Sherlock Holmes is a great man, and one day, if we're very, very lucky, he might even be a good one.
Lestrade, Sherlock (BBC)
Didn't you know? They can only kill me with a golden bullet.
T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia
His nature is too noble for the world:
He would not flatter Neptune for his trident,
Or Jove for's power to thunder. His heart's his mouth:
What his breast forges, that his tongue must vent;
And, being angry, does forget that ever
He heard the name of death.
META POST TIME!!
The discussion here prompted me to think about the way Lestrade distinguishes between "good" and "great" when describing Sherlock, what makes a hero, and in what ways being a hero is problematic.
Of course, one of the first things we have to ask is "what does 'hero' mean?" Here I turn to the trusty Oxford English Dictionary so I've got some definitions for us to start with (which isn't to say we can't challenge or modify them).
1. Antiq. A name given (as in Homer) to men of superhuman strength, courage, or ability, favoured by the gods; at a later time regarded as intermediate between gods and men, and immortal.
2. A man distinguished by extraordinary valour and martial achievements; one who does brave or noble deeds; an illustrious warrior.
3. A man who exhibits extraordinary bravery, firmness, fortitude, or greatness of soul, in any course of action, or in connexion with any pursuit, work, or enterprise; a man admired and venerated for his achievements and noble qualities.
4. The man who forms the subject of an epic; the chief male personage in a poem, play, or story; he in whom the interest of the story or plot is centred.
So obviously we can just accept definition #4, since Sherlock is the titular character, for goodness sake. The other definitions interest me, however. The origins of the word associate a man with (semi-)divine qualities, and there is throughout Western mythology (and no doubt other cultures, but I can only speak with any confidence about the West!) a fascination with supermen, men who are extraordinary. Sherlock is, of course, a long way from Hercules, but his exceptional intelligence and perception do set him apart from the average person in a way that other heroes are.
The reason I started this post, somewhat pretentiously, with quotations from Lawrence of Arabia and Coriolanus is because I think that Lawrence and Coriolanus offer up a lot of interesting questions about being a hero that we find also in Sherlock (although in a less epic form!). Peter O'Toole's Lawrence is a hero in the classic sense - he is beautiful, he is victorious, he is adored - but he is also a hero in the sense of being a man who, by his extraordinary nature, does not fit in well to the world he is walking. Lawrence is neither a good officer nor a good Arab; he is a brilliant man, but things would have been easier for him had he been less brilliant and more naturally shaped for a lesser task; and brilliance is like a sword, and one not easily wielded. As Prince Feisal observes to Allenby, they will both be glad to see Lawrence gone from the country, regardless of his extraordinary service. Lawrence is not a weapon to be wielded, but both weapon and wielder, and that makes him something to be feared. Coriolanus, meanwhile, is a play about a hero who cannot be contained by his society. (Quick plot summary here, since this isn't one of Shakey's better known plays.) Coriolanus is an incredibly difficult character to play, because he's this snobbish, monstrous, heroic, tragic, funny person. Coriolanus is this great hero of war time, he's invaluable to Rome, but when peace comes, he cannot be contained by his society. He's too much for them; his nature makes him dangerous not only to his enemies, but also to his friends.
What's all this got to do with Sherlock? Well, I suppose a lot has to do with the way he interacts with people. Think of the police, and the way Sherlock is necessary to them, but they all wish, I think, that he wasn't, even Lestrade who is more of a friend to Sherlock than I think Sherlock realises. I don't think this is just jealousy, or dislike of Sherlock's brusque ways and disinterest in procedure. I think there's also a bit of fear in there. I think they're afraid, because Sherlock isn't like them. Sherlock is dangerous. Sally fears that Sherlock could become a murderer, and although I don't think that he would, I can see why she would think it. Who can know what Sherlock would turn his mind to? And what he could achieve if he found he had an ambition for something other than solving cases?
There's this great moment in Lawrence where Lawrence puts out a match with his fingers, and Willam Potter copies him.
"Ooh! It damn well 'urts!"
"Certainly it hurts."
"What's the trick then?"
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."
It would be easier for everyone if what Sherlock does is a trick; but it is not. And that is unsettling.
Part of being a hero is, it seems, being alone. I remember there was a lot made of how the recent Batman remakes really stress Bruce Wayne's isolation, but the idea of the hero apart is hardly new. We find it in comic books, we find it in Shakespeare. To be extraordinary is to be apart. One of the pleasures of such narratives for the reader/viewer is often to see the hero finding someone who understands him - sometimes a heterosexual love interest, but more often in a homosocial relationship (that doesn't preclude homosexual subtext, obviously!). Obviously for Sherlock this person is John. John's function is not just to act as a foil to Sherlock, a counter to his excesses, but to actually influence him, to draw him more toward being human, rather than superhuman, without him losing his super abilities. John is, slowly and surely, making Sherlock move toward being a good man as well as a great one. How easily those two things can coexist remains to be seen, and would be an interesting point for discussion! (I think this post is already getting too long.)
Finally, what are we to make of Sherlock's rejection of himself as a hero? How do we think he is defining it? We know Sherlock has a very high opinion of his own abilities. I think it is that he is rejecting the idea that his motivations are noble; he does what he does because he enjoys it, not because it is the right thing to do. Or so he thinks. My impression is that Sherlock has a finer moral sense than he has hitherto let himself believe. Sherlock may be able to erase things from his mind if he doesn't think they are important; John, who acts in some ways as a conscience, is harder to get rid of. Particularly since he seems to be the only person who can stand Sherlock - because, after his first flustered days of hero-worshipping Sherlock's abilities and then being wrongfooted by him, he's now settled into seeing him as a man, for all his extraordinarily good and bad qualities.