Two weeks ago, I was casting about for a novel or short-story collection — something sweet — that would be just right for Valentine’s Day. Being fond of anniversaries, I hoped there might be some appropriate book from 1921 due for centenary celebration. There was. But Eleanor Farjeon’s “Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard” — containing six romantic fairy tales recounted by a wandering minstrel — turned out to be far more than just appropriate. It was magical.

Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised since Farjeon (1881-1965) is one of the 20th century’s most beloved children’s authors, equally adept at verse and prose. “The Little Bookroom,” a selection of some of her best stories, received Britain’s 1955 Carnegie Medal and, in 1956, was honored with the inaugural Hans Christian Andersen Award. (The book is currently available in the New York Review Children’s Collection.) Today, Farjeon tends to be viewed as old-fashioned, “poetic,” even sentimental. Still, no one disdains her lyrics to the loveliest of all songs about spring, immortalized in a version sung by Cat Stevens:

“Morning has broken like the first morning.

Blackbird has spoken like the first bird.

Praise for the morning, praise for the singing

Praise for them springing fresh from the Word. . . ”

Originally written for adult readers, “Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard” is remarkable in several ways. To begin with, it derives from a Sussex singing game called “The Spring-Green Lady,” the music of which is reprinted at the end of the book. In Farjeon’s framing narrative, the minstrel Martin Pippin happens upon the weeping Robin Rue, whose beloved Gillian has been locked in a well-house inside an apple orchard by her farmer father. What’s worse, she is guarded by six milkmaids, all resolute man-haters. Martin determines to help sad Robin by procuring the six keys that will free Gillian from her prison. He will accomplish this formidable task partly through his charm, but mainly through his storytelling.

Inside the apple orchard, we discover a realm of rococo elegance, artificiality and wit. All the milkmaids bear names starting with J. Entire days can slip by in teasing, small wagers and riddles, games of blindman’s buff and warm-weather naps. Following each of Martin’s just faintly allegorical tales, the six girls solemnly argue about its possible meanings in “interludes” that recall Platonic dialogues. Throughout, Farjeon maintains this air of playful mock-seriousness, especially when discussion touches on the vexatious nature of love.

The stories themselves vary widely in tone and setting. In “The King’s Barn” an impoverished young king decides to become a monk, but is first required to pass four Saturday nights in prayer on a certain holy mountain. During the week, William resides in a nearby town and pays for his keep by assisting a swarthy, unwashed blacksmith. During his Saturday vigils, he responds ecstatically to the wondrous beauty of nature and, increasingly, to the wondrous beauty of a mysterious young woman bathing in a nearby pool. Already you can probably guess the twist in this tale, but not the exquisiteness of its telling.

In the next, “Young Gerard,” the gentle hero and the equally gentle daughter of the Lord of Combe Ivy obviously belong together. Alas, Gerard is only a poor shepherd lad. Or is he? What about his visions of colorfully dressed folk wildly dancing and singing in the starlight? What about that mysterious crone with a crutch whose eyes are “as piercing as thorns”?

Helen, the heroine of “The Mill of Dreams,” passes 20 satisfying years living entirely through her imagination, fantasizing myriad exotic adventures with a sailor-boy she once spoke to for seven minutes. Illusion and reality happily commingle for her — until matters grow even more Borgesian when the sailor-boy actually reappears, now grizzled and middle-aged, yet every bit Helen’s equal as a romantic dreamer.

In “Open Winkins” three of four brothers vanish for a month and return as soulless zombies. Hoping to release his siblings from this death-in-life, Hobb, the eldest, crosses into an unearthly realm inhabited by the enigmatic Margaret, whose golden-blond tresses contain a single strand of black hair. “At all times,” sighs the infatuated Hobb, “she was lovelier than his dreams of her.” No doubt, but is Margaret what she seems?

In my favorite story, “Proud Rosalind and the Hart-Royal,” Farjeon mingles chivalric romance, medieval legend, Norse lore about Wayland the Smith, the hunting of an elusive white stag and elements reminiscent of Shakespeare's “As You Like It.” Even its minor characters, such as four ladies-in-waiting, can be the stuff of dreams:

“There was Linoret who was like morning dew on grass in spring, and Clarimond queenly as day at its noon, and Damarel like a rose grown languorous with its own grace, and Amelys, mysterious as the spirit of dusk with dreams in its hair.”

While each of Martin Pippin’s stories is rich in misdirection and reversals, Farjeon saves the best surprise for last, when Gillian is finally freed. Years later, she would bring back her minstrel in 1937’s “Martin Pippin in the Daisy-Field,” when he would again relate marvels, this time to the small daughters of the former milkmaids.

These tales are definitely intended for children and one might well be Farjeon’s masterpiece: “Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep.” Late at night, on enchanted Mount Caburn, Elsie — a natural-born skipper — trains under Andy Spandy, the fairies’s own skipping master. Her twists, steps and leaps are dazzling, utterly preternatural — until all her skill vanishes after she grows physically too big to use the little rope she learned on. We then flash forward to modern times when a crass developer plans to build factories on Mount Caburn. To prevent this, a 109-year-old Elsie, now tiny and shrunken from age, hobbles on to the proposed construction site, a child’s skipping rope in her hand. What happens next you’ll need to find out directly from Martin Pippin. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.


By Eleanor Farjeon