The Magic Bed-Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons by Mary Norton
I was a child when I first saw Disney’s 1971 movie Bedknobs and Broomsticks and have fond memories of it. So when I found out that the book that inspired the movie, Mary Norton’s The Magic Bed-Knob (1943), was nominated this year for a 1944 Retro Hugo award, I was excited to read it. It’s charming and old-fashioned … but not everything I had hoped for. Also, it’s not much like the Disney movie, which is both a positive and a negative thing.
During the London Blitz, three siblings ― Carey (“about your age”), Charles (“a little younger”) and Paul (“only six”) ― are sent to Bedfordshire to stay with their Aunt Beatrice. (Tangentially, it’s worth noting that in recent editions of The Magic Bed-Knob, all references to the war have been redacted, perhaps in an effort to make the story less tied to a particular era.) One day the children find their very proper neighbor, Miss Price, has fallen and hurt her ankle. As they help her back to her house, Paul lets slip that he’s been watching Miss Price practice flying on her broom at night, and that falling off her broomstick ― not her bike ― is why she’s now injured. She’s a newbie witch, it turns out, and is learning her craft through a correspondence course.
Miss Price is appalled that her secret’s been found out by the children, and is almost ready to cast a spell that will silence them permanently (perhaps by changing them into frogs, which she temporarily does to Paul). But the children manage to convince her to bribe them into keeping her secret instead. So Miss Price casts a spell on a bed-knob that Paul is conveniently carrying in his pocket. If they twist the knob when it’s attached to the bed and make a wish, the bed will (almost) instantly fly to where they wish. Or, as it turns out, where Paul wishes, since it’s his bed and bed-knob. Paul’s older siblings are a bit appalled, but Paul himself is ecstatic.
The Magic Bed-Knob is rather dated, as might be expected from a children’s fantasy published in 1943, but still retains much of its old-fashioned charm. The interactions between the three children are realistic, particularly with Carey and Charles treating Paul rather dismissively because he’s several years younger. Paul is resentful of this treatment, which makes the fact that he’s the only one who can work the bed-knob magic so much sweeter to him. Miss Price, interestingly, is shown to have some struggles with the kind side of her nature vs. the wicked streak that the study of witchcraft apparently brings out in her.
I’ll admit to some disappointment that the talking animals and the uproarious soccer game on the magical island of Naboombu in the Disney movie wasn’t in the original book; instead we have a rather mundane, boring trip to their closed-up home in London and a less boring but somewhat wince-inducing run-in with stereotypical cannibals on the island of Ueepe. How Carey immediately identifies the natives as cannibals after a single glanced is never explained, but the correctness of that assumption never comes into question. The Star of Astaroth never makes an appearance, but we do get an extended run-in with the London police.
The Magic Bed-Knob has limited creativity and lacks much of the excitement of modern children’s fantasy, but there’s a sweetness at its heart.
“Keep your warm hearts, your gentleness, and your courage. These will do,” said Miss Price, sniffing audibly, “just as well as magic.”
Recommended for fans of old-fashioned children’s fantasy.