Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Adventure classics -- Bambi: a war in the woods


by Felix Salten


The first thing you should know about Felix Salten’s dark vision of Bambi (originally subtitled A Life in the Woods) is that it isn’t a children’s book. Salten’s European woods of the 1920’s are the descendents of the forbidding forest where Dante lost his way, the wolf-haunted forests of the Brothers Grimm. And over their sweet thickets hedged by “hazel bushes, dogwoods, black-thorn and young elders” where fawns come into the world hangs the shadow of one world war, and the clamor of another drowns the forest’s myriad voices.

John Galsworthy’s enthusiastic foreword to the 1929 English translation recommends the book, ironically, I must suppose, “to sportsmen.” The Nazis who would later overrun Salten’s native Austria, although seldom masters of subtlety, understood better. They banned the book.

Some writers, after the gentler Disney movie version came out in 1942, considered Bambi an anti-fascist allegory, it’s more realistic to think of it as an anti-war allegory, but from a civilian standpoint. Salten, after all, was nearly fifty when the First World War ended. And except for a single mass hunt in which Bambi’s mother perishes, there’s relatively little direct carnage. Instead, Salten gives us background fear, food shortages, and betrayals by other “civilians” in the forest.

But don’t let the darkness keep you from enjoying the book. Between episodes of darkness, lovers frolic, children are born, and life goes on, often with great beauty and delight. Although I often dislike, as Galsworthy wrote, “the method which places human words in the mouths of dumb creatures, it is the triumph of this book that, behind the conversation, one feels the real sensations of the creatures who speak.”

To achieve this illusion of getting behind the conversation, Salten relies less on putting human words in the mouths of animals than of allowing humans to feel the emotions of the animals.

“All animals and people have the same core emotion systems in the brain,” writes twenty-first century animal behavioral scientist Temple Grandin in her 2009 Animals Make Us Human. Grandin actually is only considering the emotions of mammals, but Salten extends our sympathies to owls, magpies, jays and ducks, even to a crowd of midges, marveling at the ancient beetles “who live forever almost. They see the sun thirty or forty times, we don’t know exactly how many. Our lives are long enough, but we see the daylight only once or twice.“

Hungarian-born Salten’s family moved to Vienna when he was a child, seeking the citizenship the city granted to Jews in the late nineteenth century. He dropped out of school at sixteen to help support his family, eventually becoming known as a prolific writer of plays, fiction, and journalism. and was soon was a poet, playwright, and journalist. And he must also have loved the woods, however dark they were, and the creatures who inhabited them.

From the opening sentence, “He came into the world in the middle of the thicket, in one of those little, hidden forest glades which seem to be entirely open, but are really screened in on all sides,” to the tenderness of an adult Bambi’s interaction with a pair of fawns, fawns who readers realize, although Bambi did not, are his own children, Bambi is, in Galsworthy’s words, “a delicious book.”

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a February of animal adventures with Albert Payson Terhune’s short story, “One Minute Longer.”)

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