The Phoenix and the Carpet
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|Illustrator||H. R. Millar|
|Genre||Fantasy, Children's novel|
|Media type||Print (hardback and paperback)|
|Preceded by||Five Children and It|
|Followed by||The Story of the Amulet|
The Phoenix and the Carpet is a fantasy novel for children, written by E. Nesbit and first published in 1904. It is the second in a trilogy of novels that begins with Five Children and It (1902), and follows the adventures of the same five children: Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane and the Lamb. Their mother buys the children a new carpet to replace one from the nursery that they have destroyed in an accidental fire. The children find an egg in the carpet, which hatches into a talking Phoenix. The Phoenix explains that the carpet is a magic one that will grant them three wishes a day. The five children go on many adventures, which eventually wears out their magic carpet. The adventures are continued and concluded in the third book of the trilogy, The Story of the Amulet (1906).
This middle volume of the trilogy that begins with Five Children and It and concludes with The Story of the Amulet, and deviates somewhat from the other two in that the Psammead is mentioned only briefly, and in this volume the five children live with both their parents in the family home in London. In both the other volumes, circumstances have forced the children to spend protracted periods away from their home and their father.
A continuing theme throughout The Phoenix and the Carpet is the ancient element of fire. The story begins shortly before 5 November, celebrated in Britain as Guy Fawkes Night. The four children have accumulated a small hoard of fireworks for the night, but they are too impatient to wait until 5 November to light them, so they set off a few samples in the nursery. This results in the fire that destroys the carpet. Their parents purchase a second-hand carpet which is found to contain an egg that emits a phosphorescent glow. The children accidentally knock this egg into the fire: it hatches, revealing a golden talking Phoenix.
It develops that this is a magic carpet that can transport the children anywhere they wish in the present time, although it is capable of satisfying only three wishes a day. Accompanied by the Phoenix, the children have exotic adventures. There is one moment of terror when the youngest, the baby known as the Lamb, crawls onto the carpet, babbles incoherently and vanishes, but it turns out that the Lamb only desires 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, so he goes to find the Psammead and has a wish granted for the children's sake. In addition, at the end the carpet is sent to ask the Psammead to grant the Phoenix's wish. These offstage incidents are the only contributions made by the Psammead to this story.
The Phoenix and the Carpet features 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 a temple dedicated to him and that the insurance executives must be his acolytes. The children also have an encounter with two older ruffians, Herb and Ike, who attempt to steal the Phoenix.
Four of the children (without the Lamb) attend a Christmas pantomime at a theatre in the West End of London, smuggling the Phoenix along inside Robert's coat. The Phoenix is so excited by this spectacle that he unintentionally sets fire to the theatre. 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 unusual for children's fantasy fiction is the fact that the magical companion does not treat all the children equally. The Phoenix favours Robert, the child who 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. He lays a new egg from which he will eventually be reborn. Under the Phoenix's direction, the children prepare an altar with sweet incense, upon which the Phoenix immolates himself. The magic carpet has also reached the end of its lifespan, as it was never intended to be walked upon regularly, and, at the request of the Phoenix, it takes the egg to a place where it won't hatch again for 2,000 years. There is a happy ending, with the children receiving a parcel of gifts from an "unknown benefactor" (the Phoenix, who arranges this gift by means of a wish granted by the Psammead) and Robert receiving a single golden feather. But the feather has vanished by the evening.
The last volume in the trilogy, 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 the events of the previous book have not happened yet.
Chapter One: "The Egg"
When their old carpet is destroyed by their fireworks, the siblings get a new nursery carpet and discover a mysterious egg wrapped within it. Robert accidentally rolls the egg into the fire and out hatches the Phoenix, who tells the tale of the magic carpet.
Chapter Two: "Topless Tower"
The children go on their first adventure with the carpet and the Phoenix and while they discover treasure they also learn the limitations of the carpet and must get rescued by the Psammead's wish fulfilling abilities.
Chapter Three: "The Queen Cook"
While on an adventure to cure the Lamb of whooping cough, the children are forced by circumstances to take along their cook. Once they are on a sunny tropical island, the Cook is thought to be a queen by the native savages and is content to be left behind.
Chapter Four: "Two Bazaars"
The children go on an adventure with the carpet to India so they can find items for their mother can sell in her Bazaar, although matters are briefly complicated when the carpet is sold as well.
Chapter Five: "The Temple"
After helping the children change the weather to permit an adventure, the Phoenix asks them to take him to one of his temples. At the "temple", the children and the Phoenix are honoured guests of a ceremony to celebrate the Phoenix, yet once they leave, all the gentlemen believe it to have been a dream.
