Little People

Claude Rawson

  • The Borrowers Avenged by Mary Norton
    Kestrel, 285 pp, £5.50, October 1982, ISBN 0 7226 5804 4

‘When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest,’ said Dr Johnson of Gulliver’s Travels. This might do for a put-down of Swift, whom Johnson disliked, perhaps from a sense of likeness. But big men and little men have old folkloric origins, so the idea in itself was not new: as more than one character says in Mary Norton’s Borrower books, ‘our ancestors spoke openly about “the little people”.’ Gulliver’s Travels bears an intriguing relation to children’s books. It is not ‘for nothing that, suitably abbreviated, it has become a classic for children’: Leavis’s oracular utterance, like Johnson’s, was intended as a put-down. And ‘suitable abbreviation’ has tended to mean the removal of Books Three and Four, which leaves ‘big men and little men’, usually stripped of the more stinging harshnesses of Books One and Two.

This involves a separation of ‘satire’ from ‘story’ which serious readers might consider deeply untrue to Gulliver’s Travels. It ‘works’, since there’s no doubt of the success of the children’s adaptations. But I suspect that the separation, which sentimentalises children, is equally untrue to the idea of what a good children’s book might be. The severity of Swift’s disenchanted wisdom is doubtless something children are unlikely to be able to grasp. Perhaps they need protecting from its full force. It’s arguable that Gulliver’s Travels might be more disturbing to a young mind than much of the insignificant twaddle that gets banned for ‘pornography’ and ‘obscenity’. But what seems certain is that the simple distinction implied by Leavis and by the bowdlerisers alike, and the mechanical scissors-and-paste surgery which would leave you with a story about little or big people stripped of ‘satirical’ elements, involves a misconception about what some good children’s books are like.

Mary Norton’s Borrowers are ‘little people’ and the books about them have lots of Gulliverian elements, whether ‘borrowed’ directly or absorbed as a generalised influence. Borrowers aren’t nasty like some Lilliputians, and tend to be victims rather than villains. They have their vices (petty snobberies, for example), as Lilliputians do, and home truths about them are truths about human beings, transposed. Such alternative humanoid species, whether in children’s fiction or in moral allegories, always carry a potential for satirical conversion or for stinging recognitions of likeness. Though by no means primarily satirical, the Borrower books occasionally erupt into severities that would not be out of place in the harshest satire. In The Borrowers Avenged it is said of Mr and Mrs Platter, the wicked full-sized humans who wish to capture the Borrowers and exhibit them for profit, that, as part-time undertakers by trade, they regretted that ‘people were not dying as often as they used to.’ These are the accents of Swift’s Modest Proposer, satisfied that people are ‘every Day dying, and rotting ... as fast as can be reasonably expected’. The resemblance, whether coincidental or otherwise (a similar thing is said, by the way, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin), momentarily shows the Platters, not as the fairy-tale ogres they partly are, nor as cardboard villains who bring a note of menace to a nursery idyll, but as nasty specimens viewed from a knowing and sophisticated adult perspective. The fact that this sarcastic eruption seems neither unbalancing nor discordant tells us something about what children’s books can absorb without strain, and suggests that the schematic demarcations between satire and children’s classic which sometimes get into discussions of Gulliver’s Travels lack insight into children as well as into satire. If Gulliver’s Travels became a formative influence on the way children’s books treat ‘little people’, this is not confined to the use of an allegorical formula, nor necessarily a matter of mere playful fancy.

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