May 30 2013 3:30pm

Cannibals AGAIN? Bed-Knob and Broomstick

Bed-Knob and Broomstick Mary Norton

“Method and prophylactics have revolutionized modern witchcraft.”

—Mary Norton

British author Mary Norton, perhaps best known for creating The Borrowers (coming up next in these rereads) spent a happy childhood in the English countryside. She later claimed that her shortsightedness had a strong influence on her work: rather than looking at far away things, she focused on tree roots and grasses, wondering what small creatures might be hiding there. In 1927 she married Robert Norton and lived with him in Portugal until the outbreak of World War II. The war separated the family and forced Norton to return to England, shuttling between the dangers of wartime London and periods in the country. It was this background that shaped her first books for children, The Magic Bed Knob and Bonfires and Broomsticks, later combined into a single book, Bed-Knob and Broomstick.

As a kid, I found myself immediately annoyed by the first paragraph, “Carey was about your age, Charles a little younger, and Paul only six,” partly because I was only seven, and mostly because I wanted to know how on earth the book knew how old I was? What if I was really old? Like, you know, ten? Or worse, twelve. Or even a grown-up? Sometimes grown-ups—usually librarians—opened up kids’ books. Usually this was to tell me whether or not I could or should read the book, advice I generally and cheerfully ignored, but it could happen.

Since I was still at the age where I finished every book I opened, regardless of quality or appropriateness, I plunged on. The three children soon encounter the ladylike Miss Price who has just hurt her ankle by falling off a broomstick. (See, Quidditch really is dangerous.) That is the first indication of something very important: Miss Price is actually a witch. Well, technically, she’s studying to be a witch. As her broomstick fall indicates, she still has quite a lot of studying to go, since, in a nice touch, witchcraft—especially wicked witchcraft—is one of those things you really have to study and focus on, and Miss Price has previously been just a little too busy with various things to do any real study.

This in turn makes it rather difficult for her to know exactly what to do with the children who have discovered her secret, especially after the revelation that Paul has some abilities in that area as well. After a brief discussion, however, she agrees to more or less bribe them with an enchanted Bed Knob that will take them to wherever they want to go. Their first stop: war torn London, because Paul desperately misses his mother. This naturally creates a lot of confusion—no one expects to see a large iron bed in a London street under a blackout—and arrest and imprisonment. (Before you start thinking this is too harsh, remember, this is wartime.)

Somewhat shaken, everyone agrees to follow this up with a nice trip to the South Seas to see coral reefs. (Yay!) This leads them into an unfortunate encounter with stereotypical island cannibals (rather less yay, on multiple levels). The only good thing about this second bit is that it encourages Miss Price to come to the rescue, discovering her inner magic. Unfortunately, the encounter also sends them back home dripping with salt water—a circumstance they are unable to explain. Their aunt pointedly reminds them that they are not her children, and since the entire episode has meant the loss of a maid, the aunt sends them back to the dangers of London.

Sidenote on the cannibals: It’s not just that they are stereotypical and the entire encounter is dull, dull, dull, it’s that, if I’m counting correctly, this is Encounter Number Six with Island Cannibals so far during these rereads, which is approaching, no kidding, the number of times the Emerald City was attacked or Ozma was kidnapped. And at least there, I could see why everyone wanted to take over the Emerald City or capture Ozma—quite a lot of money and power are involved.

But how on earth does every single group of time travelling children just happen to end up on a tropical island that just happens to have cannibals who just happen to be hungry?

It’s not just the stereotyping, or that this is potentially offensive to various island cultures, or that all of these islands, whether off the coast of Africa, in the Caribbean, or in the Pacific, are all terribly similar, but that it is boring.

But what I also don’t get is why the fascination in the first place. Oh, yes, I get the fascination with islands. I get the fascination with pirates. But the cannibals are baffling me. And it’s not all the influence of Nesbit (who did influence Norton here and later, as we saw, Edward Eager) since some of this arose independently. The assumption that all tropical islands contain cannibals? Inserted as a warning against travelling to such islands? I don’t know, but of all the things I expected to find when doing these rereads, lots of cannibals was not among them.

That was a too long sidenote. Anyway!

The second part of the book picks up two years later. By now, the older children have almost convinced their younger brother—and themselves—that everything was just a dream, however salty and real the results. But when Miss Price advertises that she is willing to take in children for the summer, they eagerly head back. Initially, they are disappointed to find that Miss Price has seemingly given up magic for good—but only seemingly. A short discussion of the value of learning history, and they are off to the reign of Charles II. (Which they could certainly stand to learn more about.)

Here the book becomes a little awkward as the point of view shifts from the children to that of a 16th century necromancer, Emelius, and then back to the children again when they all return to the 20th century, a place Emelius desperately wants to see, and then back to Emelius, get the point. The shifts in viewpoint are often awkward, if the plot is amusing: teaching the children about the 16th century is moderately tricky; teaching Emelius about the 20th is definitely tricky—he ends up loving baths, and in particular, hot water, but cars terrify him.

