Author Topic: Iron John and the "Kitchen Work"  (Read 5848 times)

Matt Koeske

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Iron John and the "Kitchen Work"
« on: March 13, 2007, 10:49:32 AM »
This is a post from the past . . . but as it was ignored in this past, I feel it is worth reposting.  Worth reposting, also because the Iron John story is an extremely rich one and one that (as Robert Bly made clear) has a great deal to say about the individuation of the male.

The interpretation of the story below is highly personalized (the original conversation was about personalized interpretations of this story) . . . so I don't mean to suggest this is the only viable interpretation.  I very much fit it into my mold.  Still, I suppose it's as good a point of entry as any into talking about the Kitchen Work (as Bly calls it) . . . which I associated with the attempt to actualize inner Work or individuation in the real world and in relationship with others.

I felt this post had special significance to Useless Science as it uses the Iron John story to look into the "uselessness" of the Work.  This uselessness is a deep recognition and reorganization of valuing.  How do we create value and why do we choose, through the Work, to value the inner life and the Self more than the outer/cultural/egoic life?  I believe this is the prime question of the Work.

I hope others, regardless of how they feel about my interpretation, will be interested in discussing this story and what it says about both masculinity and individuation.

One of the elements of this story that has meant a lot to me on a personal level is what Robert Bly referred to as the "Kitchen Work".

That is, the stage of the prince's journey in which he has to cover his golden hair and take a thankless job as a kitchen boy in the castle.  This is his foray into the world, and it is not easy for him to reconcile his two natures: prince and peasant.

Even though Iron John tells the prince (after the prince pollutes the sacred pool three times) that he has failed in his task, it's clear that the prince has been initiated.  The golden hair indicates that the scarification left by this initiation ritual is both a "wound" (or shame/failure/Fall mark) and an enlightenment, an awakening of consciousness.

What is seemingly odd, and yet so profoundly “true”, is that the prince's awakening was the product of a failure (albeit a failure to perform a god's task), and that the mark of his failure (the golden hair) is treated by the prince as shameful.  This is very similar to the story “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, in which Gawain ends up wearing the green girdle of his Lady (wife of the Green Knight) first under his clothes and then on top (as an armband).  He wears it as a reminder of his dishonor . . . so that he will remember to always behave honorably in the future.

That is an awakening of consciousness . . . and it is the same awakening the prince has when he leaves the pond (or the well).  This golden consciousness, then, is a consciousness of shame and failure, of his egoistic limitations, of his inability to cope with the pinch of his princely finger (a small wound treated like a great one).  Of course, that wound is not really so small, because it stands as the symbolic wound of separation from his parents.  It's a "leaving the nest" wound.  But the pain of this wound is not the point (which is what the trial at the well is meant to teach the prince).  The point of the wound is to open up a conduit to the unconscious and to the Self.  It is the ritual wound through which the Self can come to consciousness (as Iron John can come to the edge of the woods when ritually called three times).

The initiation ritual is meant to teach the boy (who in "real years" would probably be middle-aged, or at least a full-fledged adult at this time) that the pain of the ritual wound must be converted into creative consciousness.  That is, he must stop saying, "Look what has been done to ME!" and start saying, "Look what I can do with THIS!"

Coming from the well into the world, the prince is already in a unique position (I think Bly underestimates this uniqueness).  1) He has a fully functioning relationship with the Self.  2) He has converted his ritual wound (finger pinch) into a flowing, creative consciousness (golden hair).  I have to admit that I have encountered very, very few people who have achieved this much in their lives (at any age).  The amount of shadow work involved in the "goldening of the hair" is enormous.

Seeing the story through this lens, I would say that this goldening is equivalent to completing (or nearly completing) the first alchemical opus . . . because it is only then that the individual can call on the aid of the Self and get what is asked for.

Iron John always tells the prince that he will get all he asks for and more.  Translated to "real life" language, this means that the ego-consciousness is in tune with the Self-consciousness.  The Self only provides what the ego truly needs in order to pursue wholeness, in order to pursue the Self's libido, and if the ego has learned only to ask for this (or less than this), the ego has honored the Self, and the Self will provide.

I also think that a man would have had to do a good bit of anima work during this indenture at the well.  This is not indicated in the story . . . except in the symbol of the well itself, which could be seen as a vaginal/Goddess/Great Mother symbol.

Seen in this light, the prince's charge was to protect and honor the sanctity of the Goddess (a chivalric task).  But it is very difficult to stand next to the Goddess without wanting.  First, we want her to heal us, to take away our pain (the pinched finger).  And we go to her (as the anima) "begging in beauty's disguise" as the great animus poet, Leonard Cohen, said.

She touches us, but not with healing.  She touches us with consciousness: the consciousness of what we were really asking for.  This turns the finger golden, but the pain doesn't cease.  Instead, we have become conscious of the implications of our asking for aid, of our whining, basically.  From this point on, we are conscious of the fact that it is not us who need her, it is she who needs us.  This is the first lesson of the anima work.

