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"Five Children and It" by Edith Nesbit: Magic and Adventures

Linda Crampton is a former teacher who enjoys reading and creative writing. She likes classical literature, fantasy, myth, and poetry.

The Psammead in the story lives in a gravel pit. An old pit is sometimes flooded and converted into a nature reserve.

The Psammead in the story lives in a gravel pit. An old pit is sometimes flooded and converted into a nature reserve.

Experiences With a Magical Psammead

Edith Nesbit (1858–1924) was a British author who wrote some lovely books for children. In my childhood, I knew her for the creation of The Railway Children. As an adult, I discovered her trilogy about a magical creature called a Psammead (the "it" in the title of the first book of the trilogy). In this book, a group of children find the Psammead's hiding place as they dig in the sand of a gravel pit and soon realize that he has an unusual ability.

The children discover that the Psammead causes their wishes to become true. At first, they think it's wonderful to have found a being that is obliged to grant their wishes, no matter how fantastic they are. As the story progresses, they discover that it's not as wonderful as they imagined it would be. In fact, the actions of the Psammead often have unexpected and sometimes problematic results.

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Both of the Wikimedia pictures above have a public domain license. The first shows Edith Nesbit. The second is an illustration created by H. R. Millar that appeared in the first edition of the initial book. Presumably, the author approved of the depiction of the Psammead in the image. It matches her description. Some film and TV depictions of the Psammead are very different.

Five Adventurous Children

Five Children and It was published in 1902, but I think it's worth reading today. The five children who discover the Psammead belong to the same family. The youngest boy is around two years old. He participates in some of the older children's adventures, but not in all of them. He is referred to as "the Lamb" because his first word was "Baa". His real name is Hilary. Due to the intervention of the Psammead, we get to meet the Lamb as a young adult in one chapter of the book. The other children in order of age are Cyril (the oldest), Anthea, Robert, and Jane.

The adventure begins when the family moves from London to a house near a village. A gravel pit containing sand as well as gravel is also located near the house. Gravel and sand are often found together and are both created by the erosion of rock. Even today, gravel pits and their resources are useful and valued. When they have fulfilled their uses, some pits are converted into nature reserves, like the one in the first photo in this article.

The gravel pit in the story was created in land covered by grass and wild flowers. Sand martins build their homes in its steep walls. In the distant past, the sand formed a beach beside the sea. The Psammead has hidden there since that time.

Meeting the Psammead

The Psammead is also known as a sand fairy. As can be seen in the second illustration above, he looks very different from a typical fairy. He is tubby and is covered by dark hair. His eyes are located at the end of stalks. Edith Nesbit refers to the Psammead as "it", but to me he seems more like a "he." The author capitalizes his name.

The Psammead in the story lived in the sand with other sand fairies at the same time as early humans. The adults in the local community sent their children to the Psammeads on a daily basis in order to wish for the day's meals. One of these items was said to be Megatherium, which was actually a giant ground sloth that lived in South America (and briefly in North America) instead of Europe. The author may have known this and may have chosen to use a British location for Megatherium as part of the fantasy aspects of her story. At least one species of the genus was hunted by humans in real life. In the book, any part of the animal that wasn't eaten by sunset changed to stone. Sunset was when the magic ended.

The children of the past built sand castles for the Psammeads to live in. Unfortunately, they also built moats around the sand castles. (Creating a sand castle with a deeper moat to let in water was a popular seaside activity when I was a child in Britain.) If a Psammead gets wet, it immediately catches a cold and usually dies. Many of the sand fairies of the past did die from the effects of the moats. Even the one in the present complains that in damp weather he still feels discomfort in "the end of the twelfth hair on my top left whisker."

A Psammead can't grant his own wishes. It's not until near the end of the book that the Psammead reveals that someone else (a human or another sand fairy) can wish for something beneficial for him.

The First Wish

The Psammead asks the children what they wish for but warns them that he's out of practice. Anthea asks for them all to be "as beautiful as the day," which is an old saying that means extremely beautiful. The wish had been a secret one of herself and Jane for some time. On his second attempt, the Psammead extends his eye stalks, takes a huge breath, and expands his body. He swells up so much that the children are afraid that he's going to hurt himself. As he exhales, the spell is cast. The children become so beautiful as a result of the wish that at first they don't know each other.

