Are the Borrowers thieves?!

Reader response to the lovely family film The Secret World of Arrietty, I’m delighted to say, has been almost entirely positive. However, I did receive one negative email from a reader who not only didn’t enjoy the film, but considered it downright immoral. Why? Because the Borrowers, tiny people who live in secret in big people’s homes, survive by “borrowing” (i.e., taking) the things they need from the big people. Here’s the complaint:

I heard you review The Secret World of Arrietty on the radio after taking my granddaughter to the movie. I was appalled that you rated it so highly. From the moment I started watching the film, I felt it went against Catholic values and teachings. Since when is it okay for someone to enter someone else’s home to “borrow” things and it not be called STEALING? When I was growing up that would have been called breaking the commandment “Thou shall not steal.” I’ve known many children whose attitude is “Finders keepers, losers weepers.” They see nothing wrong with stealing because they’ve had no moral instruction. Please consider reviewing this movie again. I would like a reply as I plan to contact the radio station on this matter.

Really? Are the Borrowers thieves? Let’s think it through. (Some Arrietty spoilers ahead.)

  1. To begin with, some perspective. The Borrowers were created in 1952 by British author Mary Norton. The Borrowers book series, like the similar Littles series, have been popular with generations of English and American children. They can be found in countless Catholic school libraries, and are recommended by orthodox Catholic resources such as Seton Home Study School, Adoremus Books and Good to Read. That doesn’t prove anything, but if you’re going to take issue with Catholic sources recommending stories based on the premise of the Borrower way of life (which is fundamentally the same in the book as in the movie), you’re going to have to write a lot more emails.
  2. Even if the Borrowers’ lifestyle were sinful, which I will argue it is not, it would be at most a very slight sin due to what Catholic moral tradition and catechesis calls paucity of matter. Any well-instructed Catholic schoolboy or girl making their first confession knows that stealing something small enough (a nickel, say) is not serious sin. The Secret World of Arrietty is at pains to emphasize that the Borrowers limit their appropriations of human property to what they need and what will never be missed—indeed, their lives depend on it not being missed. (For example, Pod insists that they take nothing from the dollhouse.) This is a very clear-cut example of paucity of matter. Gravity is proportionate to harm, and since the harm Borrowers cause to humans is negligible, even if it were sinful, the sin would be vanishingly slight.
  3. You ask, “Since when is it okay for someone to enter someone else’s home to ‘borrow’ things and it not be called stealing?” Here is the answer, from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “There is no theft” in cases of “obvious and urgent necessity when the only way to provide for immediate, essential needs (food, shelter, clothing…) is to put at one’s disposal and use the property of others” (CCC §2408). This is traditional Catholic moral theology going back at least to St. Thomas Aquinas, who likewise teaches, “It is not theft, properly speaking, to take secretly and use another’s property in a case of extreme need: because that which he takes for the support of his life becomes his own property by reason of that need” (Sum II-II, 66, art 7). Many Catholics are not aware that this is Catholic teaching, but it is.

    How does this apply to the Borrowers? Let’s consider their situation:

