A Norwegian named Sigerson

or a Swede named Hedin?

by

Nils Göran Axel Andersson

Eric Bylander

Joakim Eklund

Joakim Nivre (ed)

of the Swedish Pathological Society

 

In the case EMPT we hear of a remarkable man named Sigerson, who is usually identified as none other than the Great Detective himself. Thus, Philip Weller in Alphabetically, My Dear Watson has the following entry for "Sigerson": "The name of a well-known traveller which was revealed to have been the alias of Holmes for at least part of his travels during The Great Hiatus."1

Those who have argued that Sigerson was not identical with Holmes have typically done so as part of an argument to the effect that Holmes never travelled in Tibet at all! A good example is Edgar W. Smith: "There can be no confusion in all of this: Holmes was neither a woman nor a soldier, and we must be constrained now to believe that he was not even a Norwegian. The first two years of his reputed itinerary we may, therefore, dismiss as a figment."2

It is in the same vein that we find John D. Clark suggesting that the exploits of the mysterious Norwegian, far from being those of Holmes himself, were really inspired by the expeditions of the famous Swedish explorer Sven Hedin: "Holmes’ account of his travels in Tibet and through Persia are the purest inventions on his part. … The mention of the ‘Norwegian traveller Sigerson’ is cleverly designed to lead to a degree of confusion in Watson’s mind between the mythical Norwegian and the very real Sven Hedin who was at that time starting his Central Asian researches. …"3

In this article, we want to consider the possibility that Sigerson was in fact an alias of Sven Hedin rather than of Sherlock Holmes, but without giving up or questioning the Canonical account of Holmes’s travels during the Great Hiatus. We will try to show that the notion of Sigerson as Hedin is perfectly compatible with the Canonical text as well as with the (other) available historical evidence.

Let us begin by examining the one passage in the Canon where Sigerson’s name is mentioned. It is where Holmes says to Watson: "You may have read of the remarkable explorations of a Norwegian named Sigerson, but I am sure that it never occurred to you that you were receiving news of your friend." [EMPT 488] First of all, we may note that Holmes never says that he and Sigerson is the same person. Moreover, the phrase "you were receiving news from your friend" can be interpreted to mean that the written accounts of Sigerson’s explorations somehow conveyed information about Holmes’s own travels. This could happen, for example, if Holmes and Sigerson met in Asia, perhaps even travelled together, but at least exchanged information.

If we admit the possibility that Sigerson was not identical with Holmes, then we must look for another historical person who might fit the description of the Norwegian explorer. It appears that there is really only one plausible candidate: Sven Hedin. The fact that Sigerson is said to be Norwegian whereas Hedin was Swedish is easily explained by the fact that Sweden and Norway was at this time a united kingdom (the ruler of which is referred to several times in the Canon as "the King of Scandinavia"; e. g., SCAN 166).

Sven Hedin was born the 19th of February 1865 (in Stockholm, where he also died in 1953). He was knighted in 1902 for his remarkable explorations, and he was also appointed member of the Royal Swedish Academy. He wrote a large number of books – both scientific and popular – about his expeditions abroad, as well as articles for newspapers and geographic journals, and he was a famous lecturer all over Europe.

In the late 1880s and early 1890s, Hedin made several journeys in Central Asia (mainly in Persia), but his first major expedition started in the autumn of 1893. He left Stockholm on the 16th of October 1893 with 34,000 Swedish crowns in his pocket. The steamship Döbeln took him to St Petersburg, where he could load his 2,000 pounds of equipment onto a train sponsored by the Russian state. He went by train to Orenburg on the river Ural, and continued by horse carriage to Tasjkent, where he arrived on the 4th of December 1893 after travelling 1390 miles.

Hedin’s next goal was Pamir – known as "The Roof of the World". The average height of this glacier is 4,000 metres. (By comparison, the Mont Blanc is approximately 4,800 metres high.) At the end of January 1894, a small caravan consisting of eight hired horses, Sven Hedin himself, and "a few good men" left for the glaciers. According to Hedin’s own published account it was hard times: "We were climbing, creeping and crawling on the edge of the abyss … Every horse was led by the reins by one man and another man held its tail in order to be at hand if the animal should slip and fall into the chasm."4 When the ice was too slippery, they had to cut steps in the ice and spray sand on them; when the snow was too deep, they had to put blankets on the ground to be able to walk. At night, the temperature in the tent was ten degrees below zero, and to be able to make notes Hedin had to thaw the ink in his pen by holding it in his mouth. After a hard struggle, the caravan finally reached Pamirski Post, the highest peak in Russia.

