The Darker Side of Bambi

What Felix Salten's tale teaches us about the lives of men

Charlie Tyson

Animal tales have long been banished to that most soporific region of children’s literature: the literature of moral education. The conservative politician William J. Bennett’s 1993 anthology The Book of Virtues, for instance, gathers stories of brave mice, industrious ants, and prudent hens to inculcate American children into habits of responsibility and self-discipline, unlocking the doors of the menagerie in order to crack the ruler on the desk. This moralizing imperative is present from the beginnings of the genre. The Pañcatantra, a collection of animal fables from ancient India, was composed, according to one account, for the purpose of instructing “three dull-headed and reluctant princes.” Aesop’s fables come packaged with a moral at the end. On the other hand, animal stories risk being vacuous, populated by big-eyed fuzzy creatures who have errantly wandered out of a Disney production: comforting but bland, the literary equivalent of a teddy bear. The animal tale as genre, then, occupies an unenviable literary position: poised to be either overly serious (even punitively didactic) or not serious enough, merely a delivery system for anthropomorphized rabbits peddling bromides.

Yet a darker seam runs through this tradition: a preoccupation with the inhumanity of man. Think of Art Spiegelman’s sinister game of cat and mouse in Maus, his graphic novel about the Holocaust that presents Jews as mice, or Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, about a French town whose inhabitants transform into beasts. Such tales lay bare our animality. Animal life is not merely the stuff of children’s tales. It is, rather, one of art’s fundamental subjects. “The first subject matter for painting was animal,” writes the critic John Berger. “Probably the first paint was animal blood.” Felix Salten’s Bambi, first published in 1922 and recently reissued by New York Review Books in a new translation by Damion Searls, makes use of the elemental power of animal art. Salten paints with blood, and in Bambi, he shows it oozing, dripping, spilling, smearing: staining earth, melting snow. Perhaps no animal tale better epitomizes the dark possibilities of animal stories alongside the sentimental repurposing of them.

It can be difficult to appreciate the visceral nature of Salten’s tale. Many associate it with the 1942 Disney film that eclipsed—and sanitized—its source material. The movie, which made Bambi a large-eyed icon of cervine innocence, is feared as a fount of childhood nightmares, the sad fate of Bambi’s mother conveying, with unusual force for a children’s film, the irrevocability of death. While the film has moments of charm and beauty, it dilutes the violence and tension of Salten’s novella. Other readers, trained by the long tradition of didactic animal fables, interpret this story of hunted deer in stark allegorical terms, as a parable about Jews in post–World War I Europe. This reading has force. At the turn of the twentieth century, Salten, a Jewish writer based in Vienna, wrote a weekly column for Theodor Herzl’s Zionist newspaper Die Welt. Some three decades later, the Nazi government banned Bambi, along with the rest of Salten’s work, as Jewish propaganda.

But both film and allegory threaten to obscure Salten’s achievement. The real contribution of the original Bambi is the empathy and precision with which Salten imagines his way inside animal life. This narrative, written by an avid hunter who revered the animals he killed and who once speculated that if we learned to treat animals justly, then peace among human beings would “move considerably closer within our reach,” marks a good-faith effort to discover, in prose, an alien form of embodiment.

It can be difficult to appreciate the visceral nature of Salten’s tale.

Salten was not alone in attempting to revivify the genre of the animal fable. He is often compared to his contemporary Franz Kafka, with whom he shared a preoccupation with the animal world and a certain beleaguered Central European pessimism. Both writers can claim credit for shifting the animal story into the key of horror. But Kafka was far less interested in the facts of animal life. Although his ape in “A Report to an Academy” picks fleas, scratches himself, and defecates in his cage, elsewhere his creatures do not seem much like animals. As Walter Benjamin comments, “You can read Kafka’s animal stories for quite a while without realizing that they are not about human beings at all.”

Salten, by contrast, takes pains to immerse us in the perceptual worlds his animals inhabit. Like Kafka, he anthropomorphizes his creatures: they gossip, banter, even weep. But they are always recognizably animals. Bambi and his mother cannot help but bleat when they see their massive elk relatives. An owl breaks off his philosophizing to shred a mouse. Relying on habitual observation and ambitious imagining, Salten finds his way into animal consciousness.

The novella immediately makes us aware of Bambi’s physical experience. Soon after he is born, he nestles against his mother and luxuriates in her “soft, jostling tongue strokes”: “it was bodily care, warming massage, and loving caress all at once.” This expression of maternal tenderness helps us imagine the solidity of Bambi’s body; as his mother licks and nuzzles she gives form to his crumpled shape. Other episodes of pleasurable contact similarly emphasize Bambi’s sensuous responsiveness. He feels the foliage stroke his flanks, the grass part gently under his footsteps. Out on the meadow, he senses the sun “with his pleasantly warmed back.” In his phenomenology of the forest, Salten does not let us forget the animal’s embodied presence. As Bambi passes through the teeming world, he is continuously enwrapped in sensation.

Bambi inhabits his body not as humans would, but according to the manner of his kind. He leaps into the air with laughter; he scampers and trots, jerks and freezes. Later, when he reaches sexual maturity, his flirtation with the doe Faline becomes a literal chase, and they bound through the grass in “sharp zigzags.” Salten magnifies Bambi’s sense of smell: he takes in the bitter odors rolling off the river and “senses, amid the scents of leaves, soil, garlic, and baby’s breath, that the polecat is moving around somewhere.” In this world of sensation, even plants, trees, and earth seem capable of pleasure and pain. An oak tree screams from its wound; the earth drinks in “great gulps of melting snow”; two trembling leaves, fearing winter, comfort one another in the story’s most poignant image of the life cycle.