Chapter Six: "Doing Good"
The carpet takes the children abroad to do a good deed; they meet a sad French family and return their family treasure to them (the treasure discovered in Chapter 2).
Chapter Seven: "Mews from Persia"
The children are meant to meet their aunt at the train station, but Robert forgot to send his mother's instructions for the aunt to meet them. The children go home alone and break into their own home. The carpet wants to visit its homeland, so the children let it go and the carpet brings back 199 Persian cats.
Chapter Eight: "The Cats, the Cow and the Burglar"
The carpet takes away the musk-rats it had brought as food for the cats and brings a cow instead. Jane confronts a burglar, finds him kind, and gives him the cats to sell.
Chapter Nine: "The Burglar’s Bride"
The children bring the burglar to the tropical island where their former cook reigns as queen. The cook and the burglar like each other, and the carpet is sent to fetch a clergyman to marry them.
Chapter Ten: "The Hole in the Carpet"
Despite the damaged state of the carpet, the children desire to go on one more adventure before their mother returns. Robert and Jane fall through a hole in the carpet, which continues on and takes Cyril and Anthea to their Uncle Reginald. Jane and Robert fall into a house and meet the clergyman who married the cook and burglar, but they are rescued by the Phoenix getting help from the Psammead.
Chapter Eleven: "The Beginning of the End"
The children go to the theatre with the Phoenix. The Phoenix flies around the theatre and starts a fire. The carpet brings the children home safely.
Chapter Twelve: "The End of The End"
The Phoenix and the Carpet go away, but the Phoenix sends the children all the toys they have ever wanted.
Cyril – the oldest of the five children. He is nicknamed Squirrel. Cyril often takes on the role of leader and is sensible and level headed. He is also the main decision maker for the children – though his decisions are sometimes challenged he often has the final say in what the children do. Between the boys, Cyril is more considerate of morals when making decisions.
Anthea – the second oldest of the children. She is given the nickname Pantha or Panther. She takes on the role of the mother figure among the children. She is rational and also considers morals when helping to make decisions. Anthea is polite, considerate, and well mannered. She is the one who has the sewing skills to fix the carpet and shows the most compassion and remorse for the carpet.
Robert – the third oldest of the five children. He is given the nickname Bob or Bobs. He is the one that the Phoenix is most attached to because he originally dropped the egg into the fire. Though Robert is one of the younger children, he represents an adult voice in the story – he re-collects and tells the other children 'facts' that he gathered from his father over the years. Robert is also the one child that thinks to bring candles on the adventure after experiencing the dark tower/cave on the first carpet trip. He often takes on the role of protector of his sisters and the phoenix.
Jane – the fourth child in the family. Her nickname is Pussy. She is a stereotypical representation of a nineteenth-century 'girl' child – afraid, needs male protection, and innocent. Jane is also the one who persuades the burglar to milk the cow instead of rob the house.
Lamb/Hilary – the baby and youngest of the children. His name is given in the book (Five Children and It). His nickname is Lamb. He is curious and reliant on others. Lamb also takes on the role of childhood innocence. His solo adventure on the carpet is one of the reasons why the children decide that the phoenix and carpet must go.
Phoenix – The Phoenix is vain and arrogant (although less so than the Psammead) and, until they're in trouble, hides the fact that he cares for the children. As well, he is lonely and in constant search of praise. The Phoenix becomes a main decision maker and rescuer for the children when they cannot agree on where to go or how to get out of a situation. He is the only one that understands the carpet.
Carpet – The carpet is a silent figure in the story and yet one of the most important characters. It cannot think for itself; it is obedient, noble, and it takes the abuse of the children. The carpet places the children in bad situations, however, it is also the instrument often used to get them out of those situations.
Father – The father is relatively absent throughout the story. He shows up to provide for the children’s entertainment needs but leaves other child rearing duties to the mother. It is the father that sends the four older children to the playhouse. He is the stereotypical male/father figure of the nineteenth century.
Mother – Mother is the angel of the house. She is more concerned with Lamb and gives the other children more freedom to do what they please. She goes out of the house often to meet with friends and she takes part in socials such as the bazaar.
Cook – In the beginning of the story the cook is constantly frustrated, annoyed by the children, impatient, and unpleasant to towards everyone in the household. She sees the children as a menace and cause of her stress. Once she becomes Queen of the island natives she becomes calm, serene, cheerful, and enjoys praise. On the island she never comes to accept reality and instead thinks she is in a long dream.
