by Felix Salten

Cover image

Translator: Whittaker Chambers
Illustrator: Kurt Wiese
Publisher: Grosset & Dunlap
Copyright: 1929
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 293

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As a child, one of the veins of children's literature I mined with eagerness was animal stories. I devoured the stories of Jim Kjelgaard, read everything by Thornton Burgess I could find, read Beautiful Joe until it fell apart, and attempted (but never cared for) The Black Stallion and The Yearling. Of everything I read, though, two books stand apart: Anna Sewell's Black Beauty and Felix Salten's Bambi.

One thing I dislike about the collective work of Disney is its penchant for devouring the works that it's based on. Disney is hardly the only offender (see also The Wizard of Oz), but it's the worst. Some stories are famous enough in their own right to survive the treatment and retain their own identity (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Black Cauldron), and for some the adaptation is relatively faithful (The Hundred and One Dalmatians) and the damage limited to lack of awareness that the book came first (or even exists). But in some cases, the Disney adaptation is a travesty and its subsumption of the original work borders on the criminal.

Bambi was, at the time, a controversial film, given that it featured more violence on the screen than one expected in a 1942 animated children's movie. I expect that Disney was trying as best they could to push boundaries, given the constraints of creating a commercially successful, marketable, feel-good story. However, in the process, they ripped the living heart out of the original novel and replaced it with insipid pablum, cliches, and exactly the sort of simplistic morality that the original magnificantly avoided. If your only knowledge of the story is from the Disney movie, almost everything you know about Bambi is wrong, as are many of the childish associations that popular culture has built around the word. As far as possible, purge your mind of the Disney film, forget that you'd ever heard of characters named Thumper or Flower, bury the word "twitterpated" in the hole in which it belongs, and let me introduce you to one of the finest novels I've read.

Felix Salten was the pen name of Siegmund Salzmann, a Jewish Austrian writer born in Hungary whose books were banned by Adolf Hitler. Bambi was originally written in German and was translated to English by Whittaker Chambers (yes, that Whittaker Chambers). The edition I have features a brief foreword by John Galsworthy, the 1932 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. This was not a lightly-written or lightly-received children's fable. It has the straightforward plot and themes that make an excellent children's book, but it was published and marketed for adults and has layers of depth below the surface. It is honest (at times brutally so), heartfelt, magical, and poetic, and is a book I cannot re-read too frequently because the emotions it evokes are simply too strong. Even today, coming to the book as an experienced adult reader who knows the story by heart, parts of Bambi make me cry every time I read them.

Bambi is the life story of a roe deer living in a forest all too perilously close to man. It is a talking animal story told from the perspective of the animals: every animal and insect Bambi encounters can speak. However, unlike some talking animal stories, Salten treats the animals with a deep dignity and respect and portrays their characteristics with subtlety. As Galsworthy says in the foreword:

I do not, as a rule, like the method which places human words in the mouths of dumb creatures, and it is the triumph of this book that, behind the conversation, one feels the real sensations of the creatures who speak.

Salten does not turn his animals into children, succumb to the temptation of cuteness, or hide the sensations of wild creatures who live frequently in peril. He writes a simultaneous exploration of the life of a deer and an examination of very human questions of maturity, wisdom, relationships, pride, and communication. I've never read a book that does better at balancing the humanity behind every animal story told by humans with the deep, heart-felt emotional impact of the world of the animals.

Bambi is a beautiful example of a bildungsroman, and much of its brilliance lies in its unflinching look at the process of maturation without blatant advertising of the process to the reader. It is, among many other things, a book about discovering that you've grown up and not being entirely sure where the transition happened. Far too many children's stories celebrate childhood in its own right, as a separate and distinct state of nature or even type of being. When presented without a deeper understanding that childhood is the process of becoming an adult, they degrade into glorification of ignorance. Often, they can find no way to deal with harder issues of independence or sexual maturation except embarassed revulsion, frantic attempts at comedy, or blind rejection of the entire problem. This book stands in delightful contrast. Salten's Bambi starts life with wonderful descriptions of glee and discovery, but also is learning, growing, and being trained from his first moments. His glee lies in growth rather than in some mythical state of happy ignorance. Bambi delights in discovery, but also delights in becoming more adult, in becoming better at the skills a deer depends upon, and in knowing more about the world. Even the dangerous parts.

