"A Detective Story" Transcript

By Mark Sundaram

What does Sir Gawain, one of the Knights of King Arthur’s Round Table, have to do with the famous detective Sherlock Holmes? Who was the world’s first war correspondent, and what’s his link to the Star Wars storyline? And how is the famous nurse Florence Nightingale connected to the holy grail? In this video we continue exploring ways of knowing with a look at how things are interconnected, as we follow the trail of a detective story...

“When I hear you give your reasons,” I remarked, “the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my eyes are as good as yours.”

Poor Dr. Watson! The great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes is famous for his amazing powers of deduction. Using keen observation and deductive reasoning he is able to observe clues and work out the causes that lie behind any circumstance, a skill he frequently uses to solve crimes. He is able to see, in a way that other characters who inhabit Conan Doyle’s stories are not, how seemingly unconnected facts can relate to one another. Other characters, such as his friend and companion Doctor Watson, are amazed and baffled until Holmes explains the deductive steps that led to his conclusions. Only then does the greater web of clues create a more complete and holistic meaning for both characters in the story and for the readers as well. Presented only with the starting point and the final conclusion, the chain of deductions seems remarkable indeed.

I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but sometimes the work of a scholar seems a little like piecing together clues into a meaningful whole. And so I’d like to tell you a literary/cultural/historical detective story that begins and ends with Sherlock Holmes. Or rather, it begins with another ‘detective’, Sir Gawain, one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, and the perhaps surprising suggestion that there is a connection between Sherlock Holmes and Sir Gawain. They are both detectives who have to follow a trail to solve a mystery, and they themselves are connected by a fascinating literary/historical trail.

This trail has lots of different connections. Sometimes there is an obvious causal link between one person or event and another, but sometimes the connection, while seemingly casual or accidental, reveals something about the cultural moment, the social movement, the larger context. Some of these connections work as our memory does. Two things that coincide may not strictly be related but may seem so because one reminds us of the other. What I want to do here, by leading you through one such trail of connections, is to demonstrate how nothing in this world stands in isolation, and that to know anything we need to know everything. Ok, ok, I know that’s impossible – but at least we can do our best to try to think about the larger context of anything we’re interested in, whether it’s a story, a historical event, a person, a philosophical idea, a technological development – whatever. Not only is this more likely to bring us real knowledge, it’s also a whole lot of fun.

And so, on my way to Sherlock Holmes, I’m going to start with Sir Gawain.. To briefly summarize the story, in the early days of King Arthur’s court, at around the time of Christmas and New Year’s, all the nobles at court were feasting and celebrating, as befits that time of year. At one such feast, surprising everyone, a strangely green intruder burst into the hall riding a strangely green horse. I don’t mean that they were wearing green – I mean that both horse and man were completely green. The man carried with him two things, an axe and a sprig of holly. Holly had the same symbolic connection to Christmas then as it does now — mercy, rebirth, salvation. The axe, both a weapon of battle and the instrument of the executioner’s justice, had a special piece of lace wrapped about the handle. The strange green intruder proposed a game to the court, an exchange of blows. Gawain accepted the challenge on behalf of his king and court, and struck the head from the Green Knight using the axe. And now came the biggest surprise of all: the Green Knight picked his own head up off the floor, reminded Gawain of his promise to accept a return blow one year later, and rode out of the hall with his head carried under his arm.

Thus begins Sir Gawain’s detective story. He must gumshoe his way around the countryside trying to track down the Green Chapel where he is to keep his bargain to the Green Knight, and along the way come to grips with the mysterious events that have precipitated this adventure. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, Sir Gawain is not actually a very good detective, and he fails to pick up on all the clues presented to him. This is surprising, considering that his personal symbol, which he wears emblazoned upon his shield, is the Sign of Solomon, a pentangle or five-pointed star also referred to in the poem as the Endless Knot. It is so named because of its interconnectedness. One can draw a pentangle without lifting the pen from the page, and each point is connected to two other points of the star. It is indeed an interconnected, endless knot. For Gawain, this symbol represents the interconnected nature of his code of honour as a Knight of the Round Table. Furthermore, its connection to Solomon, a symbol of judgement from the Old Testament, represents his commitment to justice. (Incidentally, on the inside of his shield Gawain has the image of the Virgin Mary, a symbol of mercy, and thus the shield graphically represents the same set of oppositions that the axe and the holly symbolized, justice and mercy.) But although Gawain’s personal symbol is one of interconnectedness, he doesn’t himself grasp the interconnectedness of the events which befall him.

