There are five books about the Borrowers (and one short story) all written by Mary Norton between 1952 and 1982, but this post will focus mostly on the first in the series.
- The Borrowers (1952)
- The Borrowers Afield (1954)
- The Borrowers Afloat (1959)
- The Borrowers Aloft (1961)
- Poor Stainless (short story, 1966)
- The Borrowers Avenged (1982)
Borrowers are creatures that look just like humans – if humans were only a few inches tall, that is. They live in human’s houses, under floorboards, behind walls. They ‘borrow’ all sorts of things from the ‘human beans’ (whose sole purpose is to provide for Borrowers’, in their minds) like blotting paper for their carpets and thimbles for their cups.
Borrowers are a rare breed by the time the first story starts. The Borrowers the books are about is the Clock family – so named because they live under the clock in the hall. There used to be a huge number of borrowers before that, though. The Overmantles who lived over the mantle in the morning-room (they left because the morning-room stopped being used and otherwise they would have gone cold and hungry), the Rain-Pipes from the stables, the Harpsicords (originally the Linen-Presses before they moved to the drawing room) and so on. But times had changed in the big house – less people, less parties, and less borrowings. Now only the Clocks are left, and even though it’s just the three of them, Pod, Homily and Arrietty, there’s still the risk of being seen, which is the worst thing that could ever happen to a Borrower.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A BORROWER IS SEEN?
When Uncle Hendreary was seen (on the drawing-room mantlepiece, by a maid) he and his family of Borrowers leave the big house for a badger-set across the field.
This is revealed to us near the start of the book when Homily and Pod are explaining more about ‘upstairs’ to Arrietty, who’s a teenage borrower and has never been out of their home. Pod, as it happens, has also been seen. There’s an unexpected boy upstairs, and he caught Pod one night as he went to fetch a cup from the dolls’ house in the nursery.
The Boy is a friendly sort, though, and he starts supplying the Clocks with all sorts of trinkets and dolls’ house items that they would never manage otherwise. Homily isn’t best impressed when he starts yanking up her ceilings but when she sees the treasures he brings, she accepts it.
Unfortunately, Mrs Driver, the formidable housekeeper, finds out what is going on and the Clocks have to flee the house, just like Uncle Hendreary’s lot.
There is at least one other Borrower out there – a wild teen by the name of Dreadful Spiller and he helps them navigate their first days out in the open.
If you look closely it’s quite different to anything Blyton wrote but there are familiar elements. To the Borrowers The Boy is almost a mythical creature, as are Mrs Driver and Crampfurl the gardener. And to the human beans the Borrowers are equally fantastical characters, so in a way, it’s not that far off from The Adventures of the Wishing Chair or The Faraway Tree – though it’s more serious than whimsical. There’s a real fear for the Borrowers – given the tale of Cousin Eggletina who was presumably eaten by a cat, I’m not surprised. The grown ups are pretty scared of the Borrowers too, likening them to rats or mice and tearing up half the house to get at them.
The second likeness you could make is one of survival akin to something like The Secret Island or The Hollow Tree House. The Borrowers have to survive in secret without help, without getting caught. Everything has to be planned, all borrowing missions are done with the utmost care – like Jack and Mike fetching the cow and items from Jack’s granddad’s farm.
Although written in the early 50s, contemporary to much of Blyton’s most famous outputs, The Borrowers is set earlier. Uncle Hendreary was seen in eighteen-ninety-something, so it must be the turn of the century. Still, it is a sort of period novel in the way Blyton’s are too, a window to the times with the talk of drawing rooms, blotting paper, parquet floors, a world of big houses with housekeepers and gardeners.
I think, like Blyton, Mary Norton knew what children would like. And so she gives us a thrilling tale of the Borrowers’ survival under the floorboards and beyond the house. The could either imagine ourselves as the resourceful, if quirky, Borrowers or the lucky Boy who discovers them. Who hasn’t had an imaginary friend or creature as a child?
The Borrowers’ home is something out of many children’s dreams – a tiny wonderland of objects. Postage stamp portraits, miniature books, thimbles, safety pins, playing cards, little tins, all repurposed for tiny folk. I used to love making ‘pony houses*’ when I was little, shoe-boxes or photo-album boxes turned into tiny houses with all sorts of little objects forming furniture and belongings. The Borrowers are also very amusing creatures, it is said even their names are borrowed from the human beans. Arriety is probably from Harriet, but I’m not so sure about Pod, Homily or Eggletina!
The characterisation is good, we have three very different personalities amongst the Clocks – Pod is sensible but weary, Homily is frazzled and frightened and Arriety is brave, naive and a dreamer. Arriety’s determination to borrow and make friends with The Boy is a big part of their undoing, but you can understand why she would be beyond fed up of living life in the semi-darkness with only a grating to view the outside world from. She’s not like Homily who would be content to never feel grass under her feet or see anything but the same four walls for the rest of her life.
Like some of Blyton’s books, The Borrowers has been adapted for TV and Film. The BBC did a brilliant two season series in the 90s, featuring Ian Holm (Bilbo Baggins, The Lord of the Rings) as Pod. There has also been an Americanized film with Jim Broadbent as Pod, Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy, Harry Potter) as the added Pea-Green, Arriety’s little brother, and John Goodman as a crazed real estate developer Ocious P Potter. The film doesn’t capture the quaintness of the originals, but it has good acting and some very clever miniature ideas. The main idea of the story is also used for the Anime adaption, called The Secret World of Arrietty. That wouldn’t normally be my cup of tea but I have watched it and I quite liked it, despite it being quite different to the original.
*They were called pony houses because my first one was made for a My Little Pony. Later Cupcake/Jam Pot Dolls and Aladdin and Jasmine Figurines were lucky enough to get cardboard homes, but the name stuck.