I WAS TALKING with a friend the other evening of this and that,
the things which matter: children, wives, old movies, values, children ... children.
Fathers can have children-talk as well as mothers, a fact which Ellen Goodman does not seem to notice. There is something missing from her vignettes of contemporary domestic life. One would not know from them that there are such things as fathers.
It was not surprising in a conversation on such matters that one of us said: "One reason why I look forward to Christmas is that the Errol Flynn version of 'Robin Hood' comes on TV." Our talk now raced ahead, as one or other of us said, "Do you remember the scene where Friar Tuck ... ?" Of course one remembers it; one knows it by heart. So we turned to discuss why such a movie has such life in it.
It will not be remade with Dustin Hoffman in the title role. Errol Flynn as Robin Hood is irreplaceable. Why? The story of Robin Hood is one of the great legends of the good guy against the bad guy, with the good guy always winning even against all the odds, and in the Errol Flynn movie the legend is given just like that, with no ambiguities. There are no grays. The moral combat is in black and white.
This was true of many of what we call the old movies. "Hollywood in its great days" had a strong sense of simple moral values. It belived in its art, believing in its purpose. But that is not the point which is most worth making. What matters is that children urgently need stories like the legend of Robin Hood, and they need those stories told in exactly the way in which Errol Flynn plays the role.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote: "The child does not know that men are not only bad from good motives, but also often good from bad motives. Therefore the child has a hearty, healthy, unspoiled and unsatiable appetite for mere morality, for the mere difference between a good little girl and a bad little girl". No child has any difficulty in telling the "mere difference" between Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham.
But it is important as well that the good guy should not be a "goody- goody." No child can think of Robin Hood as a goody-goody. He stole from the rich. He gave what he stole to the poor, it is true, but probably took a cut for himself. (Otherwise, how could they have lived so well in Sherwood Forest? He and his Merry Men obviously did not live on acorns.) He drank. He revelled. And one has the suspicion that chastity did not count for much; that they may even have had premarital sex.
Robin Hood is a good guy, certainly, but not a member of the Moral Majority. What is more, of course, that is how Errol Flynn plays him. One can be a good guy without being a goody-goody; what a relief for a child to realize that! Children need stories like this, yes, but the truth is that we also need them. I have found no adult to whom I have talked who does not like to watch "Robin Hood".
Even though it is part of adulthood to recognize and cope with moral ambiguities, there has to be a place even in adult literature for the assertion of simple moral values; and it is precisely such a place which our culture seems unwilling to allow. Where are our novelists who can rival the great masters of the past? We have none, because none dare feed "the unsatiable appetite for mere morality."
They squeeze out only the thin juices of moral ambiguity, while we thirst for the rich wine of moral categories. It may be desirable for a child, at some stage, to read "Catcher in the Rye" (although I would be hard put to it to explain why). But the child is less likely to be intrigued by the book's equivocal morality if he first has the story of Robin Hood in his veins and a hundred other old stories of straightforward good and bad.
The child also needs to be taught history in the simple language of good and bad. Even some Americans used to brought up on a book of poems, "The Kings and Queens of England," by Eleanor Farjeon and with pictures by her brother Herbert; I again no know adult, including the Americans, who does not remember it. Not only remember it with delight, but be able to recall some lines from it.
One has doubt from those poems that there were some Good Kings and some Bad Kings. (There were also some In-Between Kings, but they are not very interesting.) "Bad King John" he was, "Bad King John" he remains. It is true that modern historians can find mitigating circumstances to excuse his conduct: "He wasn't all that bad." But the fact is that, if one's pushed to a final judgment, he was all that bad.
The people of England whom he ruled thought that he was bad. He was at the head of a system of "oppression, avarice and selfish indulgence," as one great historian describes it, "harsh and tyrannical." It was this system which Robin Hood -- whether in fact or in legend -- defied as an outlaw in the forest. He would not have become such a legend if the people did not think that his cause was right.
John was bad; Robin was good. The secular priest in "Piers PLowman" could not say his Paternoster but "could yet rhyme of Robin Hood." The historian whom I have just quoted describes Robin as "this elusive and irresponsible sportsman," a charming description of him -- and also of how he is played by Errol Flynn. But even if he was only that, the legend of him is no less real.
The same historian says of him: "Robin Hood, the hero of romance, of ballad writers and of May Day festivities, represents the cheerful side of the life of the forest, where merry and carefree men consorted in defiance of the law." In defiance, it needs to be added, of bad law. The people were not strong enough to rebel. The story of Robin kept up their spirits.
But there would have been no Robin Hood, if there had not also been a Bad King. If our history books will not say that there was a Bad King, then neither can they ever say that there was a Good King. If they will not say that any president was simply Bad, then how can they say that Abraham Lincoln was actually Good? Children's history is needed to steel then, later in life, against revisionist historians.
The story of Robin Hood is not really read in school. It is read at home. "The Kings and Queens of England" was not a school textbook. It was a playtime book at home. There is rightly a lot of concern today about the transmission of old values from generation to generation. We might be less concerned if we stopped looking to schools, or psychiatrists, or even to churches, to do the work of transmission for us.
The place to transmit values in the home. In a distorted way, the Moral Majority understands this. But in this case, why do they want to censor books, in schools or libraries? I heard one young father say the other day: "I'm almost a Victorian parent." The phrase is, of course, only an idiom. Yet it also speaks, and it speaks strongly. I wish that the Moral Majority would sometimes notice the strength of young people's revolt against "permissiveness".
Permissiveness: the very word already seems outdated. A dreary word, which went along with "radical chic," and all the rest. There is still much wasteland to be retrieved from the decade of permissiveness. But it is not going to be retrieved by laws; and it is also already being retrieved in countless homes, including precisely the kind of homes where permissiveness once reigned.
What is wrong with the Moral Majority is that it gives very little credit to the moral stamina of ordinary people. Their culture may try to lead them into a maze of moral ambiguity. For a time, they may follow. But something in them then revolts. They get sick of it. They get sick of sloppiness, they get sick of slackness, in themselves and others. And they leave their culture behind, to catch up with them later.
For there is another thing: in the matter of stealing from the rich to give to the poor, the Moral Majority had better watch out. In that matter, when it is forced to their attention, people are on the side of the poor, even of an outlaw. Robin Hood is bred into the most unlikely people. They down the tuition tax credit, ward by ward by ward, right across the District of Columbia. One doesn't steal from the poor, that vote said, to give it to the rich.
That isn't what Robin Hood did with his time. But that is why King John is rightly known as a Bad King. For the morality spreads from the home even into political life, if it is taught, as it should be taught, in children's books and movies which we then still like as adults. When one first reads of good and bad, after all, one captures also a picture of one's country.
America? A tuition tax credit? Come, Robin Hood! We have need of you at this hour! Blow your horn! Gather your Merry Men! Leap from tree to tree and branch to branch! And Robin Hood arrived, as he always does, right on time: on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 1981, in the District of Columbia, from ward to ward, hitting the Sheriff of Nottingham on the head. Just like in the movie.