September 22, 2006

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Bambi, seen through a glass darkly

Remember Bambi, the cute little fawn in the Disney film? In fact, despite an undercurrent of sadness in Bambi’s mother’s death and the intrusions of human hunters, the movie depends on “cute” for its success: the feisty bunny named Thumper, the sweet baby skunk named Flower, etc.

Most of us know “Bambi” only from this film, so we might be surprised to learn that the original version by the Viennese writer Felix Salten is not cute at all. In fact, it’s a rather dark and scary tale.

According to a recent article by David Rakoff in the Nextbook Reader, Salten wrote the book in 1923 after taking a vacation in the Swiss Alps. He was smitten with the natural beauty and wildlife of that area and decided to write “the life story of a young faun [fawn] in the woods.” He devised the name “Bambi” by shortening the Italian word for “baby,” i.e. “bambino.”

Rakoff wrote that Salten’s story is “an astonishment” because of the depth of its wisdom. In one example, he quotes a chapter about “the final moments of the last two surviving leaves on an oak tree as winter approaches,” calling it a “wonder of compression and a rumination on old age and impending death as poignant as Kurt Weill’s ‘September Song.’ ”

In another passage, an exhausted, bleeding fox “stumbles into a clearing, pursued by a hunter’s hound. The fox first pleads with the hound, one canine to another. Then, understanding the inevitability of his approaching end, he suddenly sits erect and speaks in a voice bitter as gall: ‘Aren’t you ashamed, you traitor?’ ” The other animals take up the cry, and the forest rings with their denunciations of the turncoat hound.

Still, Rakoff explained, there’s “not a trace of anthropomorphized cuteness” in the book. Unlike the Disney version, the characters are not animals coyly displaying human characteristics.

Rather, “Bambi’s forest is peopled [creatured?] with characters by turns arrogant, venal, gossipy and engaging—as flawed and varied as the cosmopolitan fauna Salten must have encountered daily in his life in Vienna.”

The novel was popular with all ages. In an interesting side note, we learn that its English translator in 1929 was “Whittaker Chambers, who took the job to supplement the paltry salary he earned as editor of the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker.”

Salten was a nominal Jew who nevertheless served as an altar boy at some point, perhaps to survive in anti-Semitic Vienna. He became an obituary writer and, before writing Bambi, he wrote a pornographic novel called The Memoirs of Josephine. To say the least, he did not seem to be destined to write a spiritual book.

Still, Christian sensibility may have rubbed off on Salten during his days as an altar boy. Rakoff writes, “Ultimately, a grown Bambi realizes that ‘there is Another who is over us all, over us and over Him [man],’ a force of unquantifiable strength, but one also imbued with the attributes of mercy and loving kindness.”

Thus, we have the insightful morality tale called Bambi. God does indeed work in mysterious ways.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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