Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Iron John

As is my wont, I was chatting with the local librarian about my son’s aversion to scary movies, so she pointed me to the fairy tales section. Fairy tales are perfect for boys from five to seven. It helps them to address their fears.

On my journey to learning the craft of writing, I’ve encountered Joseph Campbell who wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell talks at length about the symbolism of ancient stories and fables, of religious ceremony and rites of passage. There is ubiquity across cultures of certain themes, an eerie sameness to the stories of gods that have never met—virgin birth for instance. Stories that harness the power of symbolism reach into the murky depths of our imagination and manipulate emotions we do not understand.

A common male theme is to be taken from the mother, leaving home to be raised to manhood by another male who is not the father. You see this all the time. Look no further than Star Wars for an example. To be a real man in some instances involves the actual slaying of the father.

Two nights ago I read to Jackson one of the books I brought home that day called Iron John. A savage, wild man, is caught and caged by the King. The King’s son loses a golden ball into the cage, and asks the man to give it back. The man, who introduces himself as Iron John, agrees on the condition that the boy release him. The boy says he does not have the key, but Iron John tells him to find the key under his mother’s pillow. The boy does as he is told and unlocks the cage, but on the condition that Iron John take him along, as the boy’s father would surely kill him for his deed.

Iron John raises the boy to manhood. And the story goes on.

The poet Robert Bly wrote a famous book (but I have never heard of it) called Iron John: A Book about Men. Apparently this book caused quite a ripple in the feminist community, for reasons that are too haughty for me to understand. Bly asserts that this ancient fable, older than the Bible, contains lessons that are meaningful for men. One conclusion, and I have read this even with Joseph Campbell, is that our society has taken important ceremony away from our young boys that helped us make that tough transition to manhood.

For now, I tend to agree, because there is something missing from our lives. I’m not sure that men even exist anymore really. The strong man of the past suddenly became Archie Bunker, and because of a flaw in the fabric the whole garment was tossed. It’s gauche anymore to stand up for the male condition—because that would be anti-feminist? Our whole society has become weak, afraid to say what is clearly in front of our faces. A man has instincts, desires that are built in. Do we act on all of them? Of course not. But should we be ashamed and hide because they exist? See my last answer. It’s time for a whole lot more honesty people. I don’t just mean speaking it. Let’s also hear it without rancor.


Bailey Stewart said...

Food for thought - again. How come you try to make me think before I've finished my coffee? The Anthropologist in me loves this question. All human kind has these basic instincts and to deny that they exist would be ludicrous. You are correct when you pointed out that we do not act on all of them (could not if we wished to live in an ordered society). Good "Pondering" post.

Ultra Toast Mosha God said...

Masculinism eh?


You certainly have a point. The rise of the female has left a lot of males confused about their place in society.

The traditional Alpha Male Hunter Gatherer is considered something of a dinosaur, or rather a crocodile; a survivor of a past age.

But i'm cool with this.

Women are the true creators. Their equal footing in society will come before long, and I welcome that day.

Being yourself is more important than being 'a man'.

Scott said...

Eve - Thanks!

Toast - You see, there is the whole problem summed up nicely. Nothing about asserting masculinity has anything to do with repressing women, but that is the perception, and thus why we are pressured to stick our heads in the sand. My point is that by being myself, I am being a man, so the two are one and the same. Nobody wants a man to be his true self, and that is the problem.

Tee said...

This topic is very interesting.

Growing up I was a tomboy and as a teenager I was even more competitive with boys and showing that I was just as tough and strong. I was not the type to wear skirts and all that. A lot of my family thought I was gay - but that wasn't it. I just didn't like that being a proper girl meant acting weakly. I hated to see girls need help in picking up heavy things just because they didn't want to exert themselves in front of boys. Or standing around chatting during gym class because they didn't want to get sweaty.

At one point there was an article in Men's Health about whether women should be aloud in the Army. My Dad left the magazine in the bathroom and I read it. LOL. This article made me so angry at this point in my life that I wrote a letter which was published! (I still have a copy of it somewhere.) It basically said a woman can do anything a man can do, and ended with, "If anyone disagrees, we can take it outside." - It was meant to be tongue in cheek there, but still.

Anyway, who would have thought that I'd become a very traditional and old fashioned wife and stay at home mom? (And that I wouldn't want it any other way!)

I still don't dress very femininely (excuse my spelling - we need spell check in comments!), I don't get my nails done or ask men to help me pick up heavy things. So in some ways I'm still the same.

I have 2 sons, and always wanted sons. I hung out mostly with boys in high school and often times became the mother hen of them - so I was used to the craziness. I'm glad I didn't have girls. I'm not sure I'd be a proper example. I let my boys be boys but being a good human being comes before being a male/female for me - so they have manners and are well behaved.

I have no idea what I'm attempting to say. Maybe that I've always been somewhat in touch with my masculinity, and I don't see anything wrong with men being in touch with their feminiity - but there has to be a balance. Men and Women are yin and yang. They are meant to be opposites in some ways, but counterparts that fit together.

So you're right, men do need to be men and women need to be women, but we need to be true to ourselves and not worry if a particular trait is feminine or masculine or what society thinks. Just be.

Scott said...

Hi Tee - Thanks for such a thoughtful reply. Growing up I had a sensitive and light hearted nature that didn't sit well with the bullies of my various schools, and I had to hide parts of my personality to avoid getting beat up all the time. The modern man is allowed to be in touch with his feminine side, and that is good. I would like to see more emphasis and guidance for boys, to teach them to be men. Allow them to be sensitive and aggressive, and teach them where the healthy lines are. A man today is still a warrior of sorts. A man gets a vicarious thrill from watching football, or watching two boxers slug it out. He gets adrenaline from shooting a gun at a firing range, or scraping the footpegs of his motorcycle around a tight corner. For all this he is belittled as childlike or reckless. Sometimes I just want to be who I am and not be treated like a circus freak or as a boy who never grew up. I want to live without all the pecking. That aside, as a parent I can't be these things any more.