The Lamb had been placed on the ground a short distance from the other children as they dug in the sand and wasn't affected by the magic. He doesn't recognize his altered brothers and sisters. The children need over an hour to get him to accept them. They also have to wait outside the hedge of their house because Martha (the nursemaid) doesn't recognize them. She takes the Lamb from the group but tells the rest of them to go away or she'll get the police.

The children wait, scared about what might happen and afraid that they might turn to stone like Megatherium. They are relieved to discover that at sunset their appearance returns to normal. They are able to return home and face an angry Martha. The pattern of wishes producing unexpected results has begun.

A Second Wish That Causes Problems

Once the children have recovered from the effects of the first wish, they are eager to make some more. In their second wish, they ask to be rich beyond the dreams of avarice and to receive millions of gold pieces. The Psammead obligingly fills the entire gravel pit with gold coins. The only problem is that they are spade guineas. These were in circulation during the reign of George the Third (1760 to 1820). The grayscale photo above doesn’t show their gold colour. Most of the local people in the book don't recognize the coins and won't accept them.

The children finally get into trouble for trying to use the coins for payment. They are brought before a policeman and then a police inspector, who asks them to remove the money from their pockets. Fortunately, by this time sunset has arrived and the money and the evidence that it provided has disappeared.

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The incident gives us a hint that though the Psammead has no choice but to grant the wishes of humans, he may sometimes exert some control over the wishes. After the children have asked to be very rich, he mutters to himself "but it won't do you much good, that's one comfort."

Despite the problems with the first two wishes, the children decide to continue asking the Psammead to grant their desires. Their attitude is explained by the author in the quotation below. The children think that something interesting in the day is good even if it's not completely pleasant.

But the happening of strange things, even if they are not completely pleasant things, is more amusing than those times when nothing happens but meals, and they are not always completely pleasant, especially on the days when it is cold mutton or hash.

— Edith Nesbit, "Five Children and It"

The castle in the story has a drawbridge and is surrounded by a moat. This is Scaligero Castle in Italy.

The castle in the story has a drawbridge and is surrounded by a moat. This is Scaligero Castle in Italy.

Other Adventures

The children have many other adventures due to their requests. The situation gets worse when it’s decided that their wishes will come true even when the Psammead isn’t nearby. I’ve highlighted four of the situations that they experience below.

An Attractive Lamb

After the children are forced to take the Lamb on another outing to the gravel pit and he behaves badly, Robert loses his temper and says that he wishes that somebody else would want him so that they can get some peace. The Psammead is hidden in the sand but hears the wish and grants it. The children then have to fight to save the Lamb from the strangers that they meet, who fall in love with him.

Wings and Flight

The children wish for wings so that they can fly. After flying for some time, they are very hungry. They enter a clergyman’s house through an open larder window and take the food that they see. They leave half a crown (a pre-decimal coin) as payment. After eating the meal on the church tower, they are so tired that they fall asleep as their wings disappear. There is a door to the tower, but it's locked. The children have to shout to get someone to help them.

A Besieged Castle

Robert visits the Psammead on his own and wishes that the children's desires would come true even when they aren't with the Psammead, which is granted. After this has been done, the children repeatedly forget that saying "I wish" in general conversation is risky.

Before Robert reaches home to share the news about his request, the other children wish to be in a besieged castle. The home is immediately transformed into one, but just for them. Martha, the cook, and the Lamb are still present. They handle objects that are invisible to the children, and the Lamb is sitting in an invisible high chair. The children have to solve the conflict in the surrounding castle on their own.

A Transformation

When the Lamb is being annoying, Cyril wishes that he would grow up, which he does. The children then have to deal with him as a young man. He recognizes his brothers and sisters, but now he is the oldest sibling. He acts like he is in charge and seems to think that his siblings are a nuisance. The children work hard to protect him until his sunset transformation.

The dedication at the start of the first book in the trilogy is in the form of a short poem to Edith's son John Bland. (Edith's husband was Hubert Bland.) She refers to her son as "My Lamb", which is reminiscent of the youngest child in the book. Edith and Hubert had an unconventional marriage.

A diamond and sapphire necklace such as one that Lady Chittenden might own

A diamond and sapphire necklace such as one that Lady Chittenden might own

A Final Visit to the Psammead

The children's mother is missing during most of the book because she's visiting Granny, who is sick. Their father is away on business. This conveniently gets their parents out of the way. The mother returns for the final adventure, however.

