"The Borrowers" and Mary Norton: An Imaginative Children's Book
A Captivating Story for Children
The Borrowers is a story about a family of tiny people that live in a home under the floorboards of a house. Pod, the father in the family, secretly "borrows" (collects) food and other items from the house. This enables him, his wife Homily, and his teenage daughter Arrietty to enjoy a comfortable life.
As the story progresses, Arrietty becomes increasingly frustrated with having to remain hidden and being unable to explore the world. Her behaviour eventually causes her to be seen by a big person—a very serious situation for a borrower—and even to develop a friendship with him. The friendship leads to a series of adventures that eventually force the borrowers to leave their home and search for another place to live.
The Borrowers was published in 1952 and was written by Mary Norton, an English author. The book won the 1952 Carnegie Medal, a British prize that is awarded annually for the best children's book. Norton created four sequels for her story, which are all popular, but the first book in the series is the best known. In the sequels, Arrietty continues to form relationships with big people.
A Brief Biography of Mary Norton
Mary Norton was born on December 10th, 1903, in London, England. Her birth name was Kathleen Mary Pearson. She grew up in a large Georgian house located in the town of Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire. This house is believed to be the setting for The Borrowers and is shown above.
After leaving school, Norton had a brief career as an actress and spent a season with the Old Vic Shakespeare Company. She married Robert Charles Norton in 1927 and had four children from the marriage—two girls and two boys. The first part of her marriage was spent in Portugal, where Robert was an engineer. During the second world war, Norton worked for the British War Office and then for the British Purchasing Commission in the United States while her husband was in the navy. Her literary career started during her time in the U.S.
Norton's first marriage was dissolved. (Dissolution can be thought of as a no-fault divorce.) She married her second husband Lionel Bonsey in 1970. She died in England on August 29th, 1992, after experiencing a stroke. She was eighty-eight years old.
The Early Books of Mary Norton
Mary Norton's first book was published in 1943. It was entitled The Magic Bed-Knob or How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons. A sequel called Bonfires and Broomsticks was published in 1947. The two stories were combined and republished in 1957 in a book called Bed-knob and Broomstick. This book became the basis of a 1971 Disney film with a similar name, which starred Angela Lansbury and David Tomlinson.
The Borrowers was Norton's most famous book. One of her publishers said that the author had a wonderful sense of humour. Norton said that the idea of the borrowers and the problems that they would face developed because she was very shortsighted. She was often looking at things close by while other people were peering into the distance. Norton enjoyed examining plants and wondering what it would be like for a tiny person to travel through them.
Introduction to The Borrowers
I have long believed that a children's book should be enjoyable for adults, too. In my opinion The Borrowers definitely fulfils this requirement. It's an interesting story and has an imaginative plot. It also has great descriptions of scenes, people, and the attitudes and emotions of the main characters. I enjoyed the book as a child and I still enjoy it today.
The plot is driven by the desires of fourteen-year-old Arrietty, who lives in secret with her mother and father under the kitchen floor of a large house. A long tunnel leads to Arrietty's home. The entrance to this tunnel lies under the grandfather clock in the front hall of the house. Arrietty's family is therefore known as the Clock family. (Even the names of the borrowers are borrowed.)
Other borrower families once lived in different parts of the house. As the children in the family of big people left and the lady who owns the house became bedridden, rooms were no longer used and borrowers could no longer find enough food to survive. Only the Clock family remains.
When he was younger I've seen your father walk the length of a laid dinner table, after the gong was rung, taking a nut or sweet from every dish, and down by a fold in the tablecloth before the first people came in at the door. He'd do it just for fun, wouldn't you, Pod?— Homily Clock, AKA Mary Norton
A Plot Summary: Life as a Borrower
Borrowers believe that "human beans" (a mispronunciation of human beings) exist to support them. The borrowers themselves are humans (or at least appear to be), though they are tiny compared to other people.
The Clock family feels that they have a perfect right to borrow, which from their point of view is definitely not the same as stealing. Pod collects small items from the house and then he and Homily repurpose the items. Scraps of old letters becomes wallpaper and postage stamps become wall art, for example. Blotting paper is used as a carpet, stacked matchboxes as a chest of drawers, and pins as knitting needles. Water is plentiful because while Pod's father was alive he tapped the pipes connected to the kitchen boiler. Food is borrowed whenever necessary.
