Staff Review by Chris Saliba
Felix Salten’s classic Bambi, A Life in the Woods,
is more dystopian nightmare than Disney fantasia, as it sets before the
reader the harsh realities of the natural world. In the woods, the
animals are either creatures of prey, or predators themselves. While
Salten’s story encourages strong feelings of sympathy and
sentimentality, these humane responses must be balanced against the
dreaded reality of nature’s necessary cycle of violence.
The huge and enduring popularity of Walt Disney’s animated film, Bambi (1942),
coupled with its undisputed artistic excellence, has made this
pioneering animated feature synonymous with the best in twentieth
century popular culture. Unfortunately this has put the original 1923
novel by Austrian writer, Felix Salten, somewhat in the shade. That’s a
great shame, as Salten’s Bambi, A Life in the Woods,
is of an exceptionally high quality.
Bambi’s Hobbesian Nightmare World
Perhaps the main reason why Bambi, A Life in the Woods
struggles to find the wide readership enjoyed by other mainstream
classics is that the novel is difficult to categorise. It is written in
the style of a children’s novel, with a cast of anthropomorphised
woodland animals, yet the novel has much gruesome violence and a view of
nature as being red in tooth and claw. Read to children before bedtime,
Salten’s novel would induce nightmares. The frequently vivid
descriptions of warm blood and exposed viscera induce dizziness and
revulsion in the reader. Salten’s Bambi is
closer to a Hobbesian nightmare, where the rule is eat or be eaten, rather than a Rousseauist garden paradise of plenty and leisure. A palpable
atmosphere of fear and dread runs throughout the novel, as vulnerable
animals must remain ever vigilant to avoid painful and terrifying death.
Salten highlights notions of innocence and purity by
contrasting the young Bambi, a roe deer, against the cruel laws of
nature that make every creature some link in the food chain. We feel
tender sympathy for Bambi, and wish him to remain forever protected and
safe, yet soon enough his mother starts to push him away and he must
learn independence and accept the loneliness of a solitary life. This
elicits a terrible sadness and poignancy in the reader as we watch Bambi
confront the cold realities of adulthood. Many of the tensions that we
as readers feel, such as the pull between wanting to protect Bambi and
the acceptance of nature’s bloody laws, are not resolved or discussed in
the novel. Rather there is an elegiac sentiment that is pursued
throughout, a feeling of sorrow for an innocence that cannot survive the
ways of the world.
One further complexity is added to the novel. The
creature at the top of the food chain, man, described throughout as
‘He’, stalks the woods with his rifle shooting down animals. He is
perhaps one of the most terrifying of the woodland animals, with his
weapon of cold precision. Near the end of the novel, ‘He’ is killed,
shot through the head in a particularly bloody episode. The animals
discuss his death, and declare that he is after all just an animal too,
and not a God, like he sometimes likes to think of himself.
Is Bambi an Anti-War Novel?
The Nazis banned the Jewish Salten’s Bambi, A Life in the Woods
in 1936, alleging it was ‘political allegory on the treatment of Jews
in Europe.' The novel in some of its more bloody parts does read like an
anti-war novel. What surely would have infuriated Hitler more was the
novel’s Darwinian aspect, of describing man as no more than one of the
animals, and subject to nature’s laws as all animals are. This, coupled
with Bambi’s humanistic, sympathetic tone for nature’s more vulnerable creatures, would have pushed the Fuhrer to boiling point.
Salten’s 1923 Bambi, A Life in the Woods comes
down to modern readers 90 years later as a perfectly executed
child-adult novel about the terrible realities of nature balanced
against humanistic notions of sympathy, innocence and morality. Its
tempting to think of Bambi as a
direct response to the horrors of Europe’s devastating First World War,
a war that was supposed to end all wars, but futilely resolved nothing.
Bambi shows how fragile and precious life is, and how it is unfortunately in nature’s very own DNA to destroy it.
Bambi, A Life in the Woods, by Felix Salten. Published by Aladdin. ISBN: 9781442467453 $21.95