In folk lore around the world, little people are everywhere. Whether it’s the leprechauns of Ireland, the nisse of Norway, the menehune of Hawaii or any number of diminutive protagonists like Tom Thumb or Issun-Boshi, it’s hard to go far without finding smallish characters. So, it stands to reason that they’d find their way into children’s fantasy fiction at some point. Various points, actually. But which point to actually take a look at?
Well, how about 1952? The Borrowers by Mary Norton. I’d been wanting to diversify this column with some 20th Century children’s books, including ones that aren’t made into Disney movies. And this one is a Carnegie Medal winner.
Now, I had heard of this book before but I hadn’t read it until recently as an adult. The closest I had come before this is seeing the Studio Ghibli film The Secret World of Arriety, which is based on it. But just because it’s Ghibli doesn’t mean it’s all that similar to the book. Just ask fans of Howl’s Moving Castle. There are other movies and TV shows based on The Borrowers, but I don't really have much exposure to them.
The story concerns the Clock family, Pod, Homily and their daughter Arriety, who are Borrowers. Borrowers are tiny people who live hidden away in a human house and “borrow” various things to survive. Usually “borrowing” means “stealing” and the stuff they take consists of small, easily misplaced things like buttons, stamps, needles, etc. The Clocks happen to be the last family of Borrowers living in this particular house, the others having “emigrated” because they had been seen by the “human beans” as the Borrowers call them. Needless to say, being “seen” is not considered a good thing for Borrowers. So, things take an unexpected turn when Arriety goes on her first borrowing trip with her father and gets seen by a young boy who’s staying in the house. Things turn out to be not so bad as Arriety and the boy become friends. However, it’s not to last as older, crueler human beans discover the Borrowers and seek to find them and get rid of them.
There are a lot of different takes on “little people” in folklore. One of the things that’s consistent among most of them is that the little people are magical or at least extremely skilled. Sometimes both. The Borrowers aren’t really magical and aren’t particularly good at anything besides taking things that don’t belong to them. They actually act more like the anthropomorphized mice you might see in a cartoon (think Jerry from Tom & Jerry but less violent). It’s a charming little story. Most of it hinges on the Boy (whose name I don’t think was ever mentioned) and his friendship with Arriety. The two bond over reading. Apparently, living in India and being bilingual made reading difficult for the boy (not sure why that’s the case). But the boy gets a friend and the Clock family gets help contacting distant relatives and furniture from the dollhouse upstairs. There’s also some interesting commentary in there about how people both big and small see their place in the world. The boy asks Arriety how they feel about stealing from humans. Arriety basically responds that Borrowers don’t see it as stealing when they “borrow” from humans, only when they take from other Borrowers. The reason is because “human beans are for Borrowers”. That’s right, the Borrowers think humans exist as a resource to be used by the Borrowers. As if the human being’s purpose is to make objects just so the Borrowers can take them. Kind of seems like how some humans see other people and lifeforms on this planet, doesn’t it? The Borrowers also seem to think that “human beans” are dying out because fewer and fewer people seem to come to the house. With the help of the Boy and his books, Arriety does develop a more enlightened view of the world.
Beyond just “little people”, there is another place where The Borrowers brushes against the concept of folklore. The way it’s told. With folk stories, a story is passed from person to person. Often with the end result of no one knowing who the story started with in the first place. The story of the Borrowers may not have gotten that far, but it seemed to be on its way. The book opens with young Kate hearing the story from her Aunt Mrs. May, who in turn heard it from her brother who was the Boy in the story. The veracity of the story is even called into question because even though Mrs. May supposedly found Arriety’s little journal, she notes that her handwriting is very similar to her brother’s.
The Borrowers was successful enough that it spawned four sequels. And last I checked, at least this first book is often still in print. They may not be the magical little people of ages-old lore, but it’s nice to know the tradition continues in a way.