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Literature / Sylvie and Bruno

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Bruno and Sylvie

He thought he saw an Elephant
That practised on a fife:
He looked again, and found it was
A letter from his wife.
'At length I realize,' he said,
'The bitterness of Life!
First stanza of "The Mad Gardener's Song"

One of the lesser-known works of Lewis Carroll, Sylvie and Bruno runs two parallel plots, one in something like the real world and one in Elf-land, both accessed by the First-Person Peripheral Narrator. The Elf-land plot involves the King standing down, for obscure reasons, in favour of his Most Definitely Not a Villain brother and "Sub-Warden", and his chancellor, leaving his two kids, the titular Sylvie and Bruno, as Heart Warming Orphans. The sort-of-real world plot involves a romance slightly complicated by a third party and oddly unaffected by the presence of a visitor from another planet/plane called Mein Herr, who is for some reason German-accented.

This work contains examples of:

  • Airport Novel: Lady Muriel discusses the Victorian equivalent: "the little thrilling romances, where the Murder comes at page fifteen, and the Wedding at page forty".
  • Aliens Speaking English: Played with for Mein Herr.
  • Black Comedy:
    • Mein Herr explains why, in his country, the only place you can drown is a theatre.
      "Our theatres are all underground. Large tanks of water are placed above. If a fire breaks out, the taps are turned, and in one minute the theatre is flooded, up to the very roof! Thus the fire is extinguished."
      "And the audience, I presume?"
      "That is a minor matter," Mein Herr carelessly replied.
    • He also explains that his people practise selective breeding (ie, eugenics) with the eventual aim of making them lighter than air. Bruno innocently asks what happens to the people who are too heavy - a question which Mein Herr doesn't answer.
  • Blue Blood
  • Character Filibuster: Most of the dialogue, especially involving Arthur or Mein Herr, is a veiled discourse on some social or moral issue.
  • Children Are Innocent
  • Closer to Earth: Sylvie and Lady Muriel.
  • Confound Them with Kindness: The narrator first meets Bruno when Bruno is tearing up Sylvie's garden, because Sylvie wouldn't let Bruno go play without lessons first. The narrator convinces Bruno to instead help him weed the garden and plant violets. It ends with all three crying tears of happiness. (In the preface, Carroll says this was adapted from an earlier story.)
  • Divided for Publication: Carroll originally intended the story to be published as a single novel, but due to its length it was decided that it should be published in two volumes. And there are releases adressed for children that only contain the Elf-land plot.
  • Doting Parent: Tabikat believes that her son Uggug is uniquely charming and gifted. No one else who's met him shares her opinion.
  • Dreadful Musician: The Other Professor's singing voice is not melodious.
    "How do you like his singing?" the Professor asked the children in a low voice.
    "It isn't very beautiful," Sylvie said, hesitatingly.
    "It's very extremely ugly!" Bruno said, without any hesitation at all.
  • Easy Evangelism: Eric Lyndon is an agnostic at first, but is converted, or near to, at the end after Arthur is revealed to be alive.
  • Evil is Petty: Tabikat is most gratified to find that Sibimet has entirely removed "Item: We shall be kind to the poor" from the text of the agreement he made with the King.
    Why, of course, my dear! We shan't bother with those wretches!
  • Foul Medicine: The Professor, proudly telling the kids about his role as Imperial Court Physician, shows them a batch of medicine he's prepared for the servants, and invites Bruno to taste it. Bruno does, and wrinkles up his face in disgust.
    Bruno: It's welly extremely nasty!
    The Professor: Nasty? Why, of course it is! What would Medicine be, if it wasn't nasty?
    Bruno: Nice.
  • Gossip Evolution:
    "And what reasons have you heard of for breaking off the engagement?"
    "A good many," Arthur replied, and proceeded to count them on his fingers. "First, it was found that she was dying of—something; so he broke it off. Then it was found that he was dying of—some other thing; so she broke it off. Then the Major turned out to be a confirmed gamester; so the Earl broke it off. Then the Earl insulted him; so the Major broke it off. It got a good deal broken off, all things considered!"
    "You have all this on the very best authority, of course?"
    "Oh, certainly! And communicated in the strictest confidence! Whatever defects Elveston society suffers from, want of information isn't one of them!"
  • Hologram: The fairy characters have the ability to create an illusion they call a "phlizz", which is visible but intangible.
  • Humans Are Morons: Mein Herr and the fairies both tend to agree on this.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Eric Lindon. He is in love with his cousin Muriel, and they are engaged at the beginning of the story; however, after they break up and she falls in love with — and marries — Arthur, he puts his own life at risk to save Arthur's, for her sake.
  • Inelegant Blubbering: Uggug does it (for attention-seeking purposes) after he gets his ears boxed.
  • Informed Kindness: In long poem "Peter and Paul", the rich Paul agrees to lend his poorer friend Peter some money, never actually gives it to him, then starves him by calling in the loan. Paul is referred to as "noble", "kind" and "honest" throughout.
  • In Harm's Way: Trying to explain hunting to Sylvie, the narrator starts with the observation that some places men must hunt fierce beasts, and some of them come to like it.
    "Well, and so the men—the hunters—get to enjoy it, you know: the running, and the fighting, and the shouting, and the danger."
  • It Was a Gift: Sylvie's father offers her a choice of lockets for her birthday present: one says, "All will love Sylvie" and the other "Sylvie will love all." Sylvie chooses the latter. In the end, it turns out they were one locket. Nevertheless, she made the right choice.
