18 January 2010

Bambi, A Life in the Woods

Bambi, A Life in the Woods (1928)
By Felix Salten, trans. by Whittaker Chambers

Damn you, Walt Disney Studios! Here’s something else for which you must answer: your dominance of the image of “Bambi” through your 1942 film adaptation. And this is one of your classics, a great animated work of art! But it still obscures its source novel, and now that I’ve read it, I do not feel forgiving. I’ve discovered a novel that is one of the most breathtaking, hypnotic fantasies that I’ve ever encountered. Bambi, A Life in the Woods, even in English translation, is a masterpiece, and it unfortunately lies buried under “Disneyfication.”

I discovered that the Disney monopoly on the story of a deer’s survival in the woods holds even in Germany; admittedly, this is an Austrian novel, but nonetheless a German-language work. When I tried to buy an original language copy of the book in Munich for my sister as a holiday present—I thought it would serve as a pleasant way for her to practice reading the language of her new resident nation, and the language that her son will grow up speaking—nobody in the major bookstores had any idea what I was talking about. They kept directing me to illustrated children’s books about the Disney movie, or a DVD. They claimed to have never heard of this “Felix Salten” fellow or know that Bambi originally came from a novel. For a classic book, Bambi certainly seems to have developed a low-profile, like a deer avoiding hunters.

Bambi is a shocking book when compared to the film version. Everybody remembers the death of Bambi’s mother in the movie; it’s appropriately seen as a “right-of-passage” for young viewers. Take the emotional brutality of that moment from the film and apply it to roughly eighty percent of the story, and you have some idea of the harshness of Salten’s novel. It paints a realistic and savage picture of nature. Sometimes the does and fawns frolic—but fear is always present, death sudden, and life’s lessons painful. Stand on your own . . . stand alone . . . or die.
When [Bambi] was still a child the old stag had taught him that you must live alone. Then and afterward the old stag had revealed much wisdom and many secrets to him. But of all his teaching this had been the most important: you must live alone. If you wanted to preserve yourself, if you understood existence, if you wanted to attain wisdom, you had to live alone.
I don’t wish to give you the idea that Bambi, A Life in the Woods is a relentlessly dour or depressing book. The beauty of Salten’s writing and the passion of the characters have immense power of aesthetic uplift. There are also a number of comedic sequences, like a chattering of birds spreading rumors to each other in a tree over Bambi’s head. But for the most part the novel presents wildlife with few illusions, and goes against the idyllic paradise associated with fairy-tales about talking animals. The beasts can speak, and that is what makes the story a fantasy, but otherwise Salten treats his creatures in a realistic fashion, not only physically but also psychologically. The roe deer that are the center of the story don’t exist in a family grouping that makes biological sense to a human: mothers start to abandon their children at a young age, and children purposely do not know their fathers, who exist in a realm of unapproachable royalty. Relationships to other animals are sometimes cordial, but a cool exists between all the forest beasts, and trust is given fully to none.

The innocence of the Disney film only appears early in Salten’s novel; the movie retains the novel’s death of Bambi’s mother, but other than that the two have little in common. The funny characters of Thumper and Flower are nowhere in sight; Bambi makes the acquaintance of some of the other forest animals, such as Friend Hare and the screech owl, but these are not relationships based on play. Bambi’s playmates are his cousins Faline and Gobo, who start to lean the hard lessons in life with Bambi. Gobo, completely cut from the movie, presents the most unusual character in the story with the strangest arc.

The presence of humans in the story, imagined through the capitalized pronoun “He,” is more pronounced than the film. Salten eventually weaves a strange message about the frailty of all living things, even “He,” which is surprising for its philosophical intricacy. If Bambi at first seems like a children’s story in its pastoral language, it soon shows many layers of messages and themes that are too difficult—and probably too painful—for most young children. Bambi’s growth in life is an arduous one, most of it centered on loss and release: what leaves you, and what you must leave. Each relationship he has in the book has a special quality to it that reinforces the others, and each presents a difficult lesson: Bambi and his mother, who leaves him even before her more definitive departure; Bambi and his “mate” Faline, for whose love he fights a violent duel against his former companions; Bambi and the mysteriously resurrected Gobo, who has a different tale to tell of the humans; Bambi and the screech owl, who wishes only to scare other animals; Bambi and “He,” the deadly mystery of every creature’s life; and most central relationship in the book, Bambi and the old stag, the eldest and wisest prince of the forest.

I have never seen the German version of Bambi, and don’t know enough of the language to make a comparison to the Whittaker Chambers’s English translation. I can only judge from my reaction to it—and it reads as phenomenal poetry. The book’s high point is the extended Chapter X, when “He” unleashes a full hunt on the meadow, and the prose turns into an apocalyptic scene with dead pheasants spiraling down from the sky and other animals dropping left and right with a suddenness we expect in contemporary war films. This is the chapter where Bambi’s mother dies, but she’s only one of many to get ripped apart in the fusillade. Another remarkable chapter is written from the view of two leaves clinging to their tree in the moments before they are torn away to fall to forest floor as winter approaches: “Can it be true . . . can it really be true, that others come to take our places when we’re gone and after them still others, and more and more?”

Whittaker Chambers is principally a figure of twentieth-century politics, first as a Soviet spy in the U.S., and later on the other side of the aisle as a witness against Alger Hiss. But, from now on, I’ll principally think of him as the man who translated Bambi, A Life in the Woods.

A final recommendation: the Nazis banned this book and publicly burned it. If the Nazis hated it, it is worth the free world’s time.