Right around the time I graduated from high school, a book was published that made a big splash in American culture. The book was Iron John - A Book About Men by poet Robert Bly and it was an extended analysis on what the symbolism in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale of the same name revealed about what it meant to be a man. Although the book and the Mytho-Poetic movement that it became a part of during the '90s would go on to be ridiculed as a bunch of men hanging out in the woods, beating drums and crying about their fathers not letting them have long hair when they were young, the basic premise laid out by Bly in Iron John was and still is valid.
Using the events of the fairly tale as template, Bly explains that while a boy may biologically grow into an adult, he would never become a man until he was “initiated” into it. This involved a boy leaving behind the realm of comfort and safety that was traditionally associated with the mother, and being pushed and led by older and mature men through some arduous rite of passage. The purpose of going through such an ordeal was to challenge and harden the boy to accept and deal with the hardships of an adult life. The presence of other initiated men during the process was to ensure that there was no ambiguity about what was expected of them to be considered not just an adult male, but a man, i.e. someone capable of preserving, protecting, and passing on the culture they lived in.
Unfortunately, as Bly and more contemporary authors like Leonard Sax in his book Boys Adrift have pointed out, these rites of passage have virtually disappeared in our more enlightened and comfortable times. As a consequence Bly wrote, in his 1996 follow-up to Iron John, The Sibling Society, that we now live in a society “in which impulse is given its way” and where “people don’t bother to grow up anymore and we are all like a bunch of fish swimming in a tank of half-adults.” The “half-adults” Bly was commenting on was the Millennial generation he saw during the 90’s, and the ones Sax (who is both a physician and a therapist) saw was the Gen Z crowd of the '00s.
According to both authors, nowhere were these half-adults more evident than in stories that catered to those two generations in the movies and television shows they watched. For while Bly rightly pointed out that there is more to being a man than the bellicose models set by the likes of John Wayne, John Rambo, or John Wick. Hollywood has rejected those models and embraced their polar opposite. Today’s protagonists (calling them “heroes” seems to be a bit of a stretch) are weak soy-slackers and emotionally puerile men who are as unrealistic a model of manhood as the action-packed heroes are. When we do see a strong and decisive character, it is usually an anti-hero who engages in acts as egregious as the villains he is fighting, but which the audience is supposed to overlook because he is acting in the pursuit of some skewed form of justice.
However, every now and then (knowingly or not), Hollywood accurately portrays the story of a protagonists with not enough man in them, and the initiation process that transforms an immature male character into a man. Two films that recently they did so were, The Green Knight and Cry Macho.
Chivalry Dumbed Down
The Green Knight which was released in July, was written and directed by David Lowery and stars Dev Patel as Gawain. It follows the essential elements of the traditional tale, with some key differences. In the original tale, Gawain was a knight and model of chivalry, who was known for defending women. He bore a shield that had a five-pointed star on it that was meant to symbolize the five wounds of Christ, the five joys of Mary, and the five knightly virtues: generosity, courtesy, chastity, fellowship, and piety.
However, in typical Hollywood fashion, all of that is deconstructed in The Green Knight. Gawain is King Arthur’s nephew but not yet a knight, and is more of youthful hanger-on at the Round Table. In fact, the movie opens up with Gawain in a brothel where he spent Christmas Eve with his girlfriend Essel, before meeting his mother, Morgan le Fay, on the way to mass on Christmas day. Since Gawain is blood kin to King Arthur, le Fay is ambitious for her son’s future, and thus through her magic she summons the Green Knight to come to Arthur’s court to lay down his infamous challenge--a blow for a blow--which Gawain accepts. But when Gawain cuts off the Green Knight’s head and he still lives, he tells Gawain that a year from that time, the knight will deliver a similar blow to him.
