Jul 14

Five misconceptions about popular books

I wrote this website post as a sequel to, what I thought was, an article I published last year. When I searched for that that old article… I hadn’t written it. It was still in draft form and only consisted of two sentences. Oh.

So, here are five misconceptions about popular books! I hope you enjoy.

  1. Sherlock Holmes had many catchphrases and wore a deer stalker hat.

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What you think you know.

I read the original Sherlock Holmes stories in a mammoth book that I brought at the Baker Street museum.  Inside the museum, the staff take you through Sherlock’s most prolific cases and lead you through a reconstruction of his flat and scenes from his most notable stories. The museum also showcases the many different incarnations of Sherlock that have appeared throughout the years, from the original penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to the recent BBC version portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch. As different Sherlocks have come and gone the mythos of Sherlock Holmes has become muddled. Did Sherlock really smoke a pipe, wear a deerstalker hat and shout a catchphrase?

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The truth

While it is true that Sherlock Holmes said ‘the game is afoot” it wasn’t his catchphrase as he only said the phrase once in the original books.

“Come, Watson, Come!’ he cried. ‘The game is afoot.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The return of Sherlock Holmes. 

Nor did he often cry ‘Elementary, my dear Watson,’ upon solving a case. Holmes’ exact words were:

“‘Excellent!’ I [Watson] cried. ‘Elementary,’ said he.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The Crooked  Man

Sherlock never wore a deerstalker hat either although this mistake is understandable. According to Watson in The Adventure of the Silver Blaze, Sherlock wore “his ear-flapped travelling cap” and in The Boscombe Valley Mystery a “close-fitting cloth cap”. The artist for Sherlock Holmes, Sidney Paget wore a deerstalker hat himself and drew one for Sherlock. The actor William Gillette, wore a deerstalker hat while portraying Holmes in a stage play and the artist Frederic Dorr Steele based his pictures of Sherlock, complete with hat, off Gillette. Steele then sent these images to the American press which popularised the idea of a deerstalker hat. The fact the BBC’s Sherlock dislikes the hat is an in universe joke.

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2) Phileas Fogg traveled in a hot air ballon.

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What you think you know

Around The World In 80 Days is a novel written by Jules Verne in which a British gentleman Phileas Fogg and his French valet circumnavigate the globe in eighty days in order to win a bet. While they are doing so, they are mistaken for bank robbers and pursued by a police officer from Scotland Yard. Fogg uses several different means of transportation including trains, steam boats, sail boats, elephants, sledges and perhaps most notably of all a hot air ballon.

The novel has been adapted many times into film but my personal favourite is the 2004 version. It lacks any resemblance to the source material, has terrible jokes and camera angels but it does star Jackie Chan who has some terrific fight scenes. Here is their take on the hot air balloon.

The Truth

Phileas Fogg never traveled in a hot air ballon. In chapter 32 Fogg thinks:

“Still, some means must be found to cross the Atlantic on a boat, unless by balloon–which would have been venturesome, besides not being capable of being put in practice.”

Around The World In 80 Days – Jules Verne

This is the only mention of a hot air ballon within the novel. The link between the book and a hot air ballon came during the 1956 film staring David Niven in which Fogg and his friends take a hot air ballon from France to Spain. The fact that David Niven’s autobiography was called The moon is a ballon, may also have been a factor. Any editions of the novel published after 1956, showed a hot air ballon on the front cover. Since then, the image of a hot air ballon has been inseparable with Phileas Fogg.

3) Frankenstein is the name of the monster.

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What you think you know

I’ve spoken about Frankenstein many times on this website, because it’s one of my favourite victorian novels, so I’ll keep this entry short and to the point. Victor Frankenstein collects body parts via grave robbing, sews them together, hits them with a lighting bolt and brings life back to the dead. After creating his zombie, Victor flees in horror, upsetting the monster who spends the rest of the novel tormenting Victor and killing his family members in revenge.

The truth

Almost everything in the above paragraph is wrong (aside from the keeping it short part). Although Victor does collect body parts by grave robbing he doesn’t blast them with lighting. In fact, how Victor brings the body back to life is never mentioned in the novel, all we know is that Victor achieves this impossible feat within five sentences. The lightening strike (along with a hunchback assistant called Ivor) was created by Hollywood for the film adaptation. Oddly enough the film industry also portrays Frankenstein’s monster as a stumbling ugly moron with bolts holding his head to his neck. In the novel, the only disturbing thing about the monster are his eyes but other than that he is described as beautiful and and a self taught genus.

