I have recently read The Animals of Farthing Wood for the first time. I watched the BBC cartoon as a child and loved it – enough to remember the main plot and some details. I’m also now rewatching the series on DVD, having deliberately waited to have finished the book first.
THE MAIN PREMISE
There are actually several books in the series (which I only found out when I marked the book as finished on Goodreads) but I have only read the first so I will stick to talking about that, though the whole series is probably known as The Animals of Farthing Wood. Anyway.
Farthing Wood is under threat at the start of the story, as are the animals that live there. It had, long ago been a huge expanse of woods host to many families of animals but humans have encroached year by year until only a small wood and pond are left. They are now destroying even this – the pond is filled in, the diggers are coming closer – and the animals are running out of water.
Despite there being predators and prey in the woods they call an assembly which hasn’t been done in a very long time. All the animals gather in Badger’s set to discuss what they should do, and Toad comes up with a plan. He has only just returned to the woods, having been scooped up in a jam jar by a human. Having escaped and made a very, very long journey back he has become aware of a place called White Deer Park, a nature reserve where all the animals would be safe.
It is then proposed that the animals band together and follow Toad to this safe haven. In order to ensure the safety of all the animals they wear a solemn Oath of Mutual Protection to help each other (and not eat anyone!) on the journey.
The main story is therefore the long journey they make to reach White Deer Park.
There is a wide variety of animals making the journey and this causes a lot of problems as they range in size, speed, ability and needs for food and shelter.
There are the large and quick – Fox, Badger, and Weasel. Fox becomes the leader as he is clever, cunning and brave, while Badger becomes an unofficial but very respected second in command. He is a very good listener and considers everyone’s needs with great care. Weasel is fairly quiet through the book and doesn’t do anything particularly memorable.
Then there are the fliers – Kestrel, Owl and a pair of pheasants. Really these birds could have flown to White Deer Park in a matter of a day or so, but they choose to stick with the pack. With the somewhat dumb pheasants this is for their own good, but Owl and Kestrel are integral to the group’s safety. By day Kestrel leads the fliers and scouts for dangers ahead, and Owl does the same if they travel by night.
Most of the smaller animals are in family groups – the rabbits, voles, squirrels, hedgehogs, lizards and mice. These add the challenge of having shorter legs and thus moving more slowly than the larger animals. There is also the added trouble of getting them to cross roads and rivers and so on, not just because of their size but because they tend to panic and go in all directions. The poor squirrels have to adjust to sleeping on the ground for a lot of the journey as there are not always suitable trees for them.
And last there are some other smaller lone animals. Toad, of course, who is slow but their guide. Mole is practically blind and terribly slow and so rides on Badger’s back most of the way (when he’s not stuffing himself with worms and getting left behind). Adder makes up the group, and is probably the least popular member. Despite Fox also being a predator it is Adder that the smaller animals are most afraid of. Probably because he is very sarcastic throughout and it’s not always clear if he’s joking about eating a vole or two. He does show great bravery at times though – not that he would like to admit it.
Two animals join the group along the way – Fox finds a Vixen to be his mate and a stork called Whistler also joins, but meanwhile the lizards stay behind at a marshy area as they struggle to travel too far between water sources. A few animals also die but I will talk about that later.
The journey takes place over many weeks as they can only travel so far each day. The first issue is somewhere to drink, and swimming pool is found in a garden.
Then they have to navigate though the housing estate and cross a road just before daybreak. The road is their first major obstacle and the birds are key in scouting for traffic and urging the others across.
On the other side of the road is some military land where they manage to rest and eat during the day. Moving on they come to marshland and woods – and a forest fire. They all nearly perish but manage to cross a causeway and shelter on an island in the middle of the marsh until the worst of the danger has passed.
Then a storm breaks and the animals decide to shelter, rather foolishly, in a farm outhouse. The farmer’s dog alerts him to their presence and they are shut in – the dumb pheasants are on guard duty and get themselves shot. Mole rescues the rest of the party, by digging his way out and then the other animals widen the tunnel and escape. Fox has to see off the dog, which he does by clever talk rather than physical strength.
Not long after this they encounter a river. This wasn’t too much of a problem for Toad of course, but it heralds a disaster. Most of the animals (even the ones you wouldn’t imagine to be good swimmers) make it across reasonably easily but the rabbits panic and swim in all directions. Fox and Badger are forced to return to the water to round them up, and exhaust themselves in the process. So much so that when a large collection of twigs and grass comes down the river they get caught up in it. Badger is recovered not too far downstream and sleeps off the accident, but Fox is nowhere to be found.
