Saturday, November 13, 2010

Little people, noblesse oblige, ancient manuscripts, and other oddities... (Books - The Borrowers by Mary Norton)

Something recently prompted me to return to a childhood favorite, Mary Norton's The Borrowers, although I cannot for the life of me remember what it was. I am glad that I indulged myself in this stroll down memory lane as Norton's story is a richly imagined tale about the fear of change, and its inevitability. Her cast of characters, a family of miniature people living beneath the kitchen floorboards of a once-grand house in a nest-like apartment, their furniture made of matchboxes, and the walls decorated with postage stamps, items all "borrowed" from the house beneath which they live. The Borrowers must lead a careful life, venturing upstairs for not only their decor, but their food and drink as well, carefully avoiding the eyes of the dangerous "human beans." It is the children, the daughter of the Borrowers and the orphaned boy living upstairs, who have a forbidden meeting and eventually force the Borrowers to uproot themselves and venture into the great unknown.
"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."

Arietty laughed. She really laughed. "But we are Borrowers," she explained, "like your 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?"

Arietty 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."

"Except from human beings," said the boy.

Arriety burst out laughing; she laughed so much that she had to hid her face in the primrose. "Oh dear," she gasped with tears in her eyes, "you are funny!" She stared upward at his puzzled face. "Human beans are for Borrowers - like bread's for butter!"
It seems that Borrowers have the same peculiar skill most humans have in thinking that the world and all its inhabitants exists for their use, not even bothering to question the veracity of their securely held belief, and not even considering that there might indeed be a point of view of held by those who are the recipients of their actions. As I read this story it made me think of so many human arrangements - noblesse oblige, the British imperialist certainty that the natives of other lands could only benefit from British rule, British law, British christianity, and, often newly drawn British borders (of course there have been similar fantasies indulged in by the Dutch, the French, and my own country too), religious missionary activities partake of the same, certain, self-focused zeal . It is a convenient belief and one Norton gently parodies in this novel for young readers. At the same time, the Borrowers are our protagonists, so one experiences the actions and the consequences from both sides of the equation, without any pious lecturing on Norton's part. Indeed, the Borrowers in written in pleasantly old-fashioned prose that imparts a cozy, book-at-bedtime glow to the story. I was delighted to revisit both the story and its themes in a book for children, as so much children's literature this days is openly prescriptive. I may yet visit some of The Borrowers sequels in the future.

This lead to another young reader's novel, coincidentally also about little people - Mistress Masham's Repose by fantasy fiction giant, T. H. White. While I'm enjoying the whimsy of White's narration, I'm having a hard time entering the world of his young heroine and so found myself switching to Once on a Moonless Night, Dai Sijie's atmospheric tale of an ancient document that holds some mysterious power over the people who come in contact with it.

I came across this book at a favorite New York bookstore - McNally Jackson - a little while ago, browsing their "recommended" shelf. This was something I did several times per week and now I so rarely get to visit bookstores, especially ones with personalities and staffs who read. Dai Sijie's tale is written in an elegant prose (translated from French) and casts its own enticing spell. This one may have me hooked.

5 comments:

Criticlasm said...

Have you read this?

http://criticlasm.blogspot.com/2009/10/anne-fadiman.html

It's a good read, and a collection of writers revisiting old favorites.

I think I read the Borrowers when I was little, but I can't remember. Maybe I'll check it out.

Ted said...

Hi Cc
Still haven't gotten to the Fadiman. This semester is allowing for a very limited amount of pleasure reading.

Cam said...

I loved The Borrowers when I was a child, but all I remember about it was that it was about the little people in the floor boards. What I do remember is that it was one of those books with a world that I could fully immerse myself in while reading. Every once in a while, I joke about borrowers taking those little things that seem to disappear. I should reread this book.

Ted said...

Hi Cam! Long time... Did you see the HD of the new Das Rheingold? I saw the production in the house - spectacular!

C.B. James said...

I was a fan of The Borrowers as a kid. I loved the idea of people living inside the walls and floors of the house. I imagine this book started or increased my obsession with model trains, tanks, planes, etc. Why not have a miniature train inside the wall as well?