It is sad to pass through life without one good Adventure.
Described by one early reviewer as "not so much mock epic as muck epic", The Borribles is one of the first (and still best) examples of Urban Fantasy. Written by the late Michael de Larrabeiti, this series is composed of three volumes:
- The Borribles
- The Borribles Go For Broke
- The Borribles: Across The Dark Metropolis
The books focus on the eponymous Borribles, immortal elf-like Street Urchins who live on the edges of the human world, stealing what they need and living where they can -- and making a virtue of both. They exist in a rich culture of songs and tales with a book of rules and proverbs tailored to the life of adventure, defiance of authority and casual thievery that defines the very nature of "being Borrible". Although the trilogy is set in England -- specifically, the economically-devastated London of the 1970s, when the country saw itself as either falling apart or sliding under the heel of a new fascist boot -- it's clear that Borribles are not a solely British phenomenon; they exist around the world. However, the saga is very much an English one.
The stories start when a Borrible named Knocker discovers that the Borribles' traditional enemy, the Rumbles -- a race of giant talking rats with a penchant for living high on the hog with technology and goods stolen from humans -- have begun to expand out of their stronghold under Wimbledon Commons and into other parts of London. In response, the Borrible tribes of London assemble a team of eight champions, one from each tribe, to assault the Rumble headquarters and assassinate the Rumble High Command. Given training, weapons and the names of their assigned targets, the Adventurers set off on the dangerous trek across the city, surrounded not only by the dangers that afflict Borribles every day, but by plots within plots and secrets kept from one another. And when they finally reach their goal, it's only the beginning of a greater set of dangers which ultimately threaten all of London's Borribles.
In the trilogy, the neat, orderly and boring adult world is positioned in direct contrast to the wild, scruffy world of the Borribles. Along with structure and organisation, materialism is heavily derided; the Borribles have fulfilling existences despite their lack of possessions, while those who crave material wealth are inevitably presented as villains. Comradeship and co-operation are also presented as highly laudable traits -– the Borribles will go to any length and take any risk to protect one of their own. Though written as young adult fiction, the books deal with serious topics, such as a debate over what causes are noble enough to die for and which aren't.
The trilogy was originally published in the late 1970s and early 1980s and immediately was the target of reactionary criticism for its "antisocial" and "anti-authority" themes. The release of the third volume was actually canceled in 1985 by a nervous publisher who felt that in the wake of well-publicized riots that year the political climate had changed too much for it to be considered "acceptable" anymore; fortunately, a less squeamish firm then took up the challenge. Despite this, the trilogy became, and remains, a cult classic, with literary figures such as China Mieville, Diana Wynne Jones, Neil Gaiman and Cory Doctorow touting its influence on their work and eagerly evangelizing it to anyone who will listen. And the movie rights have been optioned many times over the years, although no production has yet to escape Development Hell.
Sadly, as Michael de Larrabeiti passed away in 2008, no new Borrible adventures are likely to be forthcoming. However, as of January 2014, the entire series has been relaunched by TOR UK in both ebook and print formats.
The publishers have set up a Facebook page for the trilogy here.
You can read the first chapter of The Borribles here at Boingboing.net.
The interested may wish to compare The Borribles to the output of New English Library during the same period.
For tropes specific to individual installments, visit their respective work pages.
- Action Girl: Sydney and Chalotte.
- Adults Dressed as Borribles: See A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, below.
- Air Vent Passageway: How most of the Adventurers get into the Rumble bunker in The Borribles, while others provide distractions at the bunker's two doors.
- The Alleged Steed: What Sam the Horse appears to be at first.
- Anyone Can Die: Major characters can and do die for real here and there. Life for the average Borrible is, as the saying goes, nasty, brutish and short.
- The Artful Dodger: Knocker in particular, but any of the more heroic Borribles fit this archetype.
- Ascended to Carnivorism: Apparently Rumbles smell and taste just like fresh, sweet hay to horses, who will eagerly eat them. Sam the horse consumes a Rumble prisoner while the Adventurers aren't looking, eating him skin, fur, bones and all.
