by Mary Norton
Harcourt Brace, 1943
(the two original books – The Magic Bed-Knob and Bonfires and Broomsticks – are now commonly combined into this one volume)
189 pp., 20 chapters
Interests: magic, witches, medieval history, adventure, siblings, travel
Next: the Disney movie Bedknobs and Broomsticks has a totally different plot than the book
Also by this author: The Borrowers series
While on summer holiday in the country, three children discover that the mild-mannered lady down the lane is studying to be a witch. In return for their silence on the matter, she presents them with a magic spell. When the bed-knob on their four-poster is turned, they can travel to anyplace they want, even back in time! Their first trip to London lands them in jail, and their second trip to a tropical isle results in a narrow escape from a cannibal tribe. The summer ends and the children return to London, but is it the end of their magical adventures?
Two years later they return to find that Miss Price still has the magic bed, but she has abandoned her magic for a more sensible life. Luckily they talk her into another adventure, and this time they go back to medieval London, where they meet Emelius, an unsuccessful and desperately unhappy sorcerer. Hoping to cheer him up, they bring him back with them to show him the wonders of the modern age. Unfortunately when he returns to his own time he is arrested for witchcraft and Miss Price and the children must rescue him from being burned at the stake! After this successful mission Miss Price and Emelius decide to marry and live in his time.
(The above description will baffle anyone who has only seen the Disney movie version, because the only thing the movie retains from the novels is the flying bed and the characters of Miss Price and the children.)
There are wonderful moments in this novel – when the children spot Miss Price on her broom – but it’s a little uneven. The set-up is well handled and entertaining: the rather prim village spinster with a workshop full of creepy ingredients for spells, and her struggles to get the magic just right. The interactions between the children, too, are well-written and realistic. However for the most part the magical adventures themselves are strangely anti-climactic. They’re just not as exciting as they could have been, given the excellent idea of making the bed fly. The trip to London is interesting in that they are immediately put in jail, but otherwise uneventful. The South Seas excursion starts out in an idyllic way, but ends with a showdown between Miss Price and the cannibal king, which no doubt played better back in the 1940s but now is a little culturally cringe-worthy. The plan to go back to the Middle Ages is an excellent one, though the children spend their entire first visit sitting in Emelius’ little study chatting. The final climax where Emelius is to be burnt at the stake is (finally) quite thrilling; I just wished there were more such scenes to keep this book alive throughout.
In the end it’s easy to see why the Disney writers kept only the characters and the bed, and came up with their own story, but the results are also uneven and disappointing … more on that another day.
Back to the book. This is still a well-written and interesting read, more cerebral than action-packed. Definitely in the realm of ‘be careful what you wish for’ and ‘magic gone awry’ stories such as E. Nesbit or Edward Eager books.