Sylvie and Bruno isn’t great Lewis Carroll; it struggles to be much more than average Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. But it has its moments, and the mad Gardener who crops up with a series of verses is the most Carrollian element.
I have had my eye on these verses as a puzzle theme for a long while. With the approach of my 150th Inquisitor it seemed like a good idea to dust it off and have another go. (And, no, it wasn’t my 150th in the end because I miscounted and so on, but let’s not go there.)
The problem is that there is a lot packed into the verses. There are nine of them, all taking the form of an observer thinking he sees X, doing something or located somewhere or similar (Y). He looks again and sees that X is actually Z, and once this is confirmed, he adds a brief commentary. So with X, Y, Z and the commentary in each of nine verses, we have 36 possible thematic items.
That’s a lot for a puzzle. In addition, many of the thematic items are polysyllabic and long. Tackling the whole poem in a single puzzle does not seem possible and might even be too much of a good thing. (Perhaps another series like The Labours of Hercules?)
In the end I read and reread the poem until it occurred to me that BANKER’S CLERK and HIPPOPOTAMUS were both twelve letters long (a lurking hint to a 12×12 grid?) and clashes would allow the solver to reasonably confuse them. I wanted some of the clashes to be irresolvable without discovering the theme, resulting in the Hatter dropping in from quite a different book. I wish I could say that was intentional but I only spotted it while checking the proofs.
It was tricky getting the clashes to work and we ended up with those non-cameral SLOKAS. I had originally wanted to get the commentary into the puzzle in some way, so my original plan was to have the solver append “won’t be much for us” as the consequence of determining HIPPOPOTAMUS, but after some consultations with the editorial squad we settled on the use of ‘misapprehension’, and having the excluded BANKER’S CLERK appended instead.