Saturday, February 14, 2009

Martin Pippin and Tales of Love

New York: Lippincott, 1949, c1922.
305 p.

This is a lovely story, written by poet, librettist and author Eleanor Farjeon. I've read and loved some of her other work, but this is acknowledged as one of her best. It is also very hard to get hold of. I finally found it through interlibrary loan and sped through it this week. I wanted to read it because it was by Farjeon, and hadn't realized that in its form of interlocking tales it would be perfect for Valentine's Day!

It is the story of Martin Pippin, a wandering minstrel who comes across a young man, Robin Rue, crying for the loss of his sweetheart Gillian. She has been locked up in the wellhouse in the apple orchard by her father, guarded by "six young milkmaids, sworn virgins and man-haters all", Joscelyn, Joan, Jessica, Jane, Jennifer, and Joyce. Martin takes on the task of restoring Gillian to Robin, and to do so he must inveigle his way into the orchard and try to get the six keys to the padlock on the wellhouse from the six girls. While wondering what to do about Gillian, the girls are told by a gypsy that:

Nothing but a new love tale will overcome her broodings, and where the case is obstinate one only will not suffice. You say she has pined upon her love six months. Let her be told six brand-new love tales, tales which no woman ever heard before, and I think she will be cured.

When Martin appears he offers to tell them such new tales. The girls are also swayed by the fact that they are terribly bored in their apple orchard life, and Martin is quite a lot of fun.

The story begins with a children's rhyme played as a game, and the music is included at the back of the book. Farjeon has created this as well as many songs and rhymes within the text; this is one of her strengths in all of her work, and in her fabulous poetry. The children play this game but do not know the source of it, from the depths of the murky past, oh, some two or three years ago. Farjeon will now tell us the real story, that of Martin Pippin. Thus there are really two framing stories, and the tales that Martin tells are further enclosed. Farjeon's writing style is very dream-like and suits these fairy tales perfectly. Both the entire book taken as one piece and each of the tales included are fairy tales, love stories with obstacles to be overcome, elements of magic, and the unreal quality of a dream. They are beautiful and the stories are so interwoven that at certain points Martin interrupts his own telling to question the girls as to whether he should continue, since we hear their reactions as we hear the story ourselves. He convinces them each, one by one, to give up their dislike of men and to regain belief in love (and, incidentally, to give him their key).

Martin's tales are all original, and each is different in form, but all are romances in the full sense. Lots of chivalry, magic, royalty, mistaken identities and bittersweet happy endings. The tales he tells are as follows:

The King's Barn in which a king with only a barn left to his name finds his true love by learning blacksmithing and trying to join a monastery,

Young Gerard in which an orphan shepherd boy and the lord's daughter find love after she is married against her will and a flood sweeps her cruel husband away,

The Mill of Dreams in which a young girl kept isolated in a mill by her father gives a young beggar some bread one night and dreams of him for the next twenty years,

Open Winkins in which a family of five brothers known variously for cheerfulness, beauty, wisdom, and courage discover that a loving heart and fraternal bonds can break enchantments and bring true love

Proud Rosalind and the Hart-Royal in which a beautiful young woman, last scion of a royal family, lives in the castle ruins and is scorned as a delusional vagrant, until a royal tournament comes to the village and she finds a champion, assisted by the local blacksmith

The Imprisoned Princess in which a princess is imprisoned on an island, guarded by six gorgons, until a Wanderer appears to try to rescue her. He amuses the gorgons by telling stories but the last gorgon remains oburate and the princess dies of a broken heart and the gorgons fade into their maiden graves.

Joscelyn objects to this last story. But Gillian goes free, and then there are not-so-girlish voices all around Martin in the night, and the milkmaids disappear as well. Martin stays around until the end of the story, though, going up the farmhouse and chatting with Gillian's father in a scene which makes you question the girls' story altogether. He is also part of the final scene with Gillian and the weepy Robin Rue, which ends in an unexpected and utterly romantic way -- of course! This was such a lovely read, and so worth searching out. I need a copy of my own now, as I know I'll want to read it again to savour the clever writing and the songs and the fairy tales (my favourite was "The Mill of Dreams").
Happy Valentine's Day to everyone!

**I read this in a 1949 library edition (with the cover you see above). It was a delight to smell the old paper, to read the stories in an old edition that others had read, and to read it curled up under a blanket. But, since it is so very hard to find, you could also try reading it all online, hosted at A Celebration of Women Writers online. (where you can find hundreds of other amazing books by women)


  1. This definitely sounds like fun! :)

  2. It's lovely, isn't it! I read it when I was small, and remember the cover, but recently had to find and re-read it on Gutenberg.

  3. This just sounds delightful! Wouldn't it be wonderful to find an old copy at an estate sale or something like that? Somehow I think reading it online just wouldn't be the same. ;)

  4. This looks like a very sweet book - and I love the artwork. You were lucky to get your hands on it for sure!

  5. Thanks so much for the review -- I'll have to hunt this down. It sounds like one I would just love.


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