Arrietty has spent her whole life inside the family home, with only a grating to view the outside world and only her parents for company. Although her home is comfortable and her parents love her, Arrietty is frustrated by her restricted life. To relieve her frustrations and to teach her how to survive if he dies, Pod takes Arrietty on the first of a planned series of borrowing trips.
Meeting the Boy
During her borrowing trip, Arrietty enters the garden of the house through the open front door. After a glorious exploration of some of the garden's delights, Arrietty is seen by a boy who is temporarily staying at the house. The boy appears to be a giant to her because he is a human bean.
Arrietty and the boy develop a friendship. This relationship is at first beneficial for the Clock family. The boy brings them wonderful things from the big house, allowing them to live in luxury. Unfortunately, the family is eventually discovered by the adults in the big house. The story ends with the family's dramatic escape to find a home elsewhere. They face grave danger during their escape from the house—death by inhaling rodent poison—but the boy saves their lives.
Blotting paper was once used to absorb excess ink after writing, drawing, or stamping with ink from an inkwell.
Other Books in The Borrowers Series
The sequels to The Borrowers describe the exciting adventures of the Clock family as they move from one temporary home to another, interacting with other borrowers and with human beans as they do so.
The five books in the series and their publication dates are as follows:
- The Borrowers: 1952
- The Borrowers Afield: 1955
- The Borrowers Afloat: 1959
- The Borrowers Aloft: 1961
- The Borrowers Avenged: 1982
At the end of the first book there is a slight suggestion that the borrowers existed only in the boy's imagination, which always annoyed me when I was a child. I wanted Pod, Homily, and Arrietty to be real. In the later books the reality of the borrowers is assured.
In the last book of the series the Clock family find their long-lost relatives. There are still questions about the borrowers' future to be answered at the end of the story, however. Some people think that Mary Norton had yet another book in mind but never wrote it.
Movie, TV, and Stage Adaptations of The Borrowers
Several screen adaptations of The Borrowers have been created. Not all of these have followed the correct plot. For someone who loves the books, this is a serious flaw.
The best screen version that I've seen is the award-winning 1992 BBC miniseries, which covers The Borrowers and The Borrowers Afield. I like this series not only because of its relative plot accuracy and its realistic special effects but also because the appearance of the actor Ian Holm closely resembles my mental image of Pod. The first episode of the series is shown below.
The BBC produced a sequel to the miniseries in 1993. This was based on The Borrowers Afloat and The Borrowers Aloft and contained the same actors as the first miniseries.
The Secret World of Arrietty was created by a Japanese animation studio and released in 2010. It won a number of awards. I've never seen the film, but from the plot synopsis it seems that the idea behind the book is maintained. The film describes the adventures of the Clock family of borrowers and the boy who finds them. The story is set in Tokyo, however.
From November 2014 to the end of January 2015, the New Vic Theatre in Britain presented a stage adaptation of the story, complete with special effects. Other theatre companies have also presented the story. It's interesting that a tale first published over sixty years ago is still popular.
A Fantasy but Not a Fairy Tale
The Borrowers is a fantasy, but it's not a fairy tale. Part of the charm of the borrowers is that they are so real. Although they call big people human beans and themselves borrowers, they are humans like us, despite their small size. The fact that they often live in an environment meant for much bigger people creates special challenges for them, however. The description of how they meet these challenges is one of the joys of Mary Norton's books. Her story of the borrowers has captured people's imagination ever since it was published. It's a story that can be enjoyed by both children and adults.
Questions & Answers
What are some fun facts in the "The Borrowers and Mary Norton" children's book?
I think the ways in which the Clock family uses human bean belongings to decorate their home are fun. I’ve mentioned some in the article, but the book mentions others. Postage stamps are used as pictures for the walls, blotting paper is used for a carpet, a matchbox is used for a chest of drawers, and a padded trinket box with the lid open is used as a settle.
Potatoes are so big that the family has to roll them along the ground and cut off just a small piece for a meal. Fibres from the front door mat in the big house are used to make a scrubbing brush for the Clock family. Arrietty’s bedroom is built from two cigar boxes. The pictures on the boxes decorate her room.
© 2015 Linda Crampton