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Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Hidden Meaning of Iron John

 Iron John“Iron Hans” in German, is a fascinating fairy tale written by the brothers Grimm. The story reveals the masculine power hidden in the unconscious shadow with some interesting symbolism, such as a shinning golden ball, a dark forest, a wild man, and an innocent young prince

This tale held the public’s attention in the 1990s because of the poet and philosopher Robert Bly’s book, Iron John: A Book about Men, which shaped the Men’s Movement in the early 1990s. In fact, the book lasted 62 weeks on The New York Times Best Sellers list. Robert Bly interpreted the central theme to be man’s search for meaning in a world that considered them as disposable. He also explored the deep issues arising from the different role models expected of men and women. 

 Summary of Iron John

A King sends his Huntsman into the depths of a nearby forest, but they never return. The King sends more men to explore the territory, each meeting with the same unknown fate. Finally, an extensive hunting party ventures out only to disappear in the looming darkness… The King finally declares the territory too treacherous for adventurers and announces it off-limits.

Some years later, a wandering explorer hears of the trouble and asks the King for his approval to travel to the area, asserting he would figure out the fate of the missing Huntsmen.

The man, accompanied by his dog, penetrates the darkened forest and happens upon a hidden lake. A giant arm breaks the surface water and drags his poor dog underwater. The hunter returns to the King for reinforcements, and with a group of men empties the lake. At the bottom, lays a naked man with long shaggy hair all over his body and iron like skin. They capture the wild man and lock him in a cage, only to display him as a curiosity in the King’s courtyard. The King declares any person that frees him will be put to death.

Many years pass until one day when the young prince was playing in the courtyard. And drops his favorite plaything, a golden ball which rolls right to the iron cage. The wild man picks it up. He tells the boy prince to set him free if he wants his golden ball returned.

However, the only key to the cage is beneath his mother’s pillow.

Though the Prince hesitates, he finds enough courage to sneak into his Mother’s room and steal the key. Then frees the wild man, who reveals his name to be Iron John. The young prince, fearing the king will kill him, follows Iron John back to his kingdom in the dark forest.

Iron John is a powerful being that guards many hidden treasures. He proposes the young Prince to watch over a crystal clear spring, cautioning him not to let anything touch the water or it will turn to gold.

The prince struggles to obey, but plays near the spring, and lets his long hair touch the water, which transforms into a brilliant gold color. Disappointed at the boy’s failure, Iron John sends him out to experience the cruel medieval world of war, poverty, and sickness. However, Iron John further tells the prince that if he ever needs help, return to the forest and call out his name three times.

 The prince travels to a distant land and finds a job working in the kitchen of the King. The prince refuses to remove his cap in the king’s presence because he wants to hide his brilliant golden hair. He losses his job but ends up assisting the gardener. The princess finds the boy's golden hair fascinating. While her intuition whispers there is something more to him than a poor gardener. 

When war comes, the prince sees his chance to make a name for himself. He returns to the forest and calls out for Iron John three times. Iron John arrives and gives him a horse, armor, and a legion of iron warriors to fight beside him. The prince successfully defends his new homeland. Then secretly returns Iron Johns’ horse and armor before returning to the castle.  

In celebration of the great victory, the King announces a banquet and offers his daughter’s hand in marriage to any knight that catches a golden apple thrown into their midst. Hoping the mysterious knight will reveal his identity for such a grand prize. 

Again the Prince asks Iron John for help. And Iron John disguises him as the black mysterious knight. The prince catches the golden apple and escapes from the crowd of onlookers. But the King and Princess eventually discover his true royal ancestry. And the young prince marries the princess.  

Iron John appears at the wedding transformed,  without his shaggy hair or iron skin. He reveals an enchantress had cast a spell that transformed him into an iron skinned Beast but only until the time, when someone with a pure heart, like the young prince,  could free him. - The End. 


