Cropped illus­tra­tion by Alen­ka Sot­tler from The Orig­i­nal Bam­bi: The Sto­ry of a Life in the For­est trans­lat­ed and intro­duced by Jack Zipes

For a cen­tu­ry we’ve abid­ed each other,

Giv­ing our broth­er­ly due.

You abide that I breathe,

And, though you rage, I abide you.

But occa­sion­al­ly, in dark times, good spir­its in full flood,

Your ten­der, pious lit­tle paws have col­ored my blood.

Our friend­ship is firmer. It grows stronger as we age.

I’m becom­ing almost like you,

I, too, am begin­ning to rage.

—“An Edom,” Hein­rich Heine (1824)

The sto­ry of Bam­bi was not writ­ten for chil­dren. It has become uni­ver­sal­ly beloved through Disney’s films and books, which fea­ture a hero­ic deer and cute ani­mals who escape hunters and even­tu­al­ly cel­e­brate Bambi’s mar­riage. In the orig­i­nal nov­el, how­ev­er, there is no hap­py ending.

Bam­bi: A Life in the For­est was writ­ten by the Aus­tri­an Jew­ish writer Felix Salten in 1921. It is a para­ble of the way Jews and oth­er minori­ties were treat­ed as infe­ri­or and dan­ger­ous beings who deserved to be anni­hi­lat­ed. Salten reject­ed his giv­en name, Sieg­mund Salz­mann, in an attempt to become more accept­able to Vien­nese soci­ety. Bam­bi, writ­ten soon after World War I, is a study of the lone­li­ness of Jews and the pre­car­i­ous­ness of their lives through­out the world. Fas­cism was rais­ing its ugly head.

In Salten’s ver­sion of Bam­bi, the fawn grows up in a for­est where hunters kill deer and oth­er ani­mals for their plea­sure. Most of Bambi’s rel­a­tives and friends are killed. To be a man in Aus­tri­an soci­ety, posit­ed Salten, was to become a hunter — a mur­der­er of help­less and hope­less victims.

Felix Salten was one of the most out­spo­ken Aus­tri­an writ­ers in the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Although he sought to bring a mes­sage about the impor­tance of civil­i­ty to Euro­pean and Amer­i­can read­ers, his works have been mis­un­der­stood, ignored, and exploit­ed. It is impor­tant to explore why Salten failed, and why he turned to ani­mal sto­ries such as Bam­bi to express his con­flict­ed feel­ings as a Jew who want­ed to be accept­ed by elite Aus­tri­an society.

Illus­tra­tion by Alen­ka Sot­tler from The Orig­i­nal Bam­bi: The Sto­ry of a Life in the For­est trans­lat­ed and intro­duced by Jack Zipes

Sieg­mund Salz­mann was born in 1869 in Pest, Hungary.His moth­er, Marie (née Singer), was a house­wife, and his father, Philipp, was an engi­neer. Philipp appears to have acquired debts through­out most of his life, and when Sieg­mund was four years old, the fam­i­ly moved to Vien­na to escape Philipp’s cred­i­tors. The Salz­manns con­sid­ered them­selves assim­i­lat­ed Jews. Yet, they were often beat­en and taunt­ed in the pro­le­tar­i­an dis­trict of Vien­na where they lived. When Sieg­mund turned six­teen, he left high school to help sup­port the fam­i­ly. His first job was with an insur­ance com­pa­ny, and soon there­after, he began work­ing for var­i­ous news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines. Sieg­mund wrote under the name Felix Salten from 1889 onward; it was almost impos­si­ble to use a Jew­ish name if one want­ed to suc­ceed in Vienna.

In 1889, Salten began fre­quent­ing the Café Grien­stei­dl, where the Young Vien­na group of artists and writ­ers (includ­ing Arthur Schnit­zler, Hugo von Hof­mannsthal, Richard Beer-Hof­mann, Her­mann Bahr, Karl Kraus, and oth­ers) often gath­ered. At first, his back­ground as a low­er-mid­dle class Jew hin­dered him from gain­ing recog­ni­tion and accep­tance by high­ly edu­cat­ed Jews. How­ev­er, Salten was bright and oppor­tunis­tic, often ingra­ti­at­ing him­self to his supe­ri­ors,” and over the next decade, he learned a great deal from them. He soon became an edi­tor at the Wiener All­ge­meine Zeitung and formed a friend­ship with Arch­duke Leopold Fer­di­nand — although their bond was taint­ed by the type of resent­ment Heine describes in An Edom.” Salten also wrote novel­las. Grad­u­al­ly, he became known as a reli­able mem­ber of the Young Vien­na move­ment. By 1910, he was regard­ed as one of the best jour­nal­ists, drama­tists, and nov­el­ists in Austria.

