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The Borrowers
Mary Norton
Harcourt, Brace & Co. -- Odyssey Classics

Volume 4 The Borrowers Aloft
Volume 5 The Borrowers Avenged
Movie Tie-In The Borrowers by Sherwood Smith

The Borrowers Aloft
The Borrowers Avenged
The Borrowers Movie
Mary Norton
Daughter of a physician, Mary Norton (née Spenser) was born December 10, 1903 in London, England. Raised in a Georgian manor house in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, she later attended St. Margaret's Convent school in East Grimstead, Sussex. Throughout her life, she enjoyed swimming and riding. A member of the Old Vic Theatre Company from 1925 to 1926, she married Robert Charles Norton, a shipping magnate, in 1927, and had two girls and two boys with him. They lived in Portugal from 1926 through 1939. Upon returning to England in 1940 she worked for the BBC and for the War Office. The family moved temporarily to the United States in the early 1940s, and there she began writing books to supplement the family income. Mary Norton died of a stroke, August 29, 1992 in Hartland, Devonshire, England.

Her first book The Magic Bed Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons (1943) and the sequel Bonfires and Broomsticks (1947) were later reworked into Bed-Knob and Broomstick (1957), the basis for the 1971 Disney film Bedknobs and Broomsticks, starring Angela Lansbury. In 1952 the first of the books in the Borrowers series, The Borrowers was published to great critical acclaim. It won the Carnegie Medal, the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award Book, and was named an ALA Distinguished Book. This was followed by The Borrowers Afield (1955), The Borrowers Afloat (1959), The Borrowers Aloft (1961), Poor Stainless: A New Story About the Borrowers (1971), and The Borrowers Avenged (1982), which includes Poor Stainless. The last title sees the borrowers safe and sound in a new home, the Old Rectory, coincidentally one of Mary Norton's last postal addresses. The Borrowers has appeared as a series on British television, and has been recently made into a Hollywood movie. Another, non-series title, Are All the Giants Dead? (1975) is a story of what happens to retired fairy tale characters.

ISFDB Bibliography
Movie: The Borrowers
SF Site Review: The Borrowers 1, 2 and 3

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

People are often disappointed when a movie isn't the same as the book it's based upon. Generally speaking, movies usually have a hard time matching the complex interactions between readers and words. So it's no wonder they usually don't measure up.

Which is why it's best to consider movies as adaptations of the books on which they are based, not literal recreations. Revisions to characters and plot structure are oftentimes necessary to focus on significant themes that can be adequately expressed cinematically within two hours. With some notable exceptions (The Indian and the Cupboard, for example, which is very much like, and every bit as good as, the Lynne Reid Banks novel), movies and books are, by definition, horses of other colours.

So it's no great shakes that The Borrowers movie takes some liberties with Mary Norton's original characters. It's actually a pretty good kids' movie (vastly superior to some, like Flubber). Better yet, the movie isn't tied in with tons of merchandising to convince your kid he needs lots of useless plastic junk. And generally I like movies that will get kids interested in reading books. What I don't quite get is why a need was felt to create a movie novelization when there are already five perfectly good Borrowers books?

Well, maybe they aren't "perfectly good" in terms of marketeers expectations of what most children are interested in reading. The novelization repeats the modern setting and slightly reconfigured relationships among the Borrowers -- Peagreen (who, in the original series, doesn't appear until the fifth and last volume) is recast as a little brother to Arietty Clock, adolescent daughter of Pod and Homily Clock, and Spiller is more clearly made out as Arietty's romantic interest. Bad guy lawyer (there's a contemporary symbol of evil for you) Mr. Potter is out to steal the house away from where the Borrowers and young Pete Lender -- a "human bean" -- and his parents have lived. Pete and the Borrowers join forces to make things right. Mary Norton might not have objected much to the "poetic license" taken with her characters, but somehow I suspect she might consider the inclusion of a flatulent bloodhound to be in poor taste.