Fear is everpresent in Bambi and does a great deal to bring emotional depth to even Bambi's early childhood. Deer have strong, immediate fear reactions, and Salten describes them with such vividness that parts of the story make my heart race. And their world is perilous. Bambi's mother memorably warns him of the dangers of the open meadow before their first venture into it, and that meadow and its dangers remains a touchstone throughout the book. It is the symbol of both joy and freedom and of loss and disaster. It is where Bambi meets many of his friends and later companions, as well as his mate. It is also where the sharpest tragedies of the book occur. The meadow is the delight of the deer that's been taken away by man, the center of conflict between humanity and the wild.

This is not a book with a moral, but it is a book with a message. While there are smaller predators and other deaths in the story, the one predator of deer and the cause of every death of a deer not from old age is man. Beyond that, to the deer, man is a supernatural danger. Salten takes perhaps too much license in the name of the message; I doubt the smell of man would be as spectacularly different and horrible to deer as it is here, and while it's not inconceivable that man would have driven off all large predators and become the only large game hunters, it's very convenient for the message. But despite such excesses, he weaves this into the story masterfully and keeps it from overwhelming the rest of the book. The speculations of the deer on the nature of man, besides a perceptive mirror, are also excellent characterization in their own right. And when the story makes its painfully sharp commentary on the idea of keeping wild creatures as pets, it also forms a heart-rending and natural conclusion to a major plot of the book. Having too strong of a message can ruin a book, but while you can't ignore Salten's commentary on the relationship between man and nature, it's so naturally written from the deer perspective that I can find nothing to fault.

All of this is delivered against a backdrop of evocative description that includes some of the best nature writing I've ever read. How much of this is due to Salten's original and how much to Chambers's excellent translation, I don't know, but Bambi is a pure delight to read. It is full of passages like this:

Suddenly a blackbird flew to the top of a beech. She perched way up on the tompost twig that stuck up thin against the sky and sat there watching how, far away over the trees, the night-weary pale-gray heavens were glowing in the distant east and coming to life. Then she commenced to sing.

Her little black body seemed only a tiny dark speck at that distance. She looked like a dead leaf. But she poured out her song in a great flood of rejoicing through the whole forest. And everything began to stir. The finches warbled, the little red-throat and the gold finch were heard. The doves rushed from place to place with a loud clapping and rustling of wings. The pheasants cackled as though their throats would burst. The noise of their wings, as they flew from their roosts to the ground, was soft but powerful. They kept uttering their metallic, splintering call with its soft ensuing chuckle. Far above the falcons cried sharply and joyously, "Yayaya!"

The sun rose.

Even more astonishingly, this beauty and vividness is present even where the animals are more anthropomorphic. Salten both mirrors humans and lets animal nature shine through. I cannot think of pheasant hunting without thinking of the pheasant, wild with fear, telling itself over and over again not to fly. The stately majesty of the older stags, so much a feature of Bambi's early years, sets up a wonderful melencholy scene of failed communication, the barrier of pride, and mutual misunderstanding that puts into context all of Bambi's previous experience without undermining it in the slightest. One is constantly experiencing a viscerally-described scene of natural wonder and reading quietly perceptive analysis of life simultaneously.

In one of the most memorable scenes of the book, Salten writes a short chapter about the onset of winter. The entire chapter is told from the perspective of two leaves, clinging to their branch after some of their neighbors have already fallen. In that scene lives all the questions of mortality and afterlife, mutual support against the unknown, the comforting lies people tell each other, wonderings about the future and the sweep of time, and fear of death. It's a conversation between two leaves. This book not infrequently leaves me in awe.

I could go on like this for some time. I haven't even exhausted the notes I scribbled down while reading, or commented on Salten's sharp contrast between true maturity and the false path of clinging to ignorance, or described his adroit handling of sexual maturation without either playing the deer too false or betraying his respectful tone. The depth packed into this small volume is simply astonishing. And the story, while relatively simple, always pulls me into turning the pages so quickly that I find some new overlooked detail on each reading. I care about the characters so much, and their tragedies are so vivid, that Bambi can be painful to read.

If you have not read this book, you have missed what I consider to be one of the greatest novels in the English language (and quite possibly in the German language as well). Bambi is a thoroughly engrossing story for anyone old enough to be able to handle realistic animal death, with enough additional meaning and simple good writing to reward many re-readings at any age. I know my reactions to it are heavily influenced by reading it at a formative age, but even viewing it with the eyes of a far-more-experienced reader, I can comfortably give it my strongest possible recommendation.

Unfortunately, Disney's obliteration of original source material extends to book form, and a simple search for Bambi in a book store turns up far too many novelizations of the movie. If you're looking for this book, make sure it's written by Felix Salten, the Whittaker Chambers translation, ideally with Kurt Wiese's excellent illustrations. Accept no substitutes and check the front matter carefully for any sign that you're not getting the true work.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-05-05

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