We went to her hoping to find a secret lover who "really understands us", who can be our mommy-partner.  And she takes us half-way . . . but then says: "No.  You did not come to me so that I can provide and protect you.  You came to heal me and lift me up."

The prince learns this lesson.  He will never stick his pinched finger into the pool for healing again . . . for to do so would be a terrible dishonor and a moral failure (in reality, of course, we fail many, many times like this . . . fail to be heroic).  But, with this lesson learned, the next stage of the anima work is set into motion.  A stray hair falls from the prince's head into the well.

Perhaps this is a "stray thought" or intuition that is drawn to the Goddess/anima, a desire to understand . . . but the responsibility for that desire is not yet comprehended.  There is still pain in the finger . . . and the prince wants to understand the pain, wants to understand it even more than he wants to heal it.  The prince fears he has crossed a line . . . merely out of curiosity about the Goddess and his wound.  He did not mean for his curiosity, his desire to know to contaminate the pool.

But this desire to know (gnosis) is a prelude to his whole head of (attached/accepted/understood) hair falling into the pond . . . where it was drawn with magnetic energy (as in the alchemical energy that drives the "reaction" of the coniunctio).  He has moved from the desire to “be fixed” by the anima to a desire to know the anima . . . and so the anima begins to manifest increasingly as Sophia, the womb and lover of the Logos.

The golden hair is the product of the prince looking eye to eye with his own reflection, seeing himself clearly . . . seeing himself as he is seen by the Self or by his god or the Other.  He is terrified of the consequences of this sight . . . but the Self/Iron John does not react with wrath.  Instead, the prince is given freedom.  Whereas previously the anima/Goddess was the conduit of the Logos (goldening), now the ego (having completed the anima coniunctio) has become the conduit.

The ego then must contend not just with recognizing the Logos, but with bringing the Logos into the world . . . and this is no small task.  Thus, Iron John tells the prince that he must learn what poverty is.  The prince is also told that his real achievement at the well was proving that he had a “good heart”.  This is what the initiation is really all about.  The “good heart” is a recognition that the ego’s relationship to the unconscious and to the Self must be above all things honorable.  This means that the shadow must be “owned” and acknowledged consciously and not left to contaminate the waters of the unconscious.  This is purely an act of honor . . . which is to say, a moral act.  Consciousness is morality, and shadow work is moral work.  Any introverted work that does not direct itself to a moral purpose (the just treatment of others) is not shadow work . . . is only self-congratulatory “spirituality”.

The shadow work teaches one ultimate lesson: the purpose of “spirituality” is morality (Right Action).  Any spirituality that does not contribute directly to right action is false (ego fantasy).  Spiritual ecstasies are not deemed credible by the Self (after the initiation ritual at the well) unless they lead to Right Action (acceptance of shadow).

I think this was understood better by cultures that practiced initiation rituals (like some of the Native American tribes that used vision quests) than it is by the Christianized cultures that have done away with them (supplanting them with “Faith Alone” doctrines of obedience or with some variation of psychedelic “trip” as an end in itself).  The vision quest type of mystical experience is meant to teach us how to act not what to believe.

This is why the rest of the prince’s journey has to do with Right Action.

The first principle of Right Action is to “become the other”.  This is the Kitchen Work.  The prince is royalty.  He grew up rolling a golden ball around the kingdom with absolute privilege and all possible luxuries.  Now he must become the lowest of the low.  This is exactly what we are told in the Gospels in the words of Jesus: (to paraphrase) he who would have something to give, must serve . . . not lead (dictate).

Here we get one of the most important lines in the story: “[In a great city] he looked for work, but could find none, and he had learnt nothing by which he could help himself.”  This is the first terrible lesson of consciousness.  This is why so many alchemists described the Philosopher’s Stone as worthless or base.  The attainment of consciousness (success with the shadow work) is of no use in the world.  That is, such psychic attainments are not rewarded by the system of acculturation and socialization.

Why?  Because the process is, as Jung called it, an individuation . . . a separation of oneself from the group and from the collective consciousness (somewhat inappropriately named, because it contains so much unconsciousness).  The task of the individuant is to find a way to contribute to the group.  Regrettably, this task often demands that one conceal one’s golden hair/consciousness.  It also means that one cannot bask in the previous psychic accomplishments.  They are a worthless currency in the world . . . likely only to attract enmity or delude oneself into “not existing”.

As the kitchen boy, the prince must serve food and “rake the cinders together” (i.e., deal with waste or the remnants of both his and others’ shadows).  This must be accepted, however painful it might feel to the puer (transcendent) mentality.  We can look at a proverbial “spoiled rich boy” like George Bush, who never had to rake cinders together or serve in a lowly position . . . and we see a man who has not been initiated.  This lack of initiation is a lack of honor and moral consciousness.  It is often hard to see the value of the kitchen work except in the examples of those who haven’t done any.  They make clear to us the consequences of skipping out from under the kitchen’s burdens.