The “childlike protagonist” in fairy tales symbolizes the immortal soul or psyche. The task, of the “child”, is to evolve into a self-realized individual, a process that takes many lifetimes. That being said, Iron John follows a typical pattern of the great classic fairy tales - Whereas the psyche (the young Prince) begins the quest, inexperienced and na├»ve, conquers many obstacles, and adverse forces explore its subconscious shadow (Iron John), which transmutes the mind raising consciousness. 

Iron John, a wild man with rough iron like skin - describes the intense nature of masculine energy hidden in the male psyche. As a symbol of the unexplored and violent aspects of the untamed consciousness, Iron John murdered every huntsman near his territory. One might say his persona depicts the subconscious animalistic drives that operate from the lowest level of survival instinct–using violence instead of intelligence.

The inevitable encounter with the shadow plays a central part in the process of individuation. Jung considered that “the course of individuation... exhibits a certain formal regularity. Its signposts and milestones are various archetypal symbols” marking its stages, and of these “the first stage leads to the experience of the shadow. In Jungian psychology, the “shadow”, may refer to everything a person is not conscious of. The shadow represents the “dark side” of the mind which rejects the least desirable aspects of one’s personality. (Note: that Iron John survives underwater in a deserted forest - as ‘water’ and ‘the dark forest’ are metaphors of the collective unconscious.) 

At the beginning of the story, Iron John is the adversary; however, by the end, he becomes the princes’ counsel and helps him to become a man. Iron John’s masculine traits can pass on to the young prince, only if he accepts the rules, as the powers are symbolic of the talents, happiness and bliss one receives after overcoming their errors. In fact, any denial of one’s faults results in the virtual death of the psyche, and creativity. So the prince has to address his own problems, his own aggressive and hateful thoughts before he can develop into a realized man. 


Stealing the key from under his mothers’ pillow seems like the perfect metaphor for a boy’s separation from his mother’s emotional control. Every person needs a certain amount of freedom to advance on the spiritual path. Otherwise, they cannot make their own choices and learn from their mistakes.

Notice the key is beneath a pillow, implying the hidden feminine aspect of his psyche is just as subconscious as the masculine shadow (that hides underwater). The undeveloped female energy is expressed in men as moodiness, depression, and repressed anger. So we can imagine the dire emotional situation of the young parent-less prince, which indicates the nature of his undeveloped male and female energic structure. However, the start of his spiritual quest begins with uncovering his relationship with his mother.

In fact, the most ubiquitous of all motifs in the fairy realm is the “missing parents,” which denotes the death or absence of one or both parents. This tragic circumstance occurs in the greatest number of fairy tales; sometimes the child is an orphan, as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, or the mother dies after childbirth, as in Cinderella and Little Snow White. In fact, there are twenty-seven Disney films that feature a missing Mother. Even though the young prince enjoys a mother and father, by following Iron John, he entered the path of individualization, where he must standalone, in the field of suffering, away from the safety of home.

Rebellious activity is a common occurrence around thirteen years old when puberty occurs. It is a period when a young man needs a guide to edge him toward his own path in life, sometimes it can be the father, sometimes more accomplished males. Iron John becomes his substitute father and mentor. Their time together symbolizes the prince’s exploration of every aspect of his own shadowy complex thoughts and actions.


Iron John told the young Prince, “Look, this golden spring is as bright and clear as crystal. You shall sit beside it, and take care that nothing falls into it; otherwise, it will be polluted

By touching the water, the Prince penetrated into the deepest levels of consciousness, beyond all the negative aspects of the shadow. At this height of consciousness, one may see a beautiful Golden light within the mind. This is not a theory but the real experience of the great enlightened masters. i.e. Aurobindo–and Vedic texts are very accurate in describing the highest level of consciousness as golden colored.

I relate water with the flow of Prana or blood or even the flow of thoughts and emotions. Iron John gives the prince the responsibility of keeping the waters clean as this is a metaphor that refers to keeping his mind clear and emotions balanced by meditating.

