Good Guys, Bad Guys, and Little Guys

A father ponders the moral architecture of children on a trip to Sherwood Forest
Odd. There are people in Nottingham, England, who don’t seem to have heard of Sherwood Forest. The clerks at the hotel stare as if no one has ever asked how to get there. They call a number and say a cab will cost £30 each way. Wow. I at first thought Sherwood would be a big theme park, with the region focused around it, like Orlando. I have since learned it is a nature preserve, with a short Robin Hood Festival each summer. We planned to get here on its final weekend. But I was sure there’d be regular tourist buses.

My son Gideon has been engaged with Robin Hood since age four; as we make this trip, he’s almost six. Pin it on Ross Petty, at the start. The actor-entrepreneur produces an English-style pantomime in Toronto each Christmas. Two years ago, it had been Robin Hood, with Ross as the Sheriff of Nottingham. In music-hall tradition, the audience was encouraged to boo and cheer. Gideon was enthralled. From there we went to movie versions, especially the 1938 Errol Flynn film, with its robust music and rollicking jokes. Those tales met the main condition for capturing his four-year-old’s interest: they were about good guys versus bad guys.

Maybe it sprang from the rich, fraught world of daycare.

The big kids get their way over little ones: on snacks, access to swings, etc. It’s not fair. Or was it about the relationship to parents and other adults, who get to set the rules, often just because they say so? Or both, one injustice reinforcing another. Gideon started dividing the world into good guys and bad guys, as if it were an innate impulse. The Robin nexus added an intriguing complexity. Robin was an outlaw, but a good guy. He did bad things, like stealing, but for good-guy reasons. So that seemed to make it . . . all right. Only the bad guys objected when Robin lied or stole. “Are bad guys nice to each other?” he asked one day from the car seat. And: “How did the Sheriff of Nottingham get to be a bad guy? I think all the time about it.” Surely the Sheriff had started life as just a kid.

What I knew about child development went back to my days as a philosophy grad student in New York in the late 1960s. My friends in psych all made pilgrimages to Geneva to study with Jean Piaget, the grand master. They talked about the narrow range of kids Piaget based his studies on, especially his own children. He spent most of his career studying the development of cognitive processes: how abstractions and categories form, where logic originates, etc. In 1965, he published The Moral Judgment of the Child, tracing the rise of a sense of good and bad in a way similar to his model for intellectual development. Emboldened by the notion that your own kid can serve as a model, I began to wonder: Why make cognition the main focus? For kids themselves, it is often moral issues that underlie their experience of the world.

It isn’t just that kids divide the world into good guys and bad guys. It’s the fertility of those categories. When we climb into a canoe at the lake, Gideon becomes Cottage Robin (like Rocket Robin, on the retro-toon shows), paddling through Sherwood Marsh to save the people of the lost city of Atlantis, which he’d watched on dvd, emphasizing the theme of rescue, though the film didn’t. Or he’ll bring the moral quality of The Force (after seeing Star Wars) into a race on his bike (“Gideon, The Force is with you”) or add Obi-Wan Kenobi to the Justice League action figures on the living-room floor, where large realistic characters interact with a dinky metal plane that stands in for Darth Vader, no questions asked—and the key to the motley concoction is not an indiscriminate mingling of real with represented, or tiny with huge, but the underpinning moral theme: good guys against bad guys, which draws it all together.

“How about we go watch a dvd on your computer?” says Gideon, who is bushed after the overnight flight and two-hour train ride to Nottingham. So we fling ourselves on the hotel bed and watch Looney Tunes.

The desk calls. There is indeed a bus, they say. It stops across the street, or is supposed to, and it’s due in seven minutes. I tell Gideon we can run for it. He’s not interested. He lacks the adult sense of mission and duty while travelling. For him, there’s no contradiction between coming all this way, then watching a cartoon because you’re tuckered out. All the components of a life nestle together, the way Robin and Darth Vader and even Harry Potter coexist in the games he plays. That goes for morality too. It’s an adult cognitive trick to compartmentalize the moral sense in a term like ethics, which you can then write books on or take a degree in. Out in reality, the moral elements are imbricated in the flow of life and can be separated only artificially.

After supper at Pizza Hut, we stumble onto the outer wall of Nottingham Castle. It looks exactly right. There’s a great statue of Robin. We follow the wall, a massive structure, down a hill, and around a corner we find Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem, “the oldest inn in England,” says the sign. It dates to the first Crusade. It’s built into the wall of the castle and there have been no unnecessary renovations. When we finally go through the gates, there’s no castle there. It came down long ago, though there’s a nineteenth-century manorial pile in its place, which we have no interest in entering.

Next morning we catch the bus. It’s called the Sherwood Arrow, makes a million stops, circles lazily, and finally arrives in the forest. There are food stands and a kiosk selling Robinalia where the vendors call us “sire.” I resist buying a plastic crossbow and foam arrows, which I say to Gideon we can find anywhere. We get a Lincoln-green cap, a collar, a sword, and a dagger (beech wood from the forest, they say). Then we start down a path with a sign that says, “To The Major Oak.” We assume it’s what we know as Gallows Oak, from the Flynn flick, where Robin rallied the peasantry to join him against Prince John and for good King Richard. (Another complexity: is Robin a rebel against authority or a loyal royalist?) And this is where the magic begins.
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