At breakfast time, Martha announces that Lady Chittenden's diamond jewelry has disappeared, which Martha discovered during a visit from one of the woman's servants. As the children discuss the mystery, Jane says that it would be lovely if their mother found the jewelry and wore it. She says that "she wishes she would," so of course she does.

The children are afraid that their mother will be blamed for the theft. They visit the Psammead in the gravel pit for the last time. They find him happily preening his whiskers in the sun. Anthea grabs hold of him and says that if he helps them the children will never ask for another wish again. He is very moved by this and expresses his frustration that every day when he wakes up he has no choice but to grant wishes. The children wish for multiple events in order to solve the problem with the jewelry. Their final wish is to see the Psammead again at some point in the future. The Psammead grants all of the wishes.

They did see it again, of course, but not in this story. And it was not in a sand-pit either, but in a very, very, very different place. It was in a — But I must say no more.

— Edith Nesbit, last paragraph in "Five Children and It"

The Origin of Sand Fairies

It is never explained why the Psammead must grant wishes, which disappointed me when I read the trilogy. The Psammead is an interesting character that still puzzles me in some ways. The only hint of an explanation related to his existence comes at the start of the third book. Here the writer says in reference to the Psammead that "it was old, old, old, and its birthday was almost at the beginning of everything." This comment and the sand fairy's ability to temporarily alter reality seem to hint at a mystical background to me. Unfortunately, we may never know whether this was the author's intent.

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The left photo above shows the cover of the first edition of the book and is a public domain image. The right photo shows a sculpture of the Psammead located in Well Hall. (Photo by Ethan Doyle White, CC BY-SA 4.0 license)

A Potentially Disturbing Chapter

I think that parents should read Chapter 10 of the book before their children do. They may want to discuss the content of the chapter with their children. They may even want them to avoid reading the chapter or the book.

In the problematic section, after reading The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, Cyril wishes that there were Red Indians in England. This happens after the Psammead has agreed to grant the children's wishes wherever they are made. The term "Red Indians" is not only old fashioned today but is also considered to be offensive.

The children attempt to disguise themselves as a Native American tribe in order to persuade the visitors that they know will appear to ignore them. The plan doesn't work. The children then lead the visitors to the gravel pit in the hope of getting help from the Psammead. Once the group gets there, the visitors believe that they have scalped the children when they pull ringlets made of a black calico material off their heads. The ringlets were part of the children's disguise. Their own hair and head are undamaged.

Another potential and horrible fate for the children is described, but the tribe is thwarted in their effort to carry out their plan. One member of the tribe then wishes that they were back in their native forest. The Psammead hears and grants the wish.

The chapter could be frightening for younger children and upsetting for others. The threatened violence is quite different from the incidents in the rest of the book. The besieged castle chapter also includes threatened violence from an enemy, but Chapter 10 is problematic on more than one level, both in respect to the nature of the violence and the depiction of the tribe.

My omnibus edition of children’s books by Edith Nesbit

My omnibus edition of children’s books by Edith Nesbit

I've also reviewed the other two books in Edith Nesbit's trilogy. The second book is entitled "The Phoenix and the Carpet." The third is called 'The Story of the Amulet." The children are important characters in all three books. The Psammead is important in the first and last book but is mentioned without making an appearance in the second one.

An Interesting and Enjoyable Trilogy

This is the last of my reviews of the three books in Edith Nesbit's trilogy, even though this story was the first one in the sequence. I loved the second book in the trilogy and enjoyed reading the third. I liked the first book (with the exception of Chapter 10), but it was my least favourite one in the group. Of course, the children that it was written for may have a different idea. I'm glad that I read the first book because the story got a lot better (from my point of view) as it progressed, and it provided a good background for the rest of the trilogy.

My omnibus edition of seven children's stories by Edith Nesbit (or E. Nesbit as she was often called as a writer) is shown above. It's great for adults but not for children. There are no pictures, and the text is quite small. A copy of Five Children and It intended for children would probably be a better purchase for someone who wants to buy the book for a child.

The author had a great imagination. I plan to read more of her children's books and at least some of her books for adults as well. I think her work is worth reading.

© 2021 Linda Crampton

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