It is the final part of a trilogy of novels that also includes Five Children and It (1902) and The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904). In it the children re-encounter the Psammead—the "it" in Five Children and It. As it no longer grants wishes to the children, however, its capacity is mainly advisory in relation to the children's other discovery, the Amulet, thus following a formula successfully established in The Phoenix and the Carpet.
At the beginning of this book the children's father, a journalist, has gone overseas to cover the war in Manchuria. Their mother has gone to Madeira to recuperate from an illness, taking with her their younger brother, the Lamb. The children are living with an old Nurse who has set up a boardinghouse in central London. Her only remaining boarder is a scholarly Egyptologist who has filled his bedsit with ancient artifacts. During the course of the book, the children get to know the "poor learned gentleman" and befriend him and call him Jimmy.
Cook's house is in Fitzrovia, the district of London near the British Museum, which Nesbit accurately conveys as having bookstalls and shops filled with unusual merchandise. In one of these shops the children find the Psammead. It had been captured by a trapper, who failed to recognise it as a magical being. The terrified creature cannot escape, for it can only grant wishes to others, not to itself. Using a ruse, the children persuade the shopkeeper to sell them the "mangy old monkey," and they free their old friend.
Guided by the Psammead the children purchase an ancient Amulet in the shape of an Egyptian Tyet (a small amulet of very similar shape to the picture can be seen in the British Museum today ), which should be able to grant them their hearts' desire: the safe return of their parents and baby brother. But this Amulet is only the surviving half of an original whole. By itself, it cannot grant their hearts' desire. Yet it can serve as a portal, enabling time travel to find the other half.
In the course of the novel the Amulet transports the children and the Psammead to times and places where the Amulet has previously existed, in the hope that — somewhen in time — the children can find the Amulet's missing half. Among the ancient realms they visit are Babylon, Egypt, the Phoenician city of Tyre, a ship to "the [[Tin Islands]" (ancient Cornwall), and Atlantis just before the flood. In one chapter, they meet Julius Caesar on the shores of Gaul, just as he has decided that Britain is not worth invading. Jane's childish prattling about the glories of England persuades Caesar to invade after all.
In each of their time-jaunts, the children are magically able to speak and comprehend the contemporary language. Nesbit acknowledges this in her narration, without offering any explanation. The children eventually bring "Jimmy" along with them on some of their time trips. For some reason, Jimmy does not share the children's magical gift of fluency in the local language: he can only understand (for example) Latin based on his own studies.
In one chapter the children also come to the future, visiting a British utopia in which H.G. Wells is venerated as a prophet. Wells and E. Nesbit were both members of the Fabian political movement, as was George Bernard Shaw, and this chapter in The Story of the Amulet is essentially different from all the other trips in the narrative: whereas all the other adventures in this novel contain scrupulously detailed accounts of past civilisations, the children's trip into the future represents Nesbit's vision of utopia. This episode can be compared to many other visions of utopian socialist futures published in that era; Nesbit's is notable in that it concentrates on how the life of children at school would be radically different, with economic changes only appearing briefly in the background. (It seems somewhat akin to William Morris's News from Nowhere.) It also mentions a pressing danger of Edwardian England: the number of children wounded, burned, and killed each year. (This concern was addressed in the Children Act 1908, and later in the Children's Charter.)
Literary significance & criticism
The Story of the Amulet profits greatly from Nesbit's deep research into ancient civilisations in general and that of ancient Egypt in particular. The book is dedicated to Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, the translator of the Egyptian Book of the Dead and Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities of the British Museum, with whom she met to discuss the history of the ancient Near East while writing the book. The Amulet is sentient and is named Ur Hekau Setcheh; this is a genuine Ancient Egyptian name. The hieroglyphics written on the back of the Amulet are also authentic.
During their adventure in Babylon, the children attempt to summon a Babylonian deity named Nisroch but are temporarily unable to recall his name: Cyril, in an obvious in-joke, refers to the god as "Nesbit". Author E. Nesbit was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and was knowledgeable about ancient religions; she may well have been aware that there was indeed an ancient deity named Nesbit: this was the Egyptian god of the fifth hour of the day. In F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre's novel The Woman Between the Worlds (1994, taking place in 1898), E. Nesbit briefly appears in the narrative, dressed in costume as the Egyptian god Nesbit.
The chapter The Queen in London contains broadly negative stereotypes of stockbrokers clearly intended to be Jewish: they are described as having "curved noses"; they have Jewish names such as Levinstein, Rosenbaum, Hirsh and Cohen; and their dialogue is rendered in an exaggerated dialect of Yiddish-inflected English.
Allusions and references in The Story of the Amulet
The chapter "The Queen in London" satirizes then-contemporary occult belief. A journalist mistakes the Queen of Babylon for the Theosophist Annie Besant (like Nesbit, a socialist and social reformer) and mentions Theosophy in reference to (to him) inexplicable events taking place in the British Museum). "Thought-transference" (telepathy) also gets a mention as part of an elaborate and mistaken rationalization for the Queen's "delusion" that she comes from ancient Babylon.
The eponymously named ninth chapter, which takes place in Atlantis, though primarily inspired by Plato's dialogue Critias, also borrows such details from C. J. Cutcliffe Hyne's novel The Lost Continent: The Story of Atlantis (1899), such as the presence of mammoths, dinosaurs, and a volcanic mountain on the island.
The final chapter in which the lonely yearning Learned Gentleman and the quixotic ancient Egyptian Priest fuse into a single being; with the ritual being overseen by a young girl Anthea is one of the most stirring and unusual moments in the book. It almost appears to represent a marriage, not just of intellect and ancient knowledge, but of love.
Influence on other works
Several elements in The Story of the Amulet were borrowed by C. S. Lewis for his Narnia series, particularly The Horse and His Boy (1954) and The Magician's Nephew (1955) . The deity Nisroch closely resembles the Calormene god Tash, while his name may have influenced the title of the Calormene king, the Tisroc. The King of Babylon, like the Tisroc, must have his name followed by "may he live forever", and the Queen of Babylon's accidental journey to London, and the havoc she causes there, closely parallel the appearance of Jadis, Queen of Charn, in London in The Magician's Nephew.
Although no direct influence is attributed, the plot of the Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon science fiction–comedy buddy film "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" contains a basic similarity to the plot of "the Amulet", viz. children in trouble chancing to meet a mysterious person who can give them the ability to travel through time, albeit randomly, and meet famous historical figures, bringing them back to the present time, and, directly or indirectly, using their experiences to help them in their mission. The comic inappropriateness of important historical figures meeting innocent children from another time is also utilised in both stories, as is the opportunity for education of young readers and film viewers.
- The Story of the Amulet at Project Gutenberg
- HTML text with original illustrations, at Indiana
- Egyptian Magic and Protective Amulets
- Novel in illustrated HTML (not original illustrations) at Forgotten Futures