Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: The Complete Lewis Carroll

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, May 30, 2001

“Did you ever make real life into a drama? Consider this platform as our stage. Good entrances and exits on both sides, you see. Capital background scene: real engine moving up and down. All this bustle, and people passing to and fro, must have been most carefully rehearsed! How naturally they do it!”
It really was admirable, as soon as I began to enter into it from this point of view. Even a porter passing, with a barrow piled with luggage, seemed so realistic that one was tempted to applaud.

Lewis Carroll’s work, like that of J. M. Barrie, is often disneyfied for children, but when read raw is complex and fascinating.

AuthorLewis Carroll
Length384 pages
Book Rating7

My copy of “The Complete Lewis Carroll” from Barnes and Noble doesn’t seem to be in print anymore. This version, from Grammercy, claims to at least have all of Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, and the Hunting of the Snark, as well as the lesser known “Sylvie and Bruno” works, which I recommend to Alice fans.

Like Barrie, Lewis wrote with both children and adults in mind--probably more for adults reading to children than for children themselves. Unlike Barrie, there is nothing in Carroll’s work that an adult is likely to “skip over” when they read it to their children, although there is plenty that the child will not understand, or will understand on a different level than the adult.

“Sylvie and Bruno” is a collection of two books meant to be read as one (“Sylvie and Bruno” and “Sylvie and Bruno Concluded”). Like the “Alice” series, it involves traveling from one reality to another, but in this case the point of view is an adult’s point of view. It is written in the first person, a very religious person, about his encounters with the two faeries, Sylvie and Bruno. He also has a friend named Arthur and another named Lady Muriel, and her father the Earl, with whom he discusses religion, fate, and philosophy, as he vibrates between the two worlds of faerie and reality.

“You are not a teetotaler, I think?”

“Indeed but I am!” he replied. “Nearly twice as much money is spent in England on Drink as on any other article of food. Read this card. The stripes of different colours represent the amounts spent of various articles of food. Look at the highest three. Money spent on butter and on cheese, thirty-five millions: on bread, seventy millions: on intoxicating liquors, one hundred and thirty-six millions! If I had my way, I would close every public-house in the land! Look at that card, and read the motto. That’s where all the money goes to!”

“Have you seen the Anti-Teetotal Card?” Arthur innocently enquired.

“No, Sir, I have not!” the orator savagely replied. “What is it like?”

“Almost exactly like this one. The coloured stripes are the same. Only, instead of the words ‘Money spent on’, it has ‘Incomes derived from the sale of’; and, instead of ‘That’s where all the money goes to’, its motto is ‘That’s where all the money comes from!’”.

The real people are often just as strange as the faerie people. A strange old gentleman known only as “Mein Herr” appears to the narrator to be breaking the boundary between the eerie faerie world and the real world. And then, at a party the narrator is attending, the two faerie children pop in and of course now Lady Muriel wants them at the next party as well!

At one point, the Earl, discussing the afterlife, says, “I would like to tell you an idea of the future Life which has haunted me for years. The one idea that has seemed to overshadow all the rest, is that of Eternity.” He then goes on to describe exhausting all possible interests, be they mathematics, or medicine, or any form of inquiry, and then “what is there to look forward to?”

“I know that weary feeling,” said Arthur. “I have gone through it all, more than once. Now let me tell you how I have put it to myself. I have imagined a little child, playing with toys on his nursery-floor, and yet able to reason, and to look on, thirty years ahead. Might he not say to himself, ‘By that time I shall have had enough of bricks and ninepins. How weary Life will be!’”

These are also the feelings of the narrator, perhaps younger than the Earl, but also possibly sick in some way, and they are a theme throughout the book.

Meanwhile, in the fairy land, there are adventures to be had, the faerie kingdom in turmoil, Sylvie and Bruno awaiting the return of their father from exile. A fascinating set of stories.

Both “Alice in Wonderland” and “Sylvie and Bruno” contain quite a bit of commentary on current affairs in England. But where the Alice books crouch it in allegory, “Sylvie and Bruno”, with its adult protagonists, discuss current affairs as any somewhat middle-class to upper-class adults would. And it is amazing how little social issues really change. In Carroll’s time they were talking about impending alcohol prohibition; in our time, the same arguments could be used for the pipes they were smoking as they discussed teetotaling. The concerns over the rewards of charity are as valid today as they were then.

And when they begin to discuss insane asylums, it calls to mind another, similar, story written many years later, that the proper purpose of insane asylums is to shelter the sane. I’d say it was straight from “So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish,” but Douglas Adams had yet to be born.

You can also find within this collection some bits of Lewis Carroll’s poetry, such as his “Phantasmagoria”, in which a young phantom comes to haunt the lonely bachelor, and explains in verse the rules of hauntings. And the “Wise Words About Letter Writing” are just plain weird. Carroll would definitely have welcomed the computer database, if just to keep track of his correspondence.

Of course the big draws are the two “Alice” books, with their illustrations by John Tenniel. It does not, as far as I know, include the earlier Alice work, “Alice’s Adventures Underground”. However, only purists such as myself really care, as just about everything in “Alice’s Adventures Underground” is included in the larger “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, except for the illustrations by Lewis Carroll himself.

This collection includes the larger books for long-term reading, and many of the smaller works for when you need a quick read. If you are any sort of fan of Lewis Carroll, or want to be, this is the book for you.

The Complete Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll

Recommendation: Purchase