Bambi: A Life in the Woods

Researched and written by Abbie Rogers

The Walt Disney animated film Bambi, a coming of age story featuring a young deer and his woodland friends, has had a profound impact on generations of viewers since its release in 1942. The death of the title character’s mother, which has introduced many children to the concept of death, is an iconic scene which musician and animal advocate Sir Paul McCartney – along with many others – credits with sparking his anti-hunting sentiment as a youngster. Likewise, the name “Bambi” has become synonymous with deer in general and is often associated with objections to hunting, particularly the killing of “cute” animals. In fact, the American Rifleman Association lobbied unsuccessfully for a pro-hunting disclaimer to be added to the film.

However, many people are unaware that Disney’s Bambi was based off of a 1923 book titled Bambi: A Life in the Woods, aimed at an adult audience, by Austrian author, editor, and theater critic Felix Salten. Salten was the pen name used by Siegmund Salzmann, a Jew born in Hungary in 1869. While Bambi is Salten’s best-known book – considered one of the earliest environmental novels – his other works included many animal stories featuring rabbits, dogs, and horses as protagonists. Salten’s personal beliefs regarding animals and their treatment are unknown and, while Bambi: A Life in the Woods seems clearly pro-animal and anti-hunting, some critics – including the Nazis – have claimed that the book is an allegory for the Nazi’s treatment of European Jews (the book was banned in Nazi Germany in 1936). NMAS has a 1956 copy of the English translation of the book in its Permanent Collection.

Salten’s Bambi: A Life in the Woods is a complex view into a forest ecosystem that extends far beyond Disney’s cartoon characters. While the animated film was groundbreaking from an artistic sense, the content of the original book was greatly diluted. Even in this form, the film helped form cultural views of nature and respect for wildlife among many viewers.

The book and the film both treat the human race as a mysterious, God-like force. In the book, humans are known collectively as “Him,” and the animals debate the details of this figure, so terrible to look at that “no one could bear to look at His pale face,” strongly echoing Exodus 33:20, in which God warns Moses, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” The animals decide that the hunter has a third hand that he throws at animals to kill them: “He would stand still, far off, and never move. You couldn’t explain what He did or how it happened, but suddenly there would be a crash like thunder, fire would shoot out and far away from Him you would drop down dying with your breast torn open.” The animals “all sat bowed while they talked about Him, as though they felt the presence of some dark, unknown power controlling them.”

In the film, humans never appear on screen; only the sound of gunshots, a distant campsite, and the animals’ fear indicate their ominous presence.

Bambi fleeing hunters
Bambi: A Life in the Woods views man as a complex and dangerous force, rather than as a straightforward villain. The animals believe Bambi’s frail young cousin Gobo to have been killed, along with Bambi’s mother and countless other animals, when hunters surrounded and ravaged the forest. However, Gobo reappears some time later as an adult, wearing a halter, and reveals that a man saved him from the hunting dogs and raised him. “You all think He’s wicked,” Gobo tells the other deer. “But He isn’t wicked. If He loves anybody or if anybody serves Him, He’s good to him. Wonderfully good! Nobody in the world can be as kind as He can.” Marena, Gobo’s mate, also sees a positive side to humanity, claiming 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.” Because the story is told from the animals’ perspective, the human’s goal in domesticating Gobo is unclear. It ultimately brings him to tragedy, however, when he fearlessly approaches a hunter, ignoring his companions’ warnings, and is shot to death. This turn of events suggests that the man may have tried to turn Gobo into a “Judas goat,” leading his companions to slaughter.

The book continues to complicate the concept of domestication in a scene where a wounded fox, pursued by a hunting dog, finally turns to face his attacker. He pleads for his life, appealing to the dog as a relative. When the hound shows no sympathy, the fox turns bitter. “‘Aren’t you ashamed, you traitor[?]’” he snarls. “‘[Y]ou track us where He could never find us. You betray us, your own relations…’” The surrounding wildlife forms a chorus, crying, “‘Traitor… Spy… Blackguard… Renegade!’” The dog responds, “‘Everything belongs to Him, just as I do. But I, I love Him, I worship Him, I serve Him. Do you think you can oppose Him, poor creatures like you? He’s all-powerful. He’s above all of you… Everything that lives or grows comes from Him.” The hound then dives at the wounded fox and shakes him until he is dead. The old stag, Bambi’s mentor and a witness to the scene, laments that “‘the dogs believe what the hound just said… they pass their lives in fear, they hate Him and themselves and yet they’d die for His sake.’”

At the book’s end, the old stag takes an aging Bambi to the dead body of a poacher, revealing to him that “‘He isn’t all-powerful as they say… He isn’t above us. He’s just the same as we are. He has the same fears, the same needs, and suffers in the same way. He can be killed like us… There is Another who is over us all, over us and over Him.’”

The film Bambi has evoked empathy for wildlife among countless viewers. Author John Galsworthy, who wrote the foreword to the English translation of the book, “particularly recommend[ed] it to sportsmen.” However Bambi’s realization that man is a mortal animal is perhaps one of the strongest messages of the book, going beyond empathy to suggest a form of equality in the old stag’s statement: “He’s just the same as we are.”

Bambi movie postersnareThe old stag frees a hare from a snare trap.

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