- Asexuality: Borribles start off as prepubescent children (with one very notable exception), so there's little to no sexuality -- at least in the adult sense -- in them to start with. And once they Borrible, there's pretty much no difference whatsoever between male and female; after all, Borribles don't reproduce sexually. (Despite this, it's pretty obvious that Knocker feels some kind of attraction toward Chalotte in the first book. There is also some evidence of 70s-vintage sexism among Borribles as well.)
- Awesome McCoolname: What every Borrible hopes to earn. At the end of the first book, Chalotte posthumously designates Knocker's second name as "Burnthand", and everyone agrees it's this trope. Except Knocker himself, who isn't actually dead; when he learns what he was dubbed, he thinks of it as a reminder of one of the most foolish things he ever did.
- Badass: The Adventurers, of course, especially after they get out of Rumbledom, to the point of becoming culture heroes and the specific targets of an entire special police squad.
- Spiff, once he stirs out of his house in The Borribles Go For Broke.
- The Bad Guys Are Cops: Well, some of the bad guys are cops. But all of the cops we see in the books are bad guys.
- Band of Brothers: What the members of the Great Rumble Hunt become by the end of the first book, with a loyalty to each other and their group stronger than their tribal and other ties.
- Battle Amongst the Flames: The attack on the Rumble bunker at the end of the first book turns into this.
- Becoming the Mask: One of the disguised dwarfs dispatched by Inspector Sussworth in the third book comes to appreciate the Borrible way of life so much that he actually becomes a real Borrible, despite being an adult.
- Big Damn Horse: Sam. See The Cavalry, below.
- The Big Guy: Stonks.
- Bittersweet Ending: The trilogy ends with Knocker volunteering to remain behind to be caught by the SBG -- and thus inevitably to get his ears clipped, turning him back into a normal human child -- so that the rest of the Adventurers can escape undetected.
- Bottomless Magazines: Averted. The Adventurers frequently find themselves running out of ammunition during the assault on the Rumble bunker.
- Before they began the assault, they filled Dewdrop's wagon with gravel so they could effectively use this trope during their escape from Rumbledom.
- And during their escape from Dewdrop's clutches, they only had five shots -- one marble each smuggled in the mouths of the five Borribles who found the slingshots while burgling a house.
- Brats with Slingshots: The classic forked-stick-and-rubber-band slingshot (called a "catapult" in British parlance) is the traditional weapon of all Borribles, and they eagerly embrace its high-tech descendant the wrist rocket. Borribles are deadshots with catapults; they can -- and do -- kill both Rumbles and adult humans with well-placed shots.
- British Accents: On display throughout. The Borribles generally speak in a lower class dialect (although Sydney demonstrates enough upper class mannerisms that one wonders who her family was before she ran away and Borribled).
- Call to Adventure: Issued in the form of a message to each of the tribes of London, asking them to dispatch a single unnamed Borrible to Battersea to be trained for the Great Rumble Hunt.
- Also directly made by Spiff to Knocker moments after the Adventurers depart, when he sends Knocker to join them under the guise of being a "historian" while tasked with a secret mission.
- The Cavalry: In The Borribles, Sam the horse coming to the Adventurers' aid at the last moment.
- Chaotic Neutral/Chaotic Good: The Borribles are by nature extreme individualists dismissive of all attempts to regulate them. They do recognize good and evil, and although their interpretations are somewhat colored by their culture, do come down (more or less) on the side of good.
- The Chessmaster: Spiff.
- Children Are Innocent: Thoroughly subverted. A child has to be very much not innocent to become a Borrible. And if you consider Borribles just mutated children... well, there are no innocent Borribles. (Although Sydney comes close at times.)
- Cool Horse: What Sydney thinks Sam is, at least. The other Adventurers are less sure at first -- but Sam does pull off the occasional heroic stunt (for a horse), and seems not at all bothered by traipsing all over (and sometimes under) London with them.
- Covers Always Lie: Well, sometimes. There've been so many editions in so many languages, the law of averages requires some of them be be way off. Like the one above -- if you've read The Borribles it's pretty clear it's supposed to be Bingo Borrible vs. Bingo Rumble, but the number of details wrong in the image is surprisingly large.