Here the story diverges. We have a few chapters chronicling what happens to the main group first, as they move on. We see some more losses here as the fieldmice and voles have had babies, and decide they cannot continue with so many small ones. The main group can’t wait around for weeks and so intend to leave them behind. Unfortunately the babies fall victim to a ‘butcher bird’ – something I was unfamiliar with. The proper name is a shrike , a bird which kills small animals and impales them on bushes. So it’s quite a nasty part of the chapter when the other animals find a bush with all the baby mice and voles impaled on its twigs.
The adult mice and voles then calmly re-join the group (I suppose they are used to losing babies).
Meanwhile, we discover Fox has survived the ordeal and has met Vixen. She is persuaded to come along, though she is yet to decide if she wants to live in White Deer Park.
Shortly before the foxes (travelling much more quickly than the others) catch up with the group, Toad had led them partly in the wrong direction. Therefore then the foxes reach that point there are two trails to follow. Fox goes the right way, Vixen checks out the wrong one. She decides she will join the group heading to the park but finds herself being chased by a fox hunting party, and very nearly is caught. Fox manages to distract the hunt, but then brings them after himself, Vixen and the other animals. It is adder who saves the day – biting the hunt leader’s horse and causing the hunt to retreat.
After this they meet Whistler the heron – he saves Toad from being eaten by a pike in a quarry pond – and then they face one of their biggest troubles.
There’s a six-lane road in the way. It had only been under construction when Toad had passed that way, but now it is busy with traffic. The hunt has reconvened and they are desperate to put the road between them and the humans so, taking advantage of a traffic jam on their side, they cross to the median strip. The next part is not so easy – the traffic is heavy.
Whistler is able to carry many of the smaller animals to safety but the rest are left and have to make dashes across the road in gaps in the traffic. Unfortunately the hedgehogs are not fast enough and are killed.
Next up is a modern farm. It’s busy most days so they are stuck for a while, unable to proceed without fear of being spotted. When they eventually do move on the vegetarian animals are desperate to have a nibble of the cabbages and other crops. The wiser animals are against it – the plants look too plastic and perfect. Thankfully nobody does eat because they soon discover that the pesticides used on the crops have killed all the local birds. It’s quite a creepy chapter as much is made of how quiet the farm is – no insects buzzing, no bird tweeting.
Then a pleasant moment – they come across a naturalist in a field and allow him to watch their rather bizarre parade for a while.
White Deer Park is now close, and after crossing through a village they decide to seek shelter in a church for the night. They creep in through a hole in the wall and hide under the organ – though they don’t know that’s what it is. Next morning workmen arrive and start fixing the hole – leaving the animals trapped inside. Their peaceful hiding place then turns into a nightmare when the organist starts to play – for a wedding no less! The wedding turns a bit hysterical as a hoard of animals rush down the aisles and past the bride.
And then, they finally reach the park. Sneaking in through a broken bit of fence they are welcomed by the animals that live there and in particular the oldest of the white deer (as ?Kestrel had flown on ahead earlier to let them know they were arriving). Interestingly they had been waiting on the group for ages as the news of their journey has spread far and wide.
We even get a couple of chapters of the animals settling in to their new home. They all go their separate ways at first – determined to find the best tree to nest in or the best earth to dig in. After a time though, Badger especially starts to miss the comradeship of the group and calls a meeting. All the animals gather – and get drunk on some spilled alcohol! – and realise they have a bond that will never truly break.
WHY IS THIS A BOOK FOR BLYTON FANS?
I’ve actually asked myself this a couple of times. It’s actually quite different to anything she ever wrote. But there are similarities. If anything, it could be thought of as The Secret Island with a cast of animals instead of children!
There is a strong environmental message which naturally focuses on animals and their habitats. Blyton’s books often have strong moral messages that are comparable, I think. Her characters never leave litter in the countryside and they take care of the places they camp in. There are also strong messages about taking care of animals and preventing cruelty to them. She didn’t really go as far as talking about houses encroaching on habitats – that probably wasn’t such a huge issue when she was writing although it had started – but she certainly valued the wild spaces and wildlife around her.
Blyton also delved into the world of talking animals from time to time – usually with a fairy-tale element. The Farthing Wood animals all converse in full English with each other, but it’s unknown if they can communicate with humans. Humans, on the few occasions the animals cannot help but be seen, are naturally amazed at seeing so many animals together in broad daylight. The general public are too amazed to pose any real threat in fact – apart from road accidents – it’s the farmers and developers that pose the biggest risk.
If Blyton had come up with this story I think it would have read fairly similarly, but perhaps without the deaths. She also may have worked in one or two more positive encounters with humans to show that we are not all bad, but otherwise I think she would have stuck to a similar plot.