The novella’s sensory richness serves to make its violence more acute. For these animals that take pleasure in the “swooshing green silk” of the meadow, the “thousandfold nimble life springing up” under their footsteps, the golden light breaking through the foliage, these animals have a corresponding capacity for pain. As Bambi’s mother caresses her newborn, she is “swiveling her ears, sniffing the wind.” The danger of the forest soon becomes apparent. In the movie, the hare’s young son enjoyed a large role as Thumper, who teaches Bambi to walk, gambol, skate on ice, and pronounce his first words. In the book, this little rabbit is attacked by crows and killed in “gruesome fashion,” heard piteously wailing as he slowly expires. A squirrel, bitten by a marten and bleeding badly, runs frenzied through the branches, maddened by pain, “the red blood running down over her white breast.” When she finally collapses, magpies feast on her. Even Bambi reveals his ruthlessness. In one scene, he must fight off an erotic rival. The other stag realizes, with “cold fear,” that “Bambi was berserk, implacably determined to kill him.”

The animals that maim, kill, and eat other creatures in the forest are, Salten suggests, following their nature. More disturbing is the threat posed by man, always referred to in the book as “He.” Man is elastic, protean, capable of unfolding a third arm that flashes fire. He is essentially deceptive. In one uncanny sequence, Bambi, hearing cries from Faline, races to find her. His father, the Old Stag, suddenly bars his path. Together the two deer approach the source of the sounds, and the sharp scent of “Him” rushes into Bambi’s nostrils:

          He stood, concealed in hazel bushes, and the soft call came: “Come…
          come…” … It was Him standing there, and He was imitating Faline’s
          voice. It was Him warbling, “Come…come…”
          Bambi’s whole body was seized with bloodless horror.

In this tale, man is defined by sinister artifice. The creatures in the forest talk urgently about the hand that sprays fire, the gleaming tooth that cuts into tree trunks, the acrid scent that lashes their nostrils, the pale face that “radiates a fearsome horror.” They are unsure whether man is part of nature or beyond it. What they do know is that his presence leads to destruction. At the novel’s midpoint, there is a massacre. We see the beauty of a pheasant rising in his last moments, “wings whooshing, luxuriantly shimmering with the dark-blue, golden-brown metallic shine of his body.” A thunderclap sounds, and the bird twists and falls. The hare’s wife pleads with Bambi for help, her rear legs “dragging lifeless in the snow, which was dyed red and melting from her hot blood.” In the confusion, Bambi thinks he sees his mother fall. He never sees her again.

The original Bambi recharges our perception of the violence and vitality of the natural world.

The quicksilver character of man, who makes himself known through the injuries he inflicts on flesh, earth, and tree, gives rise to theological disputes among the animals. A dog corners a fox with a shattered paw. “Traitor!” the bleeding fox snarls. “Turncoat! Defector! … you track us down where He can’t find us … you turn us in … us, your relatives!” The dog, brainwashed into the cult of man, insists on his master’s omnipotence. “Everything’s His … I love Him, I pray to Him! I serve Him! … He is all-powerful! He is above us!” The wise Old Stag knows otherwise. Elsewhere, reflecting on the errors of the animals who worship man, he growls: “He’s as all-powerful as He is all-good.” The central issue, for the stag, is a problem of mistaken belief.

The Disney film, of course, builds to a climax of conflagration, a forest fire that signals man’s overwhelming power. The novella’s last moments, by contrast, stress the vulnerability of humanity. The Old Stag’s final act is to guide Bambi to a corpse. “The hunter’s bared neck was pierced with a wound, open like a little red mouth. Blood was still seeping gently out of it, stiffening in his hair, under his nose, and pooling on the ground, melting the snow with its warmth.” This image of a dead poacher evokes the battlefield horrors of World War I, still fresh when Salten was composing Bambi. It is also a portrait of a dead deity. For the Old Stag, the lesson is clear: “He is alongside us, just like us—He too knows fear and hunger and sorrow. He can be overpowered and defeated.”

Salten’s forest is a masculine world. The Old Stag preaches solitude and self-reliance. The writer Kathryn Schulz detects, in the story, “an element of misogyny”; Bambi discards Faline soon after their courtship to join his father in a more remote part of the forest. But Salten indicates, albeit briefly, the more surprising direction that his narrative might have taken. One of the novella’s most vividly imagined (but under-utilized) characters is a deer named Marena. She is quiet, meditative, given to utterances that seem at once naive and prophetic. During the massacre, she intones, Cassandra-like, “Some of us will die in this hour. Maybe I will be one of them.”

She also gives voice to a dream of peace. “It’s said that one day He will come among us and be gentle like we are,” Marena declares, her eyes shining. “He will play with us, the whole forest will be happy, and we will be reconciled.” An older female deer howls with laughter and dismisses the prediction as “nonsense.” Readers of the novella might be tempted to agree. The narrative’s grim view of humanity seems to leave little hope for reconciliation. Under such conditions, solitude and retreat appear as the deer’s best options. But Marena’s prophecy casts the Old Stag’s final lesson—the poacher’s corpse in the snow—in a new light. This image of human sacrifice marks a return, of sorts, to the forest. The dream of harmony between human beings and animals remains remote. But the blood seeping into the ground expresses a reintegration of the human into the natural world.

Must such a reintegration be achieved at the cost of death? Salten’s woodland symphony suggests that there may be another way of addressing our alienation from nature. It is “the capacity of the writer,” asserts the critic Jonathan Bate, “to restore us to the earth which is our home.” Salten’s sensuous revivification of the animal tale does precisely this. More than parable or fodder for children’s nightmares, the original Bambi recharges our perception of the violence and vitality of the natural world.

Charlie Tyson is a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Baffler, and Bookforum.
Originally published:
November 30, 2022


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