As Angela Lansbury looks towards celebrating her 95th birthday, I look back to her 1971 film Bedknobs and Broomsticks as a guide to help us defeat darkness in its rising tides — fascism, particularly, but other dangerous wellsprings too.
Lansbury plays Ms. Price, an “apprentice witch” who is studying magic during the Battle of Britain. When Nazis blitz into her hometown, Ms. Price casts a spell over a local, medieval castle. Medieval artifacts spring to life. These suits of armor form an enchanted army of knights. The Middle Ages, reanimated, drive out the fascists.
In laying claim to the medieval as an anti-fascist resource, Bedknobs fantastically undermines a powerful Nazi propaganda tool. White supremacists have often turned to the medieval, ever since Hitler adored the operas of Richard Wagner. Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal draw upon medieval romances. And the Ring cycle is based upon medieval epics. These powerful dramas—which Wagner envisioned as quasi-religious rituals—use medieval narratives to cast a nihilistic, nationalistic spell.
Sorry, Wagner fans: the “Immolation of Brünnhilde” is a practical liturgy for the Nazi death cult.
And in our own day too, white-nationalists appropriate the Middle Ages to support their aims. Like the S.S., contemporary hate groups employ Old English runic letters on their flags. The right-wing agitators in Charlottesville had decked themselves out with symbols that, if not precisely medieval, are definitely medieval-ish. And in Philadelphia, a statue of the eleventh-century Viking explorer Thorfinn Karlsefni has become a major rallying point for skinheads. These fascists often frame their hatred as akin to a medieval “Crusade.”
And this is why Angela Lansbury’s movie can feel so valuable as a way to reject white supremacist claims on the past. But early on in Bedknobs, the opening credits roll over images from a medieval-like manuscript. In cartoons that look like the eleventh-century Bayeux Tapestry, the credits foretell, in miniature, the entire story of Bedknobs. White supremacists now often think of themselves as crusadeers, but in Bedknobs the fight against Nazis is itself a Crusade, undertaken by medieval knights, organized by medieval monks, memorialized by medieval jesters—and led by the witch Ms. Price.
One historical quibble that’s not insignificant: witches are actually more of a modern phenomenon. Only after the Middle Ages did Europeans become paranoid about women practicing magic. As scholars of gender history have shown, accusations of witchcraft were used to push female business-owners out of the emerging capitalist marketplace. And as scholars of religious history have shown, the fear of magic arose as Protestants tried to exorcise the charms of Catholicism.
Modernity repressed spirituality and called into being new hauntings. Thus the line from the Catholic Mass (“Hoc est corpus meum”) became the witch’s formula (“Hocus Pocus”). Ms. Price uses these lost, Latin-ish encantations to raise her army: “Treguna Mekoides and Trecorum Satis Dee.”
This matters because what modernity has lost, perhaps, is a spiritual vision that grounds reality in cosmic purpose and embeds humanity in ordered, organic community. It is this disenchantment that, regrettably, fuels the fascists, whose reactionary enthusiasm for the Middle Ages is just the more sinister edge of romanticism.
Modernity, whatever its pluses, deflects about questions of meaning. Science rarely addresses philosophical questions. Democracy sets values by the fickle masses, and the marketplace sets values by cold, hard cash. Too few forces in our culture are providing ways to honor the intrinsic value of human beings.
And as recent events have made disturbingly clear to us, modernity’s discontents easily are recruited into nationalism and fundamentalism, because these ideologies offer rootless people a sense of meaning in an apparently meaningless world.
But when Ms. Price houses three orphans who are fleeing the Blitz, her magic must rehabilitate modernity’s disenchantment. Ms. Price’s oldest charge, Charlie, is a cynical opportunist who, upon discovering that Ms. Price is a witch, tries to blackmail her. And later Charles refuses to believe that magic works at all.
Lansbury’s tenderly rendered ballad, “The Age of Not Believing,” is as much about Charlie’s “age” (his adolescent snarkiness) as it is about our own “age” (our cultural malaise):
When you rush around in hopeless circles
Searching everywhere for something true
You’re at the age of not believing
When all the “make believe” is through
Bedknobs turns to magic and medievalism, not just as a marvelous technique for making the Nazis eat their lunch, but as a radical remedy to fill up the empty core of modernity.
This is not to say that the movie fully escapes from the pitfalls of modernity. As Ms. Price and the children tour a London bazaar, the film’s only characters of color appear: military divisions from all around the British Empire who dance and sing exotically. This number, “Portabello Road,” revels uncritically in imperialism. It’s hardly a critique of modernity to offer up, as I might argue that Bedknobs does, a Disneyfied American, commodity fetishism as the talisman for world salvation.
But more curiously, when Ms. Price realizes that her magical manuscript is damaged — torn in half — she searches for the missing fragment and encounters an unscrupulous Bookman (a clearly “Jewish” stock figure).
The Bookman, who possesses the other half of the manuscript, offers Ms. Price a trade. Bedknobs is thematizing the medieval Jewish/Christian tension— tensions rooted in one book, the Bible, seemingly ruptured into two halves, Old and New. And momentarily, the trade affects a détente between Jews and Christians.
And significantly, Bedknobs partners its mystical and integrationist revival of the past with an outlook that’s surprisingly feminist (even a bit queer) — there’s no faux-historicized conservatism about how gender might organize our world. Ms. Price is pursuing her studies on a political mission, and she has no time for children or for the movie’s male lead, the court-jester Professor Emelius Brown.
This set-up would seem to motivate a conventional “happy ending.” That is, Ms. Price might finally marry Professor Brown, with this new couple adopting the children. But Bedknobs does not fulfill that expectation. Instead, Brown — more mature because of Ms. Price’s influence — departs at the end of the film to join the army, and the children continue their adventures..
Maybe Bedknobs is like so many other movies from the 1970s that subliminally narrativize the breakdown of the American family (e.g. The Godfather or Midnight Cowboy). But those movies pessimistically imagine that—after the implosion of the Fordist economy and the explosion of the sexual revolution—society can only break down into cyclical violence or impotent nostalgia.
Bedknobs, on the other hand, is more hopeful. Bedknobs suggests that humans, regardless of gender or familial roles, can live with purpose. The movie thwarts the fascist equation—seen in The Sound of Music—that a pure family is a pure state.
Ending on a note of wonder, a promise of continuing adventure, Bedknobs echoes the medieval idea that, while matrimony can be a good, matrimony is only one option among many, and matrimony is not an end in itself—for, as medieval people believed, the true end of all things is supernatural, and mysterious, and truly has no end.
A.W. Strouse is a poet who teaches medieval literature at The New School.