- Crapsack World: England in the 1970s was not a happy land -- this is the time and place which gave the world Punk Rock and the first British police with guns.
- Crowd Song: Sometimes the "impromptu" songs sung by the Borribles, some allegedly composed on the spot, seem a bit too polished and unified.
- The SBG has its anthem to conformity and arch-conservatism, which is sung under more realistic circumstances.
- Disney Death: At the end of the first book Knocker, Stonks, Oroccoco and Napoleon Boot all appear to have died covering the remaining Adventurers' escape from the Wendle tunnels; it's discovered in the second book that they didn't die, but were captured and used as slave labor.
- Earn Your Name: The only way to get any kind of name as a Borrible: until you've earned a name by an impressive feat of daring such as assassinating a leader of a rival gang the best you can expect is to be referred to as "Mush" or "hey, you!" The plot of the first novel is driven in part by the protagonist's desire to get a second name (which is not unprecedented; one of his associates has several names, each commemorating some memorable deed).
- Electrified Bathtub: Vulge kills the Rumble chieftain by dropping a space heater in his bath.
- Elmuh Fudd Syndwome: The Rumbles have a universal lisp. Since their racial name starts with an "R", it forces them to pronounce it as "Wumble", emphasizing their origin as a Parody of The Wombles.
- Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The District Assistant Commissioner.
- The Fair Folk: There are subtle hints that the Borribles may be the origin of most "elf" and "fairy" myths.
- False Friend: Napoleon Boot, or so it seems at first. But he double-crosses his own tribe to help the Adventurers escape Wandsworth at the end of The Borribles.
- Famed in Story: The Adventurers, according to the end of The Borribles, to the point of becoming Shrouded in Myth.
- Family-Unfriendly Violence: Fights are bloody, and people on both sides die in the "sight" of the reader, sometimes in disturbing manners.
- Fantastic Racism: The mutual loathing the Rumbles and the Borribles have for each other; also, the government attitude toward Borribles smacks of institutional racism on many levels.
- Also the disdain the other Borribles of London have for the Wendles of Wandsworth.
- Fat and Skinny: Sergeant Hanks and Inspector Sussworth.
- Fell Off the Back of a Truck: Played with. Mentions of things falling off the backs of lorries would be followed by comments about how bumpy the roads are in London, or what a useful thing gravity is. As every Borrible is a thief by definition, all the uses of the phrase are clearly very ironic.
- Final Solution: What Inspector Sussworth is hoping to enact upon all Borribles, everywhere.
- Five-Finger Discount: "Fruit of the barrow is enough for a Borrible." Idly snagging an apple here and a bit of bread there as they drift through an open-air market is a not-uncommon way for Borribles to feed themselves.
- Friend to All Living Things: Sydney.
- Funny Animal: The Rumbles qualify for this trope in every way -- and are a definite reminder that "funny animals" are not necessarily humorous.
- Gladiator Games: Flinthead's favorite entertainment is to set prisoners loose one at a time in the maze of the Wendle tunnels and let them be hunted down by his people.
- Harmless Electrocution: Thoroughly averted. Vulge kills the Rumble chieftain by dropping a space heater in his bath, then wires up the doorknob to his quarters before hitting the intruder alarm. The electrified door kills at least a score more Rumbles.
- Heroic Sacrifice:
- At the end of The Borribles, Knocker, Stonks, Oroccoco and Napoleon Boot hold the mouth of a tunnel against a numerically superior force of Wendle warriors so that the other Adventurers can escape Wandsworth. In Napoleon's case it's especially telling, as he is betraying his Tribe to do so.
- At the end of Across The Dark Metropolis, Knocker chooses to stay behind to be caught by the SBG so that the others can escape.
- History Marches On: The socio-economic conditions which made 1970s England so hospitable to the Borribles, and the urban wasteland in which they had their adventures, are both long gone.
- Hobbits: Subverted -- the Borribles are urbanized, adventurous, scruffy, and tough; they live in a world much like ours, but with fantastical elements. They do share the stereotypical hobbit's small size, stealthiness, distaste for authorities, compassion for animals, and tendency to steal whatever's not nailed down, though.
- Human Subspecies: Borribles definitely qualify. Human children turn into Borribles, and if their ears are clipped, Borribles go right back to being human children.
