Welcome to Part 2! Or, you can revisit Part 1 here
If the structure of the film mimic’s Holmes’s mental processes, the film’s soundtrack, composed by Hans Zimmer, reveals the purpose of this structure. Zimmer intended for the bounce-y, joyfully neurotic score to reflect the essence of the film and of Holmes, and it certainly is unlike most scores found in mainstream blockbusters. Zimmer explains he and Ritchie had to fight the studio for the unconventional soundtrack, as he explains, “It is a quirky score, and it is a powerful score and it doesn’t hide. … People always think, you know, ‘Good film music is music that sort of homogenously floats around in the background and supports the scenes in sort of a gentle way.’ That’s not what I was trying to do in Sherlock Holmes, you know, it was very outspoken, it was very much with a point of view.” Not unlike the way Holmes reflects the “age of reason” and Blackwood embodies the darker, occult-obsessed side of the Victorian era, the score’s “point of view” very much combines both these aspects of the time as well. The mechanization which came with the industrial revolution is very much related to the “age of reason”: the mechanization of a production process is essentially ordering assembly into logical, linear links, at heart this is the belief in reason as the most solid ground. The score embeds the soundscape of the industrial, mechanized age, as Zimmer describes, “I hear the world, probably, more than I see it. You know, and for instance, on Sherlock I was very much thinking about … [how] it was the industrial age, there was a lot of huffing and puffing going on, and steam … I like creating these sorts of sonic landscapes.” The whole score features machine-like rhythms and noises. In the track titled ‘He’s Killed the Dog Again,’ for example, you can hear steam escaping and a distant train whistle (particularly near the end of the piece), while the track ‘Marital Sabotage’ features a rhythm Zimmer intended to mimic both a train and a horse and carriage on cobble stone [you can listen to both below]:
However, the score does not obsess over rationalized, industrial “neatness.” As well as capturing the sound of industrial logic, Zimmer went out of his way to find instruments that would sound “off.” The piano which is heard at the film’s opening playing the core melody of the score captures this intended quirkiness in a piece titled ‘Discombobulate’:
Zimmer’s first instinct was simply to detune his piano but found it only sounded out of tune rather than “quirky.” His assistant found a broken piano on craigslist which they considered but ultimately passed over because, as Zimmer puts it, it had “obviously been loved and cared for.” In order to get the slightly erratic sound, Zimmer explains “We rented 20th Century Fox’s underground car park one Sunday and did hideous things to a piano.” Similarly, Zimmer also discloses “A lot of the percussion in the movie isn’t percussion. It’s someone totally mistreating their upright bass. I found this Italian bass player – Diego Stocco – who’s taken a hacksaw to his bass and added three more necks to it.” Music critic Chris McEneany, in his review of the film’s soundtrack, describes the score as having “a truly exotic and Eastern European vibe that conjures up all sorts of imagery and flavours.” And as if sensing the implied chaos of the supernatural it reflects adds, “There is a hint of Dracula’s old country.” Zimmer is clear he did not want the score to be about Holmes’s virtuoso violin playing, which would have been the obvious choice, but rather he considered the score as “more about playing the chaos.” This is important, because, if you recall Holmes’s fly behaviour experiment, Holmes discovers the flies respond to “atonal clusters.” The theoretical explanation of the difference between “tonal” and “atonal” music may sound mysterious if you’re not familiar with musical theory at all, but even if you knew nothing of musical theory you’d instantly be able to tell the difference if you were to hear examples of both. Tonal really just means a piece of music which has a designated “key signature.” A key signature is just a way of describing how the notes used in a piece relate to each other. For example, a piece of music in the key of C major would likely sound “happy” (hence the term “major”) and the note C would be the pitch the piece naturally gravitates towards – in other words, the piece will probably end with a C because, being the “tonal center” of the piece it will be the only note which gives a sense of closure, as if the piece finally comes home. Most Western, popular music is tonal. On the other hand, atonal music means the piece has no set key in which it is played, and so, has no centre or sense of “home.” Atonal music can sound very unnatural and almost uncomfortable. The notes and chords used in an atonal piece don’t have the strict relationships they have to each other in tonal music, so atonal music can often sound chaotic (not that atonal music is without it’s own internal logic). Here’s an example of an atonal piece by Arnold Schoenberg to demonstrate the difference:
The Sherlock Holmes score is not atonal, in fact it’s passionately tonal. Not unlike the circular layers which make up the film’s narrative structure, the film’s main theme is obessively circular as well, continually returning to the same note (for instance, the theme runs A A G# A A Bb B B F B B C A A G# A A C A). This theme then circles through the score being played by different instruments, particularly in the piece ‘Discombobulate’ which plays in the opening scene of the film, and the song also begins and ends with the exact same 4-note phrase. Being the central theme of the score, variations on this phrase are also repeated throughout the entire soundtrack. In Sherlock Holmes, the importance of the distinction between tonal and atonal music is the seemingly innate discomfort with atonal arrangements. Even without any explanation as the the theoretical difference between tonal and atonal, atonal music naturally sounds strange. It speaks to an almost innate desire for a centre, and for order. This also seems to be the conclusion Holmes reaches with his fly experiment. After noting the flies respond to atonal chords by flying like a regimented flock Holmes boasts, “Watson, this is exceptional. I, using musical theory, have created order out of chaos.” The unsettling randomness of atonality seems to create in the flies a need to create harmony.
