Sherlock Holmes is so many things to many people, but he has always occupied a couple of major spaces in our modern mythos.
To the post-Victorians of the early 1900s, he was an envoy to nostalgia of a time gone by. To the predominately left-brained, before "left" had such strong political connotations that the phrase might be misunderstood by many, he was a torch-bearer for logic and reason. Classic Sherlockian texts push those two roles hard, but these days, Sherlock Holmes definitely has one more major role in our lives, and I've been trying to put it into words for a few days now.
When Sherlock Holmes and John Watson first meet, both men are on the fringes of society, practically outcasts. Watson, through ill-health and physical injury, has been put on the government's disabled list. Holmes is described by a colleague (Stamford) as someone you probably don't want to spend a lot of time with, and fits no well-defined societal role. Neither man really has much in the way of friends, family, or lovers. And when they meet, it's important.
Christopher Morley once put his name and introduction on a book called Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: A Textbook of Friendship. It contains just A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, "The Final Problem," "The Empty House," and "The Bruce-Partington Plans," but doesn't really delve into the theme of its title much other than to present those stories and talk about Sherlockiana in general.
We know that Sherlockiana has sparked some wonderful friendships over the years, and we know that Sherlock and John were great friends as well, but why is that friendship more special to us than that of The Three Musketeers? Or Nero Wolfe and Archie? Or any of the thousands of other fictional friendships from classic literature up to today's New York Times best sellers?
Now that we've had a chance to see two major denominations of Sherlock Holmes fans develop, with different styles of Sherlocking, we have a great opportunity to look for commonalities in very different approaches. How are middle-aged men calculating the geometry of "The Musgrave Ritual" like young ladies producing Mystrade porn fics? How are past travelers working out the location of 221B Baker Street like modern fan tourists extrapolating from Setlock? The techniques might be very different on the surface, but the spirit behind them? Much the same.
And so much of that common spirit ties back to the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Call it friendship or call it love, those two souls coming together has great meaning for us. Two men who don't fit into society at all, outcasts in their way, coming together in a relationship that makes that same world that doesn't know what to do with them a better place.
All the mysteries they solve, all the clients they help, none of that is as meaningful as what Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson bring to the table when they come together for that work. "The Blanched Soldier" and "The Lion's Mane" are nice stories, but with Sherlock alone, they don't tend to make anyone's top ten list. Something is missing and even though Watson's role doesn't seem as specifically important as Sherlock's, replacing him with any casual stranger just doesn't filled the bill, just as if Watson had gone on to room with Stamford in A Study in Scarlet.
Even just asking the question "What does Sherlock Holmes mean to us?" leaves out a key element of the equation. It is Sherlock Holmes and John H. Watson together that bring the most meaning to their stories, in any medium, in any re-creation. Their relationship, the bond of two outsiders that works a pure magical alchemy of personality, has produced good things both in fiction and in our really real world. Solving mysteries to entertain us and bringing empowering friendships into our lives.
And that, the connection between Sherlock Holmes and John H. Watson is, at this point in our world, far more important than nostalgia for the Victorian period or examples of observation and deduction.
We are very lucky to have them.