Bambi - a novel by Felix Salten
Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Lukas / German Studies
Photo: Friederike von Heyden

"Bambi' was never intended as a children's book".

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Lukas on Felix Salten's novel, which became world famous through the Disney film adaptation of the same name.

100 years ago, the newspaper Neue Freie Presse published the story about a fawn by Felix Salten as a serial novel. We are talking about "Bambi." Everyone knows the Walt Disney film adaptation, although the novel is definitely not a children's book. Why not?

Lukas: It has to be said that 'Bambi` was never intended as a children's book either. The subtitle is "animal novel", and it was advertised under this heading in the Börsenblatt at the time. The story is not just the story of a fawn, but it goes from birth to just about death. That alone is atypical for children's literature. Also, we need to make a clear distinction, are we talking about the book or the movie? Even when we talk about the book, we always primarily have the film in mind, of course. The danger here is that we read the book projectively with the glasses of the film we have seen. So what did Disney do? Anyone who has seen the film can understand why it is praised as a masterpiece of animated film. The fight scenes in Technicolor are sensational and stunningly done, but Disney also kitsched up the material. They suggested the misunderstanding of a children's story, because the film already starts with a belittlement that we don't have like that in the book. In addition, it has to be said that values and norms, i.e. what is considered appropriate for children, are not static, but are subject to historical change. There have been massive changes right up to our own time. Today we are in an era in which we are hypersensitized to violence. Our position is that violence has no place in children's literature. We have already gone so far as to say that the Grimm fairy tales are not for children. But that is new historical territory. Earlier eras never saw it that way. Today, there are already censorship measures in children's classics, where attempts are made to tone down violent scenes because they are no longer considered suitable for children. But that is our time, which defines it that way.

Bambi's model for the novel is an Austrian stag calf from the Danube floodplains near Stockerau, 20 kilometers north of Vienna, where the author had his hunting ground. He himself says, "I wanted to free my readers from the misconception that nature is a sunny paradise." He is concerned with the question: who owns the forest? Can he answer that?

Luke: Perhaps the answer to the question of who owns the forest is that it belongs to the animals temporarily, as long as humans are out. The animals are not the sole owners of the forest because man can enter it at any time. Salten makes this clear. When man is outside the forest, there can be harmonious, idyllic moments, but they are never guaranteed and do not last forever. Man can enter at any time with his destructive potential. So one lives in a constant threat.

The correct title of the novel is "Bambi. A Life Story from the Forest," but on closer inspection it turns out to be a metaphor for the First World War. How can you tell?

Lukas: I'd be careful about that and can't agree with that interpretation. Maybe that comes through the film. If you look at the final scene; first this pack of dogs that threatens Bambi's partner and that he successfully scares away with his last strength, followed by this gigantic, wonderfully made forest fire. In 1942, this fire, which really resembles a world fire, was of course related to the Second World War. So Disney's version of the novel alluding to World War II. But I don't see the book as alluding to the First World War. There is violence in it, so hunters invade and kill, at the end a poacher is obviously shot by the forest ranger, but it's not specific enough and different from what Disney did. I think it's more of a disillusioning view of people. For me, the message is less in the political realm and more in the anthropological. And that is as a message that needs to be seen critically today without devaluing the book. The message conveys an extremely patriarchal image of society. It conveys an overly clear gender hierarchy. We experience the world in the forest divided into two spaces, topographically there is the moat, which Bambi is not allowed to cross until adulthood. Beyond the moat live the men, who are the kings or princes - one of whom is actually Bambi's father at the end - and in the other area live the women and the children. Salten has already made a very clear division here. As soon as you become an adult male fawn, you leave this space. And he shows that the hero has to get rid of the female twice here, and both are portrayed as an act of liberation and as a prerequisite for becoming a man. Bambi loses his mother and later, as an adult deer, he leaves his girlfriend Faline. "He could have her as often as he wanted," the book then says, so women are easy to have there, the men determine everything, they are self-important. We experience here, from Bambi's point of view, the fascinating view of proud masculinity. The aloofness, this proudness that you have to be afraid of, that's the message. In the end, Bambi even says, "I must be alone." As much as he loves Faline, he does not return to her. What we are offered here is a disillusioning, pessimistic and at the same time very patriarchal anthropology. The existence of the solitary man, living without a family as an appendix, is completely kitsched up in Disney's family ideology, because Bambi is then the good family man with the little ones. This glorification of the solitary man, who has to free himself from the feminine so that he can become a 'man', even has a certain proximity to fascism.

