By Tom Anderson
People of a certain age across the UK and Europe often have memories of watching The Animals of Farthing Wood as children on television in the early 1990s—and being traumatised by it, as this animated series did not pull any punches in its depiction of the brutality of nature. The plot of the series involves a group of animals living in the titular English woodland of Farthing Wood finding their home faced with destruction from housing development. They are told by the unexpectedly returning Toad (thought lost when he was taken captive by a young would-be naturalist) that he encountered a safe location, a nature reserve called White Deer Park, on his way back after he escaped. The animals swear an Oath of Common Protection to work together, so that the predators will not harm the prey but only feed on those outside their group, and begin an epic voyage to their destination, led by Toad as their guide and Fox as their leader. On the way they encounter many perils which gave rise to the aforementioned childhood trauma among its viewers: pheasants being shot by hunters, hedgehogs run over by cars on a motorway and young mice being impaled on thorns by a passing red-backed shrike, ‘the butcher bird’ (which, ironically, was already all but extinct in Britain by the time the series was made). In the end, however, they successfully make it to the park, with others even joining them on the way, like Fox’s mate Vixen and the heron Whistler (so called because a bullet hole in his wing makes it whistle when he flies). As one can tell, Farthing Wood is quite clear that nature on its own is no happy-clappy balance but a brutal struggle survival, though it also carries a ‘green aesop’ about humans destroying it further.
What is less well known is that this animated series is an adaptation of a book by the same name, published in 1979 by British author Colin Dann. The original book was popular enough to spawn six shorter sequels and then a prequel (which we will eventually get to!) Most of the sequels were adapted, a little more loosely, into further seasons of the animated series. The Farthing Wood series remains Dann’s most well-known work, though he also wrote other animal-based series.
Before I go on, I want to talk briefly about the phenomena of using animals in storytelling. This is as old as the concept of storytelling and literacy itself; we only have to think of Aesop’s fables, Native American legends or the West African stories that eventually became those of Uncle Remus. Beatrix Potter, in the nineteenth century, may have popularised the idea of using animals in stories without necessarily having the moral message of a parable in mind. Regardless, there was certainly an explosion of such children’s literature in the twentieth century—and, of course, animal-based characters became wildly popular in early animation, from Felix the Cat to Mickey Mouse to Bugs Bunny to Yogi Bear. I would argue it is possible to classify this fiction on a ‘hard vs soft’ scale, as is sometimes applied to science fiction or alternate history. ‘Hard’ animal fiction is that which treats animals as wholly removed from the human experience and tries to anthropomorphise as little as possible (though it may invent its own cultures for the animals). The classic example of this is Watership Down by Richard Adams (1972); an earlier example is Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson (1927) which I read at school, not knowing of the controversy caused by the author’s support of the British Union of Fascists. Despite this, Tarka influenced other writers like the poet Ted Hughes and the ecological campaigner Rachel Carson. Such works are unrelenting in their portrayal of nature as brutal, with humans often portrayed almost as an unknowable eldritch force of destruction from the animal perspective. They are effectively a form of xenofiction, sharing much with science fiction attempts to portray the inhuman perspective of aliens.
At the other end of the spectrum is ‘soft’ animal fiction, in which animals are fully anthropomorphised and it is easy to forget they are not just humans, with only occasional reminders like a rabbit having a fondness for carrots or a mole being described as having a velvet smoking-jacket. These include fiction as diverse as Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908, see my previous article on it); the aforementioned Disney, Warner Bros and Hanna-Barbera cartoons; most interpretations of the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise; the Redwall fantasy series by Brian Jacques (1986 onwards); and many more. Disney cartoons also illustrate a much-discussed case of what happens when characters from different points along the scale are folded together: if Goofy is a dog, then what’s Pluto?
In between these extremes lie much middle ground; to take one example, most of the works of Dick King-Smith fall in between. His first novel The Fox Busters (1978) features chickens and foxes with their own languages and distinct cultural terms, suggesting the ‘hard’ end. But it is also free with Second World War references and chickens being able to read English labels on farm equipment and name their hatchlings after them (our protagonists are called Ransome, Sims and Jefferies after a now-vanished British manufacturer of agricultural equipment) which evokes the ‘soft’ end. Many works are closer to the ‘hard’ end but make some concessions for the sake of readability and not plunging straight into xenofiction, such as The Great Pig Escape by Linda Moller which I read at school (firstly note the preponderance of WW2 references in animal fiction by British authors, see also the film Chicken Run, and secondly I cannot give a publication date because mysteriously all the ones online are well after I was at school…)
The Animals of Farthing Wood falls into this category as well, being much closer to the ‘hard’ end but featuring ‘softer’ ideas like the Oath of Common Protection. My own first experience of it was through the TV series first, then looking for the books; my home town of Doncaster was, at the time, infamous for being the largest settlement in the UK without a true dedicated bookstore (only a limited selection at WH Smith) which did not help. Via both this and a mobile book service that stopped by my primary school, I was able to buy the six sequels, followed by the prequel, but the original book was surprisingly hard to find and I ended up reading this last. I then saw part of how the animated series interpreted the sequels (the prequel was never adapted, probably because it only shared one character with anything else, Badger). The TV series adapts the original book very faithfully for the most part, with only a few relatively small changes to characters and plot. Most significant of these is that several characters who are male in the book are changed to female in the TV series for better gender balance, such as Tawny Owl and Adder. It’s just as well we didn’t have the internet yet in any meaningful sense in 1993, considering the absurd backlash such decisions cause with the Very Online Community these days.