Gawain then squanders almost an entire year in drunkenness and carousing before Arthur tells him that he must fulfill his oath and complete the Green Knight’s challenge. Thus, after an elaborate blessing ceremony, as well as being given a green girdle by his mother to protect him, he sets out on his quest to find the Green Knight. However, at every step along the way we see him fail in every chance he has to display the five knightly virtues. So that when he finally confronts the Green Knight, and kneels down to receive his agreed upon blow, Gawain balks and runs away.
He returns to Arthur and lies about what happened, whereupon he is finally knighted. The film then fast forwards through the events of his life as he eventually becomes king and endures a series of tragedies all the while remaining safe because of his protective girdle. Eventually at the end of his life, as his enemies are about to storm his castle, and everything and everyone he loved is gone or dead, he removes the girdle and dies. Whereupon, those events are shown to all have been a vision, and we are brought back to the chapel where Gawain is about to receive his blow. He once again balks, but this time he removes the girdle and tossed it aside, before saying, “Ok now I’m ready.” The Green Knight then replies, “Well done knight, now off with your head.”
You Cannot Serve Two Masters or Live in Two Worlds
The Green Knight is a surreal and often dream-like film that plays fast and loose with the narrative and leaves a lot up to the audience’s imagination. Obviously its portrayal of Gawain leaves a lot to be desired, and Lowry in keeping with contemporary narrative trends, offers his own take on the tale with a post-credit scene where a girl (of course) is the one to take up Arthur’s fallen crown. Nevertheless, it still makes a salient point about what was keeping Gawain from becoming a man and a knight.
Gawain, like a lot of young men today is shown as a carefree, pampered, and not-overly ambitious young man who puts his passions before principles. He aspires to be a knight and to gain notoriety and honor, but he is too attached to the safety and comfort of court life and a girlfriend he won’t commit to, to do anything to achieve that goal. Even when his hand is forced, and he sets out on his quest, it is with a girdle that his mother sends with him. The soft and velvety girdle is completely out of place on a dangerous quest, and perfectly symbolizes his attachment to the maternal comforts of home and his unrealistic expectations about what it takes to become a knight.
Moreover, it is a girdle that has been enchanted to protect him from harm but what it actually does is insulate him from the requisite hardships needed to grow as man and a knight. This seems to be the point of the visionary montage of his life when he runs away from taking his agreed upon blow. By being protected from all harm in his life, Gawain’s accomplishments as a knight and king end up being imaginary in nature. In fact, the vision is almost like a mirror of today’s young men who spend an inordinate amount of time online accomplishing various virtual deeds. With “virtual” having the double-meaning of “almost” as well as “imaginary.” But as we see, only when Gawain comes back to his senses, does he finally realize that in order to be a knight, he has to act like one, and hence must cut the proverbial cord to comfort and safety by throwing the girdle away and honoring his oath. Only then does the Green Knight refer to him as a “knight”.
The Skills of Being a Man
The Green Knight highlights how the progression from boyhood into manhood can only be done through a deliberate choice to leave behind one life and choose the other. What was missing from the story, was more of an explanation of what would come next, which is where Clint Eastwood’s movie Cry Macho comes in. Based on the 1975 novel of the same name by N. Richard Nash, Cry Macho tells the story of a aged and washed-up former rodeo star named Mike Milo. He is tasked by his former boss Howard Polk to drive down to Mexico, and bring back his 13-year old son Rafo who is living with his ex-wife.
Mike finds Rafo’s mother Leta, who lives in opulent surroundings, but tells him that Rafo was too wild and she never wanted to be a mother anyway, so Rafo ran away to live on the streets. Mike finds Rafo at a cockfight, where Rafo is a minor champion because of his rooster named “Macho.” Mike speaks with Rafo and tells him that his father in Texas wants him to come live with him, and Rafo agrees. They slowly make their way back to the border, all the while dodging Leta’s henchman who she has sent to bring back Rafo out of sheer spite. When their car is stolen, they stop and hide out in a small village for a few weeks, where they befriend a widow and her grandchildren. While there, Mike and Rafo become part of the community as they help the locals out with everything from auto repair, veterinary care, and breaking in horses. As Mike and Rafo work together, they form a bond, and eventually Mike tells Rafo that the choice is his of what kind of life he wants to live, and whether he will forgive his father for his past deeds and give him a chance to be his dad again.
