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The Maiden King: The Reunion of Masculine and Feminine

Robert Bly and Marion Woodman

Book review copyright © 1998 by Bert H. Hoff

Related: Robert and Marion: Over a Decade of Magic in Working Together
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Robert Bly and Marion Woodman, The Maiden King: The Reunion of Masculine and Feminine (New York, NY: Holt, 1998) Order on-line

Robert Bly and Marion Woodman

The Maiden King
The Maiden King
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Other books and tapes featuring Robert Bly

Other books and tapes featuring Marion Woodman

Facing the Shadow in Men and Women
Facing the Shadow in Men and Women
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Listen to an MP3 WebCast
Hear an MP3 Webcast from that conference

When MenWeb first announced that this book was forthcoming, I used the pre-publication title provided by, The Maiden King: The Triumph of the Feminine. Imagine my surprise when my review copy arrived and I saw that the subtitle was The Reunion of Masculine and Feminine! In our patriarchal society, our Sibling Society, our gender-polarized society, conflict is easy to come by, and the important question is, "who triumphed?" Robert and Marion have taken on a much more difficult task, of reunion of the masculine and feminine.

Our society seeks "juice," not harmony. A while back, Robert Bly make a public appearance with Deborah Tannen, author of You Just Don't Understand, at Cooper Union in New York City. The New York Times ballyhooed it as a "battle of the sexes." Robert later asked the reporter why he used a silly title like that. But when Robert and Deborah found common ground for dialog and for reaffirming each other's points, little attention was given, except to dismiss the event as a "lovefest."

So it's not surprising that the reviewer for The New York Times Book Review, Karen Lehrman, panned the book as "so laden with mythological references, social commentary and metaphorical interpretations--many of which are irrelevant, strained or just plain silly--that even its central point is not readily apparent." A quote like Gloria Steinem's "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle" is taken as a powerful statement, but metaphors like those drawn from the Russian fairy tale "The Maiden Tsar" are dismissed as irrelevant, strained or silly if they don't promote gender conflict.

Ms. Lehrman is, of course, a feminist deeply embroiled in the polarizing gender conflict that Robert and Marion are talking about. Her criticism that Robert and Marion "often seem intent on confusing" the central ideas is ironic in light of Laura Miller's New York Times book review of Ms. Lehrman's own book The Lipstick Proviso: Women, Sex & Power. Ms. Miller says: "what The Lipstick Proviso contains, despite flashes of good sense, is a muddle of sometimes self-contradictory assertions that undermine her own authority." Ms. Miller also says of Ms. Lehrman's book, "She does make the valuable observations that 'women's emotional development may not have kept pace with their political or economic progress' and that 'becoming fully autonomous, achieving personal power' has turned out to be a demanding and sometimes lonely pursuit. Perhaps that's why Ms. Lehrman needs to call on the awesome forces of nature to ward off the disapproval of a handful of college professors." It's a shame that Ms. Lehrman did not accept Robert and Marion's invitation to venture into the realms of nature and spirit.

The criticism is that the comments in the book are not literally true, and that there are exceptions to every statement made. But this reunion of the masculine and the feminine, if it is to occur, must happen at the interior level--the spiritual level, if you will. Even the American military recognizes that it's only at that level that real social change occurs, as we tried to "win the minds and hearts of the people" in Viet Nam. But the language of the spirit is not the language of logic and precision, it is the language of metaphor--of fairy tales and poetry. The New York Times book reviewers of books like Iron John, The Sibling Society and this book draw a clear line between the language of poetry and the language of politics and social activism. Have they never heard of Ricard Eliecer Neftali Reyes, diplomat, Allende supporter and Chilean ambassador to Paris, who wrote his poetry under the pen-name Neruda? Or of Vallejo or Machado? When Machado asks:

What have you done
With the Garden that was entrusted to you?
we can answer that our garden was torn apart in the battle of the sexes.

A book like this--and like Iron John or any good poetry book-invites active engagement of the reader. You absorb and react, and not just at the conscious level. Those who do not accept the invitation--as did the literalist who reviewed this book for The New York Times, risk missing the point of the book. Robert says as much on the very first page: "If you, as a reader, adore literalism, you may as well close the book now--you'll argue with our sallies so often that it will be bad for your health."