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Jeremy Meeks was arrested in 2014 and his police mugshot went viral. He was described as Frankenstein like by some, a statement which confused many.

You could even argue that Victor doesn’t create a zombie and that the monster is actually a flesh gollum although that would be splitting hairs. The most important mistake is that the monster is not called Frankenstein. Frankenstein is the name of the creator, Victor Frankenstein, and the monster is never given a name. This is a very important point in the novel as the lack of a name makes the monster feel unloved which in turn, fuels his desire for revenge. It’s unclear where this misconception came from but if I had to take a guess I would also blame Hollywood.

4) The Ring is an allegory about the atomic bomb.

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What you think you know

Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth is incredibly detailed, especially when it comes to languages and names. For example, Gríma Wormtongue is a spy for the evil Lord Saruman but this can be deduced by analysing the character’s name. Grima sounds similar to grime, meaning dirt, which also links to worms. Even the phrase tongue has meaning as Grima whispers in the King Théoden ear, keeping him under Saruman’s spell. This is just one brilliant example but there are plenty more. Bilbo Baggins is a soft sounding name, suiting the character and the alliteration of Gandalf the Great makes him sound grand and magnificent. Lots of events within the series have double meanings, for example Frodo accepting his uncle’s Mithril shirt symbolises he is ready become an adventurer. When a ring bearer uses the ring, they become braver, reckless and most importantly more destructive displaying the intoxicating effect power has over man.

The Truth

Lots of people subscribe to the theory that Tolkien created the One Ring as an allegory for the atomic bomb. This makes some sense as Tolkien, who fought in World War One in the trenches and worked as a code breaker in World War Two, became a devote pacifist in his later life. Readers have linked the scene of Frodo’s visions of a destroyed fired when he looks in the Mirror of Galadriel to a nuclear fallout. However JRR Tolkien has said many times that he didn’t intend for the Ring to be seen as a stand in for the nuclear bomb. Tolkien started writing the book series in 1942 and although he didn’t have every detail planned out and worked on the project on and off,  the creation of the One Ring predates the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

This is a case of Authorial Intent. Although the Author didn’t intend to represent this idea, it is an idea that is popular among the readers.

5) Romeo and Juliet is a romantic tragedy

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What you think you know

I’ve discussed Shakespeare on this website several times now and I’ve often criticised the bard. Please, do not misunderstand me. I really enjoy his works and if he intended to add the meaning that is taught in classroom across the globe then I consider him a genius, especially so considering the time period in which he lived. Out of all Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays…  Romeo and Juliet is my least favourite. The iconic plot of the play has been reused and recycled countless times in our culture, from being used in an episode of The Simpsons to the animated feature film Gnome and Juliet but the plot itself isn’t a Shakespeare original. The plot of two lovers who believe the other to be  dead is similar to Pyramus and Thisbe, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the names Montague and Capulet were used in Dante’s Divine Comedy. In Shakespeare’s defence he did add his own elements such as the character of Paris and relocating the play to Verona.

The Truth

Romeo and Juliet is often dubbed as “the most romantic story of all time” yet romance properly wasn’t Shakespeare’s goal. In the play there is only one sex scene which happens off stage and seven on stage deaths. Despite us idealising the story and even sending Juliet letters about our own problems in love (check out that website here), Romeo and Juliet are terrible examples for love sick teenagers. This is primarily due to the fact that both characters are teenagers themselves. Romeo is somewhere between 14-18 years old and Juliet is 13.  The characters have only know each other for a few days before deciding to marry in secret and elope. That’s not a healthy relationship! Some Shakespearean historians have argued that the play should solely be categorised as a tragedy and viewed as a cautionary tale for young lovers, not inspiration.

It is also worth noting that the Elizabethan audiences would not have taken the play too seriously. There were no female actors at this point so Juliet, her maid and all female characters would have been portrayed as men in drag.

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I don’t think Juliet would have worn this much make up. Then again, I don’t know a lot about Elizabethan make up routines.

I hope you enjoyed reading this list.

If you want to read something similar to this, I suggest my previous list on top five misunderstood lines in literature. 

If you want to know more of my thought on Romeo and Juliet you can read my Spitfire review by clicking here or if you want to hear my thoughts on the Romeo and Juliet production that involved a T rex straddling a disco ball (yes, your read that correctly) you can click here.

Enjoy and I’ll see you next time.

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