This article series is about prequels not sequels, but I should briefly mention that the six Farthing Wood sequels are among some of the best-conceived sequels to an established work I’ve ever read, and really spoiled me as a kid because I assumed this was the norm—when many writers of ‘adult’ fiction are utterly hopeless by comparison when they attempt a sequel. Dann perfectly hits the balance between the dangerous extremes of ‘nothing meaningful happens so I don’t disrupt my happy ending’, ‘something meaningful happens and it spoils or invalidates what came before’ and ‘something meaningful happens but it’s safely a long way in the future with a new generation...but they’re so far removed from the characters we know that we don’t care about them’. Billions of dollars could not stop Disney’s Star Wars sequels (for example) from falling victim to the second of these extremes. Dann realistically looks at the impact of their journey on the animals; they have grown together as comrades, and are unable to bring themselves to dissolve the Oath on their arrival, with the predators pledging not to feed on the prey animals they travelled with. This causes problems, because how far does it extend in terms of generations or inter-mating with the native animals in White Deer Park; what about said animals naturally not recognising the Oath in return, etc.
The six sequels are In the Grip of Winter, in which the animals face the challenge of the titular winter after their arrival and the disappearance of the park’s warden due to illness, and have to maintain their old bonds to mount a response; Fox’s Feud, in which Fox, Vixen and their new cubs clash with the native foxes of the park who regard their ‘invasion’ and the idea of the Oath as a threat; The Fox Cub Bold, in which Fox’s brash and arrogant cub Bold wants to leave the Park and live as a wild creature, only to quickly learn the harsh costs of nature and be crippled; The Siege of White Deer Park, where an escaped(?) big cat terrorises the park as a new apex predator; In the Path of the Storm, where a lordly stag of the white deer herd from which the park gets its conservation status thinks this gives him right to rule, and a storm batters the park; and Battle for the Park, where the animals have to fight off an invasion of rats. The latter three sequels start to get a little repetitive in ‘crisis of the week’ terms compared to the first three, but they all succeed in adding something to the setting rather than taking it away or making no difference. Dann does not pull any punches in how he treats characters we know and love; Badger gets dementia and thinks the deceased Mole’s son Mossy is his old friend, as well as trying to go back to the destroyed Farthing Wood (fortunately Tawny Owl already tried, and stops him); Toad is killed off by the rat invasion in the final book, among others. Yet none of this ever feels like it invalidates what came before, with pacing designed to make it clear that even the shorter-lived animals had a full and happy existence in the park and it was all worth it. The sequels were adapted for the animated series in a looser way, as I said, with plots allowed to combine and run into one another, but once again the darker moments were faithfully preserved rather than bowdlerised.
One interesting factor with the sequels is that we start to move away from a fox named Fox and a hare named Hare, etc., in favour of more descriptive and unique names like a Fox named Plucky and a hare named Dash. It would be easy to see this as an awkward transition, but one of the most fascinating things about the series is that this appears to have been deliberate by Dann from the start (and he points out cases like the hare named ‘Leveret’, because he was Hare’s young son at the time of the journey, later becoming the patriarch of the hares while still having that name). The sinister implication, which is more explored in the aforementioned prequel, is that the original Farthing Wood generation had names like Fox and Badger because there was only one left of each animal, more or less (with some caveats for the smaller ones where the name is given to their chieftain). By contrast, the 1994 prequel, Farthing Wood: The Adventure Begins, adds adjectives to the animal names: there’s a Lean Fox and a Stout Fox, a Kindly Badger and a Young Badger (who grows up to be the adjective-less lone Badger of the original novel), a Sleek Otter and a Slow Otter and so on. Some animals in that book, such as Nervous Squirrel and the adjective-less Jay, come from species which appear to have died out altogether in the wood by the time of the first book (we even see this with the weasels and stoats).
