The Animals of Farthing Wood (book)
First edition, 1979
|Series||The Animals of Farthing Wood|
|Genre||Children's, Fantasy novel|
|Publisher||Egmont Publishing Hutchinson US|
|12 November 1979|
|Media type||Print (hard & paperback)|
|Pages||302 (first edition, hardback)|
|ISBN||0-434-93430-5 (first edition hardback)
1-4052-2552-1 (paperback UK edition)
|Followed by||In the Grip of Winter|
The Animals of Farthing Wood is the first book of the Animals of Farthing Wood book series, which was later adapted into a TV series of the same name. It was first published in 1979. An abridged version of 70 pages, by the same author, was published in 1993 to accompany the TV series.
The novel begins in the fictional Farthing Wood, which is being destroyed to make way for the building of human homes. The book follows the adventures of a group of animals who choose to leave their home in Farthing Wood and journey to White Deer Park, a fictional nature reserve. They are led by Fox and take an oath not to harm each other during the journey.
The story opens with the animals discovering that their small pond has been filled in. Humans dug up the surrounding heath some time ago, and have reduced the size of Farthing Wood itself since then, so it is now little more than a copse. With the ongoing destruction now a crisis due to a drought, Badger and Fox call an assembly, which all of the wood's inhabitants attend in the hope they can devise a solution.
Unfortunately, as the animals cannot stop the humans, or suggest a long-term solution for the lack of water, they do not progress until Toad appears, having vanished almost a year before. He explains that he was captured by humans and taken far away. He eventually escaped and followed his homing instinct back to Farthing Wood. Near the beginning of his travels, he met a group of frogs whose pond was located in a nature reserve called White Deer Park. With no hope of surviving in the wood, all agree to set out for the reserve with Toad as their guide. Badger nominates Fox as leader, while the birds agree to act as scouts. The smaller animals are wary of travelling with their natural enemies, so Badger insists they all take the Oath of Mutual Protection, in which each animal resolves to put their natural differences and instincts aside to help each other. The animals arrange to meet the following midnight, and set off.
The first phase of the adventure is dogged by danger. The animals cross a housing estate into army land, where the lizards decide to stay, as the marsh will suit them just as well as White Deer Park. However, a fire tears across the landscape, and although the animals initially outrun the blaze, they are later forced into the centre of a lake to evade human firefighters. They leave as a storm breaks, entering nearby farmland. However, when they take cover in an open barn, both pheasants are shot on watch, and the party has to tunnel their way out and escape to a copse. They spend a few days resting before proceeding on.
Several days of trekking brings them to a river. While most cross without mishap, the rabbits panic despite Fox's best efforts. When a mass of debris moving downtstream is spotted, Badger returns to the water with several others. The rabbits are all rescued, but the exhausted Fox is swept away with Badger. The animals follow the debris until it breaks apart. Badger is found tangled in weeds, until Weasel, Hare and Hedgehog free him. Kestrel follows Fox downstream, but he disappears under a bridge, and is presumed dead.
The weakened Badger takes charge, though Tawny Owl remains irritable, believing he and Badger should be joint leaders. Toad then becomes disorientated (due to his homing instinct drawing him back to Farthing Wood), whilst the mice and voles leave when several give birth. This swiftly ends in tragedy as they are in the territory of a red-backed shrike, or 'butcher bird' (which in fact became extinct within the UK only a few years after the book was published), who kills the babies. Feeling guilty over not heeding Badger (he had wanted to keep the party as united as possible), the mice and voles rejoin. Badger also blames himself, but becomes more assertive after the crisis, ending the dissent.
Unknown to his friends, Fox is very much alive. When he disappeared, the debris was tangled in a motorboat. Fox is taken downstream into a lock, where he is spotted by humans. He escapes and follows the river course back into the countryside. Several hours later, he meets a horse who tells him that he is in hunting country; he is advised to leave quickly. A day later, Fox comes across a burrow to rest, before waking to the sight of a vixen. The two go hunting and Fox tells Vixen about his friends and their journey. Instantly falling in love, Fox wishes Vixen to be his mate, but she refuses to accept immediately, telling him she will consider her choice along the way.
