Weekly Forum:  “Families”

Weekly Forum

Topic: The Primary “Families” of the Canon

Two primary groups of close-knit characters exist in the Canon. These act almost as “families.”

The “Holmes Family” consisting of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes, Doctor John Watson and Mrs Hudson often contest against the “Moriarty Family” consisting of Professor James Moriarty, his brothers, Colonel James Moriarty and the “station-master,” and Colonel Sebastian Moran.

How are these two “families” utilized in the Canon as both parallels and antitheses? Are there other “families” in the Canon? Are there echoes of Shakespeare, the eternal struggle between ‘good and evil,’ the Greek literary forms, or other literary antecedents?  

Feel free to comment and join in. The more the merrier!


13 Replies to “Weekly Forum:  “Families””

  1. I love the idea of parallels and how opposites play off each other. I had not seen these groups as “families” before but that makes a great deal of sense. Although the idea has definitely come up in great books pre-dating Holmes, I think “The Final Problem” and “The Empty House” did more than introduce two opposing factions – I think, in a way, it formed an early idea of Superheroes versus Super-villains, which is now a prevalent concept in current pop culture.

    Professor Moriarty stands out in Holmes’ “rogues gallery” more than the clever John Clay or the vile Baron Gruner for an important reason: he is a perfect opposing force to Sherlock Holmes. He has a vast network of criminals at his command just as Holmes can call upon the Irregulars, Scotland Yard, and numerous good people to his side. He matches the sharp intelligence that Holmes possesses but uses it in sinister ways that Holmes never would. Moriarty is the Joker to Holmes’ Batman, the Magneto to his Professor X. And just as Professor X had his X-Men, Magneto had his Brotherhood of Evil – the idea of “families” versus “families.” (Sorry, I’m a big comic book geek.)

    I don’t the good Doctor had any intention of this when he related his account of “The Empty House” but I do believe that Sebastian Moran is a rather good parallel to himself. Both former soldiers, both with vices in gambling, both exceptional at their work – their great differences lie in how Moran is possessed by his own ego, arrogance, and lack of moral fortitude. The Doctor chose to take a path that rises above that. Seeing the two in comparison, one can see how good a man the Doctor truly is, since the alternate, evil path is a possible one that he chose not to take due to his good sense and strong morals.

    I think that’s why I found the Watson vs. Moran battle so exciting in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, and why I found the reveal of the “rat of Sumatra” as Lord Moran to be disappointing in BBC Sherlock’s “The Empty Hearse” (one hopes that Lord Moran’s first name is not Sebastian and that the Lord is in fact a relative to the actual crackshot assassin). The latest incarnations of Doctor Watson are so heroic, intelligent and sympathetic, that the part of me that enjoys good adventure in the battle of good versus evil loves to see that play out often onscreen.

    Also, if one enjoys a play on the Moriarty “Family” as a perfect opposite to the Holmes “Family” then I recommend “The Hound of the D’Ubervilles” by Kim Newman, wherein Moran writes about his life working for Moriarty and his criminal network. Several parallels are drawn that are both amusing and clever. The Moriarty Brothers make an appearance as well.

    1. How alike are Holmes and Moriarty? Just look at the following two quotes: “He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. EMPT

      A depleted bank account had caused me to postpone my holiday, and as to my companion, neither the country nor the sea presented the slightest attraction to him. He loved to lie in the very centre of five millions of people, with his filaments stretching out and running through them, responsive to every little rumour or suspicion of unsolved crime. CARD

      Both acted as spiders with webs running out. Holmes for good, Moriarty for evil. But they were mirror images of each other.

      1. Nicely done, David. After many years of reading, I had not noticed that similarity. Welcome to the Forum!

      2. Wow! That is a fantastic comparison, David! Awesome! I like similar imagery and what it says about their ability to influence London for good or ill.

        Oh, and I’m looking forward to the SOB meeting this Sunday! See you there, David!

        – Airy

      3. Thanks for this reminder from CARD, David. As you can tell, all Watsonians, our Sound of the Baskervilles leader David keeps up right up to speed with the canon. Aren’t we lucky!

  2. Airy, What a well thought out and creative take on the Boy in Buttons’ topic for the good doctor’s waiting room habitués. Wow–so much food for thought. Yes, when pointed out as in your comments, the parallels are there. I especially like the Watson/Moran parallel; this is a new idea for me. I am remembering that when Watson returned to the Reichenbach after the bogus message from Herr Steiler, Moran was there, also looking for Holmes. And, during the great hiatus, he was as present in his Holmes world as Watson was in his Holmes world. Both were quite surprised when Holmes appeared again.
    There are also, I think, other parallels in the canon. Several stories concern women used and exploited for nefarious purposes–COPP, IDEN, SOLI, surely ILLU and CHAS with those two other major villains. Certainly, these two are balanced by other heroes of the canon, Mr. Melas, Sir Henry Baskerville, Cadogan West. Horses come into play, so to speak, reminding us of a peccadillo of Watson’s in common with Moran. We can probably think of more.
    This is fun! Cheers, Daisy

    1. Actually, now that I think of it, the ones with opposing forces (i.e. personalities, status, moralities, etc) are some of my favorite cases:

      – Jabez Wilson (REDH) is naive, trusting, and not very intelligent. While John Clay, on the other hand, is one of the most clever villains in London.