Burglar – The Burglar is simple minded, kind, and somewhat inexperienced. He is swayed by Jane to milk the cow instead of rob the house. He is even convinced to take the cats that he hates. He goes to jail for selling the cats on the street, however, once he is freed by the children he marries the cook.
Reverend Septimus Blenkinsop – The Reverend performs the marriage ceremony for the cook and burglar. He is indecisive, friendly, honest, and curious of things magical or unknown to him. He is also a scientist and botanist.
Psammead – The Psammead is a magical figure connected to the children from the first book. It is never seen in the text by anyone but the children. This magical creature takes on the role of a Deus Ex Machina – it steps in throughout the story to rescue the children from the various situations they find themselves in.
Themes and issues
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References to other works: Nesbit alludes to many different works of literature that were familiar to and recognised by children in the early 20th century, including King Solomon's Mines, The Count of Monte Cristo, Rudyard Kipling's tales of India,The Arabian Nights and many others. She also assumes that her readers are familiar with religious works such as the New Version of the Psalms of David and popular magazines such as The Strand, the magazine in which The Phoenix and the Carpet first appeared.
Gender roles: Nesbit's Phoenix is referred to as "It", and is not described in terms of gender. The female children, Anthea and Jane, enjoy a range of activities, and do not appear to be limited by societal restrictions related to gender.
Intrusion fantasy: The Phoenix and the Carpet is an intrusion fantasy that includes marvellous creatures, such as the Phoenix, magical objects, such as the flying carpet, and fantastic events, such as flying on the carpet, that intrude into the realistic world in which the protagonists live. Normally characters in intrusion fantasy are surprised by the fantastic elements that enter their world. However, the children in The Phoenix and the Carpet are not surprised because they have encountered fantastic elements in Five Children and It. Adults within the novel are in disbelief of the fantastic elements because they try to rationalise the fantastic as a dream or insanity.
Social class: Nesbit wrote for the great middle-class of readers, and this novel contains some stereotypes of both the upper and lower classes. The cook, a lower-class character, does not always use correct grammar; for instance, she says "There's that their new carpet in their room" (Chapter 3). The upper class, on the other hand, have money, status, education and leisure time to pursue such activities as theatergoing. The children's mother often leaves them behind to attend the theatre.
Narration: Nesbit's narrator seems to be an adult voice speaking to the child reader. The narrator comments on the story and asks the reader questions to give a fuller picture.
Realistic portrayal of children: Nesbit was known for her well-drawn child characters, described in Norton's Anthology of Children's Literature as "believable middle-class children who experience a series of adventures in unforeseen circumstances" (Zipes, et al.). They are generally good-natured and well-meaning, but they also quarrel amongst each other and get into trouble. They nearly burn their nursery down by setting off fireworks, call each other names and argue over trivial matters. Still, they did not mean for their fireworks to get out of control, they look out for one another, and they have a strong sense of right and wrong. Nesbit thus gently subverts the Romantic stereotype of children as innocent little angels.
Racial issues: Nesbit's work has been criticised by some critics as being racist and having anti-Semitic characterisations. In Chapter 3 of this novel the children encounter people described as having copper-toned skin, whom they immediately assume are savage cannibals.
A typographic comment: the word "Phoenix" occurs hundreds of times in the text of this novel and in several different type fonts, including roman, italic, boldface and small capitals. In early editions the word is rendered Phœnix throughout, in the style known as a ligature. However, such ligatures are rare in modern English usage, and most recent editions omit it in favour of using "oe".
There have been at least four film adaptations of the novel. The BBC produced three television series: one week of Jackanory in 1965 and two that aired under the original title in 1976 and 1997, written by John Tully and Helen Cresswell respectively.
A feature film was released in 1995: The Phoenix and the Magic Carpet written by Florence Fox, directed by Zoran Perisic, starring Peter Ustinov as Grandfather and the voice of Phoenix, and Dee Wallace as Mother.
- 1904, UK, Newnes, 1904, hardback (first edition)
- 1956, UK, Ernest Benn, 1956, hardback special edition for the Phoenix Assurance Company
- 1978, USA, Pergamon Press (ISBN 978-0-8277-2144-9), June 1978, hardback
- 1995, UK, Puffin Books (ISBN 978-0-14-036739-3), 23 February 1995, paperback
- 1995, UK, Wordsworth Editions (ISBN 978-1-85326-155-8), March 1995, paperback
- 1999, USA, Yestermorrow Inc (ISBN 978-1-56723-170-0), April 1999, paperback
- 2003, UK, Wordsworth Editions(ISBN 978-1-85326-155-8), April 2003, paperback