Monday, February 01, 2010

Book review: Bambi

Bambi: A Life in the Woods, Felix Salten ****

Yes, I read Bambi. Yes, I'm giving it four out of four stars.

Bambi was published in 1928, but I'd never read it before. In fact, I hadn't even known the book existed. I knew the film, of course, and since Disney almost always adapted existing works, I would have realized there must be a source if I'd thought about it. But I never did think about it, because who reads Bambi nowadays? I'd never heard anyone mention reading it. I loved animal stories as a child, yet I don't recall ever coming across anything but Disney picture books.

But earlier this month, I read Ursula K. Le Guin's book of essays Cheek by Jowl. In it, Le Guin called Bambi "a beautiful book, truthful in its observations and its emotions, disturbing, austere, and subtle." With that recommendation, I had to read it. And Le Guin is right. Absolutely right.

The book is nothing like the movie. Le Guin is right again: "The movie, for all its brilliance and seductive power, betrays the book on every level." There's nothing "cute" about this book. In fact, it's not a "children's book" at all. It was written for adults. (Although I think many intelligent and sensitive children of, say, 10 and older will like or even love it.)

I want you to read one scene that startled me with its depth and power. Bambi and another deer watch as a dog corners a fox. The "He" that they speak of is, of course, Man, the hunter, a looming presence throughout the book.

...the dog was never silent for a minute. His high rasping bark only grew fuller and deeper. "Here," he yapped, "here he is! Here! Here! Here!" He was not abusing the fox. He was not even speaking to him, but was urging on someone who was still far behind.

Bambi knew as well as the old stag did that it was He the dog was calling. ...

A weakness overcame the fox. His crushed foot sank down helpless, but a burning pain shot through it when it touched the cold snow. He lifted it again with an effort and held it quivering in front of him.

"Let me go," said the fox, beginning to speak, "let me go." He spoke softly and beseechingly. He was quite weak and despondent.

"No! No! No!" the dog howled.

The fox pleaded still more insistently. "We're relations," he pleaded, "we're brothers almost. Let me go home. Let me die with my family at least. We're brothers almost, you and I."

"No! No! No!" the dog raged.

Then the fox rose so that he was sitting perfectly erect. He dropped his handsome pointed muzzle on his bleeding breast, raised his eyes and looked the dog straight in the face. In a completely altered voice, restrained and embittered, he growled, "Aren't you ashamed, you traitor!"

"No! No! No!" yelped the dog.

But the fox went on, "You turncoat, you renegade." His maimed body was taut with contempt and hatred. "You spy," he hissed, "you blackguard, you track us where He could never find us. You betray us, your own relations, me who am almost your brother. And you stand there and aren't ashamed!"

Instantly many other voices sounded loudly round about.

"Traitor!" cried the magpie from the tree.

"Spy!" shrieked the jay.

"Blackguard!" the weasel hissed.

"Renegade!" snarled the ferret.

From every tree and bush came chirpings, peepings, shrill cries, while overhead the crows cawed, "Spy! Spy!" Everyone had rushed up, and from the trees or from safe hiding places on the ground they watched the contest. The fury that had burst from the fox released an embittered anger in all of them. And the blood spilled on the snow, that steamed before their eyes, maddened them and made them forget all caution.

The dog stared around him. "Who are you?" he yelped. "What do you want? What do you know about it? What are you talking about? 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 we have comes from Him. Everything that lives or grows comes from Him." The dog was quivering with exaltation.

"Traitor!" cried the squirrel shrilly.

"Yes, traitor!" hissed the fox. "Nobody is a traitor but you, only you."

The dog was dancing about in a frenzy of devotion. "Only me?" he cried; "you lie. Aren't there many, many others on His side? The horse, the cow, the sheep, the chickens, and many, many of you and your kind are on His side and worship Him and serve Him."

"They're rabble!" snarled the fox, full of a boundless contempt.

Then the dog could contain himself no longer and sprang at the fox's throat. [They fight, and the dog kills the fox.]

The dog shook him a few times, then let him fall on the trampled snow. He stood beside him, his legs planted, calling in a deep, loud voice, "Here! Here! He's here!"

There is profound truth in that passage. I don't know that I've ever read a better depiction of the cruelty of fanaticism, of the way that people can betray their very humanity for the sake of an ideal.

The dog's devotion is religious in type, and it's easy to see echoes of him in religious murders, in the Crusades, in the Inquisition, in witch trials, and in present-day suicide bombers and abortion doctor shooters. But religious people, of course, aren't the only ones who act that way. The 20th century alone offers a long sad list of examples where people were cruel to other people -- where they betrayed all humanity -- for the sake of an ideology: Communism, Fascism/Nazism, a dozen different genocides, all carried out by people immune to pleading, immune to shame, quivering in exaltation, in frenzies of devotion to their ideologies.

The beauty of Bambi as a novel is that this kind of profound commentary on the human condition is expressed perfectly in character. The dog at all times is very doggy. If a hound dog could think and talk to other animals, those are the kind of things, we imagine, it indeed might say, and just the way it might say them.

And this is true of all the animals in Bambi. Rather than simply sticking human minds into animal bodies, as many a lesser writer has done, Felix Salten wrote about animal minds. If animals could think and talk, what kind of thoughts would make them act the way they do? That's the approach Salten took, and his writing consistently rings true. That's why Bambi works as an animal story, and as more than an animal story. Like all great novels, it has things to teach us about what it is to be human.

Ratings:
**** Highly recommended
*** Recommended
** Meh
* Don't bother

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