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JRR Tolkien And Arthur Conan Doyle: The Deaths Of Gandalf The Grey And Sherlock Holmes

J.R.R. Tolkien

A few weeks ago I received a rather beautiful blu-ray boxset from Japan of the 1984-94 adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes’ stories by Granada Television in Britain. While this format is available in several different editions the manufacturing standards vary hugely from set to set with the Spanish release from the early 2000s being a notably poor example. The Japanese edition on the other hand is strongly recommended, displaying surprisingly good video and audio quality given the original source materials. The final episode in the initial 1984 series, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, sees the Victorian detective (played by the iconic Jeremy Brett) and his companion Doctor Watson (a wonderful David Burke) fleeing to Switzerland, pursued by a gang of deadly criminals. Taking a journey through the Alps, with his friend lured away, Holmes is herded towards a trap and a final confrontation with his physically fearsome enemy, Professor Moriarty, on a high ledge overlooking the Reichenbach Falls in the Swiss Alps. Following a brief struggle the arch-villain plunges from the edge of the ledge, pulling the hero with him, both men falling towards certain death in the turbulent waters and rocks at the foot of the foaming cascade. With the loss of Holmes, Watson is effectively freed from threat by the criminal mastermind’s associates and returns to London to resume his life, becoming the detective’s posthumous biographer.

That at least was the intention of the writer Arthur Conan Doyle when he wrote The Final Problem, the short story the Granada television episode was based upon, and published in the December 1893 edition of The Strand Magazine. Fortunately the popularity of the Edinburgh-born author’s most famous creation persuaded him to revive the character in a come-back tale, The Adventure of the Empty House, issued in 1903. In this story Sherlock Holmes appears in disguise as a dishevelled old book-seller to Doctor Watson, who fails to recognise his friend until the detective voluntarily reveals his identity in a dramatic flourish, explaining how he survived the fight with Moriarty, wandering for years around the world, fearful to approach the doctor in case it endangered him. This encounter is dramatised in the first part of Granada’s 1986 follow-on season, The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

Watching the lead-up to the deceptive denouement in the first series of the TV show, I remembered that the future fantasy author JRR Tolkien had visited Switzerland with several walking companions in the summer of 1911 and later admitted that the imaginary Misty Mountains and other dramatic upland ranges in the world of Middle-earth took their inspiration from the sights he witnessed during that trip. We know from several sources that Tolkien read Conan Doyle, and upon closer examination one can’t but be struck by some of the general similarities between the death and revival of the fictional wizard Gandalf the Grey in The Fellowship of the Ring, the first part of The Lord of the Rings “trilogy”, and the fate of Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem.

In the chapter “The Bridge of Khazad-dum”, Gandalf and his companions are pursued by orcs through the dwarven Mines of Moria, deep beneath the Misty Mountains, driven towards a confrontation with a monstrous Balrog. After a brief clash on a bridge spanning a pitch black chasm, the demonic being falls to its death, but not before wrapping its whip around the wizard’s legs and taking him with it. This sacrificial death helps the rest of the threatened travelling company to escape to safety. Much later, Gandalf reappears in disguise to his former companions, seemingly an old hunch-backed beggar, until he reveals himself. He then informs them of his plunge into a deep freezing subterranean lake with the Balrog and his survival, wandering for ages lost in thought and mind.

Obviously JRR Tolkien did not consciously copy specific aspects of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlockian tale, but all ideas are grist to a writer’s mill. Even if they are unaware of the origin. And this one is tantalisingly close.

3 comments on “JRR Tolkien And Arthur Conan Doyle: The Deaths Of Gandalf The Grey And Sherlock Holmes

  1. Hmmm … now you come to mention it … 🙂


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