An Episcopal priest once told me he regarded “Fight Club” as one of the most noteworthy movies of the twentieth century. Not having seen it, I couldn't respond, although the topic seemed an odd choice for a priest (even an Episcopal one) to espouse. More recently, my father-in-law took issue with Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” movies. He saw them as too rough-and-tumble, celebrating violence far more than a proper adaptation should.
While reading The Blotting Book by E. F. Benson, I came across a reference to single-stick fighting. I learned that this was a form of dueling popular during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Participants would wield a three-foot-long, one-inch-thick dowel at each other instead of a foil or sword, and any blows above the waist were allowed. The objective—the game-ending blow, you might say—was to strike your opponent in the head with sufficient strength to draw blood. Imagine my surprise when I learned that Arthur Conan Doyle describes Sherlock Holmes as a skilled, single-stick fighter!
I fell in love with Sherlock Holmes from Jeremy Brett’s interpretation of the character. His Holmes seemed so cerebral, and the TV shows followed the popular conception of Doyle’s stories, in which Holmes relates his adventures to Dr. John Watson in the comfort of his sedate sitting room. Holmes prizes intellect above all, and naturally downplays the physical aspects of any caper. As in the latest movies, he’s a formidable bare-fist fighter. And, as Victorian London was anything but safe and peaceful, gentlemen of that era typically carried a walking stick. Well, Sherlock Holmes knew how to defend himself with that item as well.
I agree with my father-in-law. Just as “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” and “Elementary” portray Holmes as addicted (or having been addicted) to drugs, the Guy Ritchie movies hype the action, as if to suggest that Holmes pursues detective work because he is addicted to action, adventure, and violence. Such portrayals show Sherlock Holmes as a vulnerable character, and make him more relatable to today’s audience. But I think that part of Sherlock Holmes’ popularity must stem from his perceived invulnerability. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, Holmes not only out-thinks his opponents, he can hold his own in a fight, and he can even experiment with dangerous drugs without growing addicted. He is, in every sense of the word, a superior man.
Given my recent discovery of the sport in The Blotting Book, in was neat to see Holmes teaching Watson single-stick fighting in last week’s episode of “Elementary.” This depiction of Holmes' sidekick may diverge farther from Doyle's original than any previous adaptation, but I like Joan Watson. She has intellect and spunk, and even without Holmes' instruction, has demonstrated that she can defend herself when necessary.
She’s a tough lady, this Watson.