Ultra Toast Mosha God said...

When I was growing up, I was wallpaper.

I avoided fights and conflict successfully, staying in the middle of the pack and not getting picked off by predators.

This blending attribute has helped me avoid standing out.

I have effeminate and masculine tendencies in balanced measures, so i'm comfortable with empowered females and alpha males.

I think the feminist cauldron has boiled over and the heat has been truend down a little, so the kneejerk reaction to the alpha man seems less common.

There seems to be an equilibrium approaching.

We have the 'ladette' culture here in the u.k (sexually predatory girls partying hard in the streets) and the 'lad' culture running pretty much parallel.

It's just the employers that need to catch up...

Ultra Toast Mosha God said...

perhaps cauldron was a poor choice of word.....

Scott said...

Good one Toast! How interesting about where you live. I have to get myself out there sometime to check it out. It sounds like you adapted well growing up.

Tee said...

Scott - As a father you can still participate in sports and hobbies that give you that adrenaline rush and tension release. The thing about humans is that I don't think we have changed very much physiologically, but our world has. You no longer *have* to hunt for food, but something in you may like to - so take up hunting. When your boys are old enough, teach them and take them with you. I think you can find a healthy balance between meeting your own personal needs and being responsible.

Jada's Gigi said...

Scott, You have hit upon something here. Somethign is missing in the transitioning of our boys to men. the "feminist" movement helped to create softer men who in turn get no respect from the very women who helped to create them. A very sad and unnatural state of affairs.
there is room in this world for men to be men and women to be women and in truth the world is a stronger and better place when each gender is allowing the other to funciton properly. Back to the "rite of passage" of boys to manhood. Maybe we need to invent something for our culture...Jews have one, Indians have one, its a tribal thing I think and we have become soooo civilized....perhaps not always to our benefit, eh?

Toni Anderson said...

Well said!! I am reading something similar about all the old stories being condensed into a basic pattern (with the virgin mother ect) It is in David Morrell's writing book--excellent stuff.

Shesawriter said...

I agree. What happened to the real heroes? I think the Archie Bunkers killed them.


Trevor Record said...

I'm familiar with the hero's journey myself. If you want to see strong evidence that it is still alive and well in the story-telling world, look no further that video games. Games, particularily role playing games, more often than not follow the classic template to a "T".

Further, I think you will be shocked to find that many boys (particularily in the 8-18 set) spend more time playing video games than watching television. Perhaps this old lesson haven't disappeared, but rather have changed mediums.

Moni said...

Frankly, I like a man to act like a man. When I first met my exhusband he was a "work boots and flannel shirt" kind of guy. The kind that wasn't afraid to get his hands dirty. Now, he's turned into a metrosexual, wearing the bracelets and rings and cologne. He dresses to the tee. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just the whole thing of being true to yourself.

Maybe it's my fault for wanting him to dress a little better, but I think I created a monster.

I see nothing wrong with a man acting like a man with the desires built in, subdued but not squelched. I think that kind of behavior compliments a woman. The only problem is, in this day and time, the desires have become egocentric, the desire to succeed at the cost on one's family, and the desire to have mulitple life partners just because one gets bored. Those desires; not the hunter gatherer, being a man and taking care of your family, are the ones that have won out.

In my family, the women have always been the strongest, and I know that it's not because the men didn't have a positive role model in their life showing them by example. They were all shown how to step up to the plate and be a man, but I don't know what happen along the way.

I know it sounds like I'm bitter, I know there are men out there that take care of their families and are faithful; you seem like one of them(bless), but I don't know of any personally. Now that's a sad comment on society.

Scott said...

Tee - That's all very good advice, and I may just do some or all of it. The fact is, I'm probably more of a modern man than I am comfortable with. I hear the call of the wild once in a while, but I am a domestic animal.

Cheryl - We do need to invent something, a fun ritual that carries with it some large amount of symbolic transformation from boy to man.

Toni - I love this subject. It is so fascinating really how much we haven't changed in all these hundreds of years, and yet we ignore the lessons of the past.

Tanya - Yes, exactly. Chauvinism killed the radio star.

Trevor - I'm not sure I understand what you are saying, but are you suggesting that video games are helping to provide what I am saying is missing? Interesting if so. Video games though are a solitary journey, whereas what I would like to see is the community involved in public ceremony that celebrates the transition.

Moni - See my next post...

Sadie Lou said...

When my husband and I were dating, I never knew that his mother wore the pants in the family.
It wasn't until we were married and his mother was still buying him clothes and telling him to shave and asking if he was going to wear THAT to the party, that I understood.
I had to help Dan become the man he is today.
His parents, namely his mother, almost imobilized him as far as helping him develop skills to become a father and husband. They made him feel like he wasn't capable of making choices on his own without consulting them for advice.
Even today he'll say," Maybe I should call my dad?" and I always say," I don't really care what he thinks. I want to do what you want to do, babe."
We've been married 10 years and I feel my hubby has come a LONG way.
Greay post as per usual, Scott.

Trevor Record said...

Video games do provide what you say is missing, in my opinion.

"Video games though are a solitary journey, whereas what I would like to see is the community involved in public ceremony that celebrates the transition."

Have you ever heard of MMORPGs?

Anyhow, I was raised on video games, and I'm certainly not one to hide my thoughts or desires.