Bambi the deer may seem amusing, heartwarming, and brave, but Bambi: A Life in the Woods was seen as subversive by the Nazis. Bambi, along with other work by Felix Salten, who was Jewish, was banned by Hitler in 1936. Some saw the novel as an anti-fascist allegory and that the hunted deer were symbols of Jews in Germany. (More than deer are pursued as prey, however. For example, pheasants are killed, a hare is cruelly ensnared, and a darling of ducklings is orphaned.) The most famous hunting scene, where Bambi and his mother are separated during the carnage, still makes for tense, powerful reading providing, of course, great sympathy for the hunted. That chapter tersely concludes, “Bambi never saw his mother again.”
If Salten intended an anti-fascist book, he was remarkably prescient since the novel was first serialized before the rise of Hitler, but, of course, in the mid-1930s, it could easily have been read that way. If the deer were stand-ins for Jews, the book could also have been seen as an anti-assimilationist warning.
This anti-assimilationist theme centers around Gobo, Bambi’s cousin, who I don’t remember in the movie. Gobo is not strong in the intelligence department. The fawn Gobo gets wounded by hunters and cannot make it to safety, and readers assume he dies. Then, after he is forgotten, he reappears. Gobo was taken in by a hunter and nursed back to health. The book is not clear why Gobo is now back in the forest, but Gobo sings the praise of the hunter (all the hunters are labeled He or Him.)
The other deer, not surprisingly, label the hunter as evil, but Gobo maintains He is not wicked. Gobo tells how he was given hay and warm shelter by Him. Bambi and other deer have learned to sleep during the day because it is safer to forage at night and are careful about entering a clearing where danger from Him lurks. Gobo, however, has become trusting and does not follow these precautions. “I got to know that He wouldn’t hurt me. Why should I have been afraid? 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.”
The deer notice, however, braided horsehair around Gobo’s neck. Gobo uneasily stammers, “That? Why, that’s part of the halter I wore. It’s His halter and it’s the greatest honor to wear His halter, it’s. . .” Silence descends with the old stag looking “at Gobo for a long time, piercingly and sadly. ‘You poor thing!’ he said softly at last, and turned and was gone.”
After He slaughters Gobo wandering in a clearing, Bambi recounts how Gobo said He was so good and powerful and that “He was good to Gobo.” In response to the old stag’s question, Bambi says that he is confused and not sure if he believes what Gobo said. “The old stag said slowly, ‘We must learn to live and be cautious.’” And when the old stag leads him to a dead hunter, Bambi realizes He is not all powerful and dies like all do. Bambi eventually concludes, “There is Another who is over us all, over us and over Him.”
If the book is an allegory, it is certainly not one for the domestic, monogamous bliss portrayed in the movie. Bambi does fall in love with the beautiful Faline (apparently, we are to ignore the incestuous fact that Faline and Bambi are first cousins), but in the book it is not everlasting love that ends in the birth of heirs as in the movie. Bambi withdraws from Faline with the interesting statement: “But she no longer satisfied him completely.” Hmmm.
Its Jewish source led to the Nazi ban of Bambi: A Life in the Woods. I know of no attempt to ban the book in the United States, but I would not be surprised if there had been one since the American version had a communist source. Surprisingly, Bambi was translated into English by Whittaker Chambers, who is linked in history with Alger Hiss and the pumpkin papers, at a time when Chambers was a member of a communist party and was writing and editing for communist publications. Even so, I am not aware that the Red Scare that attacked so many cultural icons in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s ever denounced the book. If the fearmongers had wanted to, however, they could have attempted to say that the book was communist propaganda, for it seems to speak against private property and for a paradisaical communalism. Near the beginning of the book, for example, the mother shows baby Bambi a woodland path, and he asks to whom the trail belongs. She replies, “To us.” She corrects Bambi’s misimpression and explains that she does not mean Bambi and her, but “to us deer.” It is held communally. And when Bambi worries that he will have to fight for food as the jays do, his mother reassures that such fighting will be unnecessary “because there is enough for all of us.”
Ultimately, however, the book praises individualism, not communitarianism. Near the end of the book, Bambi remembers his first encounter with his elder’s wisdom. “When he was still a child the old stag had taught him that you must live alone. Then and afterward the old stag had revealed much wisdom and many secrets to him. But of all his teachings this had been the most important: you must live alone. If you wanted to preserve yourself, if you understood existence, if you wanted to attain wisdom, you had to live alone.” At the book’s conclusion, Bambi tries to pass this precept to another fawn.
Perhaps Salten is suggesting that as attractive as communalism might be (with its promise of peace and plenty), it’s a fantasy. The real world is a dog-eat-dog world (dogs are villains in this book) battle, and in order to survive, you’d better watch your back, believe in no one but yourself, depend on no one but yourself. Not exactly Disney’s take.