travelling histories

Research, thoughts, links

A Modern Folk Hero?

Yesterday, August 31st 2014, as I have been informed by a stream of posts on my facebook newsfeed, 443 people gathered in Temple Newsom, in Leeds, in an attempt to break the world record for the largest number of people dressed as Sherlock Holmes. As the cover picture shows most of the participants opted just to wear the ‘deerstalker’, with pipe and magnifying glass, provided by the organisers. I’m not criticising the efforts of this latter group. Goodness knows I don’t keep a deerstalker and inverness cape in my wardrobe. What I do find interesting is just how little it takes to transform a person from Joe Bloggs into a passing resemblance of the Great Detective.

Now, it’s hardly news to point out that the character of Sherlock Holmes has been distilled in the public imagination to a very few material items. The deerstalker hat, with or without the inverness cape (which the Canonical character donned only once, in a Paget illustration accompanying The Adventure of the Copper Beeches), the pipe, the magnifying glass. Cosplayers and fans nowadays might embellish this with simple trio with some random assortment of steampunk Victoriana.

What’s really interesting, however, is the possibility that this streamlining of Sherlock Holmes as a character into a few items with instant recognition factor might reflect a deeper evolution in the stories since their first appearances in late-Victorian London. Just as anyone can pick up a deerstalker hat, a pipe and a magnifying glass and pull off a credible impression of Sherlock Holmes, so the thousands of adaptations of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, as fan fictions, pastiches and authorised re-incarnations, as stage plays, films and television series, and through pseudo-scholarship, conventions and dressing up, by combining a select few elements, can appear at once original and yet intimately connected to the ‘source material’.

It would seem that Sherlock Holmes might be the modern era’s best known folk hero. Yet, the idea of Holmes as a folk hero is complicated. On the one hand many of the adaptations, new creations and fan-led inventions, such as BBC’s Sherlock co-written by self-confessed fanboys, live up to what Davies has claimed are the key criteria of folk tales: they are examples of communal co-production, in which the audience plays a role in their creation or, as Davies says, the stories are, “part of the collective social fabric”[1]. In this case, the social fabric is perhaps more elastic than it was in the heyday of folk tales, covering fans, readers and the general public to greater and lesser depths. Further, Walter Benjamin has likened the folktale to craftmanship or communal work[2], something that is possible to see in the social nature of the Sherlockians’ approach to integrating new scholarship or adaptations into the broader ‘archive’.

At the same time, many have argued that detective stories in general and the Sherlock Holmes stories in particular are the antithesis of earlier folk tales. Davies cites detective fiction as a the clearest example of what he calls the teleogenic plot – a narrative arc whereby later events, such as the revelation of the detective’s solution, significantly alter the reader’s perception of events earlier in the story. This is an important point, as for Davies, teleogenic plots represent the highest development of the novel as a form. In the nineteenth century teleogenic plots tended to make the reader rethink what they had read about characters or events. In the twentieth, modernists began using their plots to make the reader think again about the form and artistry of what they had read. Still, Davies argues that both examples of teleogenic plots reinforce the basic ideological function of the novel: to make the reader believe they have a say in the plot, while in fact reinforcing the novel’s core, bourgeois message of personal change at the expense of political upheaval.[3] As such, detective fiction, as an example of a univocal, individually produced, undemocratic story (created by the author alone, with no real room for reader engagement) represents the antithesis of the folktale.

