The Thunder-and-Lightning Brothers and the battle of good over evil
We live in the Boston area, so seeing guys standing around in full colonial garb is no uncommon sight. We’ve seen them waiting for the bus, hanging out eating ice cream, what have you. But as the boys and I were driving through Lexington the other day, I performed an awesome Boston driving maneuver and flew to the side of the road, to the closest available bad parking spot.
“Get out! Come on!”
We dashed down the sidewalk to a guy in modern dress with headphones who showed us where to stand. And we stood, transfixed, as a full Revolutionary War battle reenactment played out before us. Now, that you don’t see every day. Well, you do see it on Patriots’ Day, but none of us feel like waking up at 4:30 to go the Battle Green. Maybe someday.
In the park below us a formation of Redcoats, their drum steadily thumping, flag flitting the in breeze, beat a measured path to a group of Minutemen, confused, rag-tag, but determined. And then the (pretend) guns went off. I had my arms around each of the boys; I could feel C’s heart leap in his chest. The baby? Not a blink. He’s that stone cold.
Unprepared for the gunfight, the Minutemen fled to the nearby woods. Then they ambled back, and started the scene again. “What is this?” I turned to a spare British colonel on a Dunkin’ Donuts break. “It’s for the Discovery Channel,” he said haughtily. So I asked the headphones guy. “Did you like it?” he said to C. Nod. “It’s for a show called How Booze Built America.” Sounds awesome, but I guess we won’t be watching that one en famille. And by the way, Colonel Crueller? Just chill. You’re not Clint Eastwood.
We watched the battle unfold a few more times. C had lots of questions. “This isn’t a real battle, right?” No, I assured him. They are showing us what happened right here, more than two hundred years ago, so we can learn about how America was founded. And how Fish-House Punch was so integral to said founding. “So which are the good guys and which are the bad guys?”
Good guys and bad guys. It seems like C’s whole four-year-old world can be boiled down to that dichotomy. I first started noticing C parse the world this way while watching Star Wars. “Are those guys good guys? Are they bad guys?” he asks. Then I realized most of his play revolves around good guys and bad guys, whether it’s pretending at Star Wars, his favorite superhero, Spider-Man, or turning me into a villain who makes him get dressed and eat vegetables. Heroes and villains and their epic battles have such a hold on preschoolers. Even when they turn off the TV, or shut the book, the battle rages on. It’s how C approaches Legos, playgrounds, dinner, everything. Bath night is Waterloo every time. What is it about the battle of good versus evil that appeals to C and his ilk so much?
As a so-so literature student, I often gravitated to a book of criticism by Northrup Frye, called Anatomy of Criticism. It’s quaint to even think of Frye as quaint now, I think. But C’s superhero aspirations reminded me of the archetypes of literature Frye lays out in that book that I enjoyed bungling so long ago.
Here, let me oversimplify it for you. It’s fun. In the book, Frye lays out four seasons of literary archetypes. There is comedy (Spring), romance (Summer), tragedy (Fall), and winter (Irony). (Can you see why this book made for an easy, last-minute essay?) These superhero stories that appeal to C so much belong to Summer, romance. Not kissy-kissy romance, but tales of quest, of good battling evil. The hero who embarks on this quest embodies the ideals of a particular society; they are threatened by villains who don’t share their ideals, and try to stop them, thereby saving the world. It’s starting to sound an awful lot like every episode of Spectacular Spider-Man I’ve ever watched. And it’s Star Wars. Beowulf. It’s cowboys riding off into the sunset. If you think about it, many children’s TV shows take this form: Dora the Explorer besting Swiper (in her lame way); Phineas and Ferb against Doofenschmirtz; Super Why against, uh, illiteracy, maybe? You see what I mean. Through these kindergarten romances, children get their first introductions to literary tropes that they will revisit through their entire lives.
C has devised his own superhero identity. “Please call me Mr. C. Lightning,” he said (it’s funnier with his full name). “And this is my sidekick,” pointing at the baby, who he’s slapped an extra cape on. “T. Thunder. Together, we are the THUNDER AND LIGHTNING BROTHERS!” The Thunder and Lightning Brothers find that the most efficacious way of saving the world is running up and down the hall multiple times yelling until T. Thunder bumps into the wall and falls down. Evil (and my patience) vanquished.
In their own minds, preschoolers are romantic heroes, living in the center of a black-and-white world. Frye describes romance as having a “perennially childlike quality.” Their plots are rooted in adventure; they are linear, and “at its most naive, [romance] is an endless form in which a central character who never develops or ages goes through one adventure after another until the author himself collapses.” Sounds like a typical day. Though, unlike a superhero, who never ages, our preschoolers will take what they learn now and move on to the other seasons: comedy, tragedy, and teenaged irony. Oh, that’s going to be fun. Then after that, life is just one long Seinfeld episode.
But until they grow into a sarcastic world, full of stasis and reluctant compromise, the Thunder and Lightning Brothers are my boys of Summer, all dreams of perfection that they tirelessly try to achieve until they collapse into Spider-Man sheets at the end of the day. And I guess, as their mother, I’ll have to put up with being the villain, the force they rail against as they try to figure out their places in the world. Eat this, get down, come here, stop that, no! No! No! But it won’t be this way forever. Someday they’ll realize life is not all stark opposites, that things change. Right now, I’m Mother England, and they’re young America, tossing dinner on the floor like tea into the harbor. But someday, we’ll be friends. Right, British people?
Updated: You heard it here first, or maybe second: How Booze Built America will be on the Discovery Channel on September 19.