“The Musgrave Ritual” Or, Holmes, the story about the yeti is the one you tell!

“The Musgrave Ritual” was published in May of 1893 and, according to Baring-Gould, takes place Thursday, October 2, 1879.

And we have VR! As Leslie puts it, this short story ‘reveals Holmes the decorator, as he draws a large “V.R.” on the apartment wall with gunshots!’ (NA, 528). There is some discussion, however, given Watson’s description of the bullets as Boxer cartridges, whether or not they were too powerful for the fine detail work Holmes put them to. According to Mr. Leavitt, ‘Long before Holmes had finished, the room–and the entire house–would have been filled with gritty, white plaster-dust, and the end result after all hundred cartridges had been expended, would have been a vast area chipped away in a shallow concave and glowering out redly over a room littered ankle-deep in chunks of plaster an dgreat ugly shards of what had once been good English brick’ (BG, 123). Frankly, if this is the result, I think I have to agree with Watson that probably ‘neither the atmosphere nor the appearance of [their] room was improved by it’ (NA, 529).

I’m not going to retype the whole thing, but this entire opening paragraph strikes me as being very JKJ-esque, showing off Watson’s dry, understated humor to great advantage. They were writing around the same time – I wonder if Watson had ever picked up a copy of Three Men in a Boat… I’m going to add that to my personal canon, I think.

Once again D. Martin Dakin brings the crazy (and this week’s subtitle)! (I think he’s done it before, hasn’t it? Anyone remember?) When Holmes lists off some of his old cases in an attempt to tantalize Watson, one of them is the ‘full account of Ricoletti of the club foot, and his abominable wife.’ D. Martin Dakin ‘points out that the native name for the Abominable Snowman is “yeti” and suggests that what Holmes really said was “the wrinkled yeti of the club foot and his abominable life”‘ (NA, 530). I…don’t even know where to begin except to say that D. Martin Dakin is starting to give Manly Wade a run for his money as my favorite Holmesian.

The Holmesians also think that he may have been completely making up some of these lists of previous cases to tease Watson – frankly, I think he does it here to get out of tidying up. Watson is easily distracted, after all. Despite having suggested that ‘as he had finished pasting extracts into his commonplace book, he might employ the next two hours in making our room a little more habitable’ (NA, 529), tempted by old cases, Watson immediately asks for an account of The Musgrave Ritual. Holmes has so successfully ensnared Watson’s interest, that he even teases him saying ‘And leave the litter as it is? Your tidiness won’t bear much strain, after all, Watson.’

Watson is fond of his hoarder.

Holmes’ rooms at Montague Street would have been very close to the British Museum and there is speculation that he spent much of those early years, when clients would be few and far between, ensconced in the Reading Room, filling up his brain attic and gathering information for his monographs. Leslie, rogue that he is, says that ‘on a visit to the Reading room in the mid-1970s, [he] obtained a brochure from the Reading Room listing famous readers, including Karl Marx but not including Holmes. When a guard who appeared quite ancient was questioned about this omission, he curtly stated that he had “never seen Holmes here” (NA, 532). How mischievous of you, Leslie! (Also, how ancient must the guard have looked?!)

So it turns out that, according to Nathan Bengis (who, for reasons that will become apparent a few stories from now has rocketed to third place in my list of favorites), the artifact that had been locked in the box in the cellar was the Crown of St. Edward, worn by James I and Charles I at their coronations. But I think Leslie is holding out on me. That’s the only explanation he gives, despite starting out by saying that the ‘identification of the artifact rescued by Holmes is the subject of some controversy’ (NA, 552). There’s got to be at least one Holmesian (D. Martin Dakin, I’m looking at you!) who thinks that what Holmes found was, I don’t know, an alien spaceship or something. Come on, Leslie, where my crazies at?!

Good old Bengis points out that the hardest thing to believe here is that the Musgraves were allowed to keep what is an ancient British relic. Surely it would have been quickly moved to the Tower of London with all the other national treasures!

Also, there is some disbelief that the crown remained hidden for so long, given the obviousness of its hiding place – a cellar still being used to store wood with a heavy iron ring in the middle of its floor. D. Martin Dakin ‘observes [that] surely someone over the course of two centuries would have noticed the cellar’s unusual ornamentation: “there in the middle of the floor was a flagstone with a ring in it, just shouting out to be lifted up”‘ (NA, 553). I agree – the Musgraves must have been very unimaginative to be able to resist such a temptation!

And now to discuss the ritual. Ah, the ritual! Despite being famous (T.S. Eliot cribbed from it for his play Murder in the Cathedral) and holding a special place in the hearts of the Irregulars (they recite it at their annual dinner), the ritual is…problematic at best. I’m not sure I completely understand all the problems here, but I’ll do my best to outline them:

  1. The problem of the month. The riddle is that the month is ‘the sixth from the first.’ But when the riddle was written, the legal year began in March, which would put the sixth from the first in September. If you take the sixth from January, that gives you July. But when the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1752 (and the riddle was likely written in 1645, shortly after the defeat of Charles I), 11 days were lost which would shift it into the middle of July rather than the beginning.
  2. The problem of the trees. The riddle relies on the height of the elm and the length of its shadow. Musgrave tells Holmes that the tree is 64 feet tall…now. It wouldn’t have been 64 feet tall two centuries ago when the riddle was composed.
  3. The layout of the house. I’m…not even really going to get into this because I’m not sure I get it, but I think the Holmesians are arguing about the layout of the house and whether or not it being ‘L-shaped’ as Holmes describes would fit with the paces given and the location of the tree being out front. Both Leslie and Baring-Gould provide many, many diagrams of different layouts for the house which vary from distinctly L-shaped to definitely not L-shaped. The Holmesians are out in rare form again, as they dismiss some of the diagrams because they are unaesthetic or on grounds of personal preference.
  4. Where to stand. ‘Unclear from the instructions is the matter of where the observer was supposed to stand, ponders Jay Finley Christ in “Musgrave Mathematics.” While Holmes chose to do so on the former location of the elm, the compiler of the Ritual could not have stood there while the elm lived. Furthermore, why does Holmes refer to the shadow of the elm, when the Ritual refers to the shadow under the elm? “How did Holmes, or the butler who preceded him,” puzzles Christ, “know what shadow it was?”‘ (NA, 544)

In March 1927, before The Case-book was published, the Strand asked ACD to rank his favorite 12 short stories – “The Musgrave Ritual” lands at number 11 on his list.

That was an exciting one! Join me next week for “The Reigate Squires.”

*Most of my notes, I think, come from the New Annotated simply because I find its format easier to work through and it is, therefore, the version that I’m reading first (I’m only reading the notes in the Baring-Gould). Much of the information is doubled up, but there is some that is unique to either volume, so if you see NA, that’s the Baring-Gould edition and BG is the New Annotated. No, I’m totally kidding – it’s the other way (the logical way) round.


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