      – Miss Kitty Winter (ILLU),* a woman who has lost all status in society but stands on the side of justice, faced down the terrible Baron Gruner, who uses his high status and power for evil ends.

      – Sir Henry Baskerville and Jack Stapleton (HOUN) are two men with both a shared blood line and a shared desire for two riches: the riches of the Baskerville Estate and the heart of Beryl.

      Seeing how their stories play out are exciting storytelling, though the lessons are all pretty similar: Thrown in your lot with the Sherlock Holmes “family” and you are on the side of the Just.

      (Speaking of ILLU, I really wish we could find more of the Doctor’s unpublished cases involving Shinwell Johnson. He’s an interesting fellow.)

      1. Excellent points all, “Carla” . . . The thoughts on opposing forces is really quite intriguing. If one goes through the Canon and lists the opposing forces, it may be a very interesting catalog of personalities and purposes. Fine work, Carla!

  3. I think Airy is spot-on with her thoughts. And I certainly think Watson and Moran are not so very far apart:

    From CHAS—
    Holmes to Watson as they plot their burglary: “I can see that you have a strong, natural turn for this sort of thing. Very good, do you make the masks”.
    Watson’s words waiting in CAM’ house: “I nodded, and stood by the door. My first feeling of fear had passed away, and I thrilled now with a keener zest than I had ever enjoyed when we were the defenders of the law instead of its defiers”.

    [I know there were many who were angered by the BBC’s third season story line making Watson realize that he, in part, chose to be Sherlock’s friend and Mary’s husband because he walks the narrow line between good and bad, and relishes the thrill from the balancing act. It only takes a careful reading of CHAS to realize that story line is not so very far from the truth of the thing.]

    1. Yes! That’s a great point!

      I think the same could be said of Holmes. There are times where he walks a legally gray area to do what he feels is right. What would it have taken for him to become like Moriarty? And would the Doctor follow him on that path?

      I think that is the appeal of good versus evil – not that good wins, but that the difference of the two paths is dictated by free will. Holmes was not destined to be a good man – he chose to take that path. Moriarty was not destined to be an evil man, he could have stayed a successful mathematician – but he chose to control a crime syndicate.

      (And while that episode of BBC Sherlock was particularly dark and controversial, that scene at 221B held some appeal to me. Perhaps they were accusing John for walking that narrow line… but it gave me the impression that they were confronting him with an uncomfortable truth: Mary, Sherlock (and in addition perhaps even Mrs. Hudson, Mycroft, Molly, Billy, Inspector Lestrade…) – i.e. the “family” – were all quite broken and unusual people and that they need each other to do the right thing – even if the right thing was not the normal (i.e. legal, safe) thing to do. They seem well aware of their unusual qualities and accept them (or even in the case of Sherlock, Mycroft, and Irene – flaunt their unusual qualities) but John has always fought against this image of himself in favor of being seen as “normal” and “proper.” In a strange way, it was like they were conducting an intervention – not to help John reach normality but to push him out of his comfort zone and accept that his “family” is composed of unusual, dangerous people who sometimes do improper things for justice.)

  4. Wow! How could we hope for better thinking! Thank you.

    One element of “family” that may be present are the clear groups in VALL on differing sides of the issues. Similarly, there are distinct “families” in STUD. Here, the “families” are not only representative of good and evil, but also religious beliefs, corrupt industry, personal freedom, oppression, and other social issues. In some regards, the use of opposites expands from the individual crime to the questions of acceptable societal norms. In fact, I would go so far as to say STUD and VALL parallel the “familial” political divisions extant in the society of 2014, not only in the US but in most of the world. Perhaps what Doctor Watson teaches us — through Holmesian fatalism — is that humankind tends not to learn from experience, at least not enough to eliminate or change the nature of the beast.

  5. I’m sure you are spot on, but I can’t comment to it much. To be honest Buttons, I just can’t read VALL. I find it a bit of a slog. I’ve tried several times. As to the members of the families, I think it is interesting that we all consider Mrs. Hudson part of the family, but, as best I can recall, there is only once in the Canon where she gets to play the game with them: when she moves the bust in EMPT. Are there more and I’m just not remembering?

    1. As in all families, there are those who are always in the background: answering doors and receiving telegrams; preparing meals; taking care of the house; attending to all the personal details of a decidedly Victorian male-centric world. In that regard, Mrs Hudson may have only actively participated a few times, but — like the cooks and the supply line staff in the military — she was responsible for much of the success of the Holmes and Watson Family of Irregulars and, therefore, is as much a nurturing mother to them as in any other family. If one thinks (apropos currently) of the millions of soccer games that must have taken place prior to this week’s World Cup in order to get to a single championship game worldwide, one can only appreciate the millions of moms who drove hopeful children to each game for years and carried all that stuff for the “players.” Mrs Hudson has always been one of my very favourite characters and that enjoyment comes from an appreciation of what had to have taken place below stairs in order for the “players” — Holmes and Watson — to function properly and with such focus and energy.

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