- I Have Many Names: An explicit goal for many if not most Borribles: Borribles begin their (new) lives nameless, and only gain names by great deeds or adventures; the more names one possesses, the more legendary and well-known one is.
- Inspector Javert: An utterly unsympathetic version is found in Inspector Sussworth, to whom the Borribles' very existence is in defiance of his social and political vision of the world.
- Lawful Evil: Pretty much all government is portrayed this way. When the police are allowed to physically mutilate a prisoner without any kind of trial or due process first in order to turn him into a good little citizen, it's hard to see them as anything else.
- Borribles also view the Rumbles this way, and what little we get to see of Rumble society suggests it might be justified.
- Least Is First: Instead of choosing the most skilled and cunning named Borribles of London for the Great Rumble Hunt, a team of unnamed new Borribles is assembled, and given Training from Hell.
- Let's Split Up, Gang!: In The Borribles, because each of the Adventurers has a specific Rumble leader to assassinate, and those leaders are not conveniently gathered together in a single location when they attack. The group must split up to accomplish its objectives.
- Like Reality Unless Noted: The world is very clearly 1970s Earth -- except for the immortal elfin children and the intelligent rodents each maintaining their own civilizations in the cracks and crevices of human civilization.
- A MacGuffin Full of Money: The Rumbles' box of money which Spiff secretly charges Knocker with retrieving (under the guise of being a "historian" documenting the Great Rumble Hunt). The only reason the Hunt is launched (instead of a massive Zerg Rush of Borribles against the Rumbles) is so Spiff can send someone in to retrieve the treasure. The existence of the treasure drives the ending of the first book and much of the plot of the second; and an event that would never have occurred had the Hunt not been launched is responsible for the rest of book two's plot and all of book three.
- The Magnificent: "Burnthand", the name Chalotte gives to Knocker at the end of the first book.
- Meaningful Name: A cultural trope for Borribles -- all Borrible names refer to their personal histories and refer to specific deeds they've performed or adventures they've had.
- The heroes of the books are a special case even among Borribles: they were each provisionally given a name before earning it -- the name of their target on the Rumble High Command. When they succeeded in killing their target, the name would become theirs permanently.
- Inspector Sussworth is named for the Sus Law.
- Mooks: The vast majority of Rumbles.
- Mouse World: Although the Borribles and the Rumbles are somewhat larger than the usual inhabitants of a Mouse World, their (mostly) hidden civilizations still count.
- The Movie: Film adaptations of The Borribles have been bandied about since the first book was published; the film rights are in active play as of this writing, but so far they remain in Development Hell.
- The Man Behind the Man: The District Assistant Commissioner, Sussworth's superior.
- Names to Run Away From Really Fast: "Spiff the Spifflicator".
- Neat Freak: Inspector Sussworth, to the point of complete germophobia.
- Nice Hat: Borribles always wear wool caps or other hats which cover the points of their ears when out and about. Some of them get an unusual amount of description in the narration.
- The Wendles, when not going about above ground, wear helmets made out of mini-kegs. Flinthead, their leader, wears a helmet made from riveted pieces of copper.
- No Honor Among Thieves: For the most part averted, surprisingly, in a society that makes a virtue of thievery.
- Not Growing Up Sucks: Averted vigorously. As far as Borribles are concerned, growing up is basically death.
- Odd Couple: Short, lean, neat-freak Inspector Sussworth and his right-hand man, the large, overweight and slovenly Sergeant Hanks.
- Parody: The trilogy prominently features a major parody recognizable only to the British: The Rumbles are a vicious parody of The Wombles.
- Pointy Ears: The only obvious physical trait that distinguishes Borribles from human children.
- Police Brutality: There's no due process for Borribles -- they don't even go into the juvenile system. If they're caught they go directly to the police surgeon, who clips the points off their ears to turn them back into human children. Let's emphasize that: Any Borrible who gets caught is automatically mutilated by the police -- no trial, no presumption of innocence, no appeal.
- Posthumous Narration: There are a couple very subtle hints at the end of Across The Dark Metropolis that the entire trilogy has been told by the clipped and now grown-up Knocker.
