Sherlock Holmes: “Don't make people into heroes, John. Heroes don't exist and if they did I wouldn't be one of them.” (SHERLOCK, “The Great Game,” 2010)
But it got me thinking about the heroes of the Sherlock Holmes canon, and who they really are. Beginning at the beginning, there’s the Great Detective himself, of course, and as the original definition of “hero” typically only applied to the demigods of Greek myth, than this use of the term might be more appropriate than it even initially appears to be. After all, Steven Moffat, creator of the television show, SHERLOCK, said: “…Sherlock Holmes is a man who aspires to be a god.” Certainly, throughout the course of the stories, Sherlock Holmes sometimes acts in ways that could be classified as less-than-heroic, if not flat-out illegal. He disguised himself as a member of the clergy, participated in numerous instances of breaking and entering, and even contrived an engagement to a housemaid in order to obtain information – just to name a few. Taken out of context, any one of those acts would be enough to make a lesser fictional character seem less than honorable, less than likeable. But readers continue to stand behind Sherlock Holmes because he always obeys the spirit of the law, if not the letter of it. As the Detective says in “The Adventure of the Three Gables,” “I am not the law, but I represent justice so far as my feeble powers go.”
Holmes almost seems taken aback by his friend’s reticence and he lobbies hard for Watson’s presence: “My dear fellow, you shall keep watch in the street. I’ll do the criminal part. It’s not a time to stick at trifles. Think of Mycroft’s note, of the Admiralty, the Cabinet, the exalted person who waits for news. We are bound to go.” Of course, the Doctor would never willingly leave his friend to walk into danger alone, and it is this courage that prevents Watson’s heroic characteristics from crossing the line into boring and two-dimensional. He is a man that is familiar with danger and ambiguous legalities, even wielding a chair as a weapon in “Charles Augustus Milverton.” But his heroism is rooted in his ability to see where the boundaries are, and decide for himself when he can and should cross them.
|“I knew you would not shrink at the last,” said he, and for a moment I saw something |
in his eyes which was nearer to tenderness than I had ever seen.
“You crossed my path on the fourth of January. On the twenty-third you incommoded me; by the middle of February I was seriously inconvenienced by you; at the end of March I was absolutely hampered in my plans; and now, at the close of April, I find myself placed in such a position through your continual persecution that I am in positive danger of losing my liberty. The situation is becoming an impossible one.”
Like Dr. Watson, Professor Moriarty has a clearly defined set of boundaries and limitations that he works very hard to protect. They might not be respectable boundaries, or even legal ones, but they are set nonetheless and all his efforts are directed towards them. Such a single-minded focus could possibly be viewed as heroic. Most readers view Sherlock Holmes’s single-mindedness in much that fashion.
In the short story, “Be Good or Begone,” by Stan Trybulski, Sherlock Holmes has an innocent man savagely beaten by a corrupt police inspector simply because, “…I didn’t like his face.” Now, Trybulski’s Sherlock Holmes contains more than a few elements of a golden age detective, and often seems less like the Victorian gentleman with which most readers are familiar. Indeed, in the story, Holmes engages in a litany of strange behavior, from heroin use to vegetarianism, but none of it strikes a discordant note quite like the unprovoked beating of the innocent man. If perfectly spotless behavior and a constant respect for the confines of the law are what truly define a hero, then Sherlock Holmes wasn’t one. But instead, readers know what they can expect from Sherlock Holmes – and Dr. Watson and Professor Moriarty, for that matter. We know what lines they will and will not cross. We know where they stand, and that’s why we feel that we can stand beside them.
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