The prince lets his finger touch the water, and it turns to gold. Yet, Iron John forgives him this one time. Then the prince carelessly lets his hair to fall into the water, transmuting it into a beautiful gold color. Iron John said to the boy prince: “You have failed the test, and you can stay here no longer. Go out into the world. There you will learn what poverty is”…. 

The prince’s banishment mirrors the universal experience of mystics–in that the entrance into higher consciousness (symbolized by the gold) is resisted by the collective materialistic forces of the world. Another example of this idea occurs in the Grail legend; whereas King Arthur finds the legendary land of Camelot, touches the Holy Grail–a trope denoting Samadhi- and is forever in search of the same experience in the outer world of war, death, and sickness. We can also include mankind’s fall from paradise–in that the snake/kundalini gave humanity a taste of immortality, followed by their banishment from the Garden of Eden to suffer death. 

Continuing the story, now on his own the young prince comes upon a far off distant kingdom where he finds work in the kitchen of the reigning King. However, the prince is dismissed, because he acted disrespectfully by serving the king with his hat on, as the prince didn’t want to reveal his golden hair, the gardener takes pity on the boy and hires him as an assistant. 

Then one day, the princess sees the prince working in the courtyard, when his hat falls off, revealing rays of golden light bursting forth like the sun from his hair. From that point on, the princess became obsessed with the boy. The usual courtship occurs; he brings her flowers, and so on. The princess personifies the positive feminine side, the perfect counterpart to the young prince’s inner male. And like so many other tales, the balance of the anima and animus denotes integrating the conscious mind with its subconscious shadow.


The colors (Black, White, Red, and Gold) strangely appear in fairy tales over and over. For example, in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, her mother’s first words are: “Would that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood and as black as the wood of the window frame.”

I wrote in my article on Snow White. paraphrasing “The three colors symbolize Snow-White’s evolution into higher consciousness. Let me explain: Most meditators upon closing their eyes see nothing but black. After decades of practice, or even lifetimes, the next level of a successful spiritual practice occurs when the internal Pranic energy illuminates the interior of the brain in a beautiful white light. Even the external world takes on a stunning luster with subtle tones; Gopi Krishna an enlightened Indian pundit has written of this experience in his autobiography. One encounters a beautiful red than gold color along with an enduring sense of immortality, increased health and intelligence. This state of mind, (called enlightenment or self-realization) is symbolized by the color gold, and as found in the golden treasures, harps, hair, and dresses that the child protagonist is gifted with.”

The same three colors appear in Iron John but in reverse order… from gold to black. Which I believe refers to spirit or soul incarnating into matter. 

The colors appear when the King said to his daughter, “I will proclaim a great festival. It shall last for three days, and you shall throw a golden apple. Perhaps the unknown knight will come.”

On learning of the festival, the young prince went out into the woods and called out for Iron John three times.

“What do you need?” he asked. 

“To catch the princess’s golden apple.” 

“It is as good as done,” said Iron John. “And further, you shall have a suit of red armor and ride on a spirited chestnut horse.”

“When the day came, the prince galloped up, took his place among the knights, and was recognized by no one. The princess came forward and threw a golden apple to the knights. He was the only one who caught it, and as soon as he had it, he galloped away.”

“On the second day, Iron John had outfitted him as a white knight, and had given him a white horse.” And the prince caught a golden apple again.

“On the third day, he received from Iron John a suit of black armor and a black horse, and he caught the apple again.”

“It is as good as done,” said Iron John. “And further, you shall have a suit of red armor and ride on a spirited chestnut horse.”

“When the day came, the prince galloped up, took his place among the knights, and was recognized by no one. The princess came forward and threw a golden apple to the knights. He was the only one who caught it, and as soon as he had it, he galloped away.”

“On the second day, Iron John had outfitted him as a white knight, and had given him a white horse.” And the prince caught a golden apple again.

“On the third day, he received from Iron John a suit of black armor and a black horse, and he caught the apple again.”