Sir Gawain heads out on a quest to find the Green Knight, and a few days before his appointment at the Green Chapel, he comes upon an unexpected castle in the wilderness where he may celebrate Christmas, quite possibly the last one of his life. The castle is circled by a palisade and moat two miles away, with the grounds within this palisade belonging to the castle. He is warmly welcomed there — perhaps a little too warmly. His host, Lord Bertilak, tells him that the Green Chapel is less than two miles away, and suggests that they pass the time until his appointment with another game of exchange, this time between daily winnings. The host will go out on a hunt each day and exchange what he manages to catch with whatever Gawain wins staying home in the castle each day. Unsurprisingly the host manages to hunt down a deer, a boar, and a fox. Gawain’s daily winnings are somewhat more unusual. Each day his host’s wife, Lady Bertilak, who is the femme fatale of this detective story, visits Gawain in his bedchamber and attempts to seduce him, having heard of his fame as chivalrous knight of King Arthur’s court who is as successful at wooing women as he is fighting on the battlefield. Gawain, of course, is in something of a quandary, having agreed to the game of exchange. Anything he ‘wins’ must be passed along to his host at the end of the day. Each day Gawain manages to squirm his way out of having an affair with Lady Bertilak, accepting only kisses from her, which he dutifully passes on to the host each evening. (It's really quite a sexually charged poem, with kinky bondage sex-talk between the host's wife and Sir Gawain, and the implication of potential homosexual sexual favours between Gawain and his host. Medieval literature is by no means boring!)

However, on the third day he finally breaks his word. Lady Bertilak offers him her lace girdle, and if this seems a sexually charged gift, it is. She offers him an undergarment in much the same way that a groupie would throw her underwear at a rockstar today, given Gawain’s rockstar fame as one of the Knights of the Round Table. Only it’s not just any underwear, it’s magic underwear! Lady Bertilak tells him that if he wears this lace, he will be impervious to any harm. Now Gawain has a way of surviving the fateful encounter with the Green Knight, but only if he breaks his word and doesn’t give up his winnings to his host that evening, and this is exactly what he does. Perhaps had Gawain not been so concerned for his life, not only would he have not broken his word, he might also have picked up on the clues that he was being set up. He had all the information he needed to deduce the meaning of this mystery, but unlike Sherlock Holmes, he failed to see the connections. He had in fact already before seen the lace the wife gave to him, around the handle of the axe the Green Knight was carrying. And upon arriving at the castle, he was told the Green Chapel was not two miles away, and therefore within the walls surrounding the castle grounds. But he doesn’t connect these and other clues to come to the conclusion that all these events are interconnected, and that the outcome of the exchange of winnings game is tied to the outcome of the exchange of blows game. As it turns out, the Green Knight, who is of course his host at the castle in a magical green disguise, judges his error to be a minor one since he does it for fear of his life (an understandable human emotion), and only scratches Gawain with the axe, rather than cutting off his head as had been promised. Gawain, however, learns his lesson. He chose poorly at the beginning of the story, picking the axe of judgement rather than the holly of mercy (the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law) and therefore was caught in a death and life situation in which he didn’t live up to his code of honour as a knight.

Thus ends this detective story, one part of the larger cycle of Arthurian legends and romances. The Arthurian stories encapsulate the medieval mindset perhaps better than any other works of literature, with conflicts between religious belief, martial conquest, devotion to women in the courtly love tradition, and personal codes of honour. Of course, to a large extent, this was an imaginary world. Already in the middle ages, writers were looking back on a golden age of chivalry which never really existed, at least not in the way it was portrayed in courtly romances like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But it was a powerful and resonant set of images and ideas, one which continued to be drawn upon by writers in successive ages.

One such later age which drew heavily upon the medieval was the Victorian period in the latter part of the 19th century. Many Victorian writers, artists, and thinkers, such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Thomas Carlyle, and John Ruskin, looked to the medieval for imagery, ideas, and inspiration. Again, it was something of a romanticisation of a medieval golden age that never really existed in quite that way, but it was nevertheless a major part of the Victorian aesthetic. Tennyson is often thought of as the quintessential Victorian poet, reflecting all the many cluttered aspects of Victorianism, including Victorian medievalism. One of his most famous poems is Idyls of the King, a poetic retelling of the Arthurian story (though not the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). Tennyson’s poem is an attempt at writing the great British epic, with the Arthurian story reflecting on the British monarchy. Indeed, Tennyson frequently reflects the concerns of his day – everything from the conflict between faith and science, which was brought into sharp focus by the new evolutionary theories of the day, to the appalling social conditions that resulted from industrialisation, sharply contrasted by the pastoral world of Arthurian legend. Indeed, Tennyson was officially adopted as the poetic voice of the age when he was named Poet Laureate.

One particular national issue which Tennyson wrote about after being named Poet Laureate was in his other most famous poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. This poem tells the story of a disastrous attack in the Crimean War. A misunderstood order caused the Light Brigade to charge, and they were all slaughtered. Tennyson seems to be celebrating the heroism of doing one’s duty and courage in the face of defeat, qualities at the heart of the Victorian self image. It was at the order of the commander of the British forces, Lord Raglan, that this disastrous attack was made.

