Martin Pippin

This month I’m recommending a pair of books by British author Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965) which I would classify as Pastoral Fantasy. They are set in the English county of Sussex and share a central character – wandering minstrel, Martin Pippin. The first book, Martin Pippin in the Apple-Orchard was published in 1921 and has rarely been out of print since. Its sequel, Martin Pippin in the Daisy-Field didn’t appear until 1937. Oddly, the first book is more suitable for adults and the second more suitable for children. You can download the Martin Pippin stories for free from several internet sites and cheap paperback versions are available but second-hand copies of the beautiful early editions are the best choice.

Both books consist of a series of wildly imaginative stories within an elaborate framing structure. In Martin Pippin in the Apple-Orchard, we are first told about The Game of the Spring-Green Lady traditionally played and sung by children in the Sussex village of Adversane (a real place). The game tells the story of an Emperor’s imprisoned daughter, guarded by six fierce damsels, and the Wandering Singer who comes to woo her. The rest of the book claims to tell the true story behind the legend.

On several visits to Adversane, Martin Pippin meets a distressed young man called Robin Rue who is weeping for his beloved Gillian. He tells Martin that she has been locked in a well-house by her father with ‘six young milkmaids, sworn virgins and man-haters all, to keep the keys.’ The well-house stands in an ancient apple orchard surrounded by a hawthorn hedge. From beyond the hedge, Martin plays and sings for the bored milkmaids. Inside the well-house, beautiful Gillian sits weeping and refusing to eat, comforted only by the ghost of her mother. After the milkmaids are persuaded by a gypsy-woman that Gillian might be cured of brooding too much on her own love-life by listening to six new love stories, Martin is allowed into the orchard.

The minstrel agrees to tell six love stories that have never been told before. The First Tale is about a young king who yearns to know the best way to live and finds an unexpected answer when he works with a mysterious blacksmith. In the Second Tale an ill-treated shepherd boy helps a Lord’s daughter who is being forced into an arranged marriage. The Third Tale describes a life-long mystical connection between a miller’s daughter and a seaman who only meet once as children. In the Fourth Tale an ordinary young man has to take an extraordinary risk to save his brothers from a cruel enchantment. The Fifth Tale concerns a haughty but impoverished lady, a man known as the Red Hunter and a marvellous white stag, and in the Sixth Tale an imprisoned princess is guarded by six Gorgons. In between telling the stories, Martin gets to know each of the milkmaids and tries to persuade them to give up their keys. Will he succeed and can there be a seventh love story with a happy ending?

In Martin Pippin in the Daisy-Field, Martin encounters six little girls and a baby on a summer evening. The girls are busy making daisy-chains and don’t want to be sent to bed but they promise to go home if Martin can guess whose daughters they are. In between guesses, Martin tells each child a tale suited to their personality. These are marvellous tales featuring fairies, magicians, pirates, talking pigs, a saint, a mermaid and a very small giant. The baby is offered a series of short stories illustrating wise sayings from around the world but which, if any, of these seven girls is Martin’s own daughter?

When I was a child I loved the stories and poems of Eleanor Farjeon, especially her Carnegie Medal-winning collection The Little Bookroom. All that I knew about Farjeon was that she was an adult who still understood what it was like to be a child. Now that I’ve done some research on her life, I’m full of admiration for her independent spirit. She was the frail youngest child in a literary family and because of her poor health was educated home, largely by reading all the books in her father’s library. The family moved from London to rural Sussex during World War I. From an early age, Farjeon supported herself by writing poems, plays and short-stories, and she had many literary friends including the poets Edward Thomas, Robert Frost and Walter de la Mare. She had two long-term relationships but never married or had children.

Martin Pippin in the Apple-Orchard was Farjeon’s first big success. I’m lucky enough to own a copy which once belonged to Fantasy author, Richard Adams and I can see her influence on his work. Both authors had a great knowledge of and love for the English countryside. In the Martin Pippin books there are wonderful descriptions of landscapes and wild flowers and all the delicious scents, tastes, sights and sounds of the apple orchard itself are brilliantly evoked. If you currently feel that you are stuck inside a gritty Urban Fantasy, I prescribe a mental holiday in Farjeon’s idyllic apple orchard and daisy field.

Another thing which Farjeon and Adams had in common was an interest in folklore and local legends (see my May 2013 Post on Adams’ The Unbroken Web). Farjeon wove all kinds of Sussex traditions and folk customs into her Martin Pippin books from children’s singing and skipping rhymes, through fairy and herb lore, to inventive backstories for local landmarks such as seven white cliffs, a giant figure cut in chalk and a mermaid on an inn-sign. Few contemporary authors have such a strong sense of place but in Martin Pippin in the Daisy-Field Farjeon also stresses that wisdom can be found in stories and sayings from all around the world. My favourite of the proverbs she cites is the Chinese one – If you have two loaves, sell one and buy a lily.

The Cambridge Guide to Children’s Books in English describes the Martin Pippin books as `unfashionably whimsical’. Well, I’ve never cared whether things are fashionable or not and the word I would choose is quirky. If you are allergic to poetry and gently humorous dialogue, you could skip the framing devices and just read the inset stories but you would be missing quite a lot. An important thing to note is that in both books the basic situation is not at all what it first appears to be, so expect surprise endings. The six milkmaids are not treated as an undifferentiated chorus. They each have a distinctive personality and a specific grievance against their ex-boyfriends. Some of these grievances will still strike a chord with modern women. One milkmaid objects to being told that girls can’t throw straight and another that girls can’t argue logically. Martin teases them out of their bad mood by accepting that men are the ones at fault. I was baffled by Martin Pippin the Apple-Orchard when I tried to read it as a child and only came to appreciate this book many years later. The stories it contains were written for an adult audience and have a dream-like intensity. Farjeon based her wandering minstrel on the medieval troubadours of what is now southern France who entertained noble ladies by singing of the pains and pleasures of love. In Martin Pippin’s unconventional love stories, some of the heroines retreat to an imaginative inner life to escape hardship and abuse and others survive by taking on traditionally masculine roles. Any happy endings are very hard earned. If you only try one of the tales, let it be `The Mill of Dreams’, which is surely one of the most unusual love stories ever written.

In Martin Pippin in the Daisy-Field the six little girls are also distinct individuals, though most parents will recognize the arguments they use to avoid being sent to bed when they still want to play. Martin refrains from simply exerting adult authority and respects the girls’ feelings and wishes. The stories he tells them are enchanting. `Tom Cobble and Ooney’ is probably my favourite modern fairy tale. It concerns an imaginative boy who uses a magic book to make his outlandish stories come true and a fairy who longs to renounce her magic and become human. In other tales an ugly mermaid without a seductive voice discovers her ideal vocation and the tiny child of a giant finds his own way of standing tall. All her life, shy short-sighted Eleanor Farjeon sympathised with people who felt like outsiders. In her stories she shows such outsiders making their own place for themselves in the world. It is this quality which makes her writing timeless.

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Geraldine Pinch