Having read all the sequels and the prequel before the original novel, I was surprised on finally reading it just how well the beginning is set up to allow for a prequel; whether by luck or good planning, once again Dann shows much better practise than many ‘adult’ authors. The original novel begins with Fox, Badger and Tawny Owl discussing how the humans are encroaching further on Farthing Wood and its total destruction is only a matter of time, with the latest outrage being the filling-in of the ancestral pond. Badger brings up that, five years ago, his father chaired an extraordinary Assembly to try to respond to the first human encroachment on Farthing Heath around the wood, and conceived an Oath of Common Safety to allow all animals to attend without fear. Fox adds his own father attended that Assembly, but no good came of it. They decide to hold another now, ending up with little more than despair and no ideas for plans, until Toad reappears without warning in the middle of it to tell them of the Park (and for them to tell him his pond is gone). The Oath of Common Safety created by Badger’s father for temporary meetings is expanded into the Oath of Common Protection for the whole of the journey.
As I said, this is an excellent set-up for a prequel because it gives us some concrete references to past events, but is vague on the details so these can be filled in later. Farthing Wood: The Adventure Begins matches perfectly with this set-up, aside perhaps from the minor point of not explicitly using the term ‘Farthing Heath’ when talking about humans encroaching on the grasslands around the wood. But unlike some prequels that match well but don’t give us much new information to justify their existence (like Robert Jordan’s New Spring which I previously reviewed), The Adventure Begins also changes our perception of just why Farthing Wood was destroyed. The original book depicted a simplistic (though very plausible) threat of rapacious humans destroying nature to build their homes, though balancing this against the positive portrayal of naturalist humans like the Warden of White Deer Park preserving nature. The prequel, however, shows that some of the animals themselves bear unwitting responsibility for their fate. The plot involves the petty Lean Fox and Lean Vixen becoming jealous of the hunting skills of the Farthing Wood otters, and with the help of Sly Sloat they deliberately poison them by leading them to sickly voles as food. The otters leave Farthing Wood in desperation to look for help, and eventually all die out despite the best efforts of human naturalists—and Farthing Wood is only protected from development because of its otter population. Whoops.
Even within the wood, some consequences of these actions become clear. Lean Fox and Lean Vixen are killed near the end of the book due to drowning in a swamp inadvertently created by the human housing developments. This leaves Stout Fox and Stout Vixen as the only remaining foxes, and Stout Vixen accidentally ate the same tainted voles; Stout Fox is able to get clues from a dying otter and manages to save just one of her cubs, the rest being stillborn. This means that five years from now, there will be only one fox left—hence he gets the name Fox without adjectives. The stoats and weasels are also killed off by the tainted voles—and remember the plan was started by one of their number. One somewhat different factor in The Adventure Begins is that it adds the supernatural element of a prophetic Sage Hedgehog who warns that Farthing Wood will be destroyed if the otters depart, and also prophesies the coming of a leader (implied to be the new fox cub who will grow up to be Fox). We get to see the first Assembly alluded to at the start of the original book, the creation of the Oath of Common Safety by Kindly Badger (the father of Young Badger, who grows up to be the last, adjective-less Badger of Farthing Wood) and how little it accomplished, as said in that book.
The Adventure Begins therefore succeeds mightily as a prequel in every way except one: I don’t like it.
Largely this is due to the noxious and bitter flavour of the story, which is part of the point, of course: the plot twist that some of the animals were partly responsible for their own destruction. But the first book, especially Badger’s reminiscences, lead us to picture the old Farthing Wood as a golden age, an Elysian setting which the animals fear the destruction of and need to recreate elsewhere. Badger’s own dementia-driven desire to get back to his youthful memories of the Wood in In the Path of the Storm implies as much. This isn’t an inconsistency, I should be clear, because as early as those opening scenes of the first book, Fox’s reaction to Badger’s reminiscences implies that he is rose-tinting the past. But it doesn’t sit well with me as a reader, and fundamentally, it suffers from the classic prequel problem that it must contain despair if the book that follows it chronologically is one about hope. There is also the more prosaic issue that the book feels overly brief and truncated, ending rather abruptly. I feel it would have benefited more if we’d seen at least some of the positive side to how Farthing Wood used to be, as well as those agents of chaos unwittingly sowing their own destruction. Perhaps it’s because of this bitter mood, or maybe just because Dann felt there were no more stories to tell, that The Adventure Begins was the last published Farthing Wood book.
Nonetheless, I would like to end by re-emphasising my point that if one wants to know how to write good sequels and at least competently executed prequels, one could do worse than to look at the example provided by an author of children’s books about animals. He certainly knows more about it than Disney does.
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.