The Borrowers, Mary Norton

Have a version of a recent column.


I’ve been thinking about apocalypses a lot recently. Or perhaps not. I’ve been thinking about climate change, about worlds that end and worlds that change and the ways in which we might imagine them, and trying to work out what it is that I want from fiction that tries to tackle these things. What I don’t want seems clear: books where these huge things are relegated to background noise as if they weren’t fundamental to how we exist materially and emotionally in the world. What I want are several things at once, the sort of range that is beyond the scope of a single text. I want possible futures that could serve as horrifying warnings, and possible futures in which humans alter the ways in which we live in radical, beautiful ways; and I want the quiet, deep sadness of acceptance that the world we love is about to be lost forever. The world (or the publishing industry) seems willing to throw up several horrifying warnings (and endless stories of young white people finding love in hopeless places) but too little of the other things, and they are the ones I really crave.

I found something of what I’m looking for in a 1950s children’s book that can in no way be said to be about apocalypses, or even climate change, at all. Mary Norton’s The Borrowers is a book about tiny, human-shaped people who live under the floorboards (and in other secluded places) in human houses, and who subsist on what they can “borrow” from the humans in whose homes they live. The story (once you get past the multiple frame narratives) opens in an old country house, once inhabited by a big family and staff, as well as several families of borrowers: the Overmantels, the Harpsichords, the Rain-Barrels, the Linen-Presses, the Bell-Pulls, the Hon. John Studdingtons (this family live behind a portrait), the list goes on. But time has gone by and most of the humans have moved out, and so too have the Borrowers. At the beginning of this book, then, the only borrowers left in the house are the small family of the Clocks—teenaged Arrietty and her mother and father, Homily and Pod.borrowers3

We’re seeing all this from Arrietty’s perspective, and all she can really tell is that the humans are slowly leaving. The (human) reader may ask if it was a war that did it or general social change—as far as the Borrowers are concerned, their major resource is drying up. Because that’s what humans (“human-beans”, appropriately a sort of vegetable) are to them; it’s why taking from them is “borrowing” rather than “stealing”. (“Human beans are for Borrowers”, explains Arrietty to the young human boy whom she befriends.) We (presumably) human readers are immersed in the Borrower perspective–if we can’t quite distance ourselves enough to think of ourselves as a mere resource, it’s easy to see this vast, increasingly empty, increasingly run-down house and imagine our own extinction. If the humans are dying out—and the reader can easily imagine this huge, lonely boy to be the last of us—what are the Borrowers to live on? But it’s more than that, more than a mere depletion of resources. It’s the empty house that used to be filled with people–we’re asked, over and over, to imagine a world emptied of the creatures, human and borrower, that once filled it.

This is not to claim The Borrowers as a piece of apocalyptic fiction—or to turn it into a clumsy allegory for our own times and situation. But Arrietty and her parents’s whole understanding of the world and their place in it is unsustainable and they know it—at some level they have already accepted their own ending.

The humans are not (yet) facing extinction, as it turns out. The boy speaks of “railways stations and football matches and … India and China and the British Commonwealth. He told her about the July sales.” There are billions of us–and what if it’s the other way around, and Arrietty and her parents are the only Borrowers left? In later books we’ll learn that this is not the case, that other Borrowers still live in exile, but their numbers have dwindled. Mrs May, through whose voice we first hear of them, thinks they may no longer exist. The Borrowers is suffused with this sense of an ending, and while we’re never explicitly asked to grieve, I think this may be the source of much of its power.



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