To order chaos is precisely the purpose of the detective. Throughout the film, as Blackwood’s reputation as supernatural grows, the London streets increasingly become chaotic. When Lestrade releases Holmes from jail he hands him a newspaper whose headline reads “London in Terror: Blackwood Lives and the Devil Walks With Him.” Lestrade prays to Holmes “Now, please tell me you have answers. I’ve got a public in frenzy out there.” Holmes’s very investigation is imbued with the intent to explain, rationalize, and thus “order” the chaos Blackwood’s ‘supernatural’ powers inspire. Blackwood, after all, intentionally wants to create fear, as he understands it is by nature disorientating and short-circuits reason. In the opening sequence as Holmes races into the crypt to stop Blackwood’s fifth sacrifice ritual, the camera waits on an upper floor as Holmes begins to descend a spiral staircase, as he descends the camera leans over the railing to reveal an 8-pointed star tiled on the floor at the base of the stairs. For Aleister Crowley the 8-pointed star was the symbol of chaos. The star is featured prominently in Crowley’s Thoth Tarot card deck in the 8 of Wands card, and he describes the 8-pointed star as representing energy scattering at high velocity. It is the aim of deductive reasoning to discover the logical order and links behind seemingly disperate and un-connectable elements and clues, and Holmes’s investigation of Blackwood’s plot orders the chaos Blackwood’s “supernatural” tricks create when he uncovers the very practical explanations behind them.
The soundtrack itself “orders” chaos, as it takes erratic, frenetic instruments and creates a strongly centred, circular score – as the atonal chords on Holmes violin create concentric, circular flying patterns in the flies. Like in the Bond films when the theme swells to accompany 007’s most daring stunts, the central theme plays in Sherlock Holmes as Holmes makes mental connections between all the clues in the case. For example, when Holmes visits the crime scene in Sir Thomas’s bathroom, as he rubs the inside of the fatal tub the 4-note phrase which peppers the score plays on the beaten piano. And just as the structure of the film mimics Holmes’s deductive process, Zimmer explains this was also his intent with the score. For Zimmer the score “[plays] the chaos” to imitate the process in Holmes’s mind, to represent the colliding of “the multitude of ideas, the synapses firing, and [the] strange virtuosity going on in his brain” from which he assembles the linear, neat, ordered narratives which solve and bring closure to his investigations. Just as a tonal piece of music holds a central note around which the theme is built, Holmes acts as the “tonal” centre of the film around which the circular plot and logical processes orbit. Ultimately the role of the soundtrack in the film is not just to accompany the film’s scenes, or to mimic the film’s structure and inner workings of Holmes’s mind, but to allude to the innate need the detective, and above all Sherlock Holmes, fulfils: at some instinctual, inherent level we cannot escape, we need to make sense of the world. And it is perfectly Holmesian to use the film’s soundtrack to say so, as Holmes himself muses in A Study in Scarlet: “Do you remember what Darwin says about music? He claims that the power of producing and appreciating it existed among the human race long before the power of speech was arrived at. Perhaps that is why we are so subtly influenced by it. There are vague memories in our souls of those misty centuries when the world was in its childhood.”
