The View from Sherlock Peoria (183)
December 11, 2005
If the Game is a Game . . .
I love games. Strategy games, word games, board games, computer games . . . heck, I’ve even enjoyed physical games like football or basketball when my aging nerd physique cooperates. Is it any wonder that I’ve always had fun playing “the Game” as we Sherlockians call the spiritual core of our hobby? But what kind of game is Sherlockiana?
A game is basically having a set of defined rules for attaining a specific goal, no matter what your venue or number of players. A game is a sort of artificial construct of life, making our chaotic universe what we’d like it to be for a short period of time: orderly and understandable. Whether it’s the Scrabble world of letters building words or football’s world of brute force ground conquest or Dungeons & Dragons’s fairy land of magic and monsters, all games follow that basic set of rules: give players a goal and give them the rules for attaining that goal.
Which brings us back to Sherlockiana: What is the goal? What are the rules? Did any Sherlockians actually read the rules when they opened the box the game came in? Or was it something we just saw some kids down the street playing and figured out the rules as we watched?
The latter is the true answer, and the main reason that Sherlockiana is a game that no single person seems to have the rulebook for. It often seems these days like Sherlockiana has become a deck of cards, with some of us playing bridge, some playing poker, and still others playing “Go Fish.” The sixty stories of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are our common deck to deal from. But what happens after that deck is picked up can vary.
The first known player of our Game was Ronald Knox, who simply transferred the rules of Higher Criticism from scholarship on the Bible to scholarship on the Sherlock Holmes stories. “Higher Criticism” refers to the works of certain German Biblical scholars who searched for independent confirmation of the events written up in the Bible. They wanted to document the events as history by finding evidence in the outside world. Thanks to Ronald Knox, their game became our original game.
Considering Knox’s work, our first rules would seem to be thus:
The preliminary goal of our original Game, therefore, is to prove that the original sixty stories of Sherlock Holmes were true. True, historical tales.
This is the part that can freak people out. Why would you do such a thing? It makes you either an evil hoaxter, set on defaming Conan Doyle, or some kind of delusional nutjob who should probably be medicated for society’s protection. Ah, but what I said above was that proving the Holmes stories true was our preliminary goal . . . that is why they get so freaked out. They’re not letting us finish our sentence.
Ronald Knox’s ultimate goal in playing that first instance of the Game was to present a satire that would amuse his audience. And while none of us are still intent on making fun of German Biblical scholars, we are still hoping to amuse our audience. The unwritten rules of the Sherlockian Game would then seem to be:
1. Prove the Sherlock Holmes stories were true.
But the rules of our Sherlockian game have not always been unwritten. Those Sherlockians who like having defined and printed rules for their games often turn to Dorothy Sayers’s introduction to the book Unpopular Opinions from 1946: “The rule of the game is that it must be played as solemnly as a county cricket match at Lord’s: the slightest touch of extravagance or burlesque ruins the atmosphere.” Very British. Very 1946. And also a good explanation of why Sherlockiana can get deadly dull. Dry British humor takes real skill to pull off.
But I doubt that the most entertaining American Sherlockiana has ever clung too tightly to Sayers’s rule. In the wild and woolly boom of the Sherlockian 1970s and 1980s, extravagance and burlesque ran rampant through Sherlockian writings, and we were having the best of times.
Will we ever have set rules for playing our game? At this point, can Sherlockians even agree that we’re all playing the same game? Probably not. Our BSI or SHSL are not the NFL, NBA, or PGA, setting our rules and declaring our games to be official. We’ve never developed any method for keeping score that a consensus has ever agreed upon. I think that could be one of the unspoken attractions of the BSI investiture or Two Shilling Award: they seem to be the one act of “winning” in a game that has no well-defined touchdowns or championships.
A few years back, Christopher Redmond suggested that Sherlockians needed a new game. I puzzled over that thought for a while and tried a couple things, but upon further consideration, I wonder if we just need to adapt the one we have. The Illustrious Clients more than proved that thought with their “Sherlockian Myth Busters!” DVD last week. Like Ronald Knox, applying the ways of German Biblical scholars to Holmes, the Clients applied the techniques of modern TV show investigators to Holmes, resulting in a work that both added proof that the Holmes tales could be real and amused their audience. That has always been our best goal in the game, and still is.
How do we win? I think our best victory is when we play our Sherlockian game and amuse non-Sherlockians. We aren’t trying to convince them that Sherlock Holmes was real. We’re just trying to show them that playing that he was can be fun . . . and maybe even a bit inspirational. Drawing them into Holmes’s world for a bit of amusement is what will inspire them to pick up Conan Doyle’s books for the full original treatment. Could Conan Doyle himself ask for a greater act of loyalty from his fans?
Your humble correspondent,