The plotline is awkward for other reasons, notably that Emelius is initially not skeptical enough about magic, given that he has been trained to know that magic—especially the type of magic he practices—is all a fake. The bittersweet ending, which reads very differently to me now, is equally awkward. World War II plays such a background role here (though still mentioned) that as a child, I didn’t realize that in many ways, Miss Price was fleeing an extremely dangerous world: I merely thought that she and Emelius were choosing to head back to a place that burnt witches and necromancers, which struck me as an exceedingly strange thing to do, especially since that place had no hot and cold running water and no marmalade, which, horrors. But my adult realization that she was in fact only exchanging one dangerous world for another makes me shudder in quite a different way. Because by vanishing back to the past, Miss Price is essentially sending the three children back to the dangers of wartime London unprotected—not to mention leaving the very magical Paul with no one to guide him in his new abilities. Not to mention that I really have no idea what is going on with the last couple of sentences, unless ghosts are as real as witches, or Miss Price was lying all the time.

My reservations about the ending and the cannibals aside, I can still recommend the book, mostly for its willingness to raise difficult ethical questions. For instance, is it fair to use magic in a gardening competition—when you are competing against people who have access to resources (for example, greenhouses) that you don’t? Can magic—should magic—be used in wartime conditions? What would happen to an army turned into white mice? Do even Nazis deserve that? This a book with flaws, and many of them, but just enough magic to give readers a hint for what was to soon come from Norton’s typewriter.

Mari Ness plans to use her magic wishes to travel to cannibal-free tropical islands, thank you very much. She lives in central Florida.

Stephen Dunscombe
1. cythraul
Aww, man - no magically-animated Nazi-kicking armour?
Margaret R. Dean
2. Margaret R. Dean
Just out of curiosity, are you also going to review the film of Bedknobs and Broomsticks? I remember enjoying that, manymany years ago.
Margaret R. Dean
3. Melanie Meadors
My son and I read this a couple years ago. We enjoyed the first part very much, but the second part, as you note, was a bit more rough to read.

Is magic fair to use in war? Well, especially in talking about WWII, if Hitler could use magic, he certainly would have, right or wrong. I think the idea of war on the whole involves each side doing whatever it can to win. Was it wrong to use a nuke? These are valuable questions, and if you can get through the book, it can provide a decent platform for you to raise these questions with your kids.
Mari Ness
4. MariCats
@cythraul -- No! Another flaw with the book!

@Margaret R. Dean -- I remember not liking it very much, but I can see if the library has a copy. It doesn't seem to be streaming on Netflix.

@Melanie Meadors -- I do think the book raises some important and interesting ethical questions for kids.
Pamela Adams
5. PamAdams
—no one expects to see a large iron bed in a London street under a blackout
Or they'd assume it came from a high-explosive bomb.....
Pamela Adams
6. PamAdams

Are the Dr. Doolittle books on the list for upcoming re-reads? I believe that he handles the tropical island thing pretty well, with the young chief's son coming to England to enroll in Oxford.
Margaret R. Dean
7. John S. Troutman
Like many, I've only seen the film, and feel slightly ashamed because of it. The film, for the record, is certainly far from perfect, but still boasts a stellar soundtrack and a fresh-outta-Broadway Angela Lansbury (before she gave up singing and started writing murders).
Mari Ness
8. MariCats
@Pam Adams -- But wouldn't they have heard the bomb first, not just found a big bed on the street without any other debris around it?

Regarding Dr. Doolittle -- that's on the list, but it will be awhile: the author currently scheduled to follow Mary Norton was far, far more prolific than I realized. Also I need to make sure I can track down the original texts -- one reason P.L. Travers is on hold; the library only has the edited Mary Poppins texts.

@John Troutman -- I am beginning to sense a conspiracy to get me to watch the film again!
Pamela Adams
9. PamAdams
The Swallows and Amazons novel, Peter Duck, a fantastic entry in a generally realistic series*, has a tropical island that's not cannibal-infested. (It does have hurricanes, buried treasure, and predatory crabs) There's some unfortunate language used in referring to the buried treasure, though.

*Okay, except for the kids being turned loose to sail and camp free of adult supervision on a very large and deep lake.....
Sarah Adams
10. SarahKitty
Re the cannibals: I think I always assumed that all of these fictional families shared a fascinating bachelor uncle recently returned from the South Seas who told interestingly scary bedtime stories.

But seriously, yes, the cannibals are offensive. Unfortunately, I think they are a product of both the time and the books that the fictional children and the children of the era would have been reading. Like zombies nowadays, children like to read about scary weird stuff, whether true or not.
Margaret R. Dean
11. HelenS
I remembered the cannibals, but not the wartime setting. At all. That's a surprise to me.
Margaret R. Dean
12. Mazarin
@Maricats. PL Travers was great to read as a kid, very prolific so there was always another one to borrow. But almost impossible to get unedited now- there are episodes that would read as racism, and it was incredibly classist as well.
Good luck with finding them, I would love to reread them myself, but if nothing else would enjoy your comments.