This need to order chaos is not simply a compulsion to disprove any supernatural element as the supernatural in the film also embodies the “ordering” impulse. While the ‘supernatural’ Blackwood seems the perfect foil to the highly logical Holmes’s, they are not strictly opposites. In fact, the film suggests that Holmes is the film’s supernatural element. The spiritualist and occult-fascinated Victorian era Blackwood embodies is not at all in opposition and unrelated to the “age of reason” Holmes incarnates. If anything, the desire the understand the natural world, which the age of reason represented, directly inspired the rise in popularity of the spiritualist movement and the interest in occultism. The pre-occupation with the occult in Victorian society certainly reflected a loosening of traditional religious beliefs, but religiosity was still thriving. Rather, as literary critic and English Professor at the University of Liverpool Dinah Birch explains, the Victorian fascination with the occult actually “had much in common with innovations in psychology.” As Birch points out, occult practices and beliefs hinge on “the substantial actuality of mental process.” In other words, one must believe thoughts and mental energy are real, that they have a material existance. This idea was supported by discoveries in psychology, like Sigmund Freud’s theories of the mind as having both conscious and unconscious components. Occultism was not interested in replacing religion, but including a spiritual conception of life in an increasingly scientific culture. Birch describes occultists as “englarging the boundaries of the natural, so that the spiritual experiences could be assimilated into the newly secularized mind … Occult practice was founded on the discipline of examined consciousness, and in that respect it was related to the psychological and psychoanalytical sciences of the time. With their careful scrutiny of dreams and symbols, and their recognition that mental energies could be other than rational.”
Blackwood certainly at least feigns the reality of thought and mental energy in order to create the illusion he has supernatural abilities. For example, Standish appears to be killed simply for threatening Blackwood and apparently bursts into flame for the offence, likewise the young woman almost killed in the ritual which opens the film raises the knife to herself, influenced only by Blackwood’s chanting – in both instances Blackwood’s will alone seems to be the cause of harm. Blackwood’s “powers,” however, turn out to be counterfeit. If the reality of the mind describes anyone it is Sherlock Holmes, whose powerful deductive abilities are his essential trait to the extent that the whole structure of the film mirrors (and materializes!) his mental processes. In fact, co-creator of the BBC’s Sherlock, Matt Gatiss describes Holmes’s intelligence as a “Victorian superpower … he is the smartest man in the room. He can make the connections nobody else can.” Holmes’s mind is super-natural, it is so uncommon and unfamiliar it requires Watson to act as narrator in Conan Doyle’s stories, as if Holmes’s intelligence is simply too alienating in its purest form. Even Holmes’s supernatural reason can be “other than rational”: though brilliant, Holmes’s exceptional mind causes irrational behaviour, like using guns indoors, and, moreover, while Holmes waits to meet Watson and Mary at the Royale for dinner, his razor sharp perceptions in the busy dining hall come at him so quickly he is overwhelmed. In fact, many literary critics have written about Holmes as having different psychological disorders such as aspergers syndrome and autism (with more than a few arguing he’s a genuine sociopath).
Furthermore, many of the occult symbols in the film associated with Blackwood equally represent Holmes. Chief among these is the mysterious crow which seems to trail Blackwood. As his father, Sir Thomas, tells Holmes, after Blackwood’s birth, which his mother did not survive, “Death followed him wherever he went.” This is symbolized by the crow who always appears close to death: it is seen flying as Holmes races towards the crypt to interrupt Blackwood’s sacrifice ritual; it is outside Blackwood’s cell before he is “hanged”; it appears in the graveyard after Holmes, Watson, and the police discover Reordan’s body in Blackwood’s coffin; it lands on a hansom cab parked below Sir Thomas’s window before he drowns; it flies from the pavement outside the Temple of the Four Orders when Standish arrives before he burns to death; and it appears finally before Blackwood dies on Tower Bridge. Crows are traditionally symbols of death as they eat carrion and so were often found on battlefields picking at the dead. In Celtic mythology crows are associated with the goddess Morrigan, a war goddess not unlike the Valkyries in Norse mythology, who often appeared in the shape of a crow, particularly over battlefields. She was considered a symbol of imminent death as she often predicted the violent ends of soldiers, the bloodshed in battles, and the end of the world. Morrigan also appeared as a crow during Samhain, which is Celtic New Year, marking the beginning of the “darker half” of the year. Samhain is October 31st, and a precursor to modern Hallowe’en. Samhain was the traditional day for divination because it was seen as the time when the door to the Otherworld opened and the spirits of the dead could return. It is here the use of the crow collapses with the use of the sphinx throughout the film. As Holmes explains to Watson and Irene, the Four Orders “[shares] the belief with the kings, pharaohs and emporers of old that the sphinx [is] a door to another dimension.” This is the Otherworld from which Blackwood claims to channel his powers. In the shape of a crow, Morrigan gave those born on Samhain visionary and psychic abilities. Crows are thus considered emblems of divination and “seers,” particularly as their cawing sounds like “cras,” a Latin word meaning “tomorrow.”
