Was Watson a woman?

The question is ill-formed, since Watson never existed outside of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s pages, which clearly indicate that he was a man. And yet… and yet… this tongue-in-cheek analysis of Watson’s gender is so delightfully entertaining that who cares whether the question makes sense? Read on. Read the case to support the claim that Watson was a woman.

P.S. I learned from this talk that there are a total of 60 Sherlock stories. What! I must have missed some of them. Time to go a-hunting.

Sherlock Holmes encore

box-style buttonI recently discovered audiobook versions of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, through the lit2go project, via iTunes University. I was inspired to download these stories by my recent reading of “A Study in Scarlet”, and now I’m wondering how I ever missed out on the whole series as a kid! Or even as an adult! These stories are great fun to read, written in the most marvelous language (and, through lit2go, shared by an excellent British-accented reader).

The first story in this collection, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” tells of one of the very few times Holmes failed at his game… and in this case, he was bested by a woman. Read this opening paragraph, and I challenge you not to read the whole thing:

To Sherlock Holmes she is always THE woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer—excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.

From there we have a sequence of excellent mysteries, my favorite so far being “The Five Orange Pips.” I didn’t know that the Ku Klux Klan took its name from the distinctive sound of a rifle being cocked—although this may be a fanciful myth (wikipedia instead claims that “The name was formed by combining the Greek kyklos (κυκλος, circle) with clan”). I also didn’t know that they were in the habit of sending dried orange bits as a dreadful warning to their next victims. According to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

Its [the KKK’s] outrages were usually preceded by a warning sent to the marked man in some fantastic but generally recognized shape—a sprig of oak-leaves in some parts, melon seeds or orange pips in others. On receiving this the victim might either openly abjure his former ways, or might fly from the country. If he braved the matter out, death would unfailingly come upon him, and usually in some strange and unforeseen manner.

True or not (and this is of course fiction), it certainly creates a powerful image!

I’m now on to “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” eager to find out how the mysterious blue stone could have gotten into the craw of a Christmas goose. Keep up the good work, Holmes and amanuensis Watson!

Poets and loss

He was a man of independence and learning, with passion for his convictions and love for nature. But less often do we hear of Thoreau’s feelings towards women. His biographers note his marriage proposal to Ellen Seawall (who rejected him) and the love poems he sent to Mary Russell (whom he never proposed to). More mysteriously, Thoreau himself wrote in his diary:

“The obstacles which the heart meets with are like granite blocks which one alone cannot move. She who was as the morning light to me is now neither the morning star nor the evening star. We meet but to find each other further asunder, and the oftener we meet the more rapid our divergence. So a star of the first magnitude pales in the heavens, not from any fault in the observer’s eye nor from any fault in itself, perchance, but because its progress in its own system has put a greater distance between.”

This was however recorded 10 years after his compositions for Mary. Was he looking back on the past? Or was he enamored of another, whose ardor for him had dimmed? No matter the reason, this poignant prose speaks of a loss and melancholy that reaches across the years to today.

[Thanks to The Blog of Henry David Thoreau, which posts excerpts from his diaries on a daily basis.]

Robert Frost had some similar sentiments to share:

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?
— Reluctance

This treason of acceptance is, however painful, a part of life. But our poets can take that moment and paint it in beautiful words and hang it on the wall for us to acknowledge, and consider, and deliberate upon. Who does not prefer, in theory, to yield with grace to reason? And yet who does not find it, in reality, to be all-nigh unbearable?

Fascinating analysis of Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings

Like so many others, I’ve loved Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy since I first encountered it, around age 7 or 8. But partly because I fell in love with it so long ago, it can be hard to really pin down what I now consider to be “good” about it—to detach and analyze it objectively, outside of the strong sentimental attachment I have. But last week I discovered The Tolkien Professor (podcast available on iTunes), and he’s pointing out all the book details that together make up Tolkien’s genius. I feel like I’ve been given new glasses, or picked up a decoder ring, or otherwise suddenly gained entry into a new realm of Tolkien appreciation.

