Oh, Bambi! I had no idea.
My husband inherited his dad’s copy of Felix Salten’s Bambi, so it was in our family library until we passed it on to our son. Though my husband assured me that it was nothing like the cartoon, for over 30 years I resisted reading it. I assumed that since I hadn’t read it as a child, it wouldn’t be worth my time as an adult. I knew it couldn’t be just like the Disney version. No book I know of has survived Disney-fication intact. But I still expected a less than stimulating read. I didn’t believe an author could maintain my interest in a baby deer throughout an entire novel, and I assumed Salten would rely heavily on manipulating my emotions. After all, we know Bambi’s mother dies. And there’s the terror of that devastating, man-caused forest fire.
Last week I found a paperback copy of Bambi on our library’s donation rack. It is less than 200 pages long. The language level is suitable for advanced third grade and up. I figured I might as well give it a try. Over the next three or four days, I found myself thinking about the animals at random times during the day; concerned about them. I also kept peering ahead to see if this was the chapter where Bambi’s mother dies. Somehow, I needed to be prepared. How did Salten get his creatures to do that to me? While they seemed to be wandering through the forest going about their own business, they managed to reach out and grab me.
A “dressed animal” only gains my sympathy in as far as a human with the same personality or in the same situation would. Salten’s animals are not dressed. We know animals must communicate in some fashion. Bambi and his circle of acquaintances converse in a manner that is entirely believable, though it must be translated into human speech (originally German). Most of their knowledge is confined to things it would be possible for them to know. Their actions are nearly always animal-like. They almost automatically have my sympathy because they are innocent creatures, living according to instinct, suffering with man under The Curse.
In the first chapter, Bambi is born in a secluded thicket. The only witness is a noisy magpie. The next chapter tells of his first weeks of life spent with his mother constantly at his side. The business of his life is to ask her questions as he learns to understand his world. Before long, she introduces him to the meadow. I was waiting for the introduction of his cute, fluffy, wiser friends of other species. Where is Thumper? Flower the skunk? They don’t come. Bambi is a deer. He makes acquaintances of other species. They are not his best friends or guides.
One day in the meadow with his mother, his aunt, and two cousins, Bambi sees a group of Princes, the stags. Bambi and his cousins Faline and Gobo are told that these are their fathers. Bambi is intimidated by them, but also drawn to them. Later he hears about the old stag, the Great Prince who is seen by the other deer only often enough that they are sure he is still alive. On a day after Bambi’s mother has begun to leave him alone more often, he is feeling particularly forlorn and starts calling to her.
“Suddenly one of the fathers was standing in front of him looking sternly down at him. . . ‘What are you crying about?’ the old stag asked severely. Bambi trembled in awe and did not dare answer. ‘Your mother has no time for you now,’ the old stag went on. Bambi was completely dominated by his masterful voice and at the same time, he admired it. ‘Can’t you stay by yourself? Shame on you!’”
From then on, Bambi is drawn to the old stag and often goes looking for him. At other times the old stag comes to Bambi, gradually imparting to him the knowledge that has kept the stag alive longer than any other deer. Bambi simply wants to be with the old stag. He wants to earn the old stag’s respect and love. The old stag knows that one day another deer will have to succeed him. Beginning with lessons from his mother from the first days of his life and ending with the old stag’s parting wisdom, Bambi learns over and over to listen carefully and to keep his head.
Salten’s descriptions of the forest through all the seasons are beautiful. He respectfully handles the seasons of the deer’s lives as well. Bambi’s mother leaves him alone more and more often until he becomes accustomed to it. There is no emotional parting scene. Bambi and Faline do fall in love. He has to fight for her, as deer do. At the time, they don’t know they won’t live together always, but as the season changes, they grow apart so gradually that they hardly wonder at it.
Disney is responsible for the expectation that Bambi was intended as a children’s story. It was not, though children may enjoy it if they are prepared for the intensity of true nature. The story is about the lives of animals, therefore, death is everywhere. “Winter dragged on . . . It was silent in the woods, but something horrible happened every day.” Carnivores kill for food. It is often ugly. He, man, also kills! This is not a sermon against the evils of hunting, however. The deer and other animals fear Him because He will kill them. They fear Him because none of the forest creatures can stand up to Him. Most of the forest creatures believe that He is all-powerful.
One day, the deer are discussing what they believe about Him. One young doe says, “They say that sometime He’ll come to live with us and be as gentle as we are. He’ll play with us then and the whole forest will be happy, and we’ll be friends with Him.” One old doe says that’s nonsense. The young one says, “Love is no nonsense. It has to come.” I wonder if Salten was thinking of Isaiah 11:6; “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.” As Salten was a Jew, I assume he was not thinking of what comes to my mind, Romans 8:22-24, “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoptions as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.” In the end, the old stag does show Bambi that He is not all-powerful. He leads Bambi to conclude; “There is Another who is over us all, over us and over Him.” The old stag answers, “Now I can go.”
Bambi is available at Audible.