Symbolism in The Reichenbach Fall

I originally wrote this article before the third season aired and posted it at Livejournal. I thought it couldn’t hurt to repost it here. I also made some edits concerning details I stumbled over during the third season.

Moriarty’s obsession with Fairy Tales in The Reichenbach Fall seems to be a little bit random at first glance. But if you look closer, you might notice that the whole episodes is woven around this theme. It’s like a game in a game, as if he tries to give Sherlock an additional hint, but deliberately in a way that he might miss the clue. When I really looked for parallels, I found a really interesting construct. I’m not saying that this is really what the writers had in mind, it is entirely possible that I overanalyse this (it’s even quite likely, but this was too much fun to stop in time).

1. The Number Three

The three is an important number in fairy tales. Cinderella goes three times to the ball before she loses her shoe, Snow White is visited by the Evil Queen three times before she dies, three blood drops and so on. Three is also the number which keeps popping up in Moriarty’s scheme. He breaks into the three most secure places in the country. His message for Sherlock, I O U, consists of three letters. He leaves the message three times (on the apple, in front of the precinct and in a Graffiti close to Baker Street – which is, by the way, a nice call-back to The Blind Banker). Three times he leaves an envelope for Sherlock (one entailed the bread crumps, one the book with the fairy tales and one the gingerbread man). And he threatens to kill three people if Sherlock doesn’t commit suicide, which are shadowed by three assassins – the whole threat is uttered in a pattern of three “Three bullets; three gunmen; three victims”. He also invokes the Magpie motive three times, once by playing the song when he steals the crown jewels, once by using a magpie symbol on the wax seal, and the I O U graffiti has magpie wings. (Edit: Note that the magpie turns also up during “The Sign of Three” of all episodes as part of the tapestry behind Mary, John and Sherlock during the wedding – and for some reason there are two birds which look like magpies on the placeholders, too, and the wedding invitation shows a magpie flying off a tree.)

2. I O U

Interesting in connection with the letters are the places where they turn up. At 221B (where John lives), at Baker Street (where Mrs. Hudson lives) and at the precinct (where Lestrade works). But even more interesting are the letters in itself. Joalro pointed out at the Sherlock Fanforum, that they could have a hidden meaning. If you look at the position of those letters in the alphabet, you end up with the numbers 9, 15 and 21 (which can be all divide through three, but that is most likely a lucky coincidence). If you now look at the number system of the Grimm fairy tales, you notice that 9 stands for The Twelve Brothers, 15 for Hänsel and Gretel and 21 for Cinderella. That Hänsel and Gretel of all the tales out there is among those seems more than a coincidence considering that Moriarty (and the writers) went out of his way to include Hänsel and Gretel into the plan. Plus, the three fairy tales have something in common. In all of them, birds play an important role and all of them have something to do with burning (or in Cinderella’s case, ash). And they refer to the three stages of Moriarty’s plan.

2.1 The Twelve Brothers

Twelve brothers, twelve jury members is the most obvious connection. In the tale, the live of the twelve brothers hinges on the birth of the next child. If it is a girl, they will all be killed. This is somewhat similar to the situation the jury members are in, their future hinges on one decision. But the similarities don’t end there. In the fairy tale, the brothers are eventually turned into ravens. Now, if you consider the magpie symbol Moriarty connects with himself, and that the jury members turn into his unwilling accomplices when they don’t convict him, he in a way turned them into ravens, too. The fairy tale ends with the sister, who has to fulfil a tasks which involves no laughing and no talking, being accused by her jealous mother-in-law of witchcraft. Because she can’t speak up, she nearly gets burned on a stake. In a way, the fairy tale foreshadows what will happen later in the episode. (Edit: And burning on a stake is also what happens to John in “The Empty Hearse”).

2.2 Hänsel and Gretel

There are a lot of obvious parallels inserted in the episode. The kidnapped children are brother and sister (who got abandoned by their parents to a boarding school…honestly, what kind of parents just leave their children alone during the holidays?), the chocolate in the sweet factory is a hint to the witches gingerbread house (Sherlock even points the fact out) and Moriarty leaves breadcrumbs. A less obvious parallel is that in the tale, the birds are eating the breadcrumbs, thus destroying the trace which leads back home, while now the bird (magpie) leaves the breadcrumps.

2.3 Cinderella

Since we are talking about Grimm stories, I’ll go with the German version – Aschenputtel – which is a little bit different from the French one. In this one, the birds (pigeons in this case) are Aschenputtel’s helper. Now consider that Moriarty made sure that a bunch of assassins watched Sherlock, ready to rescue his life to protect the code. The main theme of the tale is the jealously of the stepsisters and stepmother, who literally force Aschenputtle into the ash, while the good father does nothing to help her. The anger of the police officers results in them very ready to pull him down, while Lestrade is unable to help him. Cinderella loses a shoe at the ball which leads to the prince finding her. Sherlock following the clues of a footprint leads to the police suspecting him in the third act of Moriarty’s little play.

3. The Bird Symbolic

This is something the writers did rather than Moriarty, so it gets its own category. The first thing the audience gets to see before Moriarty starts his plan are the ravens at the Tower of London (another call-back to The Twelve Brothers). When the plot unfolds, there is not only the Magpie which keeps popping up, Moriarty also says “falling is just like flying”. And when, at the very end, Sherlock lies dead and the camera shows his body from above one last time, two birds (most likely pigeons, the birds which are associated with Aschenputtle) fly away. That is most likely deliberately done, considering that the birds start flying away from a window. The story concludes how it started, with birds.

4. Allusions to other stories

4.1 King Arthur

This story is most likely only there because the writers liked the Boastalot-pun, but it is fitting nevertheless. The Knights of the Round Table were sworn to protect the country, which is exactly the job of the police. Though…does this mean that Mycroft is Merlin?

4.1 The Gingerbread Man

How does Sherlock know that Moriarty want him to run from the police? Easy, because of his final message. In the story about the Gingerbread Man (not by the Grimm Brothers, btw), he runs away from Santa Claus because he doesn’t want to be eaten. He runs, and runs, and is finally eaten piece by piece by a fox.

4.2 Snow White

This is something the writers added because Moriarty couldn’t know that there would be an apple at Baker Street. I nevertheless looked for connections to Snow White and noted something. If you look at the tale you realize that it basically contains all the “tests” Moriarty designed for Sherlock during the first season. Snow White flees into the forest while the hunter brings the Evil Queen “proof” of her death mirrors (no pun intended) Ian Monkford faking his death. The first murder attempt on Snow White is done with a laced bodice used to asphyxiate her, which is basically the murder method of the golem, minus the bodice, naturally. The second time the Evil Queen uses a poisoned comb, which is similar to kill Connie Prince by injecting poison into her head. The third time she uses an apple, of which one half is poisoned (which she gives Snow White) and the other one not (which she eats herself), a nod to the Jefferson Hopes killing method with the two pills. The tale ends with the Evil Queen dancing to death in fiery shoes, which was basically Carl Powers fate (and if you remember that part of the story, the quote “I like to watch you dance” becomes an even more sinister meaning).

And this concludes my little search. As I said, some of those might be coincidence, and there is certainly a lot of room to interpret fairy tales in a certain way. But who knows, perhaps the writers did hide an elaborate riddle in this episode, just for fun.


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