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Literature / The Borrowers

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A series of children's fantasy books by Mary Norton (who also wrote Bedknob and Broomstick).

Arrietty Clock lives with her parents under the floor in the house of a "human bean". They live by "borrowing" from the human beans (it's only "stealing" if you take things from another Borrower), but never anything that might be missed; a Borrower must never be seen by a human bean, or let a human bean in any way know they exist. Unfortunately, Arrietty is a little too curious for her own good, and ends up talking with a human boy. The boy ends up fetching little things that might help the Borrowers, things they couldn't get for themselves.

Arrietty's parents, Pod and Homily, are frightened and upset, but eventually (if somewhat stiffly) accept that the human boy is going to help them and not harm them. However, soon enough the adults see the Borrowers too, so the family hides and has to pack up and leave the house. They head out into the wild — like Bilbo, they're not the adventurous type — and try to make it to a house their relatives moved to years ago.

En route, they encounter Spiller, a loner who says little but sees much. He's a great hunter, and although their initial interaction is cool (as in "not quite frigid"), soon enough they warm to him. (At times it even looks like he and Arrietty might eventually get together, and the fourth novel, Borrowers Aloft, ends with the declaration that they will get married eventually and a fairly detailed description of their future home and life together — but this never happens within the series. The final book introduces the character of Peagreen as another romantic possibility for Arrietty but ends without any romantic resolution.) He helps them out of a couple tight spots, including when they're captured by humans, and eventually even shows them a miniature village they can live in (crafted by a human, but they stay decently hidden so he doesn't see them).

Aside from the first minor "captured by humans" bit, they are captured one major time, when a human husband and wife decide to put the Borrowers on display in a glass house where they will not be allowed any privacy. Luckily, they manage to escape.

An enjoyable series that made for a pretty good couple of adaptations:

These books provide examples of:

  • Bamboo Technology: Borrowers use a lot of this.
  • Borrowed Without Permission: The titular characters get their name from their insistence that they're borrowing when they take things from humans. Of course, they consider it stealing if a Borrower takes from another Borrower.
    The boy sat thoughtfully on his haunches, chewing a blade of grass. "Borrowing," he said after a while. "Is that what you call it?"
    "What else could you call it?" Asked Arrietty.
    "I'd call it stealing."
    Arrietty laughed. She really laughed. "But we are Borrowers," she explained, "like you're a-a human bean or whatever it's called. We're part of the house. You might as well say that the fire grate steals the coal from the coal scuttle."
    "Then what is stealing?"
    Arrietty looked grave. "Don't you know?" she asked. "Stealing is-well, supposing my Uncle Hendreary borrowed an emerald watch from Her dressing table and my father took it and hung it up on our wall. That's stealing."
    "An emerald watch!" exclaimed the boy.
    "Well, I just said that because we have one on the wall at home, but my father borrowed it himself. It needn't be a watch. It could be anything. A lump of sugar even. But Borrowers don't steal."
  • Delicate and Sickly: The human boy is in the house because he is recovering from rheumatic fever, which even to this day is considered a dangerous and chronic disease.
  • Direct Line to the Author: The story of the Borrowers is presented as something told to the author when she was a child (she gives her younger self the name "Kate," to distance herself from the "wild, untidy, self-willed little girl who stared with angry eyes and was said to crunch her teeth" she apparently was back then), and which she wrote down for her own children when she was an adult. This is most clear in the first three books, where the Framing Device is the story of how "Kate" meets and talks to old people who either met or were told of the Borrowers in their youths. The latter books (and almost all the adaptations) drop this device, but still include people who could conceivably have talked to "Kate" many years later and told her the story.
  • Do Not Go Gentle: Often with Stiff Upper Lip.
  • Dying Race: Arrietty is afraid that Borrowers may be dying out.
  • The Edwardian Era: The time period when the series is set.
  • Framing Device: The first, second and third books have framing stories of how the author, as a child, meets and talks to people who knew the Borrowers long ago, but this is dropped for the fourth and fifth book.
  • Iconic Sequel Character: Spiller. He doesn't appear at all in the first book, but becomes an important secondary character from the second book onward. He's considered one of the most memorable characters and always makes it into adaptations... even the Studio Ghibli movie, which is based only on the first book.
  • Insistent Terminology: The Borrowers aren't "thieves". It becomes a Brick Joke that both the boy and Mrs Driver respond to this terminology with "so that's what you call it!".
  • Lilliputians: The Borrowers' defining feature.
  • Mouse World: The Borrowers exist on a mouse-sized scale.
  • Nobody Poops: There's never any mention of the Borrowers having toilets or even chamber pots. In a series where every aspect of the Borrowers' makeshift lives are described in exquisite detail, including how they take baths and how the need for access to water dominates their choice of living quarters, the omission eventually becomes significant.
  • No Name Given: The human boy who befriends the Clock family.
  • Posthumous Character:
    • Within the Framing Device story, all of the major characters might be considered this, since the main story takes place so long ago — though only the Boy (who was the younger brother of Mrs. May, who first tells "Kate" the story of the Borrowers) is actually confirmed to have died; the Borrowers themselves simply left and were never seen again.
    • Within the main story of the first book, several Borrower families are described — all gone by now. The Posthumous Character who gets the most attention, however, is Arrietty's cousin Eggletina — it was her death that caused Uncle Hendreary and his family to leave the house for good. However, this is Subverted in the second book, when Eggletina proves to be very much alive.
  • Punny Name: Even names are Borrowed; for example, there are Stainless, Pod (the plant), Homily (a moralizing sermon), and Eggletina. Sometimes these end up as humorous spoonerisms, as most Borrowers are not literate: for example, Peagreen's name is actually spelled P-E-R-E-G-R-I-N-E (which itself is a Meaningful Name, since he is a wanderer). Surnames are often taken from where the family lives, such as the Clocks or Overmantels.
  • Scavenged Punk: As a franchise, The Borrowers provides what is perhaps the Ur-Example of Scavenged Punk. The family, and borrowers in general, scavenge everything they need from humans and end up building a lot of cool equipment. Movie adaptations have provided some of the best ever visual examples of Scavenged Punk.
  • Wainscot Society: Insofar as the thinly-spread Borrowers have a society, it is kept fairly scrupulously secret from ordinary humans. (There's even a family of Borrowers called the Wainscots, who live behind the wainscot. While it can't be proved that their name is an in-joke, the term "wainscot society" was established in sci-fi/fantasy circles a good fifteen years before the book was written, so it's not beyond possibility.)