As the symbol of death the crow is certainly associated with Blackwood, but as a “seer,” the crow more closely reflects Holmes (not to mention the fact crows are among the most intelligent animals in the world). Before his official hanging, Blackwood tells Holmes he will return and that Holmes “must widen [his] gaze.” When Holmes attempts to unravel Blackwood’s plot after visiting Watson in the hospital disguised as a doctor, intensely focused he tries to rationally make sense of all the strands of the mystery. Appropriately, as he does so he plays his violin, trying to order the chaos, but throws it down in frustration when the solution doesn’t present itself. He then remembers Blackwood telling him to widen his gaze, steel his mind, and Sir Thomas mentioning the Book of Spells being the source of Blackwood’s power. The theme pipes in here to imply he has made a connection. Holmes explains to Watson and Irene that “to fully understand the system, to get inside it, I re-enacted the ceremony we interrupted at the crypt.” In order to unravel Blackwood’s intentions Holmes has to reach beyond the strictly rational, as he admits: “My initial approach was far too narrow. When Blackwood invited me to Pentonville Prison he suggested I widen my gaze, and at minimum, I have done just that.” This tilts towards the suggestion Holmes is the film’s true paranormal element, as the very definition of “supernatural” is that which is “beyond” the rational, natural world.
In North American Aboriginal traditions the crow is often a benevolent, guardian figure and are omens of change. The crow in these traditions has no sense of time and is therefore able to perceive past, present, and future simultaneously. This is the precise effect the hallucinations induced by Blackwood’s ritual have on Holmes. Holmes sees the past through a series of flashbacks, hearing and seeing elements of his past investigation. These flashbacks include images he could not have seen firsthand (for instance he sees Reordan being strangled by Dredger). Although not strictly conscious, Holmes also retains perception of the present, he sess flashes of Irene wiping sweat from his forehead, and hears Watson, speaking to Irene, say “He clearly felt something was coming to get him.” Irene and Watson are waiting for him in the room when he wakes up. From this series of images Holmes is also able to forsee the future, as it is from this ritual Holmes deduces Blackwood’s plan on the following day. These visions end with the phantasm of the crow flying directly towards Holmes, waking him up and accentuating the halluncinations have mimicked the sense of time experienced by a crow. Likewise, the detective’s “timeline” also collapses past, present, and future. The ritual helps Holmes decipher Blackwood’s plot because the ability to see all strands of time simultaneously is precisely Holmes’s deductive process. Holmes reasons backwards, into the past, from traces left in the present and equally reasons into the future where to find and how to trap the guilty. Holmes’s series of pre-visualizations also suggest his ability to perceive the future. The circular structure of the film also presents past, present, and future as integrated with its pattern of “the beginning is the end is the beginning is the end.” Holmes even borrows the crow’s prophetic sight when he warns Blackwood that as he “performed all the rituals perfectly, the devil is due a soul.” The mysterious crow which has been following Blackwood throughout the film is perched nearby as Holmes tells Blackwood “you’ll be hanged. Properly, this time.” As Blackwood voices his disbelief, “It’s a long journey from here to the rope,” a beam falls, breaking the platform Blackwood is sitting on and he falls, entangled in a mass of chains which, after they break loose from the bridge, hang Blackwood, killing him – “properly, this time.”