The Tolkien Professor is Dr. Corey Olson, a professor of Medieval Literature at Washington College in Maryland. He is podcasting his lectures on Tolkien’s works, specifically aiming to critique them from a perspective he thinks Tolkien would have appreciated. That is, he refrains from analyzing the books by trying to find parallels with the author’s biography; he does not seek to interpret the books using allegory; and he does not comb through the books trying to link their content to “source material” (e.g., Beowulf and other sources that Tolkien undoubtedly was inspired by). Instead, he approaches the books in their own right, and he discusses what it is about them that makes them so enjoyable, as well as taking a step back (or inside) to illuminate techniques Tolkien used to achieve different effects (see the introductory lecture, “How to Read Tolkien and Why”).

Dr. Olson has begun with a series of lectures on The Hobbit, and I am enjoying this (simpler) story more than I ever had before; there’s so much more going on than I’d been consciously aware of! As just one example, Dr. Olson points out that Tolkien, in aiming to draw the reader into a “fairy-tale” or fantasy story, used Bilbo as a surrogate; the fantastical world (wizard Gandalf, dwarves, adventures, tales of dragons, gold, etc.) breaks into Bilbo’s mundane and peaceful world and invites him to step away, into adventure and danger and wonders, just as Tolkien hopes we will step into his “sub-creation” (fictional world). Dr. Olson also has interesting and wonderful things to say about the dwarves, the trolls, the elves of Rivendell, Bilbo’s evolution into an Adventurer (or Thief, as it were), Gollum, etc., and overall, about Tolkien’s delightful and delighting use of language. I’m hooked.

He even inspired me to finally start reading The Silmarillion.

(And as I write this, on January 13, Frodo and the Fellowship are at Moria’s West Gate, stymied by the cryptic instructions on the door, rendered in ithildin. I hope they figure it out soon.)

Thoreau’s moonlight and mountains

Henry David Thoreau was a fascinating character: intense, passionate, obnoxious, arrogant, and possessed of a lyrical mind. I cannot help but like the man, even as he exasperates. He was given to making jabs at society, the government, technology, law, his neighbors, and anyone who wanted to give him advice:

“I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors.”

Yet he had his own heroes, and looked up to Emerson (as just one example) enough to follow the latter’s advice on variety of subjects.

Walden itself starts humbly enough:

“I should not obtrude my affairs so much on the notice of my readers if very particular inquiries had not been made by my townsmen concerning my mode of life…”

but quickly moves on to convey a sort of impatience with us as readers, lazy desperate folk that we are; if only we would wake up and realize the brilliance of his own plan, that we could live mortgage-free and debt-free by simply walking into the woods, building our own simple houses, and giving up meat.

Thoreau is most pleasurable to read when he is least snarky (he does love a good pun), as when advocating an open and curious approach to life:

“We should come home from far, from adventures, and perils, and discoveries each day, with new experience and character.”

or when he is exalting in the beauty of his beloved Pond and its surroundings:

“Sky water. It needs no fence. […] a mirror in which all impurity presented to it sinks, swept and dusted by the sun’s hazy brush,—this is the light dust-cloth,—which retains no breath that is breathed on it, but sends its own to float as clouds high above its surface, and be reflected in its bosom still.”

And I know what he means when he says he cannot spare his moonlight (and I know he does not mean that he dislikes people).

And he offers some other valuable ideas, aside from the musings on solitude and self-sufficiency that pepper Walden:

“… the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”

“I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and I threw them out the window in disgust.”

And most everyone’s heard the bit about why he went to the woods in the first place. But this quote perhaps is the one that will stick with me most, for now:

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”

We have so very many lives to live! As many as we choose. Kudos to Thoreau for being willing to try out his Walden experiment and, when he’d learned what he wanted, to move on. Everything changes.

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