From Pamirski Post, Hedin and his men headed for China and the town of Kashgar. On the way there, Hedin saw from a distance the legendary mountain Mustagh-ata – the name means "Father of the icebergs" in the Tibetan language – with its glacier seemingly floating on the clouds. Hedin was a stubborn man and made four attempts to reach the top of Mustagh-ata (7,435 metres). On the fourth attempt, in August 1894, he reached an altitude of 6,300 metres. Few men had climbed this high before, and certainly no Swede (a record that lasted sixty years).

After his struggle with Mustagh-ata, Hedin continued through the desert of Takla-makan, and on to Tibet. After five months in Tibet, he headed for China, where he reached Peking in March 1897, and via Mongolia and Siberia he finally returned to Stockholm in May 1897. He later made two more expeditions to Central Asia, where he especially explored "the unexplored Tibet", the first in 1899—1902, and the second in 1905—1909.

We return now to the main question posed at the beginning: How is it possible to reconcile the assumption that"the remarkable explorations of a Norwegian named Sigerson" were in fact the remarkable explorations of a Swede named Hedin with the fact that Watson was "receiving news" of Holmes by reading of these explorations? The most obvious solution to this puzzle would be to assume that Holmes and Hedin travelled together in Tibet, so that the explorations of Sigerson alias Hedin were really the joint explorations of Holmes and Hedin, but there are at least two problems connected with this theory, and one of them turns out to be rather serious. Let us begin, however, by addressing the minor problem.

As pointed out by Philip Weller, in the notes to the Company Canon edition of EMPT, the account of Hedin’s excursions into Tibet were published in English only after EMPT.5 It should be noted, however, that this refers to the publication of Hedin’s two-volume work A Journey through Asia, which first appeared in 1898 in eight different languages.6 And during all his expeditions, Hedin continually wrote shorter articles which were sent home and published in newspapers and geographical journals throughout Europe. Since Dr Watson seems to have had a fascination for the exotic, as pointed out by Philip Weller in a recent article,7 it would not appear at all far-fetched to assume that the Good Doctor read these reports of Hedin’s explorations with great interest.

The main argument against the theory that Holmes and Hedin travelled together is the chronological inconsistencies that this theory gives rise to. As mentioned above, Hedin started his expedition in the autumn of 1893 and did not reach Asia until little before Christmas that year. On the other hand, we know that Holmes left Switzerland in May 1891 and, according to his statement to Dr Watson in EMPT, "… travelled for two years in Tibet …". He "… then passed through Persia, looked in at Mecca, and paid a short but interesting visit to the Khalifa at Khartoum …". Finally, he "…spent some months … in a laboratory at Montpellier…". [EMPT 488]

According to most chronologists Holmes returned to London some time in March/April 1894 – and no chronologist has a later date than this – which would imply that when Hedin was starting to explore Asia, Holmes was already on his way to Montpellier. Is there any way out of this dilemma?

One possibility is that Watson misdated EMPT, which then really took place in 1895 or late 1894. This, however, is highly improbable since all the facts seem to point to the earlier date, as evidenced by the relatively high agreement among the chronologists on this point.

A second possibility is that the dates of Hedin’s travels in Asia are incorrectly recorded in all the historical documents – including Hedin’s own writings – but this seems even less plausible than the first alternative.

A third solution, which is slightly better than the previous ones, is to assume that the order of Holmes’s travels during the Great Hiatus has been mixed up in Dr Watson’s accounts. We have to remember that the Canonical text was probably written nearly ten years after the actual events and that Watson was relating events on which he had only second hand information through Holmes. Thus, if Holmes’s travels in Tibet and Central Asia did not occur at the beginning but rather towards the end of the Great Hiatus, then he could have had Hedin as a travelling companion for at least part of the journey. Still, this would mean assuming that the Canonical account of Holmes’s travels is incorrect, something we would not like to do unless forced to.

Luckily, we think there is a solution to this problem that does not require us to contradict the Canonical evidence. According to Holmes’s own statements, he travelled "for two years in Tibet". Now, "two years" is not a very precise expression and could in fact mean anything from, say, one and a half years up to two and a half years. Furthermore, it must have taken Holmes at least a month, and probably more, to reach Tibet in the first place.8 This means that without contradicting the Canonical evidence considered so far, it would be possible to assume that Holmes’s travels in Tibet were not completed until the end of 1893.

