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Sherlock and Tarzan

   Sherlock Holmes was the other great love of my childhood. I met him about two years after my first encounter with Lord Greystoke and perhaps a year before I discovered John Carter, and it was one of those events that forever alter young minds. The dark, mysterious, exciting world of late Victorian England has held a fascination for me ever since, and over the years I've often found myself drawn back there.
   At such times I pull down a volume of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes (and wouldn't it be wonderful to have such an edition of the complete Tarzan?) or one of the facsimile volumes that reproduce the stories just as they originally appeared in the Strand magazine. It's always a pleasure to sample Doyle's rich prose, but often it is enough merely to look at the charming Sidney Pagent illustrations. Usually that's sufficient to reestablish contact with the past--both England's and my own.
   Probably Holmes is on my mind just now because of the superb British TV adaptions (starring Jeremy Brett) currently showing on PBS's Mystery series, but the truth is that, in some sense at least, the Great Detective is seldom very far from my thoughts. Like Tarzan (indeed, like all the books and characters I've ever loved), he was so integral to my adolescence that he is a part of me.

   I justify the preceding digression on the basis of two things: First, Edgar Rice Burroughs was probably himself a fan of Sherlock Holmes. Certainly he read Doyle's stories. (His occasional references to the character make that quite clear: "Herr Skopf...had never heard of Sherlock Holmes or he would have lost no time in invoking the aid of that celebrated sleuth, for here was a real mystery. . . ." --The Son of Tarzan. ". . . the brain deduced with Sherlockian accuracy and Raffleian purpose . . . " --"The Oakdale Affair.") It might even be argued that Doyle played some small role in the shaping of Tarzan, since both the ape-man and the Great Detective are said by their creators--with nearly equal inaccuracy--never to laugh and seldom to smile. (The debt of The Land that Time Forgot to The Lost World is quite evident.)
   My second justification is that Holmes offers us an interesting, and possibly instructive, parallel to Tarzan. Though created twenty-five years apart, the two characters share a great deal of common history. Both originated as magazine features, then went on to worldwide success when they appeared in books. Both were quickly taken up by the new medium of film, enjoying great popularity. While the earliest screen representations may have been reasonably accurate (and how I'd love to see those earliest short Holmes films, produced circa 1900, if they still exist!), Hollywood won out eventually and managed to distort, belittle, and degrade Doyle's creation just as it did Burroughs'. Poor Watson, that well meaning fellow, might have sued for defamation of character--though it must be admitted that Doyle never had to suffer a Cheeta or a Boy.

   It is interesting to note that when Sherlock Holmes first appeared in the movies, he was still a contemporary character. It was natural, therefore, that he should continue his adventures in contemporary settings, complete with automobiles, airplanes, and the other accouterments of modern life as they arrived on the scene (despite Doyle's insistence that Holmes had retired from practice). With the exception of the first two Rathbone and Bruce movies, Holmes and Watson continued on as present-day detectives through the 1940s.
   The parallels to the Lord of the Jungle are obvious. Tarzan, too, was a contemporary character when he came to the screen only six years after his creation. Like Holmes, he continued to adventure in the present-day world long after his original setting had slipped inevitably and irretrievably into the past.
   Just as Holmes became too closely associated with the actors who portrayed him--Gillett, Rathbone--Tarzan was taken captive first by Elmo Lincoln and then by Johnny Weissmuller. Once established, it takes a great deal of time for the old, unfaithful images to be outgrown. Only with Greystoke has the ape-man returned to his proper era.
    If the Holmes-Tarzan parallel continues to hold true, we can expect to see many more somewhat faithful movies based in whole or part upon ERB's creations--films as varied and interesting in their own fashion (and unfaithful in their oddball ways) as The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes or The Young Sherlock Holmes. Or, for that matter, like the BBC series mentioned above. That strikes me as something worth looking forward to.
   The explosion in things Sherlockian is the direct result of the original stories slipping into the public domain.* Aside from the dramatic presentations mentioned above, there has been a flood of new literary works devoted to Holmes--works of decidedly mixed quality. As far as I know Holmes has not yet been subjected to indignities of the magnitude of the "Barton Werper" books, but such travesties remain a possibility. The revisionists keep chipping away at the legend by portraying Holmes in various unflattering fashions. (Even the well intentioned revisionist should satisfy himself with writing articles propounding his favorite notions, not stories. Holmes and Tarzan are as their creators made them; let them so remain.) You win some, you lose some.

   I must reluctantly admit that I consider Sherlock Holmes the most perfect series character ever invented, far surpassing Tarzan or John Carter in this respect. Let me hasten to explain exactly what I mean. Most characters, particularly the most effective ones--Hamlet, Lady Macbeth, or Holden Caulfield--are specifically suited to the stories in which they appear. They could not successfully function in a string of stories and would be demeaned by any such attempt. Even Huck Finn is decidedly not at his best outside of the volume that bears his name. A series character is a special sort of creature; to be convincing he must provide a logical excuse for each new plot of which he is the focus. It is not enough for adventure to find him; he must somehow provide a raison d'etre for each subsequent adventure.
   At first glance Tarzan would appear to be just such a character; but the number of distinctly different plot situations someone might encounter while living in the African jungle are decidedly limited. The excitement inherent in battles with wild beasts and men decreases with each encounter. To provide novelty, new challenges must be introduced--a lost city, white hunters, German soldiers--and each new challenge tends to stretch credulity even further. People just don't encounter that many interesting situations and unusual adventures unless they go looking for them.
   Holmes (and the detective hero in general, though all other practitioners pale beside Doyle) has as his occupation the solving of mysteries; plots come to him, and quite reasonably so, in the persons of his clients. If they are repetitious, that is the nature of crime. Poor old Tarzan must stumble into such situations while minding his own business. This may seem convincing for two or three books, but not for dozens.

--March 6, 1986

 * Another parallel has arisen since this was written.  Like the corporation Burroughs formed, the estate of Conan Doyle has managed to keep control of its literary characters despite lapses of copyright. Most of the original Holmes stories may be in the public domain, but apparently Holmes and Watson are not. <back>
 
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Copyright © 1999 Patrick H. Adkins. All rights reserved.