Other scholars, including Miller and Schneer, while taking different tracks from Davies and from each other, support the basic idea that detective fiction is far from the communal, collective productive effort represented by folktales. Miller argues that the Victorian, amateur detective novel, of which Sherlock Holmes is the most famous example, reinforces bourgeois standards on its readers by representing a world in which the middle classes can take care of their own issues, without police involvement, if only they abstain from the kinds of transgressions – fraud mostly – which are admonished by fictional detectives.[4] Schneer, writing about turn-of-the-century London, includes the Sherlock Holmes stories in his examples of Empire-oriented popular culture, arguing that they represent a kind of one-way relationship between the author, who painted a particular image of the British Empire, and the reader, who accepted it without question.[5]

Of course, the clearest difference between these two arguments is the source material on which they are based. While Davies, Miller and Schneer turn their arguments on Doyle’s original 56 short stories and four novels, my suggestion that the Sherlock Holmes stories might be folk tales rests on a broader corpus, which includes all subsequent adaptations, homages and so on alongside Doyle’s writings. But even if we concentrate only on Doyle’s stories, folktales are not very far away. The tale of the spectral hound at the centre of The Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance was based on a local Devon folktale about a ghostly hound stalking Dartmoor, recounted to Doyle by a friend and journalist, Bertram Fletcher Robinson, on a sea voyage. Robinson, went on to write a piece of reportage about the longevity of the legend, while Doyle set about turning one legend into another. Further, as Nils Clausson has argued, The Hound of the Baskervilles questions the supremacy of Holmes’s scientific detection and the stories’ teleogenic plots through Doyle’s inclusion of two genres – a modern detective story represented by Holmes and a classic gothic tale represented by Watson – whose struggles for explanatory power throughout the text result in a story-long battle between science and folktale, detective fiction and gothic, progress and degeneration which is never fully resolved.[6]

In Vladimir Propp’s original schemata of folktales, in Morphology of the Folktale (1928/1958), he outlines a number of elements or functions which are common to folktales. These elements are easily interchangeable between tales but also, given the usual reliance on oral delivery, between tellings of the same tale, too. It is well known by now that details of folktales were commonly altered in the telling, so long as the overall structure and salient features remained the same. When compiling their first collection of fairytales, for instance, the Brothers Grimm relied on a variety of written sources and oral traditions, distilling from these similar-but-different tales the narrative and details of the stories as we know them today.

Its possible to see echoes of Propp’s functions in examples from the Sherlockian archive. Take, for instance, the storyline concerning Sherlock Holmes’s supposed demise and his triumphant return which spanned the last episode of season two and the first episode of season three of the BBC’s Sherlock. This television show is, as I’ve said, a great example of the collective craft of Sherlockian adaptation, as it is a successful new media adaptation, written by two self-confessed fans, Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss, which ended up drawing heavily on wider fan engagement in its production. The episodes in question, which span cliff-hanger style the break between seasons two and three, loosely follow the events of Doyle’s The Final Problem and The Adventure of the Empty House. In the first, Holmes’s relationships with the police, the law and his sanity are called into question following a tortuous scheme by Moriarty to break him. The episode ends with Holmes, under pain of his friends’ deaths, apparently choosing to take his own life in their stead. Moriarty, the only person who could have stopped his henchmen killing Watson, Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson, has proven himself as crazy as well all thought by committing suicide, depriving Holmes of his only alternative. The next series opens with the same scene, though shot from a different perspective, purporting to show how Holmes, with the help of his homeless network (and Molly), faked his own death for the benefit of Moriarty’s men. Holmes eventually returns to London and to crime solving after being tracked to Serbia by his brother, and MI6 official, Mycroft.

Moffatt and Gatiss’s scripts contain a number of elements recognisable from Propp’s schema, including: ‘delivery’, in which the villain gains information about the victim, seen in Mycroft’s mistaken attempts to deal with Moriarty by supplying him with information about Sherlock; ‘trickery’ and ‘complicity’, where the villain attempts to deceive the victim and when the victim is taken in by treachery, seen in the course of the first episode where Moriarty leads Holmes and the police on a merry goose-chase in search of a ‘keycode’ of some kind, which ultimately turns out to be a ruse, and where Moriarty fools journalist Kitty Reilly into corroborating his alter-ego’s story; ‘struggle’, where the hero and villain engage in direct combat, although this time it is face-to-face mental combat atop Bart’s Hospital, the culmination of two series’ worth of mental combat played out in games and riddles; and finally, ‘pursuit’, ‘rescue’ and ‘unrecognised arrival’, seen in Holmes’s flight from Britain, his pursuit by Moriarty and his appearance (at first) unrecognisable, in a Serbian gaol.

