The Siren's Call: A horn of plenty's worth of holiday reading

One Thanksgiving lesson most school kids probably don't receive has to do with the horn of plenty adorning festive paintings. For me it always seemed like a weird choice for carrying harvested food — what about a simple, flat-bottomed basket? But I didn't know that the horn was special. In classical myth, the horn is a symbol for several food- and wealth-related gods because, one story goes, Zeus played too roughly with a goat and broke its horn. To make amends, he promised to fill that broken horn with whatever food the animal desired.

Where reading is concerned this month, it's been devilishly hard to isolate one or two books for The Siren's Call. So in keeping with that idea of a brimming horn of plenty, this month's column offers a cornucopia of myth- and lore-related books.


Sherlock Holmes is certainly a mythic figure, isn't he? Arthur Conan Doyle gave us his version of the archetypal questing hero, clad in a frock coat and deerstalker cap. At the mention of the name "Arthur Conan Doyle," in fact, it's impossible not to think of Holmes.

For book critic Michael Dirda that's a real problem.

Such a powerful link, you see, has caused most of the great author's other works to be overlooked — and Dirda's brief, elegant reflection "On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling" (Princeton University Press: 210 pp., $19.95) calls our attention to his large and notable output.

"Today much of Conan Doyle's substantial oeuvre — his bibliography runs to more than 700 pages — suffers readerly neglect because of the widespread misconception that he only rose above the conventions of his time when he wrote about the dynamic duo of Baker Street," laments Dirda, a longtime Washington Post book critic and author of several books.

With thoughtful care, Dirda explains how Conan Doyle "rose above the conventions of his time" in many of his writings. Dirda shines a helpful light on the adventurers Professor Challenger and Brigadier Gerard, while a selection of "weird" fiction causes him to declare that those stories "can stand up to the best work of such masters of the uncanny as Sheridan Le Fanu and M.R. James." (As a longtime admirer of James, I was thoroughly piqued by this — and promptly bought a collection of Conan Doyle's ghostly tales to read over the holidays.)

Dirda circles back to Holmes, directing our attention to overlooked aspects of the stories — the elusive presence of Professor Moriarty, for example, or Holmes' brother Mycroft. He also treats us to a delightful, intimate glimpse of the magical power of books in his own early life. What book lover hasn't had at least one cherished experience of reading? Dirda's own involves his loving preparations, as a youth, to read "The Hound of the Baskervilles" on an appropriately stormy day when the rest of his family was out of the house.

Why do so many people have such an undying fondness for the gaslit world of Holmes and Watson? Dirda offers many reasons: One is that Conan Doyle's writing possesses a quality he calls "compulsive readability." Conan Doyle was certainly artistic, but, as Dirda explains, he was less interested in aesthetic perfection than in reaching readers. That imperative guided his writing and is perhaps what resulted in a style that has withstood the passing of time. When you enter a Conan Doyle novel or story, as you would a house, there's a warm glow from a blazing hearth and a comfortable chair waiting for you. It's not a museum.

And there's much of that same feeling in Dirda's inviting book, which demonstrates why for so many years Dirda has been such an insightful guide to literatures past and present. (Note to director Guy Ritchie: If you're still looking for more Conan Doyle fare after "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" opens next month, you might read Dirda's book for ideas.)


A.N. Wilson has a marvelous facility for bringing distant worlds up close. "The Victorians," for instance, his idiosyncratic portrait of the British Empire in the 19th century, is as engaging and as accessible as any novel on the subject by A.S. Byatt.

Wilson does much the same in "Dante in Love" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 386 pp., $35), surveying the life of a poet who continues to enchant readers and lure scholars even though, at a distance of 700 years (he died in 1321), there are probably more people who have tried to read Dante than have actually succeeded. That may be because the great Tuscan poet of "The Divine Comedy," Wilson explains, "expects you to share his knowledge of … contemporary Italian history and politics.... And on top of all that, there is the whole confusing business of medieval philosophy and theology…" It can be daunting.

Wilson, proudly, is not one of those failed readers, but he is sympathetic to struggling readers: In this book he provides a broad, accessible overview of the poet's life and work. It's the sort of book he wishes he'd had "as a young man when I first read the 'Comedy' … which did not take for granted any knowledge of Dante's background."

"Dante in Love" strikes a good balance between what it offers to new and informed readers. Wilson blends the basics, such as Dante's upbringing and Florentine politics — dominated by the Guelfs, the party supporting the Papacy (which broke into a white and black faction), and the Ghibellines, aligned with the Holy Roman Emperor — with more specialized details about the poetry.

One of these specialized bits, for instance, has to do with the "Lady of the Window" celebrated in the poem "Il Convivio." She isn't some airy, idealized figure, some critics have argued, but is in fact Dante's flesh-and-blood wife. This, Wilson notes, is an effort made by some scholars to find a place in the poetry for Dante's spouse, who otherwise never appears. Dante's married life, however, "will always remain unimaginable," Wilson insists, because his age wasn't a confessional one like ours today. Even when Dante refers to himself in his poetry, Wilson says, it is a highly stylized matter.