On the other hand, we know that Holmes arrived at Montpellier "some months" before his arrival in London in March/April 1894. Now, again "some months" is not very precise, and although it certainly has to be more that one month, it doesn’t necessarily have to be all that much more. Even though none of the authors is a native speaker of English, we would like to claim that a period of, say, slightly less than two months could, in an appropriate context, be referred to as "some months". If this is correct, then Holmes could in fact have arrived at Montpellier as late as the beginning of February.

Given these considerations, it is in fact possible that Sherlock Holmes and Sven Hedin met somewhere near Tasjkent in early December 1893. This would still give Holmes about two months for passing through Persia, looking in at Mecca, and paying a short visit to the Khalifa at Khartoum on his way to Montpellier. If this is true, then Holmes may have provided Hedin with a lot of valuable information about the journey that lay ahead of the Swedish explorer. If some of this information also found its way into the newspaper reports that Hedin sent back to Europe, this would explain how Dr Watson could have received news of his friend by reading of the explorations of Sigerson alias Hedin.

Whether Holmes and Hedin did in fact meet we will probably never know with complete certainty, but before we conclude it may be interesting to note how much the two men seem to have had in common. Starting with their mentality, we may note that Hedin’s biographer Eric Wennerholm paints a picture of the Great Explorer which has many points in common with Dr Watson’s description of the Great Detective. Both men had a personality characterized by humour, irony and distance, mixed with self-confidence and pride. Impatience and need of activity were also prominent. The two men were both purposeful, stubborn and devoted to their vocations, and in practical life neither of them had great demands for food, sleep or comfort.

The independence of an explorer (or a detective) is not easily compatible with family life and consequently neither of them had a wife, although they both had a woman whom they showed great devotion. In Hedin’s life the woman was Miss Mille Broman, whose photograph was found next to him on his death-bed, 61 years after the romance. They also seem to have shared a taste for beautiful flowers: "What a lovely thing a rose is!", said Holmes [NAVA 455]. "My favourite flower … the rose", wrote Hedin.9

It is a well-known fact that Holmes was a master of disguise, and when Hedin finally directed his steps towards the forbidden city of Lhasa in 1900 he did so disguised as a Mongolian pilgrim. We can only guess at the origin of this idea in Hedin’s mind, but it is of course tempting to see in it the influence of a meeting with the Master some seven years earlier. It is also a rather curious coincidence that the two great men should have the exact same initials: "S. H.". In fact, if it were not for the massive historical evidence opposing such a theory, one could almost be led to believe that, whether or not Sigerson is an alias for Sven Hedin, Sven Hedin is really an alias for Sherlock Holmes!

In conclusion, we would like to claim that, although we have not been able to prove that the Norwegian named Sigerson was in fact a Swede named Hedin, we have at least shown that it is a possibility worth considering. One final question would then remain: Why did not Dr Watson use Hedin’s real name in EMPT? We have no answer to this question for the moment, but it is worth pointing out that the explanation could have something to do with connections to the King of Scandinavia, i. e. the King of the United Kingdom of Sweden and Norway, Oscar II. We know that Sherlock Holmes had rendered services of a confidential nature to the king. [NOBL 291] And we also know that Sven Hedin was a close personal friend of the king, with whom he corresponded during all his journeys.10 It is therefore possible that Holmes and Hedin had met earlier than 1893 through their connections with Oscar II, and that Dr Watson’s reason for concealing Sven Hedin’s real name in EMPT may have had something to do with these connections. Whether this is the correct explanation will perhaps be revealed as we proceed to investigate Sherlock Holmes’s services to the King of Scandinavia, but this must surely be the topic of another article.

References:

1. Weller, P. Alphabetically, My Dear Watson, Sherlock Publications, 1994,
p 111.

2. Smith, E. W. ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Great Hiatus’, The Baker Street Journal, Vol. I, No. 3, Old Series, July 1946.

3. Clark, J. D. ‘Some Notes Relating to a Preliminary Investigation into the Paternity of Nero Wolfe’, The Baker Street Journal, Vol VI, No. 1, New Series, January 1956, pp 5—11.

4. Wennerholm, E. Sven Hedin: En biografi (Sven Hedin: A Biography), Bonniers, 1978, p 62. (Translation from the Swedish original by the authors of this article.)

5. CC-EMPT, p 41, note 75.

6. Wennerholm, op cit, p 296.

7. Weller, P. ‘A Regimental Type?’, The New Baker Street Pillar Box 23, Summer 1995, pp 25—29.

8. Cf. Weller, V. ‘By Way of Florence’, The Franco-Midland Hardware Company, Annual Report 1994, pp 5—7.

9. Wennerholm, op cit, p 96.

10. Wennerholm, op cit, p 60.