Sherlock Holmes is the essential “seer.” This trait is not simply a prophetic ability of the crow, “seeing” is also a fundamental principle in occultism. The occult is at heart a study of the “inner nature” of things. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer argues science and math can only explain things by nature of their relationship to other things, but neither discipline is able to define something without reference to its external relationships and causal links to other things. Occultism, on the other hand, focuses on the nature of a “thing-in-itself.” This is only accomplished through sight: what occultism refers to as mysticism, described as “direct perceptual awareness.” This could easily describe Holmes and his famous, instinctual deductions and observations. Holmes repeatedly advises “Observe,” first in the film when warning Watson of an invisible glass blade directed at his eye by Blackwood in the crypt. When Watson asks “How did you see that?” Holmes replies, “Because I was looking for it.” Holmes did not have to wait for the blade’s effect to begin looking for it, he knew it was there and so saw it. In Aboriginal traditions, crows are also considered to be the keepers of Sacred Law because their keen sense of sight allows them to see everything (and through everything – including time). Likewise, the tagline which accompanies Holmes on the posters for the film is “Nothing Escapes Him.” As keepers of Sacred Law the crow serves as a reminder to seek higher wisdom and honour truth over fear and illusions. As a detective, Holmes is forever seeking to discover and expose the truth, to which he is fiercely loyal. Throughout the Conan Doyle stories he repeatedly explains he simply follows the facts, regardless of where they lead him and who they offend. As the embodiment of the need to order chaos, Holmes does so by finding the truth hidden within chaotic and seemingly nonsensical circumstances. However, in the film, Holmes recognizes logic does not have a monopoly on truth. The ritual from which Holmes unravels Blackwood’s plot on Parliament, is done with what Holmes describes as “enhancements of [his] own.” Holmes explains, “My journey took me somewhat further down the rabbit hole than I had intended, and though I dirtied my fluffy white tail, I have emerged enlightened.”
It may seem counter-intuitive for Sherlock Holmes to be “enlightened” by an occult ritual, but it’s a perfect homage to Sherlock Holmes’s creator. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a famously devoted spiritualist. Like occultism, the culture of spiritualism also represents a mixture of supernatural and scientific beliefs. Spiritualism’s central tenet is there is a spirit realm where the souls of the dead reside and can communicate with the living. And so, spiritualists accept psychic abilities and telepathy as genuine. Spiritualists also believe in beings like ghosts, conduct séances and use methods like table rapping to speak with the dead. At heart, spiritualism is defined by the belief that life endures after death, so the perception it is in direct opposition to the era’s rampant religiosity is not wholly just: the faith in life after death is a traditional, and crucial, Christian teaching. Like occultism, spiritualism is also closely related to psychology: in his article “Modern Spiritualism,” W.E.G. Fisher points to the psychological concept of the personality, a mental being separate from the physical body, as being proof of eternal life in spiritualism, as the personality could survive physical death. The Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1882 as an organization devoted to scientific research into paranormal phenomena. Conan Doyle became a member of the SPR in 1893, and had a particular interest in the experiments the SPR was doing on thought transference and healing through hypnotism. Considering his most famous creation is typically credited as the most scientifically devoted character in literature, quite ironically, Conan Doyle was bitterly disappointed by the Society’s rigid scientific approach, which failed to prove what Conan Doyle deeply felt to be true. Conan Doyle was so dedicated to spiritualism that it caused a rift in his friendship with master magician Harry Houdini – who famously offered a reward to any psychic he could not disprove. Conan Doyle was a regular participant in séances and ghost hunting, and frequently communicated with the dead (sometimes famous authors) through automatic writing. He wrote about his paranormal encounters in The Edge of the Unknown, his last published book, and in explaining his theories about the supernatural, also indirectly expresses the essence of Holmes’s impact on the world.
One of the anecdotes Conan Doyle relates in the book is of a friend’s wife, who living in an old country house, “was continually aware of a distinct push when she came down the stairs, always occurring on the same step.” The couple later learned an elderly woman who had previously lived in the house had been pushed by a playful child on that very step and had fallen to her death. Attempting to account for the phenomenon, Conan Doyle suggests “It is not necessary to believe that some hobgoblin lingered upon that stair continually repeating the fatal action. The probable explanation seems to be that the startled mind of the old woman as she felt herself falling left some permanent effect behind it which could still be discerned in this strange fashion.” Conan Doyle, wondering on what such an impression could be made, decides it can not be made on the air since air is mobile and thus could not carry an impression which Conan Doyle describes as being a “material thing” with a “material nexus.” Not unlike the occult belief mental energy has a material form. Instead, Conan Doyle offers the theory such an impression could be made on the “ether” which fills the air. He describes ether as “a most tenuous jelly with quivers and thrills.” This jelly-like ether is “that permanent screen on which shadows are thrown. The block of ether upon the stairs is the same that it always was, and so conveys the impression from the past.” Conan Doyle describes his own encounters with this feeling when visiting old battlefields where he is “conscious, quite apart from imagination, of a curious effect, almost a darkening of the landscape with a marked sense of heaviness.” Although Conan Doyle also believed the accounts of “sensitives” who claimed to see ghosts, he conceeds “that the victim of some century-old villainy should still in her ancient garments frequent in person the scene of her former martyrdom is, indeed, hard to believe.” Relying instead on his “ether” theory, Conan Doyle theorizes “It is more credible, little as we understand the details, that some thought-form is shed and remains visible, at the spot where great mental agony has been endured. … If we could conceive that we have form within form like the skins of an onion, that the outer skin should peel off under the influence of emotion and continue a mechanical existence at that spot while the rest of the organism passed on and never even missed it … Each fresh discarded skin of onion would be a fresh thought-form, and our track through life would be marked in its more emotional crises by a long trail of such forms.”
