The Original Bambi: The Story of a Life in the Forest
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.
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”.
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.