Over the past months, we’ve explored the journey of Iron John and how the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale can be applied to the lives of boys seeking to transition into manhood. Thanks to the work of Robert Bly, we’ve watched the young prince bond with his mother and father, then separate from them. He was carried off by Iron John to the woods and was mentored there, finding a bridge to his greatness. As he grew and moved on, he learned to control his hurricane energy. His journey culminates in his marriage to the queen, a symbol of a young man embracing his “softer” side.
I think it is only fitting, as I move on from this short investigation, to offer some reflection on the journey all boys must take as they grow up.
This journey is not a solo endeavor.
As we see through the young boy’s journey to manhood, he is rarely alone as he grows up. He has his parents first, then his mentor in Iron John. Even when he is sent away from the forest, Iron John still serves as a protector, stepping in if the prince needs him. So, too, in the lives on young boys today, their journey cannot be one of solitude. There are times when a boy must step out on his own, but he cannot be left to his own devices to develop his masculinity. If left without parents or the key mentor(s), boys turn to one another for initiation, the blind leading the blind on the road to a false masculinity. Those who are parents or respected elders in boys’ lives must step up into the role of mentor and guide the boys along their journey. Even without offering specific guidance, which I would highly encourage, parents and elders serve as models for what boys can hope to become. Giving a picture of the future is extremely important, especially in a long process such as this.
Side note on solitude.
There is a time in a boy’s life when he does need to strike out on his own and not be dependent on others for his development. I believe this comes between the mentor’s arrival and the apprenticeship to the hurricane energy, and possibly as a part of the latter. In processing through this fairy tale, I saw many similarities between it and the monomyth that Joseph Campbell offers as part of the hero’s journey. There is a portion of the hero’s journey where the hero steps out on his own, then returns. (For more information and reading on the hero’s journey, I highly recommend my friend Chad Ellsworth’s blog on the subject – buildingheroes.org)
All of the steps are important.
While you may not agree that the steps follow this progression or must happen independently of one another, they are all important to the growth and development of manhood. There are adult males who still rely on their mothers for care, comfort, and advice. I’m not disparaging this, however, as a male matures, he must strike a balance in this area and others. Thus, the first two stages are extremely important, especially in a society where at college-age or closely after, children move away from home and strike out on their own. The male mentor is, to me, the most important phase. He provides a different perspective than what a boy has grown up with and gives further encouragement to the development of a boy’s masculinity. Skipping any of these steps will yield a separated man, incomplete and acting as such.
Reflection is crucial.
As I’ve been pondering these stages, I have recognized the great need for reflection, especially in the latter stages (stages 3-5). As a boy grows up, he must begin to look inwardly, at his strengths and weaknesses. The male mentor helps with this, as he shows the boy what he can become and helps him begin building the bridge to that greatness. The reflection is especially important as the boy tames the hurricane energy and marries the queen. In order to tame one’s aggressive, “masculine” energies, you must first understand what they are. It’s akin to identifying your nature and bad habits and seeking to take hold of them. In the same way, discovering and cultivating the “feminine” virtues requires reflection and contemplation on your action and attitudes. It wasn’t until I began reflecting on my life and how I had grown and changed, that I realized where I still had improvement to make and what aspects of my character had developed and were continuing to develop. Reflection gives direction, but it also gives hope and pride when you see where you were and are now.
You are never done.
Even after going through all five stages, you are not done. Just as real leaders produce other leaders, real men produce other real men. Why would you take a gift that you have and keep it to yourself. As a mature man, you have the honor, privilege, and responsibility to serve as a mentor to boys as they develop. If you are blessed with sons, you have even more responsibility to mentor and guide them in their growth. Additionally, you cannot sit back and allow manhood to be corrupted by those boys who seek machismo without actual growth and development. Finally, you must fight against the injustices that are perpetrated by those false men.
Wrapping up this series, if there is one idea I would leave above all, it is that this is a long, hard journey. You cannot accomplish it alone, but there are many who would be willing to help. Seek out mentors. Serve as mentors. Be good fathers, mothers, and guides. If you’re ready, your journey can start today. My hope is that understanding the route you have to take will make the transition from boyhood to manhood just a little easier. That understanding is what “Navigating the Wild” is all about.
To developing strong men who love, inspire, and foster deep masculinity in others,