Monday, June 14, 2004

Because the Theatre Stuff Isn't Geeky Enough...

Ah, Anna posted a comment below which I paraphrase to mean, "What the heck is a Sherlockian?"

The first thing I'll say is that Sherlockians can't even agree on the definition of what a Sherlockian IS -- although anyone who wants to describe themself as one probably may.  Still, I'll plunge ahead and try to give my definition.

The Sherlock Holmes stories consist of 56 short stories and 4 novellas.  They were written by a chap called Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  The bulk of the stories were written in the first person, by a character named Dr. John Watson, and cover his association with a consulting detective named Sherlock Holmes.  With me so far?  Good.

Lots of people read these stories, enjoy them, and go on with their lives, without ever taking the next step.

The next step (generally) involves something Sherlockians call "The Game."  The Game says:  OK, now, between you and me and the men in the little white coats, we all know that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character.  But just for kicks, let's pretend he's not.  Let's pretend he's a perfectly legitimate real live human being (who by now is 150 years old, but don't let that get in the way), whose exploits were written up by his friend and associate, the equally real human being Dr. John Watson.  We'll refer to that Doyle fellow as Watson's "literary agent."

This premise leads to massive (believe me when I say that) amounts of Sherlockian scholarship.  Articles fill journals.  Sherlockian societies gather in person (or on the web) to discuss the stories (aka "the canon") and present papers.

Now, Sherlockian scholarship can focus on all sorts of things -- pretty much anything that sets a Sherlockian off.  Frequently, it can simply be based on a desire to understand something mentioned in one of the stories that might have made perfect sense to Victorian readers, but means little to us know.  (When Watson first meets Holmes in "A Study in Scarlet," he says, "I keep a bull-pup."  Is this a reference to a dog?  Or slang for something else?  Sherlockians will hunt down the meaning of the phrase.)  Other interests can be strictly related to the stories.  There is the classic problem of Watson's war wound.  In "A Study in Scarlet," Watson very clearly states he was wounded in the shoulder, but in another story, his wound has moved to a different location.  Which is it?  Was he shot twice?  Shot someplace else entirely and lying about it?  Sherlockians will try to reason this out (and will argue over it for years).  Some Sherlockians can make entire careers out of figuring out the actual chronology in which the 60 stories took place -- based on references to the date, the season, Watson's marital status, the name of the opera they went to see, and so forth.

And what I find so extremely endearing about the whole endeavor is that, in the back of everyone's mind, is the understanding that all of this is, when you get right down to it, not real.  But to me, what defines a Sherlockian is they're someone who doesn't read all this stuff, throw up their hands and say, "Geez, people!  Doyle just made a mistake on where Watson's wound was" or "Doyle wasn't trying to write a coherent time line -- he just randomly picked the name of some opera and threw it in there."  Despite the fact that a Sherlockian actually knows this to be true, that doesn't stop the inquiry.  And, from where I'm sitting, it is perfectly reasonable and logical that this be so.  Because there is value in the research, in uncovering more about Victorian times, and in the process of scholarship itself.

For my own part, I'm a lurker on a Sherlockian mailing list.  I used to post regularly, but now I barely have time to even read it.  But I know that whenever I open my mail, I will learn something extremely fascinating about Victorian times, or some interesting quirk of the canon, that I didn't even know I didn't know.


sunshine38585 said...

Great info! Thanks for clarifying it up for us. Hope your having a great day.

fatcatskinycat said...

I would say you covered that very well indeed. Here you are! I've been looking all over journal land for you for 7 days and nights. I loved your journal entries, then was sickinbed forever it seems and I have been catching up on J.R. but couldn' t find yours. Well dumb blonde that I was, you were on my favorites list all along, I'm so glad you are still here.TKS for letting us read your journal.

nzforme said...

Hope you're feeling better fcsc -- glad you found me again.  :)

annalisa135 said...

This is an excellent entry!  thank you, NZ, for explaining it so clearly.  so Sherlock was not real.  hmmmm, for some reason I thought he truly was.  I understand the value related to Victorian times, since I happen to love that period.  

One more thought:  I would suppose that Doyle is quite dead by now, and is unable to answer all these YEARS and YEARS of study regarding his work.  But I wonder if anyone ever asked him about these characters, and all the stuff associated with them.