Wildman, Lincoln Cathedral, England

Photo By Jim Moyers



By Jim Moyers, MA, MFT

Part I


It has been a while since Robert Bly's book, Iron John,(1)  topped the best seller list and the "Men's Movement" was a hot media topic.  Maybe enough time has elapsed to allow another look at both the Grimms' tale upon which Bly based his book and the place of males in contemporary society.  Like many popular attempts to recover supposed ancient wisdom from cultures far removed from ours in time and basic outlook, the men's initiatory movement inspired by Bly's ideas was founded on a romanticized view of history and human nature.  The usefulness of its supposed ancient rites of initiation in (2) helping modern men adjust to changing gender roles is questionable.  And the darker side of traditional male initiatory practice, in bending young men to the will of their elders while maintaining male domination of women and children, was for the most part ignored.  

Simplistic though some of its views may have been, the men's movement arose in response to a genuine need.  Many contemporary men feel lost and confused, unsure of who they are and where they belong in a society that has little use for traditional male roles.  While it may be true that economic and political power are still primarily controlled by men, men who experience themselves as personally powerful are few and far between.  In contrast to the progress women have made in moving beyond traditional gender limitations, men continue to be burdened by unspoken but persistent demands that they prove themselves "real men."

The mythopoetic men's movement was not entirely mistaken in looking to past traditions for clues about what we may be in the present.  Individual and collective assumptions about who we are in relation to the world about us are the result of a long process of cultural evolution.  While they may not always fit very well into contemporary life, the ancient ways continue to live on in the deepest parts of the modern psyche.  Dreams, rituals, and traditional practices can produce, in sometimes even the most jaded modern consciousness, an undeniably powerful emotional experience.  Ancient myths, stories, ritual, and traditional practices represent a rich collective wisdom, accumulated through countless ages of human evolution, which, approached symbolically rather than literally, can help us better understand human experience.

There are many myths about what it takes to make a man.  Most suggest that it is a difficult process, with few clearly marked guidelines.  One example of this archetypal theme is the story of "Iron Hans (or John)" from Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's famous collection of German folk tales.  Like many others, I first encountered this story in a 1982 interview of Robert Bly by Keith Thompson.(3)  Bly focused on the wild man element of the story, pointing to it as something that modern "soft" males, uninitiated into the traditions of manhood, have lost.  Most of the Grimms story was left out in that discussion.

But the wild man episode of the tale only sets the stage for the lengthy (by Grimms standards) plot development that follows.  By the end of the story the wild man is restored to his true nature as a great king, a transformation that parallels the gaining of manhood by the young prince protagonist.  After reading the complete tale, I began to wonder whether the men who, following the lead of what became known as "the Bly article," were so eagerly seeking the wild man were not missing something in the rest of the tale (4).

Eventually Iron John, Bly's commentary on the complete tale, appeared to quickly, and most unexpectedly, become a best seller.  But Bly's book seemed to me to be reactionary, simplistic, and even somewhat naive, especially in his understanding (or lack thereof) of the historic and sociological factors that shape our conceptions of masculinity.  Most of all it did not move me as had the original Thompson-Bly discussion and the Grimms' tale.  I found myself wondering if I couldn't come up with a amplification of "Iron Hans" that, to me anyway, was more satisfactory.

What follows is in no way meant as a definitive statement on either the Grimms' tale or male psychology.   My interpretation is simply one perspective on the state of the male psyche at this particular point in human social evolution.


(1) Robert Bly, Iron John, (Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, 1990).

(2) Robert Bly, "Men's Initiation Rites," Utne Reader, April/May 1986, pp. 42-49.

(3) Keith Thompson & Robert Bly, "What Men Really Want," New Age, May 1982, pp. 30-37, 50-51.

(4) For a recent account of the evolution of the "Men's Movement" in the several decades since the heyday of Bly's Iron John see Barrett Swanson, "Men At Work," Harper's Magazine, November 2019, pp.22-33.



"Iron Hans" begins with a kingdom in serious trouble.  Too many people had gone into the forest to never return.  Even the king's huntsmen and their dogs, sent out to find out what had become of the missing people, vanished in the woods.  In fear, the king and his subjects shut themselves up inside the safe, but confining palace walls.

