Eileen Colwell on Eleanor Farjeon's Martin Pippin Books

From her Monograph Eleanor Farjeon

It is in the short story that Eleanor Farjeon excels; in fact all her stories for children are short ones. . . The short story demands economy in words. Within a few pages the plot must be worked out to a satisfying conclusion, the characters developed and the story set in the right atmosphere. That it is the short story in which Eleanor Farjeon is happiest and for which she has made her name, says much of her skill.

Part of her success is probably her strong feeling for folk-tales, in which she has so delighted from her earliest days that their idiom and pattern come naturally to her. Many of her sources of inspiration are in the folklore of the countryside - children's games, fragments of tradition, legends, customs, nursery rhymes. This is seen admirably in her Martin Pippin books. The way in which these stories developed affords an interesting glimpse into the mind of a creative artist.

In 1907, while on holiday on a farm by sea in Brittany, her mind was full of troubadours and minstrels and she spent much time trying her had at aubades and serenades. One day, she thought, she would write a story of a minstrel who rescued a captive princess and her ladies from one of these romantic islands. The ladies would have names like Elaine and Guinevere . . . But when she returned to England the story was still unwritten except for a few songs and scraps of conversation.

Years later, as she watched her little niece, Joan, dancing in an apple orchard in Sussex, her long-forgotten story came into her mind again, but now the background was Sussex and the lovely ladies had bcome lovely girls with simple English names. Round the short stories she now wrote she wove interludes with the romantic figure of the minstrel and storyteller Martin Pippin as their centre. The framework of the book was a singing game, The Spring-Green Lady, which in spite of what she says in her beguiling preface, was her own creation. Martin Pippin helps a love-sick youth to regain his sweetheart, who is guarded by six milkmaids in an orchard. Each day he bribes a milkmaid with a tale to give him one of the keys to Gillian's prison.

Much of the book was already in Eleanor Farjeon's mind, she discovered, but her imagination and experience as a writer had transmuted the undeveloped idea of her youth into an altogether greater, although still romantic, book of love stories. The short stories in this book are adult in their conception and construction, but they are enjoyed by adolescent girls. They were in fact written during the First World War for a young soldier for whom the Sussex names and background would have associations.

Her second Martin Pippin book, Martin Pippin in the Daisy-field, first published in 1937, is for a much younger reading public. The difference is indicated in the very titles of the books - 'The apple orchard', symbol of high summer and maturity; 'the daisy-field', suggesting spring-time and childhood. The minstel is still the central figure, but his companions are now children and the interludes are concerned not with love but with childish things - skipping-rhymes, sayings and verses about birds and trees, riddles, and the efforts of little girls to postpone bedtime. The stories told by Martin Pippin this time are definitely for children.

They include a 'tale tale' with a nautical flavor, 'Selsey Bill'; the tender and amusing story of the Tantony Pig who makes a bargain with Saint Anthony so that he may eat as much as he likes in the daytime and the saint will find his lost figure for him at night; the story of Tom Cobble, who got himself stolen by the fairies on purpose, a tale full of ingenious spells and magic. 'The Long Man of Wilmington' is about Wilkin, who never grew taller than a two-and-a-half feet tall and became a chimney sweep, thereby breaking the hearts of his seven aunts, who hated dirt so much yet loved little Wilkin so dearly. But the best story in the book, and Eleanor Farjeon's own favourite, for it really says 'what she wanted it to say", is 'Elsie Piddock Skips in her Sleep'. . . It is brilliantly written and links the imaginary world with every day in a completely satisfying way.

It is the personality of Martin Pippin, wandering minstrel of the dreams of youth, which pervades and holds together these two books. He is a unique creation, gay and witty, wise, tender, a dreamer and a poet, yet down-to-earth and practical when necessary, a contented man who finds joy in everything. In his light-hearted inconsequence and matchless storytelling he is very like his creator!

The background of these books is the real Sussex, with its flowers and country sights and sounds and scents. It is always spring and summer in these pages - they hold the sunny days of youth for us forever. A child may not know how true this is, but surely something from this lovely book will remain in his heart to be remembered many years hence.

Eileen Colwell, Eleanor Farjeon, 1961.


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