Sylvie and Bruno Concluded

Sylvie and Bruno illustration scan 40
“But oh, Sylvie, what makes the sky such a darling blue?”

Last night I finished Sylvie and Bruno‘s sequel, which I had long been meaning to read (since two years ago!).  The two parts together make a truly lovely book, one I can easily call a favorite.

While the Alice books feel more linear in plot, as well as claustrophobic (and thereby cosy), Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893) continues the story’s broad setting – a combination of the real world and the two mythical siblings’ world.  It is both fun and surprising the way the plot jumps back and forth, and sometimes combines, the characters in the real world and those in Sylvie and Bruno’s world.  On the one hand, you have young Dr. Forester, whose broken heart regains hope when he learns his relationship with Lady Muriel is not altogether over.  At the same time, there are Sylvie and Bruno who must hold onto the love, symbolized by a locket, their father entrusted to them, and do what they can to help the people around them, whether they are visible or not.  The narrator, meanwhile, is the bridge that finds the commonality between the two (and also a good deal of nonsense and contradiction nobody else seems to notice).

Interspersed with all of this is a lot of religious and social commentary by Lewis Carroll.  He would often have the various characters debating with one another, and while it left the reader to guess what Carroll was thinking, it was nice to read a relatively realistic commentary.  In some cases his opinion was very clear (e.g. what he wrote in the preface about some “stagey” church services was fascinating and quite relevant for today).  I found I often agreed with him – of course, not always – in any case, reading what actual Victorians thought is always interesting.

It’s a difficult book to describe otherwise.  Because of the topics, I wouldn’t recommend it for children; teens and older could get a lot out of it, though.  Honestly, it was moving at times; it’s a book that really drives home what true love is, and such a pure, spiritual, unselfish love transcends the mercenary way our culture likes to divide and label it.  If you liked the Alice books, and you wish there were more brotherly/sisterly love in the world, then you really should read Sylvie and Bruno and its sequel.  

5 out of 5 stars.

4 short reviews

Beowulf
Unknown
3.5 out of 5 stars

I feel almost guilty for rating this classic of classics so poorly, but I think it’s a book you either love, loathe, or feel lukewarm about.

Pros:  The historic setting, historic dialogue, underwater/cave battle, and Christian perspective.  Added 1/2 star for Beowulf‘s influence on Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Cons:  Beowulf (the character) is much too flawless a fighter. He hardly seems human.  A more interesting character is Wiglaf, the underling whose courage outweighs his inexperience.

The Queen of Spades
Alexander Pushkin
2 out of 5 stars

A very weird, Edgar Allan Poe-esque story about gambling and ghosts.  It’s also super fast-paced, which doesn’t help.  Interesting concept, however.

A Tangled Tale
Lewis Carroll
5 out of 5 stars

One of the best books I’ve read in the last year.  This is a collection of math/logic puzzles, with continuing characters and storylines.  The dialogue is wonderfully witty and hilarious at times (“Equilateral! And rectangular!”).

As far as the puzzles themselves go, this is serious stuff.  Mathematically, pretty much all you need is algebra.  The logic is the tough part.  I tried solving several of them, but was only able to solve one on my own: “Petty Cash”.  Even this involved Victorian British currency and some convoluted systems of equations.

Needless to say, you will be staying up very late at night trying to solve these.  They look horribly simple, even on your second or third attempt.

A Personal Record
Joseph Conrad
5 out of 5 stars

Another memoir by Joseph Conrad, this book gives fascinating insights on what his early life was like, how he became a seaman, and how–comparatively late in life–he became a writer.  Highly recommended for Conrad fans and people interested in the lives of great authors.

Sylvie and Bruno, volume 1

{Note:  I only just found out that Sylvie & Bruno is a two-volume book–I read vol. 1 and thought it was the entire story.  In any case, I’ll be reviewing this in two parts, and treat vol. 2 as a sequel.}

Outland: a crazy, fantastical world, where the government is about to be taken over by a conniving official, his wife, and his ferociously unruly son.  It seems the wrong place for Sylvie and her brother, Bruno–two fairy-children whose loyal love keeps them together no matter what.  Meanwhile, real-world character Dr Arthur Forester has fallen in love with Lady Muriel Orme, a lady of sense and cheerful character.  Arthur is hesitant about expressing his feelings; and when the handsome, charismatic Captain Lindon comes to visit, Arthur fears he’s lost all chances. 

Lisi Jar
By Leafnode (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno is much like the Alice books, highlighting nonsense and riddles, and featuring children as the main characters.  A unique difference, though, is that Sylvie & Bruno is 1/3 fairy story, 1/3 magic realism, and 1/3 romance.  The setting changes abruptly; and while at first this is confusing, its whimsicality becomes intriguing, pulling you along through quirky plot twists.

The title characters are very extraordinary children.  Sweet and patient Sylvie, who never gets truly angry; and Bruno, whose rambunctiousness is happily equaled by his affection and good-intentions.  Granted, I’ve never met siblings who were always this sugary sweet, either individually or together; but they are fairies, after all.  😉 

The narrator (i.e. Carroll) is quite a major character–an elderly gentleman with a tendency towards matchmaking, befriending fairies, and falling asleep at awkward moments.  The romantic subplot, if a bit fast-paced, fit in surprisingly well; and with it, there are some Christian themes mentioned, including a relevant mention of the importance of reverent, non-stagey worship services. 

Now, according to Carroll’s preface to vol. 2 and Wikipedia, there is also supposed to be a “Theosophical” basis for the book.  I couldn’t say for sure how important it is in the story…I tend to read heavily between-the-lines and if it was there, it was not evident unless you were looking for it.  He seemed to only use it (if ever) in connection with his book’s hypothetical idea, “What if fairies were real?”  Of course, I haven’t read vol. 2 yet; but vol. 1 seemed suitable reading to me.  And I was pleasantly surprised at the intelligence of the romantic subplot–the characters talked about real issues, not just everyday fluff. 

As serious as these subplots sound, they only form the smaller part of the story–the fairies and nonsense/logic are the book’s focus.  One of my favorite parts was the “Outlandish” watch, a time-travelling device.  With this watch, and a neat piece of logic, Carroll solves the Grandfather Paradox…perhaps a bit too logically (à la Mr Spock).  😉  That chapter also includes the scene with the hunted hare–and yes, I cried.  If you never read this book, I’d recommend the second half of Chapter 21 alone; it’s bittersweet, depressing, simple, and profound, all at once. 

I really did think the ending was the end.  But I’m going to read vol. 2 (Sylvie and Bruno Concluded), and would certainly recommend vol. 1 to anybody who values childhood imagination and innocence. 

5 out of 5 stars.