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The Fifth Door by Nigel Roth

In my hallway there are five doors, but only three actually open.

Two lead to reception rooms, the whimsical Wedgwood-blue drawing room, and the ample apple-green grand room.

The two that are permanently closed are only there because the architect who built my house was a typically-obsessive Georgian, and his principled mind dreamt in classical proportions and compulsive symmetry, and so he placed two additional faux doors in the hallway to enable him to get some sleep at night.

The fifth door which sounds like the first book in a Stephen King trilogy, is only one-hundred-and-twenty-seven millimeters high, but is an exact replica of the full-size ones, and is washed in the same sunlight yellow, with a gold handle.

I’ve often knelt low, in line with the burgundy skirting board into which this mysterious door has been placed and hung on tiny hinges, and marveled at how small children must've been two-hundred years ago.

I wonder if Kathleen Mary Norton did the same.

If she did, it was in The Cedars, in Bedfordshire, England.

The Cedars, like The Limes where I live, is also a Georgian townhouse, and Norton was raised there from 1903 when she was born, the very same year that my house became part of the nearby grammar school, as her house has now become.

Her childhood, we might imagine, was spent creating the adventures of Homily, Pod and Arrietty, who would've been perfectly able to use my diminutive door with ease.

Norton wasn't the first or last person to envisage small people having adventures with large people, or ‘human beans’, as her characters call adults.

We all know well the Irish writer Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver's Travels, or Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships, which he wrote in 1726 to satirize what he perceived as the utter stupidity of the explosion of scientific pseudo-useful experimentation, the oddness of human nature, and the patheticness of travel writing that had begun to flourish, as he sat in his Dublin abode wondering how to best roast a poor Irish child.

Anyway, I doubt Norton had any such notions as she sat creating The Borrowers in her house, in the curiously-named town of Leighton Buzzard, which sounds like a cousin of the constantly-unfulfilled Jonathan Livingston Seagull, expelled from his rock into our literary melee in 1970.

Certainly, a few critical minds have added a kind of post-war upstairs-downstairs socio-political symbolism to Norton’s works, but I think they may be stretching to add meaning where the meaning is far more unconscious, and is therefore more an accidental subliminal commentary on life itself, in much the same way that Alan Alexander Milne’s characters in The Wind in the Willows were really just doing what he did after resigning from the Bank of England to sit by the Thames, "simply messing about in boats".

Norton’s story of The Borrowers is just as straightforward.

A young woman notices her sewing accoutrements keep disappearing, and her aunt tells her the story of the miniature people who ‘borrow’ the items to use in their miniscule dwellings, between the walls and under the floorboards.

For many, that could be the beginning of unnerving nightmares and a reluctance to turn any of the lights off, but to the young woman it's a great comfort to know the little creatures live beneath her feet, and she works hard to save them from the rat catcher that other less-enamoured beans hire to rid the house of these vermin.

Where the Borrowers originally came from, how they first got to their secret home in the big house, or how they evolved to be so small, is less well explained, and rightly so, because really, what could the answer be other than not eating enough vegetables, or having some sort of secret affliction like Norwegian author Alf Proysen’s Mrs. Pepperpot, who shrinks now and again to the size of said pepperpot, only to return again to her rightful stature towards the climax of each book, and after that particular adventure has ended positively.

Which is very much in contrast to the travelers on the suborbital spacecraft called the Spindrift, which crash lands due to a magnetic storm while heading to London from Los Angeles. They all survive the crash, of course, and land on a planet twelve times larger than Earth, and with inhabitants to match, and they begin their fifty-one episode run of the Land of the Giants, one year before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took ‘one small step for a man… ,’ which was in fact what he said, had anyone actually been paying attention.

Their adventures are, of course, all framed by the visitors' smallness, and they spend an astonishing amount of time just being too little to reach a table, or too tiny to carry a piece of giant-sized equipment, on a planet that is never named, but was probably called something ridiculous like Leighton Buzzard.

The perils of tiny creatures also interested Clive Staples Lewis, whose fourth Narnian chronicle has Jill, Eustace and the ever-joyful Puddleglum, set to become feast-fodder for the giants of Harfang, in The Silver Chair, and of course Charles Lutwidge Dodgson gained much notoriety for both his character Alice, who shrunk and grew with the associated challenges during her many adventures, and for his love of naked adolescent girls, which some scholars have argued, while unknowingly blinded by their internalized excuse system, arose from a ‘misunderstanding of Victorian morals’.

But there is a theme running through these portrayals that seems very different from Norton’s books.

All of these characters have been made smaller, or bigger, or have the ability, at some point in time, to return to a size commensurate with their environment.

There is always a light at the end of their tunnel.

That may be a more important comment on our society. We may be small and burdened one moment, but can be tall and equal the next. In one land we may be small strangers, in another tall saviors.

But for Norton, this is a state of being that will never change. Her Borrowers will always be that size. They’ll always face these challenges, and be constantly at odds with their huge and frightening landscape. If they can dodge the cat and the falling implements, they may just make it to safety, rushing for cover through the tiny door that leads to their own, secret miniature world.

In my hallway.

photo by Suzy Hazelwood

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