I was immediately struck by how much shorter (105 pages) The Borrowers tie-in novel is compared to the original books, The Borrowers Aloft (224 pages) and The Borrowers Avenged (298 pages). Not surprising, perhaps, considering that a movie plot depends considerably less on characterization and narrative development. But the language is also simpler, more direct, nary more than one dependent clause per sentence, if that. My own eight year old daughter, Sydnie, easily breezed through the novelization (she'd previously seen the movie), but I chose to read The Borrowers Aloft and The Borrowers Afield to her. While all three books are labeled for ages 8 and up, I think readers typically at the younger end of that spectrum -- particularly readers who watch movies more than they read -- would have some difficulty with Norton's prose.

Truth to say, at times I had trouble with Norton's prose. For one thing, it's set in pre-World War I England, so there's all sort of references that will go past kids who might not immediately get what is so unusual about a ringing telephone. Moreover, Norton spends a lot of time explaining how the tiny Borrowers manage to construct ingenious devices based on cast-off household items to the point of tediousness. I've never been one of those SF readers who is inordinately fascinated with how the warp drive might actually work in the context of existing quantum theory. In fact, I don't much give a damn -- it's the story that counts for me. So you'll understand how chapter after chapter devoted to the construction of a miniature hot air balloon would start to wear on me.

On the other hand, I do realize that's the sort of thing that actually hooks some kids (usually boys) into reading, particularly science fiction. Nor did my eight-year old daughter, Sydnie, voice any impatience over these sections. Maybe she's going to grow up to be an engineer. Still, I suspect that if Norton were just getting started in the business, rather than already being a revered children's author, she'd be getting a lot of rejection slips. Not enough action, too many long sentences. Fortunately for kids who have more going for them than the media conglomerates give them credit for, Norton's work is still around, and the movie may inspire kids to read the more challenging material.

Although The Borrowers Aloft and The Borrowers Avenged are the concluding books of the series, you needn't have read the previous stories, though I'd recommend reading these two books in the proper sequence. Interestingly, although they are linked together and read like a single story, their dates of publication are separated by 21 years.

Basically, The Borrowers Aloft is about how the Clocks escape the Platters, "human beans" who've imprisoned them in their attic. The Platters hope to make their fortune by exhibiting the poor Borrowers in captivity, a horrible prospect for creatures who consider being "seen" by humans a fate worse than death. (Note to the publisher: the cover illustration gives away the means of escape; as soon as we got to the part where the Platters locked the Borrowers up, my daughter immediately announced she knew how they were going to get out.) The Borrowers Avenged picks up how the Clocks come to find a new home, meet Peagreen (ambiguously cast as a rival to Spiller for Arriety's attention), are reunited with another Borrower family, the Hendrearys, and have one final encounter with the Platters that ends badly for the scheming "human beans." Beneath the simple plotting, there are suggestions of more complex matters. Norton seems to be making fun of people who put on airs either by accident of birth (the "Overmantels" live both figuratively and socially "above" other Borrowers) or choice (churchgoers whose outward attempts at devotion fails to hide their true natures). And the question of whether Borrowers can ever speak with "human beans" -- Pod is adamant against it, while Arriety breaks the taboo -- echoes all sort of cultural conflicts.

Norton doesn't insult her readers with clear-cut happy endings; there's a question left at the end of both novels about good intentions and whether they'll be followed through on. (Indeed, there are enough loose ends at the finale of The Borrowers Avenged that Norton was at least allowing for the possibility of yet another volume, even if she never got around to writing it.) And the fact always remains that the outside world is a potentially dangerous place. Nor do we ever find out who -- Spiller or Peagreen, if either -- finally gets the girl.

The stories did get my dughter's attention, though. "The Borrowers was all right, but I already knew what was going to happen because I saw the movie. But The Borrowers Aloft and The Borrowers Avenged were more interesting," says Sydnie. "You get excited about how the characters are going to get out and what happens to them." She also says that her favorite characters are Peagreen and Spiller, Arietty's two potential suitors. Hmmm. Don't know if I like the sound of that, if you'll excuse me for being a bit Pod-like. Then again, when it comes to their daughters' emerging interest in boys, fathers are the same, no matter what their height.

Copyright © 1998 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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