Given, of course, the tendency of television and film productions to streamline stories’ complexity for their own medium, it is possible that the appearance of many of these folktale elements, or of elements which may be likened to them, is due to the constraints of storytelling in this format. The idea of Moriarty as an arch-nemesis, for instance, while featured by Doyle and popularised by early fan work, gained its greatest traction in the film and television era. Sherlock follows other television conventions, too, such as limiting its core cast to a handful of repeating, important characters.

Even if it is too difficult to make a direct comparison between Propp’s morphology and Sherlock, the show and these episodes in particular highlight an important objection to Davies’s suggestion that the Sherlock Holmes stories represent the purest form of the novelistic, teleogenic plot. If folktales were traditionally noticeable as communal efforts at co-production, part of the collective social fabric, then the Sherlock Holmes stories surely fall within that group. If we don’t needlessly limit ourselves to Doyle’s canonical writings and admit that the popular understanding of Sherlock Holmes is based on a broader corpus of stories, adaptations and so on, what we can see is that communal co-production, collective engagement and the interchangeability of certain standard elements in  new stories is at the heart of the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon.

In fact, Moffatt and Gatiss’s writing showcases this nicely. A part of the storyline of The Empty Hearse is devoted to different fans’ interpretations of what happened to Sherlock after he jumped from Bart’s rooftop. Moffatt and Gatiss drew inspiration from the myriad explanations and guesses posted across the internet after the end of season two. Each new sequence contains the same – already known – elements: Sherlock’s phone call to Watson; Molly’s involvement; the intervention of the homeless network; and takes place in the same locations. Yet the details change each time, depending on who is telling the story.

This storytelling aspect also highlights one of the aspects I am keen to emphasise in my study of Sherlock as a reader co-produced phenomenon: the element of fun involved in making and telling the stories. One of the dramatised stories of Holmes’s cheating death is from a fan who injects a homoerotic element between Holmes and Moriarty. This reflects the acres and acres of Holmesian homoeroticism on the internet (Tumblr, it seems, is nothing but fantasies about Holmes and Moriarty or Holmes and Watson). The storyteller clearly injects some of her own desire and imagination, and humour, into her tale. Yet, we know from watching an earlier scene between Lestrade and Robinson that the matter of Holmes’s death (or escaping it) is a harrowing reality that has taken its psychological toll on most of the characters; hardly different from the psychological depths that the original stories, with their tales of crime and imperial intrusions are supposed to have conjured – before Holmes banishes them to the darkness whence they came. Moffatt and Gatiss recognise, unlike many Sherlockian scholars, that readers and fans of the Holmes stories can and do integrate fear, suspense and relief at its proper resolution alongside and interwoven with fun, hilarity and exhilaration.

The Sherlock Holmes stories, those written by Doyle, co-written by his readers and launched into the community by fans, might not read much like folktales of old. Nevertheless, as Moffatt and Gatiss have so memorably shown, that doesn’t mean that Sherlock Holmes doesn’t stand today in their stead, as a modern folk hero for our times.

[1] Lennard Davies, Resisting Novels: Ideology and Fiction, (London: Methuen, 1987), p.200.

[2] ibid. p.201.

[3] ibid. pp.206-210.

[4] D.A. Miller, The Novel and the Police, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

[5] Jonathan Schneer, London 1900: The Imperial Metropolis, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

[6] Nils Clausson, ‘Degeneration, Fin-de-Siecle Gothic and the Science of Detection: Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and the Emergence of the Modern Detective Story’, Journal of Narrative Theory, 35(2005), pp.60-87.

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2 comments on “A Modern Folk Hero?

  1. Kate Brombley
    September 8, 2014

    Reblogged this on A Study of Fandom.

  2. Gary Thaden
    September 8, 2014

    I had never thought a connection between Sherlock Holmes and folktales. Thank you for opening up my eyes.

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