Conan Doyle himself describes this analogy as “grotesque,” but it encapsulates an idea that is very much at the heart of Sherlock Holmes: all things leave a trace. In fact this is the exact belief which underlies all of forensic science – which, in Conan Doyle’s time, would indeed have seemed supernatural, as Watson suggests to Holmes after he makes a deduction based on a stain on Watson’s clothing: “My dear Holmes … you certainly would have been burned, had you lived a few centuries ago.” In The Adventure of Black Peter, Holmes insists on this principle of trace evidence to Detective Hopkins who tells Holmes at a murder scene the killer has left no mark: “My good Hopkins, I have investigated many crimes, but I have never yet seen one which was committed by a flying creature. As long as the criminal remains upon two legs so must there be some indentation, some abrasion, some trifling displacement which can be detected by the scientific searcher. It is incredible that this blood-bespattered room contained no trace which could have aided us.” This belief championed in the Holmes stories inspired Dr. Edmond Locard, a pioneer of forensic science, who became known as “the Sherlock Holmes of France.” Locard described the basic principle of forensics as: “Every contact leaves a trace” which is called the Locard exchange principle. In an article about crime scene investigation, Paul L. Kirk describes Locard’s theory as if Holmes himself were speaking: “Wherever [the suspect] steps, whatever he touches, whatever he leaves, even unconsciously, will serve as a silent witness against him. Not only his fingerprints or his footprints, but his hair, the fibre from his clothes, the glass he breaks, the tool mark he leaves, the paint he scratches, the blood or semen he deposits or collects. All of these and more, bear mute witness against him. This is evidence that does not forget. It is not confused by the excitement of the moment. It is not absent because human witnesses are. It is factual evidence. Physical evidence cannot be wrong, it cannot perjure itself, it cannot be wholly absent. Only human failure to find it, study it and understand it, can diminish its value.” It is always upon concrete evidence that Holmes builds his case, “Data, data, data” as he puts it.
This is not such a foreign concept from Conan Doyle’s beliefs about trails of “thought-form” shed at a moment of pain. It is precisely at such a scene of agony that Holmes begins an investigation, following each trace to its cause, to reconstruct and “see” the events which left behind a crime scene. The film’s use of flashbacks, which are not memories but deductions and perceptions of others’ past actions, are similar to Holmes perceiving these “shed” thought-forms. Holmes firmly believes “all life is a great chain,” in which all things are connected, and not unlike the “long trail” of thought-forms Conan Doyle imagines is left behind by each life in its more intense moments, in A Study in Scarlet Holmes describes “the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life,” and his “duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.” Holmes exposes this “thread of murder” (or assault, theft, kidnapping and the like) by following the clues left behind by the victim and the assailant. In fact, the word “clue” itself derives from the word “clew” which was the ball of thread given to Theseus in Greek mythology to help him find his way safely through the Labyrinth, traditionally a maze-like series of concentric circles, in order to slay the Minotaur and escape without getting lost. The conviction that all things leave a trace feeds the belief that the world can be understood, that chaos can be ordered. These are very comforting hopes, for they are to believe if we do get lost, it is not forever, and those who hurt you can’t outrun their cruelty. Theseus wanted to kill the Minotaur because it demanded the sacrifice of seven young men and seven young women, as Holmes, too, follows clues to capture killers and abusers, and in the film, Blackwood, whose strange birth mimics the Minotaur’s, and Blackwood too describes his murders as necessary sacrifices. To hold the belief the world can be understood is to believe one can be saved from being devoured by the villain, and to avoid a life marked by dread and grief.
