoint has the ability to expand our perception of certain fairy story and other literary elements, if and only if, we suspend the notions given us by society, and look at it from a black perspective.
One day coming up I will actually node the fairy tale Iron John itself if anyone has any interest.