A few weeks ago, the popular YouTuber and “strongman” Elliott Hulse posed in an Instagram photo with a shotgun resting against his shoulder. “There’s an attack on masculinity,” the caption read. He went on to write that “men are being feminized, emasculated, and sterilized in the womb.” The post was a promotion for Hulse’s coaching program for men, which is guided by the framework of four key archetypes for manhood: king, warrior, magician, and lover. In a recent Instagram story, he barked at the camera while holding that gun again, “If you want to join a group of likeminded men... message me the word ‘king.’”
This time, he cocked the gun for dramatic effect.
Hulse’s coaching program appears influenced by the 1990 book King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine, and he isn’t alone. The book, a spirituality title that hit the bestseller list at publication, is now enjoying renewed popularity within the thriving realm of Instagram-savvy self-help gurus focused on the topic of masculinity. Its influence is evident in everything from specialized “magician” workshops to YouTube guidance on “becoming a KING” to a one-day “warrior training.” Currently, it ranks as an Amazon No. 8 bestseller in the category of “Men’s Gender Studies,” just behind Neil Strauss’s The Game and John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.
The book isn’t just beloved by men waving around guns on social media. King, Warrior, Magician, Lover is also embraced by long-haired men who carry wooden staffs, beat drums in the desert, and talk about “inner work.” Three decades after it was published by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette—a psychoanalyst and mythologist, respectively—the book has found a diverse new audience of seekers. This is despite the fact that Moore in 2016 murdered his wife before dying by suicide.
In light of its enduring and broad-based cachet, I decided to read King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, not as a historical relic, but as a reflection of the models of masculinity that are gaining traction these days. I found a book that, although written in the early nineties, was thoroughly disinterested in reimagining the future of masculinity. Instead, it gazes longingly backward to the distant, and fictive, past. That is to say nothing of its unapologetic gender essentialism, heteronormativity, and cultural appropriation—as well as poetic reveries about cavemen. These are among the same concerns raised by feminists back in the nineties in response to the rising “mythopoetic men’s movement,” which popularized weekend retreats where privileged men traveled into the woods and went “wild,” and of which this book was a major influence.
Here we are, again. Still.
Published in 1990, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover decried a “crisis in masculine identity of vast proportions” in which it feels “increasingly difficult to point to anything like either a masculine or a feminine essence.” This was not an optimistic, progressive celebration of a needed move away from gender essentialism, but rather a distressed call for a return to it. As Moore and Gillette saw it, this so-called crisis of blurred delineations was a result of the “breakdown of the traditional family,” in which an absent father “wreaks psychological devastation,” damaging “both his daughters’ and his sons’ ability to achieve their own gender identity and to relate in an intimate and positive way with members both of their own sex and the opposite sex.”
But it hurt grown men, most especially. They argued that men were “overwhelmed by the feminine” and missing “an adequate connection to the deep and instinctual masculine energies, the potentials of mature masculinity.” Moore and Gillette saw feminism as partly to blame for leveling “critique upon what little masculinity [men] could still hold onto for themselves.” They held a moralistic and conventional vision of the ultimate reward for achieving adequate masculine connection: “Monogamy... can be seen as the product of a man’s own deep rootedness and centeredness,” they wrote. (Of course, the book was also fundamentally heteronormative and homophobic, given the veneration of the “traditional family” and the critique of fatherless households.)
They weren’t alone in identifying this supposed masculinity crisis. Earlier that same year, poet Robert Bly’s bestseller Iron John: A Book About Men identified the problem of modern men who lacked traditional masculine role models. He blamed this on the Industrial Revolution for taking fathers out of the domestic sphere and leaving boys with the femininizing influence of mothers. Together, these books helped launch the mythopoetic men’s movement, which attracted white, middle-class, middle-aged, heterosexual men with a sense of entitlement to an outdated masculine ideal. In a 1995 essay collection written by “profeminist men,” Michael S. Kimmel and Michael Kaufman wrote, “The men’s movement is the cry of anguish of privileged American men, men who feel lost in a world in which the ideologies of individualism and manly virtue are out of sync with the realities of urban, industrialized, secular society.”
Moore and Gillette, as with Bly, didn’t just blame feminism. They blamed “the disappearance of ritual processes for initiating boys into manhood.” Rituals in “traditional societies” facilitated a move from “Boy psychology” to “Man psychology,” they explained. “By disconnecting from ritual we have done away with the processes by which both men and women achieved their gender identity in a deep, mature, and life-enhancing way,” they wrote. Without these rituals, they argued that “Boy psychology” dominates, meaning “abusive and violent acting-out behaviors against others” as well as “passivity and weakness, the inability to act effectively and creatively in one’s own life and to engender life and creativity in others.” Patriarchy, they said, was simply the result of the “immature masculine.”
