General Literary Guides


The Oxford Classical Dictionary (OCD). Ed. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. 1,592 pp. DE5.O9 938.003. Available online at and through Oxford Reference (I530); CD-ROM.

A dictionary of classical civilization through the early Christian era (c. 337), with entries for authors and other important persons, places, peoples, mythological figures, themes, deities, languages, forms, genres, historical events, and literary terms; literary works of known authorship are discussed in author entries. Beginning with the third edition, OCD emphasizes interdisciplinary studies over literature, increases its attention to women, and embraces a wider, more international vision of classical studies. The more than 6,300 signed entries by established scholars range from a few lines to several pages, but even the brief ones are replete with information. Almost all conclude with references to important scholarship. The InteLex electronic versions (static texts with hyperlinks) can be browsed by entry or searched by keyword. Because the Folio search interface on the CD-ROM is cumbersome to use, researchers should opt, if possible, for the online version, which has a better search screen. See entry I530 for an evaluation of the Oxford Reference interface. Authoritative and informative, the work is the best single-volume classical dictionary in English and an essential desktop reference for deciphering classical allusions in literary works; it truly has, as its editors claim, “no competitor in any language.”

Although less authoritative and offering briefer discussions, The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, 3rd ed., ed. M. C. Howatson (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011; 632 pp.; online through Oxford Reference [I530]) is a useful complement because of its entries on individual works.

Fuller discussions of mythological figures are offered by Pierre Grimal, The Dictionary of Classical Mythology, trans. A. R. Maxwell-Hyslop, corrected rpt. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987; 603 pp.), which prints a helpful set of genealogical tables. Women mentioned in classical myths are accorded fuller treatment in Robert E. Bell, Women of Classical Mythology: A Biographical Dictionary (New York: Oxford UP, 1991; 462 pp.), which has a concluding list of cross-references to men in the women’s lives.


Reid, Jane Davidson. The Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts, 1300–1990s. 2 vols. New York: Oxford UP, 1993. NX650.M9 R45 700.

An encyclopedic catalog of treatments of themes and figures from classical Greek and Roman mythology in more than 30,000 works from the fine arts, music, dance, and literature of the Western world. In addition to mythological figures and themes “that have inspired an appreciable number of artistic treatments,” the Guide includes some subjects that derive from classical myths and some stories based on classical literature; it excludes “subjects from classical history and the post-Aeneid legends of early Rome” and allegorical personifications. The 205 main entries (the more extensive ones, such as those for Aphrodite and Odysseus, are thematically subdivided) begin with a headnote that briefly describes the subject and lists major classical sources and, occasionally, scholarly books on the subject; the note is followed by a chronological list (usually organized by date of composition) of works in which the subject is central or prominent or that contain an especially famous or seminal brief treatment of the subject. (The chronological order is, however, violated when works by the same artist are grouped under the date of the earliest work.) For each work, provides—as appropriate—author; title; explanation of the work’s relation to the subject; genre or medium; date of composition (or first publication, exhibition, or performance); publication or performance details; present location; and citations to other versions, translations, copies, or revisions related to the original. Indexed by artists. The breadth of coverage, the wealth of information, the careful attention to significant details, and the clear organization make the Guide an impressive achievement that will both stimulate and make feasible a variety of studies—interdisciplinary, iconographic, comparative, thematic, historical—of the influence of classical mythology on Western art. We are all in Reid’s debt for what is obviously a labor of love. Review: Alexander P. MacGregor, Classical Bulletin 70.2 (1994): 89–96.


Ferber, Michael. A Dictionary of Literary Symbols. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. 262 pp. PN56.S9 F47 809′.915. Online through Credo Reference ( 1st ed. online through Gale Virtual Reference Library (I535).

A dictionary of traditional symbols in Western literature that emphasizes those appearing in canonical British poetry. A typical entry, replete with examples spanning classical literature to the present, traces the origin or etymology of a symbol, surveys its history and associations, and examines the range of contexts in which it appears. Although necessarily very selective in what he can include, Ferber offers valuable advice (p. 5) on how to investigate symbols excluded. Readers, whether novice or erudite, who consult the Dictionary for such symbols as rose, dolphin, labyrinth, swallow, or worm will come away with their understanding enriched by the judicious, informative, and readable explanations (and will invariably be seduced into browsing, ultimately wishing that the Cambridge editors had not imposed such a restricted word limit).


Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia. Ed. Bruce F. Murphy. 5th ed. New York: Collins, 2008. 1,210 pp. PN41.B4 803.

A general dictionary of authors, works, terms, groups and organizations, movements, concepts, literary characters, and historical and mythological figures from all periods and a variety of literatures. The third and fourth editions are indexed in Biography and Genealogy Master Index (J565). Earlier editions remain useful for entries omitted in the fifth edition. For a history of the work, see Gary L. Ferguson, “The Domain of Learning and Imagination: William Rose Benét and The Reader’s Encyclopedia,” Reference Services Review 18.1 (1990): 31–37. Although it includes entries unrevised since the first edition and is not always accurate, Benét’s offers the broadest coverage of any single-volume literary dictionary in English.


The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English. Ed. Dominic Head. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006. 1,241 pp. PR85.C29 820′.90003.

A dictionary of American, British, Canadian, Irish, Australian, New Zealand, Indian, African, and Caribbean literatures in English. The approximately 4,500 entries treat writers (living and dead), major works, literary journals, genres, movements, groups, critical and rhetorical terms, theaters and theater companies, and literary concepts. The third edition emphasizes contemporary writers. Although the entries are not signed, the list of contributors includes a number of established scholars. The remarkable breadth of coverage makes Cambridge Guide a valuable complement to those literary dictionaries confined to a single national literature.

Readers should avoid Michael Stapleton, The Cambridge Guide to English Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge UP; Feltham, Middlesex: Newnes, 1983; 992 pp.), an unbalanced, untrustworthy attempt to cover works, characters, and authors of literature of the English-speaking world.


Kindlers neues Literatur Lexikon. Ed. Walter Jens. 21 vols. München: Kindler, 1988–96. Supplement. Ed. Rudolf Radler. 2 vols. 1998. PN44.K54 016.808. <>; CD-ROM.

A dictionary of literary works—along with some important philosophical, historical, and scholarly ones—from all literatures and eras. This new edition, while borrowing from Kindlers Literatur Lexikon, 7 vols., and Supplement (Zürich: Kindler, 1965–74), significantly expands the earlier edition’s scope to include more poets and Third World, women, and contemporary authors. Organized alphabetically by author, the signed entries provide a synopsis and lists of selected editions, translations, and studies (many bibliographies were badly dated before publication, and far too many ignore important studies; these problems do not plague the Supplement). Vols. 18–20 print general essays on national literatures and indexes; vol. 21 provides additional bibliographies and a necrology. The most international in scope and extensive in coverage of any dictionary of literary works, Kindlers is valuable for its succinct summaries of major and minor works, but the bibliographies in the main volumes cannot be trusted to guide users to the most important or representative studies.

Useful complements are

  • Dizionario letterario Bompiani delle opere e dei personaggi di tutti i tempi e di tutte le letterature. 11 vols. Milano: Bompiani, 1947–84; CD-ROM. Appendice. 3 vols. 1964–79. The model for Kindlers, the Dizionario includes signed entries for literary and musical works before about 1900 from all literatures, entries for literary characters (in vol. 8), and brief (and generally superficial) essays (in vol. 1) on intellectual and artistic movements. Works are alphabetized by Italian titles, characters by the Italian form of the given name. Three indexes in vol. 9: original titles; literary authors; illustrations. Dizionario Bompiani degli autori di tutti i tempi e di tutte le letterature, 6 vols. (Milano: Bompiani, 2006), summarizes the careers of about 10,000 deceased writers, from the classical period to c. 2003.

  • Dictionnaire universel des littératures. Ed. Béatrice Didier. 3 vols. Paris: PUF, 1994. A dictionary of the literatures, classical to modern, of the world (but with special focus on French and European literatures), with signed articles on writers (the majority from the twentieth century); movements; national, ethnic, or regional literatures; scholarly organizations; periods, genres and forms, places, anonymous works, and literary topics. Each entry concludes with a selective list of editions or studies. Users should be certain to consult the “Présentation des secteurs” for discussion of the scope of the treatment of individual literatures; unfortunately, most of the selective bibliographies appended to these sections are outdated or ignore important recent publications. Seven indexes: entries (organized by national literature, language, or region); authors (organized by literary period); entries on literatures in specific languages; genres (organized by national literature, language, or region); anonymous works (organized by national literature, language, or region); themes and myths; and schools, movements, and groups (organized by period).

See also

Enzyklopädie des Märchens (U5830).