Speaking of Lord Raglan, or more properly FitzRoy Somerset, 1st Baron Raglan, his great-grand-son FitzRoy Somerset, 4th Baron Raglan, also commonly known as Lord Raglan, was most famous for his scholarly work on the hero figure, and wrote about a variety of legendary heroes. Raglan’s approach is to analyse the hero myth pattern that underlies such stories, such as Gawain’s journey in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is very similar to the more famous hero-myth pattern worked out by Joseph Campbell (which was, by the way, inspiration to George Lucas in developing the Star Wars storyline). In addition to describing the structural pattern of the hero figure in myths from many cultures, as Lord Raglan did, Campbell saw in this pattern an expression of universal human experience of the coming of age story (well, universal at least for boys growing into men) – young boy leaves home, accomplishes great deed, returns home a hero and a man. Campbell was in turn inspired by Sir James Frazer, who also was striving to find the “key” that would explain all myth, everywhere. He wrote the highly influential study The Golden Bough, which examines the relationship between myth and ritual, in particular the idea of sacral kingship, the connection between a king and the lands he rules, and the fertility rituals surrounding this in many cultures throughout history and around the world. According to Jesse Weston’s book From Ritual to Romance,  inspired by Frazer's work, this is what lies behind the famous holy grail story of Arthurian legend, and this leads us back to King Arthur and Sir Gawain, one of the grail knights.

But this is the red herring – found in every detective novel – and not the real trail I want to follow. So instead, let’s get back the Crimean war and the world’s first war correspondent William Howard Russell, who wrote about the general poor organisation and appalling conditions endured by the troops.  Russell’s dispatches, published in The Times, created much controversy and uproar back home, and as a result Raglan (senior) ordered his officers not to talk to Russell, but not before Russell’s stories brought Florence Nightingale, along with a team of nurses she trained, to Crimea to see to those poor conditions being suffered by the troops.

Florence Nightingale became famous for her pioneering efforts in wartime nursing. But she wasn’t the only notable nurse involved with the Crimean War. Rather less well known is the Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole. Seacole travelled from Jamaica to England to volunteer as a nurse for the Crimean War soldiers, bringing her knowledge of tropical medicine, including herbal and folk remedies. She was rebuffed by the authorities (at least in part due to racial prejudice, since she was of mixed race). Seacole managed to raise money independently, and she went anyway, setting up her own hotel for the care of wounded soldiers, which she financed by selling food and drink to the soldiers. She is notable for sometimes treating soldiers on the battlefield under fire. Though the soldiers and military commanders seemed to appreciate her efforts, Nightingale herself was dismissive of Seacole, who after the war ended returned to England destitute. However her plight was brought to public attention in part through Punch magazine, the famous satirical Victorian periodical.

There was something of an explosion in periodicals in the 19th century, driven in part by cheaper paper and advances in printing technology. This allowed for low-cost, mass-circulation periodicals, which coupled with increased literacy rates led to a market for popular literature, literature for the masses. Indeed there was a mini-explosion of printed media in the 19th century, what with the periodicals, the proliferation of broadsheet newspapers, and the penny dreadfuls – lurid novels – which led to a kind of information overload similar in effect to the digital media explosion of our own time. This in turn led to more and more affective and even sensational content in order to grab the attention of the readers, again much like our own lurid tabloids and reality tv excesses, not to mention the Internet!

Richard “Dickie” Doyle was a famous Victorian illustrator who drew Punch magazine’s first cover, and therefore designed the Punch masthead used for over a century. Doyle contributed various illustrations for the magazine, as well as illustrations for such famous Victorian authors as Dickens, Ruskin, Thackeray, and Leigh Hunt, often signing his initials RD with a dickie bird standing on top. A few years later, Richard Doyle’s nephew came to prominence in the pages of another famous Victorian periodical, The Strand Magazine, feeding the public desire for sensational content such as stories about crime and other lurid topics, with his stories about the detective Sherlock Holmes.

So here the trail ends, leading from one failed “detective”, Gawain, through medieval literature, to Victorian medievalism and its Arthurian cycles by such writers as Tennyson, who also wrote about important contemporary events like the Crimean War, with the notorious commander Lord Raglan and the war correspondent Russell, leading to public outcry and the work of Nightingale and Seacole, to her destitute condition as covered in Punch, originally designed by Dickie Doyle as part of the explosion of Victorian periodicals, to his nephew, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the culmination of a trail leading from our first fictional “detective” to the infallibly successful fictional Sherlock Holmes. Viewed in isolation, all of these people, events, texts, and ideas might seem to have nothing to do with one another, but as symbolized by Sir Gawain’s Endless Knot they form an interdependent web. And just as Sherlock Holmes’s deductions become clear when all the intervening steps are revealed, tracing these connections can cast a new light on each of the separate strands.

I’ll be back soon with more discussion of “Ways of Knowing”; subscribe to this channel to see more videos about the connections in the world around us as they’re posted.
If you have comments or questions, I’m @Alliterative on Twitter, or leave them in the comment section below; you can also read more of my thoughts at my blog, The Endless Knot.