But the prince is not so good as a kitchen boy.  He is incapable of being inoffensive to royalty (because he wears his handkerchief on his head in the king’s presence).  He does this to not offend . . . but his insistence on wearing it becomes another kind of offense.  I see this as the prince’s first experience with shadow projection.  Even though he conceals his consciousness/individuality and tries to remain humble, his masquerade is seen through.  He is still seen as an offender (despite his claim that his individuality is a shameful wound and not an affront).  His real offense is individuality . . . but it is seen by the king and others as disrespect to authority.

The prince gets sacked and sent to the gardens.  This is like the toil of Adam (and Cain) after getting the boot from Eden.  Working the soil is like providing for your own sustenance.  The prince must learn to create his own libido, create his own worth, create the story of his own selfhood . . . and he must bear the bad weather (hate, envy, and abuse of others due to his individualism).  This kind of work is vegetal, patient, and instinctual.  But he has moved on from being a server to being a grower and cultivator.  He is becoming fully responsible for his own way in the world.  He can’t merely carry the food . . . he must go back even farther into the instinctual Self and grow the food.

It’s here that he learns his true worth.  When the princess spots the golden hair and asks for flowers, the prince takes his first socially-defiant step.  He tells his boss (the gardener), “the wild [flowers] have more scent, and will please her better.”  This is absolutely audacious.  He has chosen to act out based on his own experience (of the instinctual Self).  He has granted himself his own authority to determine the worth of things . . . and he understands that things that seem common can still be strong and valuable.  It is the wildness that he has learned to cultivate as the gardener’s boy (and disciple of Iron John) that the prince has learned to value.  He recognizes that this wildness is a hidden, instinctual/natural quality . . . and that the true value of things is in this quality (“scent” or essence) not in their appearance.

He is asserting that value is a deep, “arcane” quality . . . not a superficial one.  This brazen act is an emergence of his own inner authority (which later blossoms into his knightly acts).

And, knowing worth in this way, the prince also knows the worth of the ducats the princess gives him.  He gives them away to the poor gardener’s children.

The prince’s leap forward here has everything to do with valuation.  We might say he has integrated his feeling function.  He has completed the thinking-feeling coniunctio and so knows Right Thinking and Intelligent Feeling.

I won’t go into the rest of the story except to say that the prince becomes increasingly audacious, and his growing embrace of his own authority becomes a utilization of the libido of the Self (symbolized by Iron John’s war gifts).

Iron John’s eventual transformation into a “stately king” is the prince’s actualization of the Self libido, a complete acceptance of his own inner authority as guide.  This is all part of the “second half” of the individuation process: not how to develop consciousness, but how to utilize consciousness and relationship with the Self in a social arena or in relating to others.  This is much trickier than the first half, because the individuant is no longer dealing with things entirely within his control (like the shadow, complexes, comprehension, self-empowerment, etc.).  The world doesn't roll over on its back and wag its tail for us just because we pursued individuation . . . anything but!

The prince is audacious (a word for someone who embraces his own shadow) to the very end.  Even the princess notes, “He does not stand much on ceremony.”  That is, the prince has the courage of the Fool . . . he does not abide by groupthink regardless of the consequences.  Consciousness is responsibility.  He will live or die by it . . . but to sacrifice this consciousness and responsibility would be incredibly dishonorable.  This, ultimately, is the price of consciousness: one accepts the consequences as being worth the knowing.  One comes to feel that only the conscious life is worth living.

One can’t expect to get away with wearing a handkerchief over one’s golden hair forever.  Eventually one just acts as one is and deals as well as possible with the repercussions.  And these repercussions are often extensive . . . as any dissident individual in any culture will be able to tell you.

You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.

   [Bob Dylan,"Mississippi]


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Re: Iron John and the "Kitchen Work"
« Reply #1 on: March 23, 2007, 06:46:19 PM »
Thanks for posting this.  I have read several of your posts today and found them open and inciteful.  I think that that authenticity of what you say must come from your life experience because your posts are becoming more and more familiar to me no matter what the topic (if that makes any sense).

I'm glad to say that my wife is finally writing down the stories of her life.  Since the first day that I met her she could always keep me riveted with the strange stories of actual people she knows.  Now she is writing them down and in reading them I feel myself going back to the day when I first met her. 

Anyway thanks for sharing your thoughts. 

Your thought fan,


Matt Koeske

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Re: Iron John and the "Kitchen Work"
« Reply #2 on: March 27, 2007, 10:47:00 AM »
Thanks, Chris!

I am definitely an experiential thinker/theorist.  I've got an autodidact streak.  But even more significantly, I have a lousy memory for facts, quotes, and they like.  As much as I enjoy reading and learning, it prevents me from ever becoming a good scholar.  I remember the gist of things usually, but that's about it.  The subtext.

I'm glad to hear your wife is writing her stories.  That sounds like it will make for a wonderful experience.  I sometimes think we should all write our stories (even if they are only ever shown to ourselves and our intimates).  We make stories of ourselves all the time . . . but rarely realize we are made of stories (unless we write them or recreate them artistically).

Good luck to your wife!

You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.

   [Bob Dylan,"Mississippi]