The Things We Hand On
While have some have commented that for Eastwood’s last film, Cry Macho was kind of a dull end to a long and illustrious career. To be fair, Cry Macho is not one of Eastwood’s best films and is more or less a retread of Grand Torino, but it is certainly not his worst. Nevertheless, the film is still offers a great insight in the building up of a man.
In The Green Knight Gawain had no father, but had Arthur and the other knights of the Round Table as mentors. Thus his failings as a young man, had more to do with the choices he made and his unwillingness to be shaped and molded by the initiated men around him. In the case of Cry Macho, Rafo is on his own, with no father or mother to look after or guide him. In this sense, he too is like a lot of young men today, in that he has built an identity as a kind of “gamer” at cockfighting with “Macho” acting as his online avatar. But the reputation and skills he has developed will have limited usefulness outside of his own small world, and had he not met Mike his life would’ve gone nowhere.
It is during their time in the village, when Mike and Rafo live and work alongside each other, that Rafo observes and learns the knowledge and skills that Mike has acquired over a lifetime. All of which Mike patiently teaches Rafo, especially how to break in and ride horses, which is no easy task. In this way, Rafo learns how to talk, to act, to work, to handle problems, and how to fix things by trial and error. In short, by simply watching and observing and being alongside Mike, he learns what a capable and responsible man looks like.
Interestingly enough, in Iron John Bly complains that one of the reasons some boys never grow up, and why Sax says that so many of today’s youth are enamored with Socialism, is because all they ever learn about work from their parents is their complaints about it or the toll it takes on their family life. After all, how often do father’s share with their sons the good parts of their work such as the confidence that comes with being an expert at what they do, or the joy of closing a deal or finishing the construction of a wall or a house? How often do fathers talk about the people skills that their kids are already observing in them, such as dealing with things like work or relationships, let alone important issues such as living out and handing on their faith? Eastwood in Cry Macho, just like Grand Torino, offers a pleasant narrative that wrestles with those questions.
Instilling the Confidence to Become a Man
The common thread that is shared by The Green Knight and Cry Macho in regards to the making of a man, is of course the importance of fathers. As the character of Gawain shows, transitioning from a boy into a man, is something that a mother simply cannot do for her son. Nor is it something an absent or distracted father can do, and in truth, it is an act of cowardice or just plain laziness to do what far too many fathers today do, and leave the transition from boyhood into manhood to others or mere happenstance.
Telling a son that all he needs to do to "man up" is to “just be you” is like telling someone who doesn’t play a musical instrument, to just improvise. There are a lot of basic skills and knowledge about an instrument and music that are required before you can do that. To ignore that reality would only set someone up, not only for failure, but ridicule as their attempts to “improvise” would be seen as foolish. Likewise, as The Green Knight and Cry Macho show, when it comes to being a man, there needs to be a clear and deliberate initiatory path or process for the boy to follow.
There also needs to be a father or an authoritative male figure present and active in a boy’s life, so that they can teach and model the kind of skills and know-how needed to be a mature and responsible man. Further still, they must also teach their sons how to integrate all of those manly skills into a coherent narrative about what’s expected of them as a virtuous or knightly or honorable man of God. Without any of this, our culture will continue to raise half-adults, hanger-ons, and hedonists who don’t know enough to know that they don’t know what it means to be man. And more likely than not they never will, and our dysfunctional culture will continue apace.
NOTE- If you have not read the original story Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or it has been awhile, it is certainly a tale that every man should know and study. J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation of the tale is well-worth reading. For an audio version of the tale with some literary commentary, the YouTube channel Hidebound Convivium offers an excellent reading of it. And for a detailed retelling and explanation of the tale, Jonathan Pageau (who is always worth watching) at The Symbolic World has a two-part video series on it.