Mind you , I think Hugh Lofting wrote more books than PL Travers- The Dr Doolittle series alone goes to 12 books (again difficult to find uncut these days) whereas the Mary Poppins series only extends to about 8 (of 18 books published by PLT, according to Wikipedia)

@Pam Adams
I think the turned loose without adult supervision was realist. Read contemporary biographies and autobiographies of children of the time (and continuing on into the sixties) It is modern society that coddles kids and thinks they must be permanently supervised.
David Levinson
13. DemetriosX
As problematic as island cannibals are to us today, they had become something of a trope by the late 19th century. Indeed, the trope persisted into the 1950s or 60s, where the missionary or explorer in the cookpot was as common in comics as the tiny island with one palm tree or the guy crawling through the desert.

It probably goes all the way back to the Carib indians, whose name was corrupted to give us the word cannibal. It was in literature by the late 17th century. Friday was on the run from cannibals in Robinson Crusoe. The British reached the South Seas in the late 18th century and it turned out that in Melanesia cannibalism was quite common in a variety of forms, from riual or funeral cannibalism to a simple taste for long pig. The Fiji group was even known as the Cannibal Isles for a time, and the practice actually continued into the 20th century. There was even a case last year where it was suspected.

In any case, expedition reports and captain's memoirs were quite popular reading in the 19th century and a good cannibal episode was always good for a frisson. Thus it made its way into adventure stories and then filtered down to children's lit. So it's no surprise that these authors who grew up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries continued with a trope that had been around since, in many cases, before they were born.
Margaret R. Dean
14. bryan rasmussen
Cannibals cannibalize on principle, not from feeling peckish.
Fred Learn
16. octobercountry
Oh, definitely check out the film---it's a favourite from my own childhood. (I remember in fourth grade music class we learned most of the songs.) But be sure to watch the longer cut now available on DVD.

I have a first printing of "The Magic Bedknob" here, and it's interesting to note that the original story (published in the mid 1940's) does deal a bit more extensively with the war. In 1957 "The Magic Bedknob" and "Bonfires and Broomsticks" were combined into one longer volume, but the majority of the references to any aspect of the war were deleted. I'm assuming that the publisher felt that the wartime setting would have less relevance to children reading the book after the conflict was over?

The new 1957 omnibus edition also received a completely fresh set of illustrations by Erik Blegvad. I do really like these drawings. However, in the current printing of the book, I believe at least two of these illustrations have been deleted---ones showing the cannibals on the island. I'm assuming that these were considered racist. If anyone has a new printing of the book, perhaps you can check and see if these two images are present?

Both pictures were present in the editions printed through the 1970s at least; I'm not sure when they were removed.

I do agree that the whole "island of cannibals" had been done to death by the time this book was written, but I'm not sure what I would have replaced the episode with, to give it a proper feeling of danger. Pirates, maybe? 'Course, those were done to death by then, too!
Pamela Adams
17. PamAdams
I like the idea of conflating cannibals with zombies. I'm now picturing some future library association meeting deciding not to buy early-21st century zombie fiction because their customers object. "I'm sorry, but modern undead children just won't read these books! They find them so untrue to death."
Margaret R. Dean
18. HelenS
I wonder if there was another edition that talked about the war? Because I just got this out of the library again (US edition, 2000) and there's nothing at all about there being any blackout in London. There's no rationing, and the children are just going for summer holidays, not evacuated. There's one slight mention of the war in the second book, but it's not even clear whether it's WWI or WWII.
Margaret R. Dean
19. octobercountry
HelenS----As I noted in a previous post, I have a first edition of "The Magic Bedknob" here, and it does talk quite a bit about the war. All this material seems to have been removed for the omnibus edition that combined the two books.

A few elements of the story do make a bit more sense when the war is taken into account as a part of the backdrop of the story.
Margaret R. Dean
20. HelenS
octobercountry, I have no idea how I didn't see what you wrote before I commented, but clearly I didn't. Gah. *head thump* (my head, not yours). Thank you! That makes way more sense now.
Sarah Adams
21. SarahKitty
Interesting that the newer omnibus editions are missing the war references. I could have sworn that my 1970s edition (which of course I no longer have so I can't check) had them. They certainly weren't a surprise when I saw the movie.
Fred Learn
22. octobercountry
Hmmm, interesting.... I wonder when the changes were made to the text? I assumed it was in 1957 when the combined edition was first published, but for all I know it could have been later than that.

My own childhood copy was dated 1972, and was definitely the revised version, because I was very surprised when I viewed the film a few years later and noted how the plot revolved around the war. The book I owned contained no reference to the war, and I thought Disney had added that aspect of the plot to their adaptation (not realising that the film version actually took the wartime setting from the first version of the novel).
Mari Ness
23. MariCats
@Everybody -- the ominous ebook edition that I got from the local library this year most definitely includes the war references. I didn't realize until your comments that an edited edition was ever made.

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