- Real Women Don't Wear Dresses: Mostly by accident; there's functionally no difference between male and female Borribles, and all Borribles pretty much wear the same general clothing: jeans, sneakers, sweaters and knit caps pulled down to hide their ears.
- Really Seven Hundred Years Old: Although Borribles are theoretically immortal, few survive long enough to enjoy it. Spiff, however, admits to having been around London Borrible society since the days of Queen Victoria.
- Rodents of Unusual Size: The Rumbles, who are likened to several different types of rodents (including rats and rabbits) and are the size of human children.
- The Runaway: Every Borrible starts out as a runaway child before metamorphosing.
- Runaway Hideaway: Borrible society provides many examples of the Type 3 variety; some are long-established, others are temporary squats. Perhaps the most permanent (and impressive) example are the Wendle tunnels under the neighborhood of Wandsworth.
- Satisfied Street Rat: Spiff, Flinthead and many others, despite not technically being adults.
- Shown Their Work/Real Place Background: With the amount of detail de Larrabeiti puts into the Adventurers' travels in The Borribles, the reader can follow almost every footstep they take above ground on Google Maps.
- It's possible to narrow down the location of Dewdrop's home to a specific block.
- And sometimes even specific buildings can be identified, such as Spiff's house. See the Flickr streams on the Image Links subpage.
- Shrouded in Myth: Spiff. Also, the Adventurers after the survivors return from the Great Rumble Hunt -- to the point that some Borribles later do not believe the Hunt ever actually happened nor that the Magnificent Eight actually existed.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Firmly on the Cynical end, at least as far as the narrative point of view is concerned. The Borribles themselves seem to sit on the balance point, aware that it's a Crapsack World and that life frequently sucks, but still managing to be surprisingly happy and occasionally even light-hearted among it all.
- Sound Off: "Sussworth's Victory Song" in The Borribles Go For Broke, which is as much a political manifesto as it is this trope.
- Street Urchin: The base state for a Borrible; a very successful Street Urchin turns into a Borrible.
- Take That: In addition to the scathing satire of The Wombles found in the Rumbles, the rag-and-bone man Dewdrop and his son Erbie from The Borribles are vicious caricatures of Steptoe and Son.
- Team Mom: Sydney.
- Team Pet: Sam the Horse.
- Terrified of Germs: Inspector Sussworth.
- Token Black: Averted by Orococco, who's not on the team just to be black, but because the demographics of 1970s London pretty much assured that at least one Adventurer would be black.
- Tomboy and Girly Girl: Chalotte and Sydney, respectively.
- Torture Cellar: Under Dewdrop's house in The Borribles.
- Training from Hell: The Adventurers are basically run through an over-the-top boot camp to ready them for the Great Rumble Hunt.
- The Unmasqued World: Authorities know of the existence of Borribles and establish special police squads to deal with them. The average citizen has heard of Borribles, but usually has never seen one (at least knowingly). Rumbles own automobiles and drive them in the street in broad daylight.
- Urban Fantasy
- Values Dissonance: Arguably what drives much of the plot of all three books: the difference between the Rumbles' values and the Borribles', the difference between the Wendles' values and those of the other Borrible tribes of London, and the difference between adult human (specifically Sussworth's) values and the Borribles', just to start with.
- What Do You Mean It's Not for Kids?: Much of the criticism of the trilogy's "subversive" nature was rooted in the automatic (and rather ridiculous) assumption by Moral Guardians that because the Borribles were like children, the books were not only intended for children, but were a primer for a proper way of life.
- What's an X Like You Doing In a Y Like This?: One of the Adventurers utters this Stock Phrase (along with "Hello, Sailor!") upon coming on a few others of the team at the height the assault on the Rumble bunker.
- Why Did It Have to Be Horses?: Rumbles are deathly afraid of horses -- and for good reason; see Ascended to Carnivorism above.
- A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing: An entire team of them, in fact -- in The Borribles: Across The Dark Metropolis, Inspector Sussworth recruits a group of midgets to disguise themselves as Borribles and infiltrate Borrible society to find the Adventurers.
- Zerg Rush: A tactic the Rumbles try several times against the Adventurers.