12 August 2007

Good Old Beautiful Phoenix

On my five-hour bus ride last Friday, I learned that my godson's five-year-old first cousins on his mother's side some fine children were enjoying E. Nesbit's The Phoenix and the Carpet. And that put me in mind of one of my favorite passages from that magnificent character study:

"I've been here all the time," said the Phoenix, yawning politely behind its claw. "If you wanted me you should have recited the ode of invocation; it's seven thousand lines long, and written in very pure and beautiful Greek."

"Couldn't you tell it us in English?" asked Anthea.

"It's rather long, isn't it?" said Jane...

"Couldn't you make a short English version, like Tate and Brady?"

"Oh, come along, do," said Robert, holding out his hand. "Come along, good old Phoenix."

"Good old beautiful Phoenix," it corrected shyly.

"Good old beautiful Phoenix, then. Come along, come along," said Robert, impatiently, with his hand still held out.

The Phoenix fluttered at once on to his wrist.

"This amiable youth," it said to the others, "has miraculously been able to put the whole meaning of the seven thousand lines of Greek invocation into one English hexameter--a little misplaced some of the words--but
'Oh, come along, come along, good old beautiful Phoenix!'
"Not perfect, I admit--but not bad for a boy of his age."
I especially admire Nesbit's insertion of the word "shyly."

[ADDENDUM: Indeed, I realized after posting this passage that every adverb in it but "impatiently"--in other words, every adverb modifying something to do with the Phoenix--brings a little irony. The Phoenix's yawn isn't polite, the bird isn't shy about seeking compliments, Robert's plea isn't miraculous, and the 7,000-line invocation isn't just "rather long." The adverbs draw attention to themselves and the qualities they describe only to make us reexamine what's really going on.]


fusenumber8 said...

A child was in the library the other day looking for phoenix books. I gave him the regular stuff but then promoted "The Phoenix and the Carpet" as the best phoenix book ever (with apologies to the also lovely 1957 classic "David and the Phoenix"). He checked it out gladly. I was pleased as punch.

Kudos for showing the version of the book I grew up with. Sure it had a cover from the bad made-for-tv version of the tale, but I'm inordinately fond of it just the same.

J. L. Bell said...

I found that cover image on this page about Psammead sequels made for British TV in the 1990s. The books, with their episodic structure (they were originally Strand magazine serials), seem like good television material. But none of the adaptations seem to do justice to them.