What is Sherlock’s Musgrave Ritual?

SPOILERS: An original Sherlock Holmes story is the key to the grisly mystery at the heart of series four finale The Final Problem...

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I was pleased, if not shocked, to see the Musgrave Ritual turn up in the Sherlock series four finale. It’s one of my favourite Sherlock Holmes stories and I know it’s one of Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss’s too.

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I even suggested there might be a reference to it in the final episode after analysing that first portentous promo image for the series, which featured the Persian slipper Homes traditionally kept his tobacco in and the “unanswered correspondence transfixed by a jack-knife into the very centre of his wooden mantelpiece”, both of which are referred to by Dr Watson in the original story.

So what is the Musgrave Ritual and how does it relate to The Final Problem?

The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual is a Sherlock Holmes short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first published in 1893, and is unusual in being one of the few narrated by the detective himself.

Holmes is called to the country estate of a former university friend, Reginald Musgrave, to investigate the disappearance of two of his staff. Before he went missing, it seems the butler, Brunton, had been taking an unusual interest in a family riddle known as the Musgrave Ritual and had been trying to solve it, despite the fact that Musgrave himself assumed it to be nonsense.

The Musgrave Ritual consists of a number of enigmatic questions and answers, including lines such as 

“Where was the shadow?”

“Under the elm.”

“How was it stepped?”

“North by ten and by ten, east by five and by five, south by two and by two, west by one and by one, and so under.”

Holmes quickly sees that there is more to it than Musgrave or his family had suspected and sets about trying to decipher it, measuring the heights of trees, performing trigonometry and eventually following the clues to a spot inside the ground floor of a particularly old part of the house.

In a small cellar beneath a stone slab, he finds the body of Brunton, who has been trapped and has suffocated in his search for an ancient treasure… 

In The Final Problem, we are first introduced to the word Musgrave as the name of the Holmes family’s ancestral home. At this point, it might just have been a throwaway reference to please fans of the original stories – but it soon becomes clear that the parallels extend far beyond that.

The Holmes family’s very own Musgrave Ritual has been designed by Sherlock’s psychotic younger sister Eurus. It contains lines very reminiscent of the original – “16 by 6 and under we go” – and just like the instructions that Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes followed, they lead underground to the remains of an unfortunate soul. This time the resting place is a well and the remains are those of Sherlock’s childhood friend Victor Trevor, who Eurus trapped there to drown when she was just five years old (more on that here).

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“The Musgrave Ritual – your very first case, and the Final Problem,” the adult Eurus tells Sherlock as we’re brought full circle, from Sherlock’s forgotten childhood to the present day and the final grisly truth behind Eurus’s sinister puzzle…