Rereading: THE PHOENIX AND THE CARPET by E. Nesbit


I have this edition as well as a hardcover, but I reread this as a free iBook on my phone and iPad. It’s the second of three connected books featuring the same kids, all involving magic. In “The Five Children and It,”  we met The Psammead or sand fairy who granted one wish a day, which always turned out wrong somehow. In this book, the children are at home in London, it’s a dreary late fall when they are looking forward to setting off some fireworks their father bought for Guy Fawkes Day, and in a rash moment, they decide to try them out in the basement play room. The ensuing disaster ruins the carpet, and gets the children punished by having no Guy Fawkes celebration at all, but it also brings magic in the door.

When a new carpet is delivered in a Turkish style, a very large egg rolls out of it. The children try to return it to the store, but find no one wants it there, so they bring it home and put it on the fireplace mantel. Later they decide to do some magic of their own by burning all kinds of smelly things in the fire, in place of real incense. (With matches and real fires available to children of the time, it’s a wonder so many lived to adulthood!) The egg is knocked into the blaze, and suddenly begins to glow with heat, then hatches into a beautiful golden bird. It soon speaks, telling them it’s The Phoenix. The one and only legendary bird, reborn in fire every 500 years.

The Phoenix is one of Nesbit’s most entertaining characters: vain and self-important, always making assumptions about this strange new world it has come to based on very old and out-of-date knowledge. At the same time, The Phoenix wants to help the four children, who deeply desire more magical adventures. Fortunately they have just the thing for that: the carpet now in their play room is a magic carpet that can take them anywhere they can imagine!

Of course things don’t go smoothly. On their very first adventure they get stuck inside a ruined castle because The Phoenix has forgotten to tell them they can only command the carpet to take them somewhere three times in a day. As with all Nesbit magic, trouble is never far away, though there are also some moments of triumph, as when The Phoenix is taken to visit a Fire Insurance company that uses his likeness as their logo, and somehow they all accept him as their actual and spiritual leader. The carpet journeys to all sorts of places, from a tropical island to a real Turkish bazaar, and before long it starts to wear out. As you can imagine, that leads to even more problems!

Nesbit is great reading. Her children are very real, her magic is convincing, and her wisdom and insight into human nature are spot on. Highly recommended.

The Phoenix and the Carpet by E Nesbit

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