The Phoenix and the Carpet is a fantasy novel for children, written in 1904 by E. Nesbit. It is the second in a trilogy of novels that began with Five Children and It (1902), and follows the adventures of the same five protagonists – Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane and the Lamb. Their mother buys the children a new carpet to replace the one from the nursery that was 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 magical one that will grant them three wishes per day. The five children go on many adventures which eventually wears out their magical carpet. The adventures of the children are continued and conclude in the third book of the trilogy, The Story of the Amulet (1906).
This middle volume of the trilogy that began with Five Children and It and concludes with The Story of the Amulet deviates somewhat from the other two because the Psammead gets only a brief mention, and because in this volume the children live with both of their parents and their younger brother—the Lamb—in their home in London. Consequently, there is less loneliness and sense of loss in this volume than in the other two. In both of the other volumes, circumstances have forced the children to spend a protracted period away from their familiar London home and their father; in Amulet, their mother and the Lamb are absent as well.
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.
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 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 take along their cook by accident. Once at the sunny seaside, 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 and 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 and brings a cow. Jane confronts a burglar, finds him kind, and gives him the cats to sell.
Chapter Nine: "The Burglar’s Bride"
The children setup Burglar with Cook for Holy Matrimony.
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 priest 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 as a thank you.
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 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. The nickname given to him 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 the phoenix and carpet must go.
Phoenix - The Phoenix is vain and arrogant 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 with 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 convinceto 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
References to other works: Nesbit alludes to many different works of literature that were familiar to and recognized by the 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 New Version of the Psalms of David and popular-culture magazines such as The Stand, the magazine that originally published The Phoenix and the Carpet. She refers to Frances Hodgson Burnett's story "Edith's Burglar," which would also have been published in a magazine.
Gender roles: Nesbit's phoenix is asexual, referred to as "It", and combines male and female gender stereotypes. It is powerful and pompous (masculine) but also fragile and helpless (feminine). The female children, Anthea and Jane, display stereotypically feminine qualities like skill at sewing, but are allowed to have adventures, study geometry, and go to the theater.
Intrusion fantasy: The Phoenix and the Carpet is an intrusion fantasy because it includes marvelous creatures, like the Phoenix, magical objects, like the flying carpet, and fantastic events, like cruising on the carpet, that intrude into the realistic world in which the protagonists live. Normally, characters from 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 The Five Children and It. Adults within the novel are in disbelief of the fantastic elements because they try to rationalize the fantastic as a dream, or insanity. Intrusion fantasy differs from secondary fantasy, which is set in an alternate world with no magical doors to the realistic world.
Social class: Nesbit wrote for a middle-class audience 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 in order to attend the theater.
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 in order to give a fuller picture. For instance, the narrator defends the character's follies, but also explains why they are wrong, which dilutes the didactic message.
Realistic portrayal of children: Nesbit was known for her well-drawn child characters, described in the 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 also quarrel amongst each other and get into trouble. They nearly burn their nursery down by setting off fireworks, call each other names like "duffer," and argue over trivial matters. Still, they did not mean for their fireworks to get out of control, the family looks out for one another, and the children have a strong sense of right and wrong. Nesbit gently subverts the Romantic stereotype of children as innocent little angels.
Racial issues: Nesbit's work has been criticized as being outright racist. In chapter three, the children encounter people described as having copper-toned skin, whom they immediately assume are uncivilized, savage cannibals. The children give the "savages" no chance to introduce themselves and correct this impression; indeed, the encounter with the "savages" only brings about social unrest and confusion. Other critics have called Nesbit's work anti-Semitic: a scene where the children meet two people named Herb and Isaac seems to insinuate anti-Semitic stereotypes.
A typographic comment: the word 'Phoenix' occurs in the text of this novel literally hundreds of times—including page headers—and in several different type fonts, including Roman, Italic, Boldface and Small Caps. In every single instance, the word 'Phoenix' is rendered Phœnix, with the letters 'oe' joined as a single character (œ) in the style known as a ligature. All the early editions of this novel were published in lead type: a technology which requires the typesetter to possess as many copies of each typographic character as it occurs in the text. Because the 'oe' ligature is so rare in modern English, most type fonts contain at most only one or two copies of this character. The typesetting for The Phoenix and the Carpet required a special casting of hundreds of copies of this ligature.
Film and television adaptations
A film adaptation was released in 1995: The Phoenix and the Magic Carpet, directed by Zoran Perisic, and starring Peter Ustinov as Grandfather/Voice of Phoenix, Dee Wallace-Stone as Mother, Timothy Hegeman as Chris, Laura Kamrath as Anthea, Nick Klein as Robert, Ewen Bremner as Joe, Nicole Lengenberg as Helga and Maya Zekina as Maia.
The novel has twice been adapted for television by the BBC, first in 1976 and again in 1997.
- 1904, UK, Newnes (ISBN NA), pub date ? ? 1904, hardback (First edition)
- 1956, UK, Ernest Benn (ISBN NA), pub date ? ? 1956, hardback (special edition for the "Phoenix Assurance Company")
- 1978, USA, Pergamon Press (ISBN 978-0-8277-2144-9), pub date ? June 1978, hardback
- 1995, UK, Puffin Books (ISBN 978-0-14-036739-3), pub date 23 February 1995, paperback
- 1995, UK, Wordsworth Editions Ltd (ISBN 978-1-85326-155-8), pub date ? March 1995, paperback
- 1999, USA, Yestermorrow Inc (ISBN 978-1-56723-170-0), pub date ? April 1999, paperback
- 2003, UK, Wordsworth editions Ltd (ISBN 978-1-85326-155-8), pub date ? April 2003, paperback
- The Phoenix and the Magic Carpet at the Internet Movie Database
- The Phoenix and the Carpet at Project Gutenberg
- Novel in illustrated HTML (not original illustrations) at Forgotten Futures