Salten found­ed a pop­u­lar cabaret, wrote plays, pro­duced films, mar­ried well, and formed impor­tant con­tacts in all domains of cul­ture. When World War I erupt­ed in 1914, he was ini­tial­ly an enthu­si­as­tic pro­mot­er of Austria’s strug­gle against the Allies. Soon, how­ev­er, he described the war as a cat­a­stro­phe. By the end, Salten showed great sym­pa­thy for the Social Democ­rats. He became the feuil­leton edi­tor of the Neue Freie Presse, and in 1927, he was elect­ed pres­i­dent of the Aus­tri­an PEN Club and rep­re­sent­ed PEN on a trip to America.

Salten is intent on depict­ing the plight of Euro­pean Jews caught in an ide­o­log­i­cal trap after World War I; deer ( Jews) are born to be hunt­ed and killed, and the soon­er they learn this les­son, the bet­ter able they will be to carve out a life — how­ev­er brief — for themselves.

With the rise of the Nazis, how­ev­er, most of Salten’s suc­cess­es unrav­elled. In 1933, he was oblig­ed to retire from PEN after an inter­nal strug­gle with the Nazis, and by 1935, his books were banned in Ger­many. Salten turned to mak­ing films and with­drew from the pub­lic. His con­nec­tions to var­i­ous mem­bers of the Aus­tri­an nobil­i­ty pro­tect­ed him when the coun­try was annexed by the Nazis in 1938. Soon after, he was allowed to emi­grate to Switzer­land, where he spent the last years of his life deal­ing with finan­cial prob­lems and writ­ing ani­mal sto­ries. He had a pen­chant for lux­u­ry, and in some ways he sought to live the life of an Aus­tri­an aris­to­crat in his new home. Sad­ly, he died alone and vir­tu­al­ly pen­ni­less in 1953, not aware that Dis­ney had adapt­ed his major work into a sweet­ened mock­ery of all that he intend­ed to com­mu­ni­cate about Jews and anti­semitism. More­over, he wasn’t cred­it­ed as the cre­ator of Bam­bi on most of the mer­chan­dise con­nect­ed to the film.

Iron­i­cal­ly, Salten him­self was a hunter, and high­ly famil­iar with forests and ani­mals. It is clear from the begin­ning of the nov­el that he is intent on depict­ing the plight of Euro­pean Jews caught in an ide­o­log­i­cal trap after World War I; deer ( Jews) are born to be hunt­ed and killed, and the soon­er they learn this les­son, the bet­ter able they will be to carve out a life — how­ev­er brief — for them­selves. Bam­bi is for­tu­nate to be taught by his father, the old Prince, who inter­cedes on his behalf numer­ous times. Bam­bi must learn that he can only depend on him­self and on his knowl­edge of the for­est to sur­vive. Even then, sur­vival does not entail ful­fill­ment of any kind. It sim­ply means that Bam­bi will live slight­ly longer and more inde­pen­dent­ly than any of the oth­er ani­mals in the for­est. Salten demon­strates just how bru­tal the hunters can be when they cap­ture Bambi’s wound­ed cousin and nurse him back to health. By the time the cousin returns to his ani­mal friends in the for­est, he thinks that he has become one of the hunters’ pets and is invin­ci­ble. Trag­i­cal­ly, he learns the truth when he is lat­er shot by them.

Salten did not mince words: he describes life in the for­est as a test of the sur­vival of the fittest. Bam­bi is not slaugh­tered in Salten’s nov­el, for Salten admires him too much as a Jew­ish sto­ic hero. Instead, he shows Bam­bi dis­ap­pear­ing, alone, with­out sug­gest­ing that the mur­der of inno­cent ani­mals will ever end. Bam­bi: A Life in the For­est deserves to be read again and again as a cri­tique of anti­semitism and a warn­ing that life will always be treach­er­ous for out­siders as they try to har­vest and share the fruits of life.

Illus­tra­tion by Alen­ka Sot­tler from The Orig­i­nal Bam­bi: The Sto­ry of a Life in the For­est trans­lat­ed and intro­duced by Jack Zipes

Jack Zipes has writ­ten, trans­lat­ed, and edit­ed dozens of books, includ­ing The Orig­i­nal Folk and Fairy Tales of the Broth­ers Grimm and The Sorcerer’s Appren­tice (both Prince­ton). He is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Ger­man and com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Minnesota.