The American animated film grossed over $47 million. Among the top 100 villains/movie villains, "Man", who shot Bambi's mother, is ranked 20th. This puts him ahead of the Terminator, Dracula or Joker. 71 agonizing seconds pass in the film before Bambi's father confirms what all viewers have feared since the shot was fired: "Your mother can't be with you anymore ..." But this emotionality is also felt in the book, isn't it?

Lukas: Yes, what is strongly felt emotionally in the book is the threat. The fear and the experience of being overwhelmed. Of course, there's an emotional component to that. But in terms of the loss of the mother, I say no, because that's only noted with one skinny sentence. "Bambi never saw his mother again". That`s it.

Salten had already written screenplays with Billy Wilder in Vienna, and through him came into contact with Walt Disney, to whom the perpetually cash-strapped author ceded the rights for just under $1,000. Although most people only know this one novel by him, Felix Salten was a well-known journalist and theater critic of his time throughout Europe, who was actually called something completely different until he was 42 years old. What do people know about him?

Lukas: A great deal is already known about him, although there is still no proven Salten research. That still has to be done. You can see that, among other things, in the fact that I found a different date of death in the second Kindler edition, namely 1947. Today you can read on Wikipedia that he died in 1945. His real name was Siegmund Salzman, from a Hungarian-Jewish family that moved to Vienna relatively early. He did not belong to the upper middle class, like his colleagues Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Arthur Schnitzler. He dropped out of school, but then developed into a very gifted feature writer and critic. He also worked for the Burgtheater. In the beginning epoch of naturalism and 'Young Vienna' he was one of those who were there, maybe not in the first league, but still an author to be discovered. He wrote contemporary novels, social novels, which were set with preference in the Viennese aristocracy. He also knew Archduke Leopold and thus had background knowledge that he incorporated into his stories, which were well received in Vienna. He also wrote historical novellas, essays on the cultural history of Austria, and film scripts.

That he was also a master of erotic literature was only discovered later. "Albertine" is a novella that was found in his estate. The writer Oswald Wiener says of another novel attributed to him that it is "probably the only world-class German pornographic novel." What work is this about?

Lukas: It is undoubtedly 'Josefine Mutzenbacher oder die Geschichte einer Wienerischen Dirne` from 1906, the pornographic novel that was most probably written by him. But I would not say that this is the only world-class German-language pornographic novel, for there are others, though not many. Pornography is to a certain extent schema literature, that is, there are narrative set pieces here that are typical. This begins in the late Enlightenment, where the model of the developmental novel is invented. And these pornographic developmental novels actually always begin with sexual maturity at the age of 14, 15, or 16, and then continue to narrate into old age under certain circumstances. What is special about Salten's novel is that it starts at the age of 7 and ends at the age of 14. In this way, he deviates very strongly from the traditional pornographic novel, and - without judging it - that bothers us today. I once took a seminar on this, that is, on erotic and pornographic novels from the Enlightenment to Felix Salten, where we were able to study the extent to which sexual norms have also changed historically. Here, things are told that are scandalous to us, that is, that a seven- or eight-year-old girl has sex. That is child pornography, and it is much more shocking for us than it was for the time. At that time, child brothels were known on the Kudamm in Berlin, and they existed in Vienna as well. That was certainly an unbourgeois milieu, that's logical, but it wasn't taboo in the way it is today, you have to realize that. The problem today is that we can no longer or no longer want to perceive things that are alien and run counter to our norms. Salten may also have had courage, because he experienced this at the time, he knew that this was also our social reality around 1900, and then he addressed this.

Bambi was translated into over 30 languages and also published as a sequel under the title "Bambis Kinder: Eine Familie im Walde" in 1940. Was the sequel able to follow up on the initial success?

Lukas: No, it definitely couldn't, you don't know these titles at all. He had also written animal novels before and was also successful with them in the 1920s. But as I said, there's a lot we don't know yet, that's still an open field of research. Many books were also never published later, so you need the first editions. What is interesting about 'Bambi' is the fact that you can get a newer paperback edition in an antiquarian bookshop for three euros, but you have to pay over 2000 euros for the first edition. This also shows the cult status of this book, which would be unthinkable without the film.

Uwe Blass 

Wolfgang Lukas studied German and Romance languages and literature at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, where he also earned his doctorate. He habilitated at the University of Passau. After academic stops in Kiel and Zurich, he took over the chair of Modern German Literary History and Edition Studies at the Bergische Universität Wuppertal in 2006.

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