In contrast, they upheld their notion of the “mature masculine,” which is often informed by a romanticization of the distant, and sometimes prehistoric, past. For example, Moore and Gillette wrote of visiting “the caves of our distant Cro-Magnon ancestors in France,” descending by lamplight into “the dark of those otherworldly, and inner-worldly, sanctuaries” and jumping “back in startled awe and wonder at the mysterious, hidden wellsprings of masculine might we see depicted there.” They wax about the bison, antelope, and mammoth “that leap and thunder in pristine beauty and force across the high, vaulted ceilings” and the “handprints of men, of the artist-hunters, the ancient warriors and providers, who met here and performed their primeval rituals.”
They found hope for a return of the “mature masculine” in “tribal” rituals that allow boys to be “reborn” as men. These rituals use “a specially constructed hut or house,” a “cave,” a “‘magic circle’ of magicians,” or “the vast wilderness into which the would-be initiate is driven... to find his manhood.” Most important, “this space must be sealed from the influence of the outside world, especially, in the case of boys, from the influence of women.” Initiates experience “terrifying emotional and excruciatingly painful physical trials,” as they “learn to submit to the pain of life, to the ritual elders, and to the masculine traditions and myths of the society.” They learn to submit to masculine tradition.
It’s no surprise the mythopoetic movement, of which this book was a key influence, saw the explosion of weekend men’s group retreats, often inspired by those aforementioned “tribal” rituals. Kimmel and Kaufman wrote that this trend had men wandering “through anthropological literature like post-modern tourists as if the world’s cultures were an enormous shopping mall filled with ritual boutiques.” Moore and Gillette in particular snatched “theories from Native American cosmology, Jungian archetypes, and images from ancient Egypt, 7th century Tibet, Aztecs, Incas, and Sumerians.” They added, “All are totally decontextualized.”
Not only did these ritual retreats involve cultural appropriation, but also a particularly ironic flight from parental responsibility, given the critique of the damage done by absent dads. Kimmel and Kaufman explained that workshop attendees “are middle-aged men, many of whom are, themselves, fathers,” although they “rarely speak of their own children.” While these men are off in the woods, their wives are at home taking care of the kids. “Men breaking down their isolation and fears of one another is important, but to get to the core of the problem requires men to play a role in domestic life through equal and shared parenting.” That is where men will find the “emotional qualities that they have rejected in real life,” they argued, not by “stomping through the wood hugging other men who have taken totemic animal names.” Kimmel and Kaufman continued:
They are to be found in the simple drudgery of everyday life in the home. Cleaning the toilet, ironing, or washing dishes are not romantic—you don’t have to be a ‘golden eagle’ to keep your nest clean. But they are the everyday stuff of nurtured care. They are skills that are learned, not received by divine revelation after howling at the moon in the forest.
Moore and Gillette, however, were adamant in presenting masculine maturation as happening apart from “the influence of the outside world” and, most specifically, the realm of women. “What is missing is not, for the most part, what many depth psychologists assume is missing; that is, adequate connection with the inner feminine,” they wrote. Instead, men need “an adequate connection to the deep and instinctual masculine energies.”
Of course, those “energies” are the subject matter of the book’s title: the masculine fairytales that Moore and Gillette paradoxically take to be both fundamentally true of, and aspirational for, men. “It is our experience that deep within every man are blueprints, what we can also call ‘hard wiring,’ for the calm and positive mature masculine,” they write. Suffice to say, Moore and Gillette are no fans of Judith Butler. In the world of King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, there is no distinction made between sex and gender, and gender isn’t seen as a performative but rather “hard wiring.” Oddly, though, this “hard wiring” seems to require cultural creation in the form of elaborate rituals and in-depth archetypal instruction.
The book’s four masculine archetypes are drawn in part from the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who famously theorized the “collective unconscious,” a concept of cross-cultural “instinctual patterns and energy configurations probably inherited genetically throughout the generations of our species,” as Moore and Gillette frame it. They argue that, throughout history and across cultures, “we see the same essential figures appearing in folklore and mythology.” In these figures, Moore and Gillette apprehend fundamental truths and values from which men have been harmfully distanced.
Their archetypal survey often feels like reading the quick-start instruction manual for a stack of Tarot cards. “The King archetype in its fullness possesses the qualities of order, of reasonable and rational patterning, of integration and integrity in the masculine psyche,” they write. “It stabilizes chaotic emotion and out-of-control behaviors.” The warrior archetype “is a basic building block of masculine psychology, almost certainly rooted in our genes,” they argue. It’s an “energy” that is “universally present in us men and in the civilizations we create, defend, and extend,” they claim. The magician, they say, “is the knower and he is the master of technology,” they say, giving the example of Merlin, King Arthur’s magician. Finally, there is the lover, whom they define as “the primal energy pattern of what we could call vividness, aliveness, and passion.”