Steven Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes for Dummies, describes the current culture as the “Renaissance of Sherlock Holmes.” Not only do police procedurals like CSI, NCIS, Criminal Minds, and a glut of others fill television schedules nearly every week night, there are many re-imaginings of Holmes with the BBC’s Sherlock, CBS’s Elementary, and of course, Ritchie’s two Sherlock Holmes films. But why? Steven Doyle suggests “It seems that Holmes shines a little brighter for people when things aren’t going very well, and things are going very wrong in the world. So, we need somebody who can reassure us that there are people out there who can make things right.” Mark Gatiss agrees: “It must speak to a kind of need we have to be saved, I think, or to believe that there is something slightly higher than us which is gonna come and get us out of this terrible mess we’re all in.” After all, in the film, Mary only urges Holmes to finally hunt down Blackwood when Watson is seriously wounded in their investigation. Likewise, Holmes’s guilt in getting Watson hurt is what pushes him to consider reaching beyond the strictly rational approach to Blackwood’s riddle. Gatiss’s insight that Holmes’s appeal speaks to a “need … to be saved” is reflected in the film, again, by presenting Blackwood and Holmes as two sides of the same coin. Blackwood’s initial crimes and his apparent resurrection stirs religious fervor in the public who are seen in the film outside the prison the day Blackwood is hanged, and outside Parliament on the day Blackwood attempts the mass murder of Parliament. The crowds carry signs quoting bible verses, crosses, and outside Parliament a man holding up his bible prophesizes “The end is nigh! Blackwood’s come back from hell and laid a curse upon this land.”
Blackwood, however, views himself as a saviour: he tells the members of Parliament “I have returned from beyond the grave to fulfil England’s destiny, and extend the boundaries of this great empire. … I will create an empire that will endure for millennia, indestructible, and eternal.” Blackwood deliberately evokes Christian theology to support his supernatural façade: his persecution, resurrection and “second coming” in order to create an indestructible paradise which will last for millennia are central Christian teachings about Jesus. In the slaughterhouse where Blackwood is refining his cyanide concoction and has trapped Irene, Watson notices “1:18” has been painted on the wall, as Holmes recognizes, “Chapter and verse. Revelations 1:18. ‘I am he that liveth, and was dead.'” Blackwood finishes, “And Behold I am alive for evermore.” Tellingly, the end of this verse is “And I hold the keys of death” which accurately describes Blackwood’s trail of murder and the crow who follows him. And when Holmes and Watson arrive at the graveyard to investigate the claim Blackwood has risen from the dead, as Holmes approaches the broken burial slab he mocks Blackwood’s conceit in imitating Christ’s resurrection. Feigning a booming, god-like voice Holmes jokes, “And on the third day!” Of course, it is Holmes who is the real saviour, as writer Matthew Sweet suggests, “There’s something Christ-like about Holmes, he’s the man who dies and rises again.” Holmes does die: he does indeed go over the Reichenbach Falls with Moriarty, as Holmes’s death was Conan Doyle’s sincere intention. But, as the documentary on Sherlock Holmes’s impact on culture The Real Sherlock Holmes suggests, he is ‘resurrected’ because “in a world that often doesn’t make sense … we need him.” With the short story collection His Last Bow, Conan Doyle again tried to lay Holmes to rest, this time by way of retirement, but again public outcry forced Conan Doyle’s pen. He published one final collection of short stories, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, but this time Conan Doyle felt it necessary to include an Author’s Preface to explain this collection was, in fact, the last appearance of Holmes. But he also acknowledges Holmes’s significance and role as a comforting escape for his readers: “And so, reader, farewell to Sherlock Holmes! I thank you for your past constancy, and can but hope that some return has been made in the shape of that distraction from the worries of life and stimulating change of thought which can only be found in the fairy kingdom of romance.”
Although I would never argue Ritchie’s film is flawless (alas, what is), many critics found Blackwood and his “take-over-the-world” plot to be boring and not particularly well handled. But none put it quite so ironically as Michelle Orange who virtually rolls her eyes at Blackwood’s ambition and asks: “Don’t people just off prostitutes anymore?” Sherlock Holmes, of course, makes his first appearance in 1887, and the most famous killer to ever “just” murder prostitutes, Jack the Ripper, brutally killed, at least, five women (lest we forget) in 1888. The detective work in the Ripper case left much to be desired: as author of The Science of Sherlock Holmes, E.J. Wagner explains, “the bodies were not sketched properly and seen to, evidence disappeared, evidence was never collected, evidence was deliberately destroyed because they were afraid of causing riots, which was very well meant but it didn’t get anywhere towards solving the crime.” Especially considering ‘Jack’ was never caught, and they’re still making documentaries about the newest theory on who he “really” was, surely it must have felt like the devil himself was stalking Whitechapel that summer. The exacting, scientific, and genius Sherlock Holmes would have been an incredibly reassuring symbol in 1888, a kind of comforting wish-fulfilment about those protecting the innocent, particularly at a time when the truth about the police force would only inspire fear. In fact, there are more than a dozen books (though none by Conan Doyle), and even a video game, featuring Holmes investigating the Ripper murders. Our culture leans on Holmes in the face of the unknown, as Helen Stoner, in The Adventure of the Speckled Band, tells the world’s greatest detective, “I have heard, Mr. Holmes, that you can see deeply into the manifold wickedness of the human heart.”