The pair soon come across and follow the scent trail of the party. When the scent becomes divided, the foxes split up to search both directions. Vixen soon discovers she has taken the wrong route and heads back towards Fox, but is pursued by a fox hunt and becomes trapped in some woods. Fox distracts the hunt towards him, ending up reunited with the rest of the Farthing Wood animals, who were trying to hide in a copse on a hill. Vixen starts to climb, but is almost caught by the Hunt Master, when Adder uncharacteristically saves her and the rest of the party by biting the horse, ceasing the hunt. The animals soon make for a quarry, where they meet a droll heron called Whistler (for a hole in his wing due to a gunshot), who saves Toad from being swallowed by a carp. Whistler is impressed by the group's new respect for life, and desiring to find a mate in White Deer Park, decides to join the animals.
After days of long trekking to escape the Hunt, the animals reach a busy motorway. Toad had warned them of the road, but it was being constructed when he crossed. With the Hunt chasing them again, Fox decides that the animals should cross immediately to take advantage of a traffic jam on one side. Arriving in the middle, Whistler offers to carry the smaller animals in his beak the rest of the way, while the largest cross in small groups. All animals survive, apart from two old hedgehogs, who tire and get run over.
A couple of days later, they enter a field of cabbages. Many are uneasy about the silence, and their fears are confirmed when they discover the area has been laced with pesticide. The animals leave quickly for a meadow of wildflowers. At night, they reach a town, the last obstacle. Rain forces the animals to take shelter in a church, entering through a hole and falling asleep behind the organ. When morning comes, they discover the hole has been filled in. The animals resolve to sit tight until the door opens long enough, but a wedding takes place that day, and the noise of the organ causes pandemonium; most escape more by luck than design. A few hours later, they arrive at White Deer Park, where the White Stag welcomes them.
A few nights after their arrival, Toad invites the animals to join him in a celebration. They notice that he is quite cheerful (he tasted sherry from a bottle that the park's warden dropped). Gathering around near the park warden's cabin, they find he was the same naturalist that photographed them earlier. They enjoy each other's company, remembering those who did not complete the journey, but also the misadventures that they all shared, stating that they would keep following the oath, as a remembrance of their journey.
Characters in The Animals of Farthing Wood
The Oath of Mutual Protection
The oath plays a key role in the journey and in the books to follow. During the first assembly in Farthing Wood, an Oath of Common Safety exists to protect the smaller animals, particularly from Adder. This idea was, according to Fox, introduced by Badger's father. However, when the plan is made to journey to White Deer Park, the smaller animals, fearful that they will be eaten by carnivores such as Fox or Adder, request that this oath be re-sworn. Badger then names the new oath "The Oath of Mutual Protection" and all the animals swear it. Although this was originally all that kept animals such as Adder from eating smaller animals like the fieldmice, it is the oath that brings the animals together, to be replaced by friendship and loyalty. As a result, they agree to continue to respect the oath after arriving at White Deer Park.
Two books or one?
The book was originally published by John Goodchild Publishers in the first half of 1979 as two separate paperbacks, entitled Escape from Danger ISBN 0-903445-53-0 and The Way to White Deer Park ISBN 0-903445-55-7. They were only released in this separate form once, and have since been released as the single novel, The Animals of Farthing Wood. The only remaining clue to the once split nature of this first story is the way the book is split into chapters, but also into two parts, 'Escape from Danger', and 'Journey to White Deer Park'.
In an interview with the "Green Action" radio programme on Paisley-based station Q96, Dann explained that the two-book version was a special issue for a children's book club operating through British primary schools – it contained some extra illustrations that were left out of the original. It was originally felt that this was the best chance the book had of success due to the resurgence of the novel Watership Down then out on film.