If there was any need to prove J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books weren’t created ex nihilo, but as part of an existing tradition of magical fantasy in English fiction (which includes Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch series, and Mary Norton’s The Magic Bed Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons (filmed as Bedknobs and Broomsticks)), here it is. Joan Aiken‘s Armitage Family stories have very much the same feel of institutionalised magic, where spells work just like recipes, where fantastical beasts are as likely to wander into the story as their mundane counterparts — and just as likely to be adopted as pets, or hatched from the egg and raised till they get out of hand and have to be released into the wild — where BBC 13 is the radio station to listen to if you want to learn about magic (which you can also do by a home study course), where there’s a charity for replacing the worn-out wands of “fairy ladies” (the polite term for witches), and a Board of Incantation that can requisition your home to use as a seminary for young magicians… It all sounds and feels so Potterish, yet the first Armitage Family stories were published in 1958, and Aiken continued writing them throughout her career (the last to be published during her lifetime was in 1998, and this book collects them all, plus four previously unpublished).
There are differences, of course. Aiken’s stories, being short stories, don’t build up into an epic battle against evil, but are, rather, about the more mundane conflicts, botherations, quibbles and quandaries of childhood and family life. Mark and Harriet are perfectly normal children, constantly engaged in their own projects and interests, but quite level-headedly dealing with curses, spells, hauntings, and visits from fantastical creatures, sorcerers and minor gods, as well as that more fearsome antagonist, the awkward relative, in their four-decade long childhood (whose background details get quietly updated as the stories go along, so there’s mention of computers, and the wearing of jeans, though it never breaks the spell of timelessness around their childhood. There seems to be no TV, for instance — Mark and Harriet are simply too busy to watch it).
Aiken writes with a light narrative tone, perfectly suited to the air of casual, childhood magic and nonsensical surrealism she creates, and that tone never wavers, even when there are touches of genuine tragedy. There’s not a lot of tragedy, nor does it involve any of the main characters (unless you count Walrus the cat), but there is a rather awful, casual destruction of a magical portal (built using sections collected from the backs of cereal packets), that separates two lovers, perhaps forever; and elsewhere, a harmless minor character gets killed so suddenly in a road accident you can’t quite believe it’s just happened (nor that it’s not about to just as-suddenly un-happen, which it doesn’t).
Aiken’s Armitage family stories are full of magical invention, weird characters, and a sort of enduring faith in the resilience, adaptability, open-mindedness, and fair-mindedness of her child characters. (Who, I can’t help feeling, would deal with Lord Voldemort in somewhat under seven pages, never mind seven books!)