I first came across the book Iron John: Man and Masculinity by Robert Bly when I saw it being clutched in the bony old fingers of the man that used to chair meetings of our local Alcoholics Anonymous group. At the end of one of our weekly meetings he held up this book and pointed the cover at us. This man never managed to master the Alcoholics Anonymous principle that we were to depend on a ‘higher power’ for help. He’d overcome his addiction by applying his great intellect to the problem. He said to me once, ‘I wouldn’t argue with me because I had a superb education, you know.’ And here he was giving us poor deadbeats a glimpse of the kind of thing that a superbly educated man was reading these days.
Iron John, the chairman explained to us, is an old fairy tale about a wild man found at the bottom of a pond. Bly, he said, interprets this ancient tale as an allegory of the various stages and crises a boy has to go through in order to become a man. By minutely unpicking the story, and by drawing on a wide knowledge of anthropology, mythology, folklore and legend, Bly, a poet by trade, tells us in the book how to become fully male again. For the post-industrial male, Bly believes, is too passive, too ‘metrosexual’, too feminine. He must learn how to release the wild man from the bottom of the pond.
The book had come as a revelation to him, said the chairman. No wonder we male alcoholics had sought oblivion in the past, he said. Society has become so feminised that even the positive male virtues such as heroism and leadership have become offensive to it.