by: Kelly Dayton
Robert Bly’s “Iron John” discusses the relationship between status and appearance, and emphasizes the importance of presentation of the self. When the King’s son appears in the presence of royalty as the cook’s assistant, he is scolded for his sloppy appearance. Immediately, it is clear that the importance of looks is very prevalent in this society.
The King’s daughter had never paid any attention to the boy before, but as soon as she sees his golden hair, her interest is grabbed. She is mesmerized by the shimmer and insists on giving him gifts. Although he is now a gardener’s boy, she sees him as a member of high society. After she finds out the truth about his roots, she states, “I already knew he was no gardener’s boy from his golden hair.” Although she has no background information about the boy, the King’s daughter frames her view of him through only his looks. In this way, Bly highlights the idea that looks are associated with status and vice versa.
Iron John recognizes this emphasis placed on looks when he helps the boy to get ready to catch the golden apple. Even though he is only asked for one favor, he provides decorative armor and a strong horse. When the boy catches the apple and rides off, he is admired, not for his bravery, but for his style and manner. When his helmet falls off, his long, golden hair is presented to everyone; “His beauty was so great that everyone was astounded.” Though luscious hair is typically seen as feminine, in this case, it only enhances the boy’s masculinity. Because it’s gold, it is automatically viewed through a biased lens, noting him to be embracing his status instead of defying his gender norms.
Additionally, the very name “Iron John” placed on the Wild Man is a comment on the correlation between wealth and perception. Choosing the least expensive metal is a deliberate choice by the King’s men in order to make him seem less than human or even dangerous. When he is freed, Iron John learns from his experience and embraces the name that was given to him, and he gives all of his gold and silver to the boy who still relies on wealth and status.
Bly’s interpretation of the relationship between status and image is an interesting idea to look at in context with gender roles. While the knowledge of wealth can override a negative perception of someone’s looks, it can also disregard their expression of themselves.