  • Karmic Transformation: Uggug becoming a porcupine.
  • King Incognito: Sylvie's father poses as a beggar.
  • Loophole Abuse: The Gardener has been forbidden to open the garden door for Sylvie or Bruno. But if an adult (such as the Professor) asks for it to be opened, he has no choice but to open it... and the adult can then take the children through with him anyway.
  • Ludicrous Precision: Bruno, asked how many sheep there are in a field, answers "About a thousand and four." On further examination, it turns out the four are near enough for him to count; the thousand, he's not quite so sure about.
  • Malaproper: Bruno, e.g. "disadvantages" becomes "lizard bandages".
  • Nice to the Waiter: The Vice-Warden, his wife, and his son Ugugg are all cruel to the poor.
  • No Name Given: The narrator. When other characters refer to him they use descriptors such as "Arthur's friend"; Bruno calls him "Mister Sir". (Averted in the original short story, Bruno's Revenge, in which he introduces himself to Bruno as Lewis Carroll.)
  • Non-Idle Rich
  • Offered the Crown
  • Our Ghosts Are Different
  • Powder Keg Crowd
  • The Professor: Actually called the Professor. Also has a friend who is The Professor.
  • The Promise
  • Promotion to Parent: Sylvie is in charge of Bruno — particularly his lessons.
  • Punny Name: Tabikat.
  • Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated:
    • The Vice-Warden arranges for a false report of his brother's death.
    • Arthur is reported dead after taking up the position of doctor in the fever-stricken harbour town. It later turns out, however, that Eric Lindon retrieved him, brought him to the hospital and helped nurse him back to health, but was forbidden to tell anybody — even Arthur's wife — that he was alive, for fear that any shock to his brain could kill him instantly.
  • Royal Blood: Once their father is appointed King of Elfland, Sylvie and Bruno acquire this.
  • Royal Brat: Uggug, a loutish, charmless princeling.
  • Royal Mess: Elfland is a province of Fairyland, yet its ruler (Sylvie and Bruno's father) has the title of King.
  • Sand In My Eyes: The narrator claims at one point that as an adult, he wouldn't cry, but a drop or two of rain must have fallen on his face.
  • Schrödinger's Butterfly:
    "So, either I've been dreaming about Sylvie," I said to myself, "and this is the reality. Or else I've really been with Sylvie, and this is a dream! Is Life itself a dream, I wonder?"
  • Set Right What Once Went Wrong: Subverted. The narrator uses the Outlandish Watch to prevent an accident he witnesses, but the changes snap back when he returns to the present.
  • Shout-Out: To one of Carroll's previous works: At one point, the Professor asks "Do you know what a Boojum is?"
  • Significant Name: Sibimet is Latin for "to them themselves", fittingly for a character who is concerned only for himself and his Unholy Matrimony partner - he doesn't even seem to like his own child much.
  • Skewed Priorities: When Uggug empties a butter-dish over Sylvie's head, his father boxes his ears — not for being cruel to Sylvie, but because the wasted butter costs him money.
  • Sommelier Speak: Parodied. The narrator, hearing a wine snob describe his favourite vintage, finds himself imagining the group using similar language to describe jam flavours.
    "A strange dream!" I said to myself as we trooped upstairs. "Grown men discussing, as seriously as if they were matters of life and death, the hopelessly trivial details of mere delicacies, that appeal to no higher human function than the nerves of the tongue and palate! What a humiliating spectacle such a discussion would be in waking life!"
  • Spoiled Brat and Royal Brat: Uggug, who also serves as a Spear Counterpart of an ugly step-sister.
  • Sunday is Boring: At one point, Muriel and Arthur discuss the observation of the Sabbath, and this prompts Muriel to produce a letter from a friend, describing how when she was a child, on Sundays she was forced to rise early and spend the day in prayer, study of scripture, and reading books she found horribly dull. Arthur (who is typically Carroll's mouthpiece throughout the novel) expresses the view that so long as the day is kept holy by attending church, children should be allowed to play.
  • Take That!: Sibimet the Sub-Warden is believed to be based on Dean Liddell, father of Alice, whom he had by this point effectively cut Carroll off from seeing.
  • Technician Versus Performer: One of Lady Muriel's guests has a reputation for her piano playing. When asked to play, she rattles off a Haydn symphony, but there are enough subtle imperfections to show that she has no real understanding of the music she's playing, and she strikes the final chord "as if, the instrument being now done with, it didn’t matter how many wires she broke". When Sylvie later takes over the piano, her sensitive improvisation gets a much warmer reception.
  • They Call Me MISTER Tibbs!: Bruno overdoes it, calling the narrator "Mister Sir" despite Sylvie telling him he can use either but not both.
  • Time Machine: The Outlandish Watch is an early literary example, allowing the user to travel up to a month into their past and return to the present. It also allows its user to experience events backwards for an hour.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: Memorably parodied by the fake demonstrators organized by Sibimet and the Chancellor, who can't remember whether their slogan is "More Bread, Less Taxes", or vice versa.
  • Unholy Matrimony: Villain couple Sibimet and Tabikat, complete with cutesy couple names for each other (Sibby and Tabby), and a Spoiled Brat child (Uggug). Albeit Tabby is significantly less bright than Sibby, who is also not deluded about Uggug's unpleasantness.
  • Vile Villain, Saccharine Show
  • Voice Changeling: Bruno provides a convincing voice for an illusion of a nursemaid (and speaks grammatically while so doing, rather than in his usual Malaproper style).