    • The Borrowers are very small and therefore very vulnerable. They believe, reasonably, that their survival depends on their very existence being secret from humans.
    • Because of this, it is not possible for Borrowers to live openly in the world, or to travel openly from place to place. They cannot farm or garden, or build houses, villages or cities of their own, as humans can. They cannot easily travel about in order to meet and have commerce with other Borrowers, nor can they communicate with other Borrowers who are even a short distance away. Even if there were remote locations far enough from humans where Borrowers could live openly without fear of discovery, there would be no way for Borrowers far from such places even to know where they were, let alone to find them.
    • As the movie emphasizes, therefore, Borrowers necessarily lead lives of profound isolation as well as secrecy. This would make it extremely difficult for them to be self-sufficient. Most human beings depend on human society and commerce to provide for our needs; if individual persons and individual families had to be entirely self-sufficient, we would find it much harder to keep body and soul together, to say nothing of raising children, etc. If, in addition to that, we found ourselves in a world densely populated by giant creatures who would capture and possibly kill us unless we hid from them at all times, it would become harder still.
    • Think about what you would do in that situation. What would God expect of you? Would He demand that and your family wayfare in the wild, wandering through uncharted terrain, having no idea what dangers you will face, whether you will ever find safe berth, or even whether you will find food to stay alive? If there were no other alternative, you might be forced to do that, as the Borrowers are forced to set out at the end of the film (though happily by then they have help and additional information from Spiller). However, prior to Arrietty’s encounters with the boy and Pod’s encounter with Spiller, by far the safest and most certain way to provide for the family’s immediate needs (though still with great danger) was to live by “Borrowing.”
    • In the world of this film, therefore, it can be argued that Catholic moral theology would conclude that God has made the race of the Borrowers essentially dependent upon human beings for their livelihood. The Borrower way of life is in keeping with what natural law and moral theology would prescribe for their condition.
  4. It’s worth reflecting why Norton came up with the idea of a race of little people living under the floorboards and in the walls of people’s homes, and why children universally love the idea: because it’s fun to think about. It’s the same reason Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wanted to believe in fairies: It’s just a charming idea. It’s fun to look at human-sized architecture and furniture and so forth and think about it from the perspective of miniature mountain climbers, foresters, spelunkers. We naturally make legs with our first two fingers and walk them along tabletops and such. Also, of course, we all lose things from time to time, and sometimes we’re sure we left a thing where it isn’t now, and it’s fun to pretend that it was taken by imaginary beings like little people. (We certainly aren’t encouraged to think that the little people are stealing from us. It’s only cranky Hara who says that.)

    At the end of the day, though, we are the big people and they are the little people. Their way of life is not ours. No child can live the life of a Borrower, and I’ve never known one to try. Moreover, while I didn’t read the Borrowers books growing up, I did read the similar Littles books, and it certainly never encouraged me to think that there was nothing wrong with stealing.

    Of course there are children whose attitude is “Finders keepers, losers weepers,” especially if, as you note, they’ve had no moral instruction. But in the first place, when I speak on Catholic radio, I’m addressing parents whom I presume are instructing their children, and a movie like this is not going to harm a child who is well instructed. As for children who have had no moral instructions, well, they have much bigger problems than a cartoon like this.

  5. On the contrary, there is so much moral goodness in this film that will do young viewers good that I can’t imagine stumbling over worries that they will somehow learn that stealing is okay. This movie is wise and humane and decent in a way that utterly transcends virtually all American family entertainment. It is gentle, compassionate and thoughtful. There are so many things to love, morally, about the film:
    • Arrietty respects and admires her father, and he is proud and encouraging of her even when she makes a serious mistake. He looks out for her safety, and insists that she follow the rules. Unlike so many family films, coming of age doesn’t mean adolescent rebellion or defiance.
    • Likewise, Arrietty is responsible and contributes to the family—and when her mother credits her for it, Arrietty credits her mother for having taught her.
    • On the other hand, Shawn’s own family life isn’t nearly as rosy—but he’s clearly unhappy about it, and neglected by his busy parents, so the movie is honest about the negative effects of divorce and of parents’ careers taking precedence of family.
    • Shawn’s curiosity about Arrietty is unselfish and generous, and each of them expresses solicitude and concern for the other’s well-being, and each helps the other. The movie expresses acceptance of mortality, but also the value of life.
    • Spiller, like a Good Samaritan, comes to the aid of a stranger, Pod, when he finds him hurt in the yard. Homily overcomes her native alarm at the stranger’s wild appearance to be courteous and hospitable to him.
    • There’s even a fleeting prayer to God offered by Homily for Pod and Arrietty’s safety.

A family film so beautiful and wise and good is a rare thing. To ignore all that and focus on the issue of stealing, which as I’ve argued is just not an issue here, strikes me as missing the forest for the trees.

What do you think?