Holmes is a saviour: his purpose is to heal the anxiety created by the thought the world is wholly random, cruel, chaotic, and unknowable. To understand the world is, we believe, to avoid fear, and above all, heal pain. As Blackwood is the treacherous, and merciless conception of the sphinx, Holmes represents its incarnation as a guardian. Likewise, the pentagram, repeatedly used in Blackwood’s rituals and as part of the architecture of his plot, has a similar double-meaning. Occultist Eliphas Levi labeled the pentagram as a symbol of evil whenever it pointed downwards, as the pentagram represented the goat Baphomet, who is often drawn within the star, and appears in the Four Order’s Book of Spells, symbolizing Baphomet “attacking the heavens with its horns.” When pointed upwards, towards heaven, the pentagram represents Holmes’s spirit: wisdom. The upright pentagram is also used extensively in the Arthurian romances, adorning the shield of Sir Gawain, where the 5 points of the star represent many things, for instance, the five sense, the five wounds of Christ, and the five joys of Mary, but above all, and appropriately, as Holmes presents as a protective charm, the five virtues of knighthood.
Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes is certainly not perfect. In favour of playing with Holmes’s relationship with Watson, Blackwood’s plot is sometimes treated as an incidental detail rather than the focus of the film. And why not? In Conan Doyle’s stories Watson is the only close relationship Holmes ever forms, aside from a good standing relationship with his brother Mycroft. While, again, this aspect of the film was considered non-canonical, for instance, Holmes never once has any hint of a problem with Watson’s engagement, there is, however, a strong sense that Conan Doyle gets annoyed with finding excuses for Watson to get involved with Holmes’s various investigations following his marriage and so kills Mary off (though it could equally have been inspired by the death of his own first wife). And while in the stories Watson is faithfully agreeable, there are hints at his exasperation with Holmes’s eccentricities (for example, Watson treats Holmes for his cocaine addiction, and more than once refers to Holmes’s sense of humour as “strange and occasionally offensive”).
But, unlike critic Louise Keller’s insistence the film violates “the very essence” of Holmes, it is, if anything, to this essence that the film is incredibly faithful. Above all Holmes’s defining trait is his supernatural reason and deductive abilities: the film not only preserves this characteristic, but its very structure mimics it. The system of counter-clockwise concentric circles which harmonizes chaos present in both the narrative of the film and as the film’s design couldn’t be more faithful to Holmes’s character, and the emotional purpose Sherlock Holmes fulfils, even if Ritchie does take creative liberties (though, personally, I think these changes are only superficial). Not that changes and adaptation are a cardinal sin, they may well be necessary. Built as a set of concentric circles, the film’s shared centre is no doubt Holmes, around whom the entire architecture of the film revolves. Holmes, as Blackwood does, also corresponds to Aleister Crowley’s fifth power of the sphinx: to Go, the Element of the Spirit. Crowley identifies the symbol of this power as the sun: the centre of the Universe (from the human perspective). The essence of ‘to Go’ is dynamic, since anything static is “subject to decay.” This dynamism is thus the key to immortality. Holmes changes, sometimes slightly, sometimes in leaps, in each incarnation because it is what allows him to stay alive in the popular imagination, it is what allows him to continue saving us. As The Real Sherlock Holmes suggests, “We need him.” We need Holmes to reassure us that the world is not a chaotic wreck, that murder outs, that the truth cannot be disguised, and that hard upon the heels of “how” a crime is committed, comes the solution to the most painful riddle of heartache: “why.” As the guardian sphinx he represents wholeness: and of course he does, Holmes follows the scarlet thread of clues to each crime scene, haunted, as Conan Doyle would describe, by the thought-forms of shock shed by the victims. Tracing this “clew,” Holmes reassembles the shards of broken lives, healing shattered selves. Don’t we each have a reason to visit 221b Baker Street?