Although first recorded by the Grimm brothers in the nineteenth century, "Iron Hans" is medieval in its imagery.(1)  In medieval imagination, the forest was a dark, mysterious, and foreboding region.  Lying outside the boundaries of lawful human order, untouched by the redeeming sacraments of the church, the wilderness was a hellish realm populated by outlaws, the insane, fantastic animals, and demons.(2)  While this perspective reflects the dualistic view held by the medieval church, contrast and conflict between wilderness and civilization is as old as human culture.

One of the earliest extant myths tells the story of Gilgamesh, the depressed, tyrannical king of the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk.  In response to the prayers of Gilgamesh's oppressed subjects, the mother goddess created a hairy man beast, Enkidu, as the king's wild counterpart.  Enkidu spent his early life living with wild animals.  Then a temple prostitute seduced and tamed him.  No longer at home in nature, Enkidu entered Uruk to confront Gilgamesh.  Perfectly matched in strength, the two men fought to a draw and, as often happens between rivals who prove themselves in a struggle with one another, became fast friends.  Gilgamesh and Enkidu then joined forces to destroy the monster that guarded the rich cedar forest of the ancient Mideast, preventing the people of Uruk from using it.(3)

While ancient and medieval people generally feared the forest's wildness, they were also dependent upon it as a source of food, fuel, and raw materials .   Like the people of Uruk who were unable to enter the forest because of the danger lurking there, the king of the Grimms tale and his people fearfully huddled inside the palace could not avail themselves of the natural bounty  surrounding them.

Another mythic kingdom deprived of its connection to fertility and life is the Wasteland of medieval Grail lore.   According to some versions of the story, the appointed guardian of the mysterious Grail, neglecting his sacred duty, set out in pursuit of adventure.  Alone in the forest, typically a most dangerous position in medieval tales, the errant Grail King encountered and challenged a heathen knight, a sort of wild man from beyond the bounds of Christendom.  The heathen was killed in the joust, but not before he inflicted a most grievous wound to the king's goin.  Unable to either recover from his injury or die, the now Wounded Grail King lived on in impotent agony.  Following the ancient equation of ruler and land, his domain became an infertile wasteland.  King and kingdom alike suffered in impotence, awaiting the promised coming of the perfect knight who would heal them both.(4)

The greater a society's technological sophistication, the less its connection to the natural order.  Men are traditionally associated with the technological innovations that separate the human realm from that of nature.   Women, in their biologically based traditional role of giving birth and nourishing children, are more often identified with nature.  Woman's domain has traditionally been the home, with men expected to "make a living" by going out into the world in some manner.   With both home and nature considered feminine realms, men have directed much of their energy towards the creation of an artificial political and technological sphere that, until recently, has been exclusively theirs.

Through technology we make our lives more comfortable by distancing ourselves from the effects of nature.  But, as the tale of "Iron Hans"  suggests, something of basic importance to men, some essential masculine quality, has been left out in the woods.  In traditional male roles of hunter and warrior, men came into intimate contact with nature while also opposing it.  Until recent times, it was not difficult to find places where such roles were appropriate.  But modern society has little need for hunters and warriors.

The old ways of being male have apparently disappeared, leaving modern man to find a place for himself as best he can.  Many have discovered that it is not enough to simply denounce the old ways and cultivate the opposite qualities.  Denying the existence of an aggressive, potentially violent component within the male psyche is no more enlightened than the opposite course of equating manhood with aggression.   A man unable to recognize and come to terms, on a level much more personal and direct than a "politically correct," guilty acknowledgment of collective male misdeeds, with his own aggressive and destructive impulses, with his capacity for wildness, will be unable to access and use his deepest, most instinctual masculinity for fear it will get out of control.  Beset by guilt, fear, and shame, he dares not venture out into the world or down into the dark wilderness of his own soul, but shuts himself up, safely impotent and lifeless, within the walls he erects around himself.

