Safer Wishes: The Phoenix and the Carpet

The cats did not seem to have been at all properly brought up.
— The Phoenix and the Carpet

Five Children and It proved so successful that Nesbit decided to return with a sequel two years later. Like the first novel, The Phoenix and the Carpet tells a light hearted story of disastrous if well intentioned wishes. Unlike the first novel, it has almost two entire chapters devoted to Persian cats, which means I am compelled to love it, no matter what its possible flaws.

And flawed this book certainly is. But we’ll get to that.

The Phoenix and the Carpet begins when the four older children from Five Children and It are setting off firecrackers inside their family nursery. (If you look at it from their point of view, this activity makes complete sense, and if you are six, or have been six, or know six year olds, you can completely understand.) This not surprisingly turns out to be rather hard on the nursery carpet, forcing the parents to buy a new one, which just happens to be—magic does these sorts of things in books—not only magical, but also hiding a lovely egg. Quite by accident, the children hatch the egg, revealing a golden Phoenix.

The Phoenix has a bit of a problem adjusting to its new surroundings—it has, after all, been asleep for a few centuries, making it just a bit behind the times, if not to English, which it, somewhat inexplicably, speaks fluently. (Magic! If only Google Translate worked this well.) The Phoenix explains that the carpet in question can grant three wishes a day and take the children anyplace around the globe. (Given that the children had already encountered a wish granting Psammead, this seems like a bit of rather unbelievable luck.) And unlike those granted by the Psammead, these wishes are permanent.

Jane, the youngest, is not too enthusiastic time time around, partly because, as she notes with irritation, as the youngest, she’s rarely listened to. (She then proceeds to demonstrate just why her siblings are not inclined to listen to her.) Despite her lack of encouragement, and immediately proving that perhaps they didn’t learn that much from their last wishing adventure, Cyril, Anthea, Robert and Jane swiftly head off to France, almost immediately using up their three wishes and finding themselves almost trapped in France. Almost. Which almost immediately introduces one of the book’s major flaws—the Psammead, after all, is still around, and if it will no longer grant the children their wishes, it can certainly grant the wishes of the phoenix.

This immediately eliminates the elements of real danger from the last book, because anything that happens can get cleaned up by either the Phoenix or the Psammead. And this means that in this book, no one ever faces permanent consequences or any real punishments—even the limited punishments of missing meals and exile to bedrooms of the last book. It also robs the novel of a significant amount of tension. Which is not to say that things don’t go wrong—they do—but in at least one case, the wishes go quite well indeed, and in the other cases, things are rapidly cleared up. (Although I still cannot help but think that more people would start asking awkward questions about the missing cook and the thief.) And I suppose that the very end, where the children lose the carpet and the Phoenix, largely because they have been so brutal to the carpet, turning them back into ordinary children, is a punishment of sorts—if I didn’t know another book was coming, and if I didn’t know that they’d already encountered not one but two wishing granting objects and mostly squandered them both.

The only real obstacle is the Phoenix, who may be considerably wiser than the children—not a particularly high bar—but remains profoundly ignorant of Edwardian society, leading to several misunderstandings when the children decide, or are persuaded, to take the bird around London. He assumes, not entirely unreasonably, that a fire insurance company is a temple to his glory, as is a performance of Water Babies. (The insurance company, in a welcoming, credulous attitude I rarely associate with insurance agents, is overawed with joy to see real magic. The theatre is significantly less excited to see real magic. I will let you think about what this means.)

If one of the chapters—where the white cook is brought to a tropical island inhabited, sigh, by savages may be problematic for today’s readers, the rest of the book brims with humor and charm. And, of course, the book has some delightful Persian cats, even if the cats have not been at all well brought up. The end of the book slightly contradicts the end of the first book, but consistency is not a strong part of magic, and if The Phoenix and the Carpet it’s nowhere as good as the other two books in this series, it’s still a highly entertaining bridge between them.

Mari Ness must confess that neither of her cats seem to have been properly brought up either, but, to be fair, they are street rescues, not aristocratic Persians who should know better. All three of them live in central Florida.


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