The very structure of the book is both a metaphor about and a commentary on the state of the gender war in the United States. Robert and Marion set out to write a side-by-side commentary on each part of the fairy tale that is the central metaphor of the book. "Me, you, me, you, me you …" A metaphor of perfect equality. It didn't work. Instead, each wrote a separate part expressing their unique gifts, their unique strengths--Robert's literary criticism and poetic voice, and Marion's deep psychological interpretations. They then come together to dialog at the end…or at the beginning of this quest for the reunion of masculine and feminine. Instead of struggling for "equality," they respected and honored their differences and each other's unique contributions. Therein lies the key to what C.G. Jung termed the Alchemical Marriage--the reunion of masculine and feminine.

Robert and Marion point out that many of us got our introduction to old mythological themes through Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces. In this story, by contrast, the hero has "no face at all, an ordinary human being with a thousand forgerfulnesses. Ironically, the young woman he sets out to rescue in our tale actually ends up rescuing him. The modest face he finally achieves is the result of his persistence and the persistence of the feminine in holding the tension of the opposites. It is a face that unites ecstasy and the Underworld. Together, our hero and our beloved tap into the power that can unite all opposites, a union that is seen in the fairy tale's title, 'The Maiden Tsar.' … Our story is not about heroism, but about failure and repair … it is less about doing and more about listening; it is not as much about ascents as about descents. It is about the forging of a new relationship within both men and women." While Iron John is about initiation into masculinity, they point out, this book is more about initiation into femininity.

Iron John
Iron John: A Book About Men
by Robert Bly
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Leaving My Father's House: A Journey to Conscious Femininity
by Marion Woodman
Order on-line

The Sibling Society
The Sibling Society
(Audio tape)

Dancing in the Flames: The Dark Goddess in the Transformation of Consciousness

Iron John encourages men to move beyond ready-made versions of masculinity to a responsive form of masculinity, just as Marion's Leaving My Father's House: A Journey to Conscious Femininity encourages women to move from "the ready-made femininity the patriarchal culture has imposed on them" into a responsive form of femininity. This book, in a sense, begins where those two books leave off. The story ends in a reunion and a marriage, metaphorically Jung's Alchemical Marriage between the conscious masculine and the conscious feminine.

In the journey through the story Robert and Marion point out the many ways our culture has made us unconscious and fed on this unconsciousness--things like addictions, materialism, and a drive for instant gratification. A delightful section "How Kali Belongs in the Malls" illustrates this. Earlier, Robert had pointed out that in the adolescent the sexual chakra opens a few months before the spiritual chakra, and that while the opening of the sexual chakra receives enormous support in the outer world, the spiritual opening, receiving almost no response, closes again. (This is a theme that Robert A. Johnson also brings out well, in the interview with him in the last issue of Men's Voices.) But the ecstasy promised by the spiritual chakra never comes and the adolescent experiences emptiness instead. "… in our culture it's as if adolescents are sold this emptiness. Consumer pirates and advertising agencies find the emptiness helpful to them, and a young American is urged to fill the emptiness with alcohol, sexual conquests, clothes, designer drugs, rudeness, flights from home, breakings of the law, self-pity, spiky hair, pregnancy, agreeing to be no one."

Robert points out that our admiration of the Great Goddess as only the Good Mother, the Universal Mother, the Abundant Mother, is misguided. He quotes David Kinsley's book Hindu Goddesses: "These other goddesses, 'mother goddesses' in the obvious sense, give life. Kali takes life, insatiably. … If mother goddesses are described as ever-fecund, Kali is described as ever-hungry. … the direct opposite of a fertile, protective mother goddess." He continues:

The consumer culture we live in promises an abundance almost inconceivable in earlier centuries. The Mall of America in Minneapolis is the largest mall in the world, and it has a statue of Snoopy taller than any statue of Christ in Minneapolis. If we replaced Snoopy with a statue of Kali, with her fangs, her bloody cleaver, her necklace of skulls, her long tongue hanging out, we would see the true face of mall culture. Everyone who saw it would be a tiny bit more adult. They might notice also that our abundance implies insatiable hunger elsewhere in the world.

Many mythologies declare that underneath that Giving of the Good Mother lies an insatiable hunger. We have not done very well in portraying the Dark Side of the Goddess and keeping it alive. I think that is one reason we do not take seriously the impoverishment that is taking place in other parts of the world, brought about by global capitalism. We receive the Feeding, and workers in the "underdeveloped" countries receive the Eating.

Robert and Marion don't just talk about the many ways we're unconscious. They provide clues for the route to consciousness, the only plane where the reunion of the masculine and the feminine can occur. This is not a "self-help" book or a "how to" book. This is not the place to look for "the answer," for the simple reason that each man's and each woman's journey to consciousness is a highly personal and individual one. As the New York Times reviewer Ms. Lehrman pointed out in her own book, "becoming fully autonomous, achieving personal power" has turned out to be a demanding and sometimes lonely pursuit. Instead of "answers," Robert and Marion provide powerful metaphors, some of which will work for you, and some of which won't. As you see what resonates with you--and more importantly what in these metaphors upsets you and makes you mad, makes you want to scream out "It's not like that!"--you will have your own personal clues to moving toward consciousness and reunion of masculine and feminine.