Still, Wilson does engage in speculative biography, reading between the lines of the "Commedia," the "La Vita Nuova" and the other works, striving to give us a portrait of a man who, long before he was a literary immortal, was like the rest of us: beleaguered by his job, by the turmoil of his times, struggling with debts, critics, jealousy.

"Dante in Love" certainly shouldn't replace another volume in your personal library of Dante-related books, but it does make a fine contribution to our appreciation of a poet who, as 19th century historian Jacob Burckhardt wrote, "absorbed the whole world into his own soul." So read Wilson's book, pick up that copy of the "Commedia" and try again.


Metal-detecting has been a hobby for Terry Herbert for many years, but when he swung his detector over a patch of dirt in a farmer's field in the English Midlands in 2009, his hobby opened the door on a distant age.

As Caroline Alexander relates in "Lost Gold of the Dark Ages: War, Treasure and the Mystery of the Saxons" (National Geographic Books: 240 pp., $35), Herbert had stumbled upon an Anglo-Saxon hoard: In fact, there have been many such caches of buried treasure discovered all over the country. "England's soil is dense with history," Alexander explains, and "today droves of treasure-seekers … tramp the fields every year.…"

Herbert's detector wouldn't stop beeping: He kept digging up glittering hunks of metal. When he went to show farmer Fred Johnson what he had found in the field, he was carrying "twisted gold sword fittings, pommels, and garnet-set strips, still covered in earth" in his hands.

It was just the beginning. Herbert, along with the local authorities, unearthed a staggering amount of material now known officially as the Staffordshire Hoard. As for Herbert and Johnson, according to the English legal system, all treasures older than 300 years and containing more than 10% gold or silver belong to the Crown. The pair, however, did split a nice finder's fee amounting to about $5 million once the hoard's total value had been assessed.

"Consisting of some 3,500 pieces from hundreds of individual objects that filled 244 bags, the Staffordshire Hoard was remarkable not only for what was in it, but also for what was not," writes Alexander. ""There were no domestic or feminine objects; almost everything that could be identified was military in character."

Perhaps the hoard had belonged to a cohort of warriors? Perhaps it had been used as a ransom to buy off a battle lord? Such hoards, this book shows, are hardly unusual, and in the case of this one, it isn't surprising "that a hoard may have been buried for reasons of secrecy, safety, or simply storage, and then abandoned."

In the 600s, when the hoard was presumably buried, Anglo-Saxon Britain was divided into seven kingdoms constantly at war. Fred Johnson's field, in the heart of what was Mercia, had once been an unused wood and the hoard rested undisturbed. Unfortunately, as Alexander explains, in the field's being turned into a working farm field, plowing and erosion "churned the hoard … the archeological context for the hoard, then, had long been destroyed…"

With the recent death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, everyone is rightly speaking about the genius of his designs (of course the praise is deserved). When I open this book, however, the people who impress me slightly more are those anonymous artisans who created jeweled fittings to decorate a sword hilt or the intricate designs on a cheek panel that hung down from a helmet to protect the side of a warrior's face (the helmet's gone). The images presented in this book are gorgeous. And stunning.

"Lost Gold of the Dark Ages," a companion text to a recent documentary on the National Geographic Channel, serves as a pleasing introduction for lay readers to a fascinating, murky topic. It's also an encouraging reminder that the deep past isn't entirely lost to us; answers are still out there, and, in some cases, they're literally under our feet.


If you still have room for even more books in your horn of plenty, then consider Nathaniel Philbrick's "Why Read Moby-Dick?" (Viking: 131 pp., $25), a brief defense of the Herman Melville novel. It's usually a waste of time to find justifications in what others say about a book rather than trust in your own sensibility, but the author of "In the Heart of the Sea" provides a helpful accompaniment before you plunge into the voyage of the Pequod. And as I said, it's short — far shorter, in fact, than what Wilson does for Dante.

Dark Horse Comics is bringing out more installments of "The Occultist" (Dark Horse: $3.50), a one-off comic book published last year that ended on a cliffhanger. College student Rob Bailey has absorbed the power of an old book and has been transformed into a powerful sorcerer — now, a bunch of hit men ("hit mages" is probably more accurate) want to kill him and retrieve that strange, potent tome for their master. It's difficult not to get swept up in Rob's ordeal, especially since he doesn't know the full extent of the powers he now possesses.

This column recently covered Stephen Greenblatt's award-winning book about the Roman poet Lucretius, "The Swerve," and thanks goes out to readers Joe Gates and Joel Peck for recommending, as a follow-up, the book "A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment" by Philipp Blom.

Another book that also might please some readers this holiday season actually appeared during the summer, "Aelian's 'On the Nature of Animals'" (Trinity University Press: 180 pp., $15.95). Edited by Gregory McNamee, Aelian's treatise "De Natura Animalium" is one more example of the Roman mind striving to make sense of the cosmos. Some of the observations of Claudius Aelianus are fanciful and seem straight from a magical realist novel ("the female dolphin has breasts like a human woman"). Others, however, are charming and inspiring, like this image of wolves crossing a river: "One wolf will bite the tail of the one in front of it, and so on, and then they will all swim across as a chain, so that no harm can come to them." Lovely stuff.

Owchar is Times deputy book editor. The Siren's Call appears monthly at