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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 694

While Doyle is best known for his tales of Sherlock Holmes, he wrote a variety of other kinds of fiction, much of which is vigorous and entertaining. In interesting contrast to the Holmes stories, with their insistence upon rational explanation and natural order, are his stories of the supernatural. At the end of “Lot No. 249,” one of his best supernatural tales, the narrator says, “But the wisdom of men is small, and the ways of Nature are strange, and who shall put a bound to the dark things which may be found by those who seek for them?” Doyle’s tales of the supernatural also help to illustrate the wit and humor that, in fact, show up in many of his stories, for in these tales he often maintains an ironic narrative tone.

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In “The Ring of Thoth,” irony is directed at the central character, Mr. John Vansittart Smith, a fellow of the Royal Society. Though Smith is a highly talented scientist, he is also represented as a fickle fellow. The narrator opens the story with an extended metaphor of courtship. Smith “flirts” with zoology, chemistry, and Oriental studies, almost “marrying” each, but finally is “caught” by Egyptology. Then the metaphor turns real: “So struck was Mr. Smith that he straightway married an Egyptological young lady who had written upon the sixth dynasty, and having thus secured a sound base of operations he set himself to collect materials for a work which should unite the research of Lepsius and the ingenuity of Champollion.” The humor continues as Smith journeys to Paris to study materials at the Louvre, where the narrator describes him as looking like a comic bird while he studies. When a pair of English tourists make disparaging comments about an attendant’s appearance, Smith believes they are talking about him, making fun of his lack of physical beauty. Discovering his error, Smith notices that the attendant really does look like an authentic ancient Egyptian.

Smith’s curiosity is aroused, but when questioned, the attendant insists he is French. The ridiculous leads to the wondrous when, in the course of studying ancient documents, Smith falls asleep and remains unnoticed behind a door. He awakens in the early morning to discover the mysterious attendant unwrapping the mummy of a beautiful young girl, for whom the attendant expresses great affection. Then, in the course of searching among a collection of rings, the attendant spills some liquid and, in wiping it up, discovers Smith. As a result of this humorous series of accidents, Smith learns the story of Sosra.

Sosra, the attendant, is really an ancient Egyptian who developed an elixir of life. He and his best friend, Parmes, the priest of Thoth, drank it and became immortal. Then they both fell in love with Princess Atma, who loved Sosra; she soon died of a plague, having been hesitant about taking the elixir herself. Parmes then discovered an antidote for the elixir, making it possible for him to die and join Atma in the afterlife, but he hid it from Sosra so that he and Atma would be separated forever. After four thousand years of searching, Sosra has finally found the Ring of Thoth, which contains the antidote. He tells Smith his story and, along the way, makes it clear that Smith knows little of value about ancient Egyptian culture, even though he is one of the best modern Egyptologists. Then he lets Smith out of the Louvre and goes to join his beloved.

This amusing and entertaining tale of the supernatural contrasts the fickle modern scientist with the dedicated ancient scientist, who by sixteen had mastered his craft and who remained loyal to his first love for four millennia. On the other hand, Sosra’s story contains a warning for Smith, who has given way to a passion for ancient knowledge that may lead him along a path parallel to Sosra’s. The tale also casts an ironic light on the modern rationalist’s faith that one can understand the past or master any area of knowledge, thus providing an implicit, though perhaps not very serious, critique of the world view espoused by Sherlock Holmes.

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