For me and many other men the story of Iron John has become that rarest of things a myth and more than that it is an allegory that I use to stir myself when things aren’t going well and I need inspiring.
At times it can also be a metaphor for my life. Never more so than now, when I’m dealing with what eldership is and what it means to me. As part of this journey I found myself listening to a version of the Iron John story that was presented at the Minnesota Men’s conference in 2013. It was a wonderful way of getting to know the story again. However as I listened to the first two parts I realised that there was something missing.
At first I couldn’t ‘put my finger on it’. However after some reflection I realised that what was missing for me was an elder presence, or at least what I imagined an elder presence to be. The more I thought about it the more I wondered how different the story of Iron John would be with the elders there; Would a wise elder have told the king not to send someone to look for Iron John but the prince, if they had caught him would that same elder have told the king and the hunters not to put Iron John under lock and key but to respect him for the power and wisdom that he had and finally would the wise elder have recognised the prince in disguise telling the King and the Princess who he was.
It boiled down to one question what deeds and words am I looking for from the elders in this eternal tale.
In hindsight if the elders had done any of the above things it would have been a very different tale, possibly a shorter one.
However I’ve begun to realise that like life elders for whatever reasons don’t do things the way I expect or want them to and perhaps part of that is the realisation that sometimes an elder has to let things take their path because they don’t know how they will end or elders let things happen because they don’t trust their own wisdom and experience or maybe it’s because sometimes that’s how the story is supposed to end.
It was only listening to the whole piece that I got my answer as to where the elders were and what they were doing and it all made sense. Martin Shaw and Daniel Deardorff tell of a ‘Baronial King’ appearing at the young man’s wedding to the princess. He tells those gathered that he is Iron John and how many years ago a spell had been put on him.
Of course it all made sense, the story of Iron John like any other myth is not only the story of a boy becoming a young man and that young man recognising his own value and becoming a lover and a king. It is also the story of how we have been distancing ourselves from our elders and our past.
It’s a story of how those elders trying to find a form that is acceptable call to us from the primordial forest longing for a connection that the present (in the form of the first king, the boy’s father) tries to block with hunters and dogs.
It is also a story of how once the connection has been made between the elders and the youth (the boy setting Iron John free and fleeing with him into the forest) can the boy begin to learn who he is free from the demands of the king and the expectations of the queen.
The moments where; first the boy’s finger, then a hair and finally all the hair on his head turn to gold are for me moments when being in the primordial forest I/he/we become connected to another time.
Surrounded by the ancestors and their blessings we are shown the beauty of who we are and what we can be; not a lawyer, an accountant or a manager but a king of our domain. With that knowledge we know that we must return to honour, encourage and bless those who will follow us as we have been by those who came before us. The elders in the form of Iron John recognise that one part of our growth is complete and we must continue our journey in this world.
The remainder of the story, poignant as it is I won’t discuss further. However I will say that by me the elders are missed. Away from the requirements and wishes of our parents a hug or pat on the head from a kind grandfather or the encouragement and blessing from a wise uncle would have spurred many a young man into action.
Perhaps that is the one of the lessons for these times. If the elders don’t bless or inspire the young men then they’ll have to trust a lot more to things ‘turning all right in the end’. Perhaps this is letting go but it feels more like never having taken hold in the first place.
When I first read it Iron John was about a boy’s journey into manhood and claiming his place. I’ve now seen another thread in the story which is about the need for the generations to connect and support each other as I believe that independence is not the end of the journey but a stop along the way to interdependence.
By Shaky Shergill