Book Review: Bambi, A Life in the Woods, by Felix Salten

The huge and enduring popularity of Walt Disney’s animated film, Bambi (1942), coupled with its undisputed artistic excellence, has made this pioneering animated feature synonymous with the best in twentieth century popular culture. Unfortunately this has put the original 1923 novel by Austrian writer, Felix Salten, somewhat in the shade. That’s a great shame, as Salten’s Bambi, A Life in the Woods, is of an exceptionally high quality, and deserves to be constantly in print and available on every bookshelf. As it stands, for English readers at least, it takes a bit of work to get hold of a copy, but the effort taken is well worth it.

Bambi’s Hobbesian Nightmare World

Perhaps the main reason why Bambi, A Life in the Woods struggles to find the wide readership enjoyed by other mainstream classics is that the novel is difficult to categorise. It is written in the style of a children’s novel, with a cast of anthropomorphised woodland animals, yet the novel has much gruesome violence and a view of nature as being red in tooth and claw. Read to children before bedtime, Salten’s novel would induce nightmares. The frequently vivid descriptions of warm blood and exposed viscera induce dizziness and revulsion in the reader. Salten’s Bambi is closer to a Hobbesian nightmare, where the rule is eat or be eaten, than a Rousseauist garden paradise of plenty and leisure. A palpable atmosphere of fear and dread runs throughout the novel, as vulnerable animals must remain ever vigilant to avoid painful and terrifying death.

Salten highlights notions of innocence and purity by contrasting the young Bambi, a roe deer, against the cruel laws of nature that make every creature some link in the food chain. We feel tender sympathy for Bambi, and wish him to remain forever protected and safe, yet soon enough his mother starts to push him away and he must learn independence and accept the loneliness of a solitary life. This elicits a terrible sadness and poignancy in the reader as we watch Bambi confront the cold realities of adulthood. Many of the tensions that we as readers feel, such as the pull between wanting to protect Bambi and the acceptance of nature’s bloody laws, are not resolved or discussed in the novel. Rather there is an elegiac sentiment that is pursued throughout, a feeling of sorrow for an innocence that cannot survive the ways of the world.

One further complexity is added to the novel. The creature at the top of the food chain, man, described throughout as ‘He’, stalks the woods with his rifle shooting down animals. He is perhaps one of the most terrifying of the woodland animals, with his weapon of cold precision.

Near the end of the novel, ‘He’ is killed, shot through the head in a particularly bloody episode. The animals discuss his death, and declare that he is after all just an animal too, and not a God, like he sometimes likes to think of himself.

Is Bambi an Anti-War Novel?

The Nazis banned the Jewish Salten’s Bambi, A Life in the Woods in 1936, alleging it was ‘political allegory on the treatment of Jews in Europe.’ The novel in some of its more bloody parts does read like an anti-war novel. What surely would have infuriated Hitler more was the novel’s Darwinian aspect, of describing man as no more than one of the animals, and subject to nature’s laws as all animals are. This, coupled with Bambi’s humanistic, sympathetic tone for nature’s more vulnerable creatures, would have pushed the Fuhrer to boiling point.

Salten’s 1923 Bambi, A Life in the Woods comes down to modern readers 90 years later as a perfectly executed child-adult novel about the terrible realities of nature balanced against humanistic notions of sympathy, innocence and morality. Its tempting to think of Bambi as a direct response to the horrors of Europe’s devastating First World War, a war that was supposed to end all wars, but futilely resolved nothing. Bambi shows how fragile and precious life is, and how it is unfortunately in nature’s very own DNA to destroy it.

Bambi, A Life in the Woods, by Felix Salten. Published by Aladdin Paperbacks. ISBN 13: 9780671666071