Who IS Sherlock Holmes?

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The lesson discusses the evolution of the fictional character Sherlock Holmes, created by Arthur Conan Doyle, over time. It highlights the difference between the popular portrayal of the detective and the original character created by Doyle.

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The Evolution of Sherlock Holmes

More than a century after first emerging into the fog-bound, gas-lit streets of Victorian London, Sherlock Holmes remains an iconic fictional detective. His wardrobe and accessories have become a part of popular culture, and figures such as Doctor Watson, Moriarty, and Mrs. Hudson are well known. However, many of the most recognizable features of Holmes don’t appear in Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. In this article, we will explore the evolution of Sherlock Holmes and the reasons for his enduring popularity.

The Original Sherlock Holmes

Doyle’s great detective solves crimes in all sorts of ways, not just using deduction. He speculates and even guesses, and regularly makes false assumptions. Furthermore, Mrs. Hudson is barely mentioned, no one says, “Elementary, my dear Watson,” and the detective and his sidekick live apart for much of the time. Moriarty, the grand villain, gains prominence only in the later stories.

The Many Interpretations of Sherlock Holmes

Since Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story in 1887, Holmes has become the most adapted fictional character in the world. The process began with Victorian stage adaptations and accelerated with the emergence of film. In the first two decades of the 20th century alone, there were more than 100 film adaptations of Holmes. Since then, there have been many thousands more adaptations in print, film, television, stage, and radio.

Holmes’s popularity and malleability are evident in the many adaptations he has featured in. For instance, he was featured in a number of allied anti-Nazi propaganda films during World War II. Both Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were avid enthusiasts, the latter even joining the Baker Street Irregulars, a group of Holmes fans.

The Real Sherlock Holmes

The Baker Street Irregulars is a Holmesian appreciation society that has named one of their secret hideouts after the famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. At the same time, Holmes has been featured in various German-language film adaptations, some of which were said to be much-loved favorites of Adolf Hitler. This begs the question: who is the real Sherlock Holmes?

The truth is that Sherlock has become a palimpsest, a cultural text that is repeatedly altered over time as each new interpretation is superimposed over the previous ones. This means that Sherlock continually evolves, embodying ideas and values that are often far removed from those found in Conan Doyle’s works. After each story ends, Sherlock rises again with a new face, mannerisms, and turns of phrase, yet still remains essentially the same Sherlock we know and love.

Discussion Questions

  1. What do you think the role of adaptations has been in the evolution of Sherlock Holmes?
  2. Why do you think Sherlock Holmes has become the most adapted fictional character in the world?
  3. What themes in Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories do you see being reinterpreted in modern adaptations?
  4. In what ways do you think the original Sherlock Holmes, inspired by Doyle’s mentor, remains relevant to today’s audiences?
  5. What do you think can be gained from the different interpretations of Sherlock Holmes?
  6. How has the Baker Street Irregulars, a group of Holmes fans, contributed to the evolution of the character?
  7. What do you think has been the legacy of the various German-language film adaptations of Sherlock Holmes?
  8. If you had to pick one interpretation of Sherlock Holmes, which one would you choose and why?

Lesson Vocabulary

Sherlock HolmesThe fictional detective created by Arthur Conan Doyle in late 19th century London – Example sentence: Sherlock Holmes is known for his extraordinary detective skills and logic-based deductions.

Arthur Conan DoyleThe creator of the renowned fictional detective Sherlock Holmes – Example sentence: Arthur Conan Doyle wrote various stories of Sherlock Holmes and his adventures in Victorian London.

Baker Street IrregularsA group of street urchins and homeless people who acted as informants for Sherlock Holmes – Example sentence: The Baker Street Irregulars were an invaluable source of information for Sherlock Holmes in his investigations.

Joseph BellThe Edinburgh surgeon who was the inspiration for the character of Sherlock Holmes – Example sentence: Joseph Bell’s keen observational skills and knowledge of medical science were the inspiration for the character of Sherlock Holmes.

