Sunday, January 8, 2012

“But no heroes, returning from a forlorn hope…” (VALL): The Nature of Heroism in the Sherlock Holmes Canon

“It is simple enough as you explain it,” I said, smiling. “You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin.  I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories” (A Study in Scarlet, Chapter Two).

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)

In his recent graphic novel, Moriarty: The Dark Chamber, writer Daniel Corey re-envisions the world of Sherlock Holmes – a world in which, for all outward appearances, Professor Moriarty had defeated the Great Detective at Reichenbach Falls.  The world of The Dark Chamber is one in which Sherlock Holmes has been dead for over two decades, and Moriarty is living in relative seclusion, seemingly unable to match the excitement of the days when he clashed with his greatest adversary.  However, this Moriarty is no gloating victor – looming malevolently from the center of his criminal spider’s web, and mocking those who remain of Holmes’s confederates.  And so, I was rather surprised to find there were some who took issue with the graphic novel, and with the idea of Professor Moriarty as a “heroic figure.”  You see, I didn’t find Corey’s Moriarty heroic at all, instead I found him rather sad and tired, even if the artwork rendered him less reptilian than I had come to expect from the Napoleon of Crime.

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.”

And of course, we can’t forget Dr. Watson, who more than aptly fulfills the later “heroic” definitions of self-sacrifice, martial courage, and moral excellence.  Watson is a soldier, injured in the service of his country, and so it’s more than fair to say that his sense of self-sacrifice is beyond reproach.  Moreover, throughout the canon, Watson repeatedly demonstrates a uniquely honed sense of morality and honor.  Occasionally, he requires a little convincing, and even prodding to get onboard with some of the Detective’s schemes.  In “The Bruce-Partington Plans,” Watson meets Holmes at Goldini’s Restaurant, having brought along the parcel of housebreaking tools that Holmes requested.  After being informed of the plan, and a few moments of trying to convince Holmes to use somewhat more legal channels, Watson still expresses his misgivings: “I don’t like it, Holmes.”

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.
And finally, what of Professor Moriarty?  Could it really be said that there is even anything, remotely heroic about the Napoleon of Crime?  I certainly would not go so far as to say that Sherlock Holmes should have looked to Moriarty in a pinch, but the argument could made that there is something rather protective about the man, which is certainly part and parcel with being a heroic figure.  In “The Norwood Builder,” the Detective says, “From the point of view of the criminal expert, London has become a singularly uninteresting city since the death of the late lamented Professor Moriarty.”  The Professor’s mere existence certainly protected Sherlock Holmes from his own sense of boredom, and his relentless and sometimes dangerous pursuit of more and more interesting work.  Furthermore, Moriarty had a very clear sense of his own boundaries, of what was his, and how to protect it.  As the Professor tells Sherlock Holmes in “The Final Problem”:

“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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