What is the mysterious Appointment in Samarra fable that haunts the first episode of Sherlock?

Here’s everything you need to know about the spooky tale that obsesses our hero during The Six Thatchers

126892

WARNING: SPOILERS. DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN SHERLOCK SERIES 4 EPISODE 1

Advertisement

Woven throughout Sherlock series four opening episode The Six Thatchers is a rather haunting fable, narrated by the detective himself and acting as a spooky backdrop to the tale, loaded with meaning.

Its main function is to offer an eerie harbinger of the death of Mary Watson at the close. A death that we learned was pre-ordained by Sherlock creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat some years ago, and which closes an inevitable circle as she dies taking a bullet for a man she once shot.

But what are the origins and history of The Appointment in Samarra?

Well, it’s an Ancient Mesopotamian tale that first appears in the Babylonian Talmud and came to Western attention with its retelling by British writer W Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) in his 1933 short fable An Appointment in Samarra. 

Here it is:

“The Appointment in Samarra” 
(as retold by W Somerset Maugham [1933])

The speaker is Death

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

Samarra is a modern Iraqi City that was founded in 5,500 BC and was a key Mesopotamian municipality until the Muslim Conquests in the C7th AD.

Located on the east bank of the River Tigris 78 miles north of Bagdad, it reached its zenith in the C9th when it became the capital of the Caliph Abū Isḥāq Muḥammad ibn Hārūn al-Rashīd. 

Appointment in Samarra is also the title of a 1934 novel by American writer John O’Hara. The book is about the self-destruction and suicide of the fictional character Julian English, a wealthy car dealer who was once a member of the social elite of a fictional Pennsylvanian town but spends three days on a spree of self-destructive acts that culminate in his demise. Maugham’s short fable is referred to in an epigraph for the novel.

O’Hara said he chose the title against the advice of his publishers because it pointed to the “inevitability of Julian English’s death”.

In Sherlock, the story also seems to point to the inevitability of a protagonist’s death, that of John’s wife Mary.

As Steven Moffat said at the press screening of the episode, Mary’s death was inevitable because in Arthur Conan Doyle’s source books, we discover that Dr Watson is bereaved.

“Mary’s been dead for 100 years so it’s hard to surprise people in those circumstances,” said Moffat. “So the only thing we could do was do it earlier than people thought. So that it would happen as wrenchingly and as horrifically as such thing happen in real life, so that’s what we went for.”

So while it seems you can’t outrun Death, she can sometimes move your appointment closer…

Advertisement

The next episode of Sherlock, The Lying Detective, is on BBC1 on Sunday 8th January