If you're a fan of children's and young adult fantasy fiction, this timeless classic from author Edith Nesbit should merit a place on your must-read list. The second in a series of three thematically linked novels, The Phoenix and the Carpet details the adventures that ensue when a family discovers that their nursery's carpet is enchanted and bears within it the egg of a magical talking Phoenix.
Original publication date
Like the previous book, this one has a lot of charm and a wonderful, sly sense of humor. I have to say, though, that I didn't find it quite as constantly delightful as Five Children and It. Perhaps that's partly due to the fact that with the first one I had all the trepidation of revisiting a childhood favorite, followed by that marvelously pleasant feeling when it turns out to live up to your memories, but this time my expectations were higher going in. Still, it's a fun book, and and well worth an adult re-read.
(I do feel that I should probably point out, though, that these books suffer very slightly from changing social sensibilities. The first one features some unpleasantly stereotyped "red Indians," although arguably they're meant to represent the unrealistic figures that existed in young British children's imaginations. And this one features some scenes involving cartoony black "savages" that, while really not bad by product-of-the-time standards, may leave modern readers shaking their heads a bit.)
A continuing theme throughout The Phoenix and the Carpet is, appropriately enough, the ancient element of fire. The story begins shortly before November 5, celebrated in England as Guy Fawkes Night. Traditionally, children light bonfires and set off fireworks on this night. The four children have accumulated a small hoard of fireworks but are too impatient to wait until November 5 to light them, so they set off a few samples in the girls' bedroom. This results in a fire that destroys the carpet.
Their parents purchase a second-hand carpet which, upon arrival, is found to contain an egg that emits a weird phosphorescent glow. The children place this egg near the fire: it hatches, revealing a golden Phoenix who speaks perfect English.
It develops that this is a magical carpet, which can transport the children to anywhere they wish in the present time, although it is only capable of three wishes per day. Accompanied by the Phoenix, the children have exotic adventures in various climes. There is one moment of terror for the children when their youngest brother, the Lamb, crawls onto the carpet, babbles some incoherent baby talk, and vanishes. Fortunately, the Lamb only desired to be with his mother.
At a few points in the novel, the children find themselves in predicaments from which the Phoenix is unable to rescue them by himself; he goes to find the Psammead and has a wish granted for the children's sake. In addition, in the end, the carpet is sent to ask the Psammead to grant the Phoenix's wish. These offstage incidents are the only contribution made by the Psammead to this story.
The Phoenix and the Carpet features some intriguing depictions of London during the reign of Edward VII. At one point, the children and their supernatural bird visit the Phoenix Fire Insurance Company: the egotistical Phoenix assumes that this is his modern-day temple, and the insurance executives must be his acolytes. The children also have an encounter with two older ruffians named Herb and Ike who attempt to steal the Phoenix.
Possibly the most interesting chapter in this novel occurs when the four children attend a Christmas pantomime at a West End theatre, smuggling the Phoenix along inside Robert's coat. The Phoenix is so excited by this spectacle that he unintentionally sets fire to the theatre. In Edwardian times, many theatres in Britain and the United States were fire-traps, and it was not unusual for a conflagration in a theatre to produce hundreds of deaths. This chapter is vivid and highly convincing, but all ends well when the Phoenix magically reverses the damage: no one is harmed, and the theatre remains intact.
One aspect of The Phoenix and the Carpet that is atypical for children's fantasy fiction is the fact that, in this story, the magical companion does not treat all the children equally. The Phoenix insists on favouring Robert- the child who actually put his egg in the fire, albeit by accident- over his brother Cyril and their sisters. This is a mixed privilege, as Robert is lumbered with the duty of smuggling the Phoenix past their parents at inconvenient moments.
In the novel's final chapter, the Phoenix announces that he has reached the end of his current lifespan and must begin the cycle again (apparently on the grounds that life with the children has left him far more exhausted than he would have been in the wilderness). Under the Phoenix's direction, the children prepare an altar with sweet incense, upon which the Phoenix immolates himself. The magical carpet has also reached the end of its span, as it was never intended for regular walking, vanishing with the Phoenix's egg. There is a happy ending, with the children receiving a parcel of gifts from an unknown benefactor, and Robert receiving a single golden feather. But the feather has vanished by the evening and it is truly the last of the Phoenix and the Carpet.
The last volume in the series, The Story of the Amulet, contains a minor episode in which the children travel thousands of years into the past and encounter the Phoenix, who does not recognise them because, in his linear timeline, the events of the previous book have not happened yet.
I always enjoy Nesbit’s books. Such good characters, and such fantastical plots! This book is actually the sequel to Five Children and It, but it’s not necessary to have read that book (I hadn’t, and I was able to follow along just fine). I’m a little sad that I never read these books as a child, because I know I would have enjoyed them!