The three colors, black, white, and red plus gold sometimes, are symbolic of the transformative process. The chronological order of colors proceeds, from black to white then red, showing a progression to a higher plane. However, the order of colors is reversed, starting with the golden apple, changing to a red chestnut horse, then a white horse and a black horse. I believe the reversed order of colors denotes the movement of consciousness downward from its highest spiritual level to the lowest level of physical matter. Thus alluding to the spiritualization of matter. 


There is another important motif, called the ‘rule of three,’ that helps us to understand the meaning of the story. The ‘rule of three’ is a literary technique that suggests a group of three events or actions carries more truth and is more satisfying than any other number, in the story's execution and engaging the reader. Thus, the three consecutive days of the festival authenticates the importance of the marriage of the Princess and Prince, and also the importance of the three transformative colors. 


Having progressed this far on the psyche’s evolutionary path takes us to the motif of a “sacred marriage.” To achieve the ultimate victory and marry the princess, the young prince must catch the golden apple thrown three consecutive times. This idea derives from the tradition of a wedding where the bride would toss a bouquet into a group of young maidens - whoever caught the flowers would marry next. 

But, why is the apple tossed out? There are ancient myths that link the apple with immortality. In Greek mythology, the Apples of Immortality were made of gold and grew in the Garden of the Hesperides - a wedding gift to Goddess Hera from Gaea. The apples are guarded by the dragon Ladon. In a somewhat similar motif; In the first book of the Bible; Genesis, a serpent guarded the tree of life in the “Garden of Eden,” and offered to give Eve a taste of immortality. 

The apple, or fruit of the tree, is symbolic of all the talents and gifts one achieves by raising their consciousness. Particularly since the “tree” is a visual metaphor referring to the human spine and nervous system. 

It is a jigsaw puzzle to make sense of all these symbols and motifs’, however catching the apple, symbolizes the experience of immortality, through the process of awakening Kundalini. This awakening can only take place when both sides of the psyche are developed enough–i.e. the Ida (female) and Pingala (male). Then the central Sushumna is opened for the flow of Prana to the crown chakra–resulting in the marriage of the individual with the divine – Shiva with Shakti–or the inner male and female. And which is called the sacred marriage in metaphysical texts 

The story continues… While they sat at the wedding feast, the music suddenly stopped, the doors opened, and a proud king came in with a great retinue. He walked up to the youth, embraced him, and said, “I am Iron John. I had been transformed into a wild man by a magic spell, but you have broken the spell. All the treasures that I possess shall belong to you.” 

And last of all, Iron John’s transformation, from a wild man into a human being, alludes to the clearing the unconscious shadow of its faults and negative energies resulting in the self-realization of the psyche or young prince. The search for inner peace of mind and knowledge of the self has always been the most significant factor in understanding mythology and religion. 

Ignoring the ancient’s spiritual beliefs gives western culture a distorted view of human potential. Isn’t it time to wake up?


1. Iron John, the fairy tale, is based on the psyche or souls path toward, individualization and higher consciousness.

2. The young prince personifies the psyche from the perspective of the male. 

3. Iron John symbolizes the young prince’s shadow, the unexplored aspects of hatred and aggression, anything that hides in the subconscious. 

4. Iron John turns from antagonist to mentor, from a monster to a king which refers to the power on self-knowledge.

5. The princess is the young prince's feminine counterpart; their marriage is symbolic of the merging of opposites within the self.

6. The prince's parents are missing from his life because he must develop his own identity.

7. He leaves his rich kingdom, like so many other heroes, to live a life close to nature away from the royal lifestyle.

8. Once the prince has reached into the depths of his consciousness, (touched the water) he is told to return to the outer world to spread his golden consciousness. 

9. By conquering the king’s enemy’s it shows the young prince is mature enough to marry his perfect counterpart in the princess. 

10. The sacred marriage ends the process and denotes the psyche has reached a permanent state of higher consciousness.

Published 11:11am on 12/5/2018 by author Joseph Alexander  

Grimm’s fairy tale "Iron Hans"

Digitally enhanced Images from Pixabay



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