The Story of the Amulet
by E. Nesbit
In this third story featuring the children from Five Children and It
and The Phoenix and the Carpet
, E. Nesbit steers the "magical adventures of four children during their school holidays" in a decidedly new direction. Set in 1905, it is mainly a tale of time travel, with colorful and exotic depictions of several ancient cultures and a quest to heal an ancient amulet that has been split in half. The children are to use of the half-amulet to find the part that is missing, by speaking the Name of Power engraved on it so that it becomes an arch into past times and distant places, until they find the rest of the artifact which, once completed, will grant them their heart's desire.
For Cyril, Anthea, Robert, and Jane (also known as Squirrel, Panther, Bobs, and Pussy), the heart's desire is to have their parents and baby brother (the Lamb) back. The Lamb is with Mother in Spain, where she is recovering from an illness. Father is a journalist covering a foreign war for his London newspaper. And the children are left in the care of an old Nurse of theirs, who now runs a fairly dull boarding-house whose other tenant is an absentminded professor of antiquities.
Things start to improve when the children discover the Psammead (see Five Children and It) languishing in durance vile (actually, in a pet shop). They bring him home, and though he can no longer grant them wishes, he leads them to the half-amulet which can give them their heart's desire. But first they must hazard strange and perilous adventures in ancient Egypt, Babylon, Tyre, Atlantis, and the Roman Empire. And they must be on their toes, as anyone else who speaks a wish aloud in the Psammead's presence is apt to cause really strange things to happen. It's bad enough that wherever they go, the children end up being thrown into a dungeon or sold as slaves... Besides which, an Egyptian priest who also has half the amulet is hard on their heels. And at one point, a Babylonian queen finds her way to modern London!
In and amongst these varied and colorful adventures, we experience once again the adorable characters and bonds between them-- not only the children, but the Psammead too. My favorite part of the book is the one where the Queen of Babylon is at large in London, wreaking havoc with one wish after another on the poor Psammead. It's also hard to forget the Atlantis episode, in which the Learned Gentleman was so determined to see "the end of the dream."
But be prepared for a more grown-up adventure than the previous two books. This is not all simple, silly, innocent fun. At times you are quite strongly reminded that Edith Nesbit was a socialist, feminist, free-thinking type whose home was a meeting place for the great minds of her day, such as Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. One or two passages address the plight of the poor and workers, both in Nesbit's time and in ancient Egypt, in a way similar to how Charles Dickens addressed social and moral issues in his stories. Another passage, in which the children visit the future, is a piece of utopian "science fiction" truly in the tradition of H.G. Wells. And finally, the concept of the amulet with its Name of Power and the being (deity? spirit?) that speaks to the children through it, puts the story right over the line between fairy-tale magic and true fantasy. (Anyone concerned about occult content, be advised.)
On the other hand, all of this is done in Nesbit's beloved, lighthearted manner, full of personal warmth and knowing humor. In spite of its social conscience, it is not shrill. In spite of its forays into the genres of "sci fi" and "fantasy," it is still mainly a tale of the magical adventures of four charming children and their weird, crotchety, lovable friend, the Psammead. And though there is more seriousness and depth in this story than in the previous two in this series, it remains the kind of tale that you can read aloud to children with a hint of a smile and a twinkle in your eye.
Recommended Age: 8+
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