So, fearful of what might be found there, the king and his people went no more into the forest.  Then one day a huntsman turned up, much like the mysterious stranger who appears in old western movies whenever there is some trouble that the local people cannot resolve.  True to type, the hunter declared himself fearless, and set out to take care of whatever terrible thing lurked in the forest.  Unlike the king's ill-fated men, the stranger did not fall victim to the danger beyond the palace walls.  Perhaps, in part, this was because he let himself be led by his dog, an apt symbol for the kind of instinctual guide, a mediator between humanity and nature, one needs when journeying into the uncharted wilderness of the psyche.  Following its natural inclination to track an interesting scent, something that the hunter could not himself have done, the dog went directly to a deep, dark forest pool wherein lay the solution to the mystery.  As the hunter watched, a hairy arm came out of the water and pulled the dog down into the depths.

We moderns have for the most part forgotten about the pool out in the forest with its mysteries.  But every so often our usual absorption in the daily routine is disrupted by a strange and compelling dream, an unexplained event in waking life, or a vague but persistent sense that something is very wrong.  Following an irresistibly mysterious urge, we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory, confronted by something that might be symbolically represented as a deep, dark pool, peering down into waters that are as ancient as the world itself and every bit as contemporary as this morning's headlines.

While the huntsman was fearless, he was also aware of his limits.  Instead of putting on a show of male bravado (could this have been the fatal mistake of the hunters who never returned?) by single- handedly taking on the thing that had snatched away his dog, he returned to the palace for help.  With three men to help him, he went back to the forest to empty out the pool one bucketful at a time.

Getting down to the bottom of things, recovering what has been long lost, requires hard work, and very often the aid of others.  Having been led to believe that "real men" handle things by themselves, are always capable and competent, and never say, "I don’t know," men tend to feel ashamed when they need help.  In Wolfram von Eschenbach's masterful medieval Grail romance, Parzival, the young man after whom the story is titled was told by his initiator into knighthood that a knight should never ask too many questions.  Following what he thought was proper knightly behavior, disregarding his natural wonderment, Parzival made no inquiry into the mysterious things he saw at a castle in which he chanced to stay one night.  Only later did he learn that he had been in the Castle of the Grail.  Had he been able to admit to his need for help in understanding what he was seeing, if, as Wolfram put it, "(he) had only moved his jaws and asked his host the question," Parzival would have relieved the agony of the Wounded Fisher King, whose invited guest he had unwittedly been, and won the Grail for himself.  His adherence to what he took to be the way of true knighthood led to failure in the greatest knightly task of all.(5)

In bailing out the pool, the huntsman had three helpers.  Three is a number that often occurs in fairy tales, usually in a series of events or persons, the third and last of which solves a problem or completes an action.  In numerology, three resolves the conflict between the opposites represented by two, joining them together to form a third entity that transcends both.  But three is not as well balanced as four.  Four marks the end of a process that begins with division of one into two.  The two are again united in the third, and made complete by the fourth.(6)

At the beginning of "Iron Hans," the kingdom was divided in two, with the dangerous forest split off from the safety of the palace.  Then the huntsman, a third element from beyond the limits of the divided kingdom, crossed the boundary between palace and forest.  Four men, the hunter and his three helpers, emptied the pool.  It was also the fourth and final encounter of a hunter or group of hunters with the mystery of the forest.  This time the mystery was solved with the discovery of a wild man, with rusty brown, animal-like hair hiding his human features, at the bottom of the pool.

The wild man is a ubiquitous figure in medieval folklore, literature, and art.  A hairy, animalistic savage, he was often said to have been a man who through some terrible misfortune had lost his human nature. His ambiguous character, made up of animal, human, and supernatural elements, inspired reactions ranging from terror through mockery to curiosity and admiration.   Not limited to medieval times, myths of wild men appear throughout history from Gilgamesh's Enkidu to modern tabloid accounts of Big Foot and Yeti, huge ape-like creatures said to still exist somewhere in the wildness.(7)  In some rural areas of Europe people in outlandish wild man costumes still participate in winter festivals.  “Half man and half beast, the wild man stands for the complicated relationship that human communities, especially rural ones, have with nature.”(8)

The wild man is the shadow, the feared and despised opposite of civilized man.  He is not easy to have around - his "bestial self-fulfillment directed by instinct rather than volition and devoid of all those acquired tastes and patterns of behavior which are part of our adjustment to civilization,"(9) threaten the very foundations of orderly society.  When he enters the kingdom, all is thrown into chaos.