Robert's section is written in a poetic style. By this, I don't mean "lyrical" so much as I mean "speaking in metaphors." This is especially true in the beginning of his section, where he is laying the groundwork for the images and metaphors he develops more fully later. Like a poem, his prose initially lays out image after image for you to relate to as you will, rather than going on at length to develop a thesis around each image or metaphor. This is work for you to do in your imagination, as much as it is for him to do on the page. If the comments seem cryptic at the beginning, more like notes to an essay, don't be overwhelmed by a need for instant gratification, instant clarity. It's just the groundwork for weaving together the metaphoric themes of the story.

Marion's section is a more straightforward psychological interpretation, in the mode of other great Jungian writers. She brings imagination and passion to her interpretation, and complements Robert beautifully. She follows admirably in the tradition of the great Jungian analyst and author Marie-Louise von Franz, author of The Feminine in Fairytales, to whom the book is dedicated. And her interpretations are as poetic as they are insightful.

What happens at the end of the book, when Robert and Marion dialog? Well, they disagree. In fact, they take each other to task. But there is no conflict. While we focus on getting to the Alchemical Marriage, the reunion of masculine and feminine, nobody is yet asking, "What happens after the marriage?" Does everyone live happily ever after, as in a fairy tale, or has the work just begun? My wife Bernetta's father used to entertain her with Cinderella and Prince Charming stories--what happened after they were married. In this dialog between Robert and Marion four things happen, above and beyond the dialog on specific points in the book. They criticize each other's interpretations. Neither one backs down, and neither changes the other's mind. They show love and respect for each other as they deal with their differences. And each feels they have learned something, and are richer for the exchange. Is this the key to moving beyond gender conflict, into the reunion of masculine and feminine?

This book will be especially fascinating to people who have viewed and studied the Applewood video series On Men and Women, the 6-part series aired on Canadian public broadcasting in which Robert and Marion explore this story with a live workshop audience. This book culminates over a decade of Robert and Marion working together, and over seven years of work in exploring the depths and intricacies of this story. (A special section of MenWeb, "Robert and Marion: Over A Decade of Magic in Working Together," chronicles this work.) My first reaction was that I would be reviewing old material, but this book affirms Robert and Marion's point that the magic of these tales is that they are fresh and new with each retelling. There is much here that will be new and refreshing to people who have seen the videotape series and attended Robert and Marion's workshops based on the story.

But the book has a much broader and important message, for anyone who is concerned about the gender polarization in our society or about the materialism, self-orientation, instant gratification, addictions or other signs that our lives are empty, that something is missing. If you have the feeling that the answer is not in logic and rationality, not in owning more things, not in power politics, but in the realm of spirit and soul, then you owe it to yourself to read this book to search for keys to reunion of masculine and feminine in the world around you.

Related stories:

Listen to an MP3 WebCast
Hear an MP3 Webcast of Robert and Marion

Robert Bly and Marion Woodman: Over a Decade of Magic in Working Together. Chronicles, as only MenWeb can, the work that Robert and Marion have done together since Marion joined one of Robert's Great Mother conferences in the 80s.

Facing the Shadow in Men and Women. A MP3 WebCast of a portion of a workshop Robert and Marion did in 1991. Read our review of the audiotape of this conference, and order the audio tape directly from MenWeb.

Robert Bly and Marion Woodman On Men and Women. Review of the Applewood videotape series of a workshop where Robert and Marion worked with "The Maiden Tsar," the fairy tale at the center of The Maiden King.

Inner Man, Inner Woman: An Interview with Marion Woodman. A MenWeb exclusive interview with Marion Woodman, centering on the Applewood videotape series.

An Interview with Robert Bly. An interview with Robert prior to his coming to Seattle with Marion to do a workshop based on the Applewood videotape series.

An Interview with Marion Woodman. An interview with Marion, again prior to their coming to Seattle to do a workshop based on the Applewood videotape series. These two interviews ran side by side on the front cover of M.E.N. Magazine the month of the event.

The Pin on the Wall: Learning from Marion Woodman and Robert Bly, by Bert H. Hoff. A story following up on the Seattle workshop.

The Sibling Society, by Bert H. Hoff. A book review of Robert's last non-fiction book.


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