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Story time: a closer look at Mary Norton and The Borrowers

Every time I turn on the television I am bombarded by advertisements for the new movie, Arthur and The Invisibles. While I am sure it is based off an entirely original idea, it reminds me of The Borrowers. Remember them? Small, ingenious creatures that live in our homes and “borrow” our buttons, one sock from the pair, and other items you thought were misplaced. The creation of Mary Norton, the Borrowers have stayed with me since childhood, constantly stealing my keys, my glasses, and enough socks to fill the Grand Canyon. I wanted to learn more about Mary Norton so I went to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature and found a wonderful article about Mary Norton’s books. The article below is by Maria Nikolajeva.

Norton, Mary (1903–1992), British children’s author, one of the foremost representatives of postwar British fantasy. Childrens_lit
Her first novel, The Magic Bed-Knob (1945), is written in the true spirit of E. Nesbit, bringing magic into the everyday and elaborating in humorous details. Three ordinary children befriend a nice neighbor, Miss Price, who takes a correspondence course in black magic. This magical helper, the equivalent of Nesbit’s Psammead or Pamela Travers‘s Mary Poppins, enchants a bed, turning it into a modernized variant of the fairy tale flying carpet. The children fly to London, where they are arrested for disorderly conduct in public— that is, an unmade bed in the middle of the street.

Then they go to a Pacific island where they are very nearly eaten up by cannibals, a clear echo from Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet. The Magic Bed-Knob’s sequel, Bonfires and Broomsticks (1947), develops Nesbit’s idea of magical time travel. The bed turns out to have the property of transporting the children in time as well as in space. They visit the epoch of Charles II and also bring a young man, Emelius, from the past to their own time, where he is amazed by water pipes, cars, and other wonders.

The episode, reminiscent of the visit of the Babylonian queen to modern London in Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet, is humorous and even nonsensical, based on the total puzzlement of the visitor from the past when confronted with an unfamiliar society. Norton is both ironic and didactic over her characters’ poor knowledge of history, as Carey tells Emelius that the king will be executed, whereupon her brother points out that it was Charles I who was executed. Carey suggests that they go back to their own time and look it up. Then they can also warn Emelius about the Great Fire of London that will take place a week later in his time. In fact, Miss Price agrees to let the magic bed take the children to the past, providing that they went “somewhere really educational.” Norton thus adheres to the tradition of time-shift fantasy that combines entertaining and didactic purposes without adding any ethical or psychological dimensions. Time travel is rather mechanical and does not involve any identity problems that otherwise often constitute the central dilemma of time displacement. Yet the novel acquires a more serious tone toward the end, especially as Miss Price and Emelius choose to stay together in the past. The two books were brought out together in a revised version as Bed-Knob and Broomstick (1957) and made into a Disney movie. Norton’s tribute to Nesbit is also tangible in Are All the Giants Dead? (1975), a charming story featuring fairy tale creatures who retire after the hero and the princess start living happily ever after.

Considerably better known is Norton’s Borrowers series, starting with the Carnegie Medal–winning The Borrowers (1952), which portrays a family of miniature people, Pod, Homily, and their daughter Arrietty, who live secretly in the world of humans, “borrowing” everything they need, basic necessities as well as objects of luxury. The origin of the Borrowers is obscure, but it is hinted that their ancestors once were normal people, but grew tinier with each generation because of being scared—an interesting way of describing the powerless and the oppressed. A short prequel, Poor Stainless (1966), depicts the happy times when the house was full of Borrowers. Now the remaining three despise “human beans” (incidentally, a pun picked up or repeated by Roald Dahl in BFG) and believe that they exist exclusively to supply the Borrowers with all they need. It is the unwritten rule that Borrowers must never reveal themselves to people, yet the curious and enterprising Arrietty, the epitome of a rebellious teenager, befriends a boy who helps them survive, but also causes their reluctant move away from the old house.

The narrative frame of the story presents a metafictional question. Kate, a young girl featured in the frame (in a later edition, she is also changed into a first-person narrator), hears the story of the Borrowers from her distant relative Mrs. May, who in her turn heard it from her little brother when they were children. The little brother is the boy of the main story, but as the story is thus twice detached even from its recipient within the novel, Kate, there is a strong reason to question its credibility. In other words, the Borrowers can be either the boy’s or Mrs. May’s invention—most likely the latter’s, as she explains to Kate where all the small lost objects in the house go. However, the boy might have made up the story for himself, when he was bedridden, and later told it to his sister during hot nights in India. This marvelously enticing hesitation concerning the source and reliability of the Borrowers’ story continues in the sequels The Borrowers Afield (1955), The Borrowers Afloat (1959), and The Borrowers Aloft (1961) that follow the three Borrowers’ search for a home, during which they experience the thrill of freedom and the dangers of the wide world. Not least, they face the threat of being exploited by greedy humans. In The Borrowers Avenged (1982), Norton completes the series by letting the characters find a final refuge, reunited with their lost relatives.

The humor and excitement of the Borrowers series, as well as many other stories of miniature people, lies in the description of details and all the ways the Borrowers use ordinary objects—a defamiliarization effect that Norton employs with great ingenuity. A more serious dimension is found in the metaphorical picture of the Borrowers representing children—small, weak, and powerless—in their relationship to adults. The Borrowers live in conflict with the world of humans and in constant threat from them. At the same time, they are dependent on humans for their survival. The balance between dependence and autonomy, the longing for independence and the insight of its impossibility, is the essence of the stories. Yet the series conceals other levels of meaning, including the clash between tradition and modernization, or an allegory of the Holocaust.

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  1. Petrona's selection box

    Mary Norton and The Borrowers

    Link: OUPblog: Story Time: A Closer Look at Mary Norton and The Borrowers.

  2. Richard Akerman

    I very much liked the ending of The Borrowers where, as you say, it was up to the reader to decide whether the Borrowers had been the boy’s invention or not.

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