Bambi, before it was a children’s movie

(Photo via Getty Images.)

When I first saw Disney Bambi as a child, the entire cinematic experience was overshadowed by the emotional shock of watching Bambi lose his mother. More like an old-school Grimms fairy tale than a typical, modern children’s film, Bambi planted the terrifying and very realistic fear of losing a parent. And yet, the Disney film is saccharine compared to the adult novel on which it is based.

The Original Bambi: The Story of a Life in the Forestwas recently translated by Jack Zipes, Emeritus Professor of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota, on the occasion of the centennial of Bambithe original publication of. Written by Felix Salten – who had culturally camouflaged his Jewish birth name of Siegmund Salzmann –Bambi is a poignant allegory of Jewish life in Europe.

Born in Pest, Hungary, and raised in Vienna, Austria, Felix Salten was an author shaped by the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As a journalist and outdoorsman who enjoyed hunting, Salten also wrote as a keen observer. In Bambi, readers peer into the harsh existence of Salten’s beloved forest animals, as well as the precariousness of European Jewish life in the early 20th century. The story is substantial and thought-provoking, and Salten’s imagery and writing skills are evident even through the barrier of translation. Like many other culturally highly specific stories, Bambi’s well-written peculiarity provides readers with universal relatability.

You can see and hear the whole forest. Butterflies are like “wandering flowers”. The birds emitted distinct sounds, including “the loud laughter of the woodpecker and the mirthless call of the crow”, while the pheasants “screamed, and it looked like their throats were going to burst”. Bambi’s friend Hare, who has “long spoon ears” is described as “very distinguished”. Even the leaves discuss what happens after the fall, because no fallen leaf “‘ha[s] never came back to tell us about it.

Bambi tells the story of life in the forest through the eyes of a male fawn, who grows up to be a prince of the forest, as deer are called here. Reflecting reality, young Bambi spends a lot of time with his mother, as deer do not help raise their offspring. Bambi’s mother is his teacher, answering his many questions and helping him understand the world around him. She teaches Bambi to respect deer, befriend smaller animals, and survive. For example, Bambi must learn to sniff the air to detect nearby danger and to spend time safely in an open meadow. After young Bambi sees a skunk kill a mouse, his mother also explains that they won’t do the same, “Because we never kill anyone.”

The first time Bambi’s mother takes him to the meadow, he is still too young to really grasp the notion of danger. Yet, because he stalks all the animals in the forest, Bambi’s mother urgently tells him to “Run even if something should happen.” …Even if you see me fall to the ground, don’t pay attention to me. Do you understand? …No matter what you see or hear. . . . Just keep going through the forest and run as fast as you can! To say that’s a tough promise for a child to keep is an understatement, but it sums up the very real struggle of animals for survival.

Deer are at the top of the forest hierarchy, with deer being the highest ranked. Deer largely keep to themselves. It is considered a special event when the deer appear and engage with others, such as the majestic old prince, who plays a special fatherly role in Bambi’s life.

Animals also see humans, called “He” or “Him”. He and his deadly “third hand” are a subject of forest-wide curiosity and discussion. Although there is some disagreement about it, it is clear that the humans pose an imminent and potentially deadly danger to the residents of the forest. There are no bird watchers here; the only humans these animals encounter are hunters.

Death, always on the prowl, is frequent and ugly. Bambi watches as many animals, including his friends, suffer painful endings. Lives can be snuffed out by the unforgiving harshness of winter or by stronger animals. Others are eliminated by Him, whom the animals regard as “a dark and inexplicable power that rules over them”.

Animals are incapable of ensuring their own safety, especially in a world filled with human hunters. On another level, this was also true for European Jews struggling with millennia of anti-Semitism. Writing when he did, there was no way for Salten to know what would happen to European Jewry in the 1930s and 1940s. But read in 2022, Bambi feels oddly prescient.

Zipes writes in the introduction of The Original Bambi that on Salten’s paternal side he “came from a distinguished Jewish family descended from several generations of rabbis”. However, young Salten, the son of an engineer who grew up facing significant anti-Semitism, devoted himself to assimilating into Viennese society. Over time, however, Salten’s thinking apparently shifted to the idea that fellow Austro-Hungarian writer Theodor Herzl had first proposed decades earlier: politically organizing to create a modern Jewish state. .

Zipes, the translator, emailed: “During the First World War, [Salten] became more interested in Zionism, and it is clear that the problem of anti-Semitism was on his mind because the Jews were blamed for the defeat of the Austrians and Germans and the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. … It was a violent time and Salten was torn – loyalty to the Jews or loyalty to the Austrian nobility. Salten had many friends who belonged to the nobility, but he also “wrote many articles on Jews and anti-Semitism”.

The novel captures a long-running intra-community debate over how best to ensure the survival of a frequently persecuted small people who never proselytize. Bambi’s weak cousin Gobo, for example, replaces European Jews eager to erase what society believed made them the most Jewish. In Salten’s day, that meant Christian conversion, driven not by belief, but by a desire to escape anti-Semitism, advance professionally, and live a more normal life. (A contemporary version: young Jews pressured to denounce Israel, as a precondition for acceptance by the left-wing so-called Community of Good.) Notably, this psychological standoff was not abstract; Zipes told me that Salten considered Catholic conversion “because it would have made his life easier.”

As for Gobo, the other deer believe he is dead when he cannot escape the hunters they all fled from. Gobo is unexpectedly brought home and transformed into a pet wearing a collar. Captivity changes Gobo’s worldview. Back in the forest, Gobo tells the other animals that he is benevolent, and “I don’t need to be afraid of [dogs] more. I’m good friends with them now.

Gobo clearly loses his instinct for survival by living with him: “Gobo never stopped at the edge of the thicket, never looked around for a moment when he entered the open, but simply ran away without taking precautions. The old prince openly takes pity on Gobo, who raves about his time in captivity. Bambi is the only other animal who “was ashamed of Gobo without knowing why”. Gobo later runs towards a hunter, only to be shot. Unlike Bambi, Gobo never internalizes the important lessons of survival and self-reliance.

Along the same lines, a hunter dog fights a fox to the death in another important episode. The dog wounds the fox, then refuses to let it die peacefully. The injured fox summons the energy to taunt the dog by calling it traitor, defector, deserter, and thug: “You wretched creature, you pursue us where he could never find us.” You’re betraying us, your own parents, and I’m almost your own brother! How can you stand there and not be ashamed? Somewhere deep inside, the dog might be ashamed. But that day, he chooses to viciously kill the fox.

The forest is a treacherous place, just as interwar Europe was increasingly threatening. Bambi, seemingly like Salten, learns that a strong survival instinct must be accompanied by self-respect and a willingness to stand out, perhaps especially when it’s tough.

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