How old were you when your Inner King started dying?
Three, four? Even five, if you were lucky.
By 12, he was almost certainly gone, or at least weary.
This is the picture Robert Bly paints, rather painfully I’m sure, as he explains the three levels of the King that must find healthy expression through us if our society collectively is to thrive.
Thankfully, he also offers a possible remedy to the declining condition of the King, which we’ll come to.
This reflection is inspired by Bly's powerful classic literary work, 'Iron John: A Book About Men'.
But is not only for men.
We all suffer from a lack of healthy King energy in the world, and inside of us. But today let us talk about a man’s inner world, for that doesn’t happen enough.
Let us indulge in the drama of the predicament together, and land on a possible way out of it.
The Inner King
When a man’s Inner King is dead, sacrificed, he almost certainly does not know who he is.
Nor does he know what he likes. Or if he’s allowed to have preferences.
How can he decide what he does with his year or his month, let alone his day, if he no longer has a connection to his centre?
He’s lost his sense of true direction, which died with his sense of self. As such, he finds himself reacting to life, rather than being powerfully responsible for it.
Now, what about the other levels of the King who contribute to this King energy “infrastructure” we’re trying to grasp here?
The Sacred King
The Earthly King
These are what naturally accompany, empower and inspire the Inner King (the one we’ve just considered).
Understanding the layers
Let us jump to the Sacred King briefly. He is mythological in nature–he is generally unseeable. Call it God, Universal energy, call it Zeus or Hermes if you like. But understand that it’s a unifying force that wherever present, order exists (in place of chaos).
Allergic to faith and fairytales? Call it an “organising principle” instead.
For the system to work, the Sacred King in the sky must be connected to the Inner King, who lives inside of each man.
That connection happens via the Earthly King.
In centuries past, this would literally have been the king representing the monarchy. But as we’ve rejected such systems for the most part and given power to elected governments instead, we’ve had to find a proxy.
The Earthly King’s better understood avatar these days is the Political King.
And now you see why we have a challenge down here, beneath the mythological layer…
The Earthly or Political King plays the role of holding for us the image of the Sacred King that lives inside all of us as the Inner King.
If that middle, connecting layer is not sound, the Inner King becomes weak and unable to create order in his life, or those of others.
He cannot see clearly the image of the Sacred King represented by one who is visible, who walks the Earth.
Maybe disorder or lack of self-trust does not result in all areas of his life, but often some.
Maybe he’s strong at work. Adaptable socially. And weak in the home.
Maybe it’s the opposite.
Lots of things can impact his strength in different areas, and one might appropriately consider their relationship with their own father in understanding this dynamic.
The modern dilemma
When you look out into the world, who is available to play this Earthly King role?
As Bly points out, previous generations had Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Eisenhower and Roosevelt (and perhaps Stalin if we’re to consider the darker influences).
One could argue they made good proxies.
Now, we have the likes of Biden, King Charles, Musk and Trump (and whatever darker forces you might consider, dare I name them when history is still in progress…).
With such examples, what is a man to reach for?
More importantly perhaps, what is a boy to reach for? Children are our future.
Would he really look at the President of the United States and say “Mama, one day I am going to lead this country”?
Perhaps instead he will aspire to build rockets to go to Mars. Which I would understand. And I would assert is a much better alternative than simply feeling hopeless (but maybe not more likely).
Children aside, what about the rest of us who are having trouble developing our Inner King?
For the many men who are unsure of themselves, and the women too (for they also have Inner Kings, but that’s a slightly different story).
The way out
Bly offers some breadcrumbs toward the remedy, on which we will build:
‘The process of bringing the inner King back to life, when looked at inwardly, begins with attention to tiny desires–catching hints of what one really likes…’
And I would elaborate that during the gathering of the parts of oneself hinted at by a spark of desire, the gatherer ought to avoid numbing.
Yes, it may seem “desirable” to take whatever offers some relief from the reality one lives–food, alcohol, drugs, work, social media, sex, offence, drama–choose your “poison”.
Unsure of whether the activity is “numbing”, one can ask themselves the question ‘is this taking me closer to or further away from myself?’
So what might nourish the Inner King and bring him back to life, and bring the man back to himself?
Maybe it’s a hard workout. Maybe it’s buying the “ugly” brown sweater instead of the trendy pastel one. Maybe it’s walking outside with no shoes on, or sitting on a park bench all afternoon doing nothing. Maybe it’s saying ‘I’d prefer to have that conversation with you later, because right now I need to take some quiet time for myself’, (and taking it).
Maybe it’s ordering the steak and veggies instead of the falafel bowl.
‘...William Stafford describes that as taking in our fingers the end of the golden thread.’
(Continues Bly as he sets out the first steps of the reclamation process.)
That is how we start to revive the Inner King. As the layers of the King energy are all interconnected, I'd suggest that’s also how we might eventually lift up that middle layer that seems to have collapsed, at least in the modern West.
I've seen this done on the individual level, right before my eyes, in my practice. Which is why I believe in its power when more of us do this.
How do we do it?