Even outside of weekend retreats, it’s possible for men to get in touch with these “mature masculine” archetypes, according to Moore and Gillette. They liken all four figures to board members of the psyche and encourage men to engage in “active imagination dialogue” with “these energy forms that wear our faces but are timeless and universal.” They also suggest a technique of archetypal “invocation” wherein a man might focus on “an image of a Roman emperor on his throne” and “talk to the image” while calling “up the King inside” himself, and engaging in something like prayer. “Tell him that you need him, that you need his help—his power, his favor, his orderliness, his manliness,” they wrote.
Another advocated approach is acting “as if” one were one of these archetypes. “On the stage, you act kingly, even if you’ve just been fired from your job and your wife has left you! ‘The show must go on,’ and others are depending on you to play your part well,” they explain. “So you pick up your script; you read the king’s lines; you sit on the throne; and you act like the king. Pretty soon, believe it or not, you will start to feel like a king.” Essentially, fake it ‘till you make it.
The publication of King, Warrior, Magician, Lover was followed by four additional books, each diving into an archetype at greater length. It’s not just that there was that much more to say about Merlin as a prototype for mature “magician” masculinity, but also that they theorized that each of “the archetypal energy potentials in the male psyche” has a three-part triangular structure with the “archetype in its fullness” up top and the “bipolar dysfunction, or shadow, form” at the bottom.” For example, accompanying the king archetype is the “Tyrant,” who “instead of seeing others” seeks “to be seen by them,” and the “Weakling,” who “lacks centeredness, calmness, and security.” The shadow, argued Moore and Gillette, is where most men live.
When Moore killed his wife, psychotherapist Margaret Shanahan, and himself in 2016, his colleagues and followers searched for explanations. Some pointed to the couple’s alleged financial problems, while others suspected that Moore’s alleged vascular dementia was a contributing factor. (The research on people with dementia committing murder is limited and suggests that such cases are uncommon. Typically, in murder-suicides involving elderly couples, it’s the victim, not the perpetrator, who has dementia.) Inevitably, many also turned to Moore’s own teachings on the shadow to make sense of the deaths.
“Someone like Moore, who was working on himself for decades is healthy enough not to manifest shadow energetics in pure form,” wrote the author Colin E. Davis in a blog post titled, “A Master’s Teaching in Disguise.” “But if circumstances arise which weaken the ego, especially physiological degradation such as he was experiencing, these energetics rise up.” Similarly, Eivind Figenschau Skjellum, founder of the “men’s work” site Reclaim your Inner Throne, said in a video, “It’s like the darkness that he dedicated his life to really mapping out and fighting... it seems to have taken him in the end.”
Amid these interpretations, the impact of the murder-suicide on the book’s enduring popularity was negligible. Last year, I spoke on background with a man within a progressive men’s group who said that Moore’s deadly violence led many to stop directly naming or quoting him, but the popularity of his ideas, frequently estranged from their now marginally controversial source, persists.
In fact, his ideas are often used by followers to explain a wide range of violence committed by men. In promoting his coaching program, the gun-toting Hulse blames archetypal shadows for headline-making “killing sprees headed by men who are sexually frustrated” and “men finding themselves ‘stuck’ in relationships they don’t want, and resorting to drastic, horrifying means to escape them.” He writes on his website, “The balance (or lack of) [sic] of these archetypes has been unconsciously impacting our decisions, actions, and thoughts for years.” Yet so many of King, Warrior, Magician, Lover’s contemporary followers decline to question these fundamental archetypes of masculinity—or their insistent belief in, and entitlement to, enacting those ancient models of manhood.
In that ’90s profeminist essay collection, the philosopher Ken Clatterbaugh wrote that the mythopoetics fail to “look at male privilege and institutionalized power as a source of the harms that come from the masculine role.” Instead, they blame feminists, industrialization, absent dads, shadows. Of course, many men are living in the shadows—of static conceptions of masculinity promoted by books like King, Warrior, Magician, Lover. In the evaporation of “either a masculine or a feminine essence,” Moore and Gillette saw grave danger, rather than potential and possibility. They taught men to “submit” to, rather than let go of, “masculine traditions and myths.” They responded to changing social roles by reaching and grasping ever more desperately for the ancient and fictional. Three decades later, the future of masculinity still can’t escape its imaginary past.