 While the wild man is often presented as a dangerous figure, wild man lore also suggests that he holds something of immense value.  Through his contact with inhuman realms, he has access to supernatural knowledge and wealth that he will gratefully share with anyone able to restore him to his original human state.  But, as is true of any encounter with the raw forces of nature, one must be careful in dealing with the wild man.   To naively go out into the forest in expectation of a friendly chat is to invite disaster.  On the other hand, as Jung reminds us, "contact with wild nature, whether it be man, animal, jungle or swollen river, requires tact, foresight, and politeness.  Rhinoceroses and buffaloes do not like being surprised."(10)  Developing a working relationship with the wild man which can bring his energy to constructively bear on the problems of a life bounded by social constraints, is a long, difficult process.  For most of us it is the work of a lifetime.

The huntsman was familiar with the ways of the wild and well prepared when he met the wild man.  But the huntsman's acquaintance with the wild may have rendered him suspect in medieval eyes.  At home in wild, infernal regions where good Christians dared not go, he was  contaminated by the inherent evil of the wilderness.(11)

After his capture of the wild man,  "Iron Hans" makes no more mention of the huntsman.  It may be that the hunter, having played his part, was simply dropped from the storyline.  Perhaps the king did reward him with a position in the royal court.  But the disappearance of the hunter fits a motif that repeatedly occurs in action movies, the modern equivalent of ancient hero myths.  After the mysterious stranger, resourceful lawman, famous gunfighter, etc. has done the heroic deed that brings an end to some terrible outlaw's (i. e. wild man's) reign of terror, he finds that the now peaceful community has no place for him.  He is himself too much like the wild elements he has subdued for civilized society, with its suspicion of wildness, to understand or trust him.  He in turn seems unable to comprehend the ways of society.  John Ford's 1962 film, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," starring Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, presents a classic example of this theme.  The rough, socially awkward rancher played by Wayne kills the outlaw and saves the town.  But it is Stewart's cultured lawyer who gets the credit, the girl, and the place of honor.  Wild men, of any degree, are not long welcome in civilized society.

Regardless of his captor's fate, the wild man was securely locked up in an iron cage.  A royal decree forbade his release and the queen herself was given charge of the key to the cage.  Once more, all was well in both forest and palace.  Or so it seemed.

GO TO PART II: Bargaining With the Devil


(1) Joseph Campbell, "Folkloristic Commentary," in The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales (New York:  Pantheon,   1972). 

(2) Jacques Le Goff, The Medieval Imagination (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1988), pp. 52-59. 

(3) John Gardner & John Maier (eds.) Gilgamesh (New York: Knopf, 1984), pp. 67-147. 

(4) Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God, Vol. IV:  Creative Mythology  (New York:  Penguin, 1976), pp. 391-393. Emma Jung & Marie-Louise von Franz, The Grail Legend (Boston:  Sigo, 1986 [1960]), pp. 187-212.   

(5) Parzival, sections 171, 224-256.  An excellent English translation of Parzival translated by Helen M. Mustard   & Charles E. Passage is published by Vintage Books (New York, 1961).   In The Masks of God, Vol. IV: Creative Mythology, pp. 433-570, Joseph Campbell retells the story of Parzival with an extensive commentary. 

(6) J. E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, 2nd ed. (New York:  Philosophical Library, 1971), pp. 232-233.  J. C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols (London:  Thames & Hudson, 1978), pp. 114-116.

(7) Richard Bernheimer, Wild Men in the Middle Ages (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1952).

(8) Rachel Hartigan Shea, “Europe’s Wild Men,” National Geographic, April 2013, p. 108.

(9) Bernheimer, p. 4.

(10) C. G. Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, Collected Works Vol. 14 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970/1955), paragraph 405 note 162.

(11)Le Goff, p. 178

©1999 James C. Moyers


Wildman to King Part  II  III  IV  V  VI  VII  VIII  IX


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