Sidney PagetThe illustrator responsible for visualizing the character of Sherlock Holmes in the late 19th century – Example sentence: Sidney Paget was responsible for creating the iconic image of Sherlock Holmes wearing the deerstalker hat and Inverness cape.

William GilletteThe actor who popularised the image of Sherlock Holmes as a theatrical character – Example sentence: William Gillette popularised the image of Sherlock Holmes as a theatrical character with a calabash pipe and deerstalker hat.

P.G. WodehouseThe British writer and humorist who adapted Doyle’s stories to the stage in the early 20th century – Example sentence: P.G. Wodehouse adapted Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories of Sherlock Holmes to the stage in the early 20th century.

Victorian LondonThe English capital city in the late 19th century – Example sentence: The streets of Victorian London provided a vibrant backdrop for the adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Inverness capeA long coat with a cape-like feature – Example sentence: Sherlock Holmes was often depicted wearing an Inverness cape over his suit.

Deerstalker hatA type of hat with a brim and two pointed earflaps – Example sentence: Sherlock Holmes was often depicted wearing a deerstalker hat in illustrations of his adventures.

Calabash pipeA curved pipe made of meerschaum clay – Example sentence: Sherlock Holmes was often depicted smoking a calabash pipe while pondering his deductions.

Doctor WatsonSherlock Holmes’ trusted friend, doctor, and biographer – Example sentence: Doctor Watson was Sherlock Holmes’ trusted companion and chronicler of his investigations.

MoriartySherlock Holmes’ arch-nemesis – Example sentence: Moriarty was Sherlock Holmes’ greatest foe, a criminal mastermind with a penchant for evil schemes.

Mrs. HudsonSherlock Holmes’ housekeeper – Example sentence: Mrs. Hudson was the housekeeper of 221B Baker Street and a trusted confidante of Sherlock Holmes.

Drug useThe consumption of illegal narcotics – Example sentence: Drug use is highly frowned upon by law enforcement and is often associated with criminal activities.

DeductionThe process of reasoning from specific facts to a general conclusion – Example sentence: Sherlock Holmes was known for using deduction to draw inescapable conclusions from his observations.

Speculation – Forming a theory without possessing facts – Example sentence: Speculation can lead to wrong conclusions and should be used with caution.

GuessworkThe formation of a conclusion based on past experiences and probability – Example sentence: Guesswork can sometimes be useful in forming initial conclusions, but should always be tested against facts.

False assumptionsConclusions based on incorrect information – Example sentence: False assumptions can lead to wrong conclusions and should be avoided in any form of reasoning.

Natural justiceThe idea of fairness in the administration of justice – Example sentence: Natural justice requires that all parties in a legal dispute should be treated fairly and impartially.

English legal systemThe system of laws and legal practices in England and Wales – Example sentence: The English legal system is based on common law and statutes passed by Parliament.

Winston ChurchillThe British Prime Minister during World War II – Example sentence: Winston Churchill is widely regarded as one of the great leaders of the twentieth century.

Franklin Delano RooseveltThe U.S. President during World War II – Example sentence: Franklin Delano Roosevelt led the United States through World War II and his legacy has shaped modern American politics.

World War IIThe conflict between the Axis and Allied powers from 1939 to 1945 – Example sentence: World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, resulting in the deaths of millions of people.

Propaganda filmsFilms created to promote a political or ideological viewpoint – Example sentence: During World War II, propaganda films were used to persuade people to support the war effort.

Adolf HitlerThe leader of Nazi Germany during World War II – Example sentence: Adolf Hitler was the leader of Nazi Germany during World War II and was responsible for the Holocaust.

PalimpsestA manuscript or document where the earlier writing has been either partially or completely erased – Example sentence: The city of London can be seen as a palimpsest, with historical layers being added and removed over time.

Cultural textA document or artifact which reflects a particular culture or society – Example sentence: Sherlock Holmes is a cultural text which reflects the values and society of late 19th century England.

InterpretationThe process of forming an opinion or conclusion based on facts and evidence – Example sentence: Interpretation is essential in order to form an opinion on any given issue.

SuperimposedTo place one object over another – Example sentence: Superimposing the two images revealed interesting similarities between the two photographs.

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