Sunday, January 4, 2015

Double Book Review: 'Bambi' vs. 'Watership Down'

Sometimes, when I've had a bad day, I just want to watch some cuddly talking animals bleed to death.

Bambiby Felix Salten. Translated by Whittaker Chambers. Grosset and Dunlap (New York): 1929. 293 pages.

Watership Downby Richard Adams. Scribner (New York): 2005 (Reprint). 499 pages.

There's an old joke on the Internet about what would happen if Bambi fought Godzilla.  The correct answer, known to anyone who's read the original novel Bambi by Felix Salten, is that Godzilla would get his ass kicked, at least if he made the mistake of standing between Bambi and a doe in rut.

Something similar would occur if Godzilla made the mistake of harassing the lady friends of the bunny rabbits from Watership Down, except the rabbits would mostly likely coerce somebody else into delivering the beat-down for them.

And if Bambi teamed up with the Watership Down rabbits to open a can of whoopass on Godzilla, especially if they maybe, I dunno, used some powered mecha armor that somebody left in the woods or something, that would be freaking awesomesauce.  Or maybe the rabbits could all drive armored vehicles that look like giant rabbits that shoot lasers out of their ears, and then Bambi could drive a vehicle that looks like a giant deer, and then they could combine together into a super giant robot, except they would get in a huge fight with one another over which would form the head, and then they would destroy half the world in their quest for domination, so desperate humans would have to get Godzilla to team up with Gigan and Ebirah as the only hope for the planet's salvation.  Somebody should look into putting together the rights for that, like, right freaking now.  I would totally watch the Bambi vs. Godzilla movie in the theater, like, twenty freaking times.

. . . Sorry, I got a little overexcited there.  But my point is that fuzzy talking animals are totally badass, and you definitely don't want to mess with their women.

*Ahem.*  I happen to have a copy of Bambi that I picked up several years ago from a church library that was giving away old books, and a few months back I finally sat down to read it.  Then I raved about it for weeks afterwards.  Bambi reminded me of Watership Down, which I had not read since seventh grade, so I picked it up to compare the two and was pleased to find it had lost nothing.  It was just as impressive a novel to me as an adult as it had been to me as a youth.

Both of these are billed as children's books, and thus both can catch a reader unaware; though they are about animals that talk, they are uncompromising depictions of nature red in tooth and claw.  Both star characters who are hardy survivors in a deadly world, and who learn to be pragmatic in the face of violence and death.  Both are blunt and abrupt in their descriptions of bloodshed.

Both, also, can be enjoyably and profitably read by adults.  Of the two, Bambi is probably the easier read for children.  Watership Down is a great deal longer and more complex both in plot and in prose, but Bambi is deeper in its themes.

It is worth pausing to note that both have been adapted to animated film.  These films are famous for emotional shock, and they demonstrate that what works well in one medium doesn't necessarily work well in another.  Walt Disney wisely perceived that a faithful adaptation of Bambi would not go over well with general audiences, so his movie has only a tangential relationship to its source material.  That movie is of course a beloved classic that stands on its own merits.  The film adaptation of Watership Down, on the other hand, is more faithful to its book, and though considered a classic in its own right, it is well known mostly for traumatizing children.  I have several times spoken to people who saw Watership Down as kids, and all told me they found its violence disturbing, and that they avoided the novel because of it.

The kids are gonna love this.

Richard Adams is one of the author success stories that other writers admire and possibly envy.  Watership Down was his first book, but it became one of the best-selling novels of the Twentieth Century and has never been out of print.  I don't think you usually see it on those "top novels of the century" lists, but that's only because those lists are made by effete pseudo-intellectuals from the English Department who think a novel is no good unless it's depressing and pointless.  Lord of the Rings is novel numero uno of the Twentieth Century—deal with it—but Watership Down deserves a spot very close to it, at least in the top ten.

Yeah, I don't remember any rabbits fighting to the death in Ulysses.  Your argument is invalid.

Okay, seriously, when I first saw the title of this novel, I thought it was about sinking boats or something, but it's actually an adventure epic about a group of rabbits who leave their home to found a new warren.  Our main protagonist is Hazel, a natural leader.  His young brother Fiver is a seer, which means he sometimes has plot-relevant visions of the future accompanied by epileptic fits.  Fiver is able to sense vaguely that some terrible disaster will soon befall the warren, and because the book is written in the omniscient third-person, the reader knows what Fiver and Hazel do not, that the warren is soon to be gassed and bulldozed for a housing development.

After an ineffective attempt to warn the "chief rabbit" of the danger, these two gather a small band of malcontents and (after an obligatory fight sequence with some guards) set off on a dangerous journey, surviving on a combination of their wits, their good luck, and their claws, until they can start a new colony on the top of a high hill, the Watership Down of the title, which is from the rabbits' perspective something like a natural fortress.

These rabbits are depicted as innovators with an unusual amount of brains.  Among the most implausible of their accomplishments, they manage to befriend a gull.  And after they're mostly settled into their new home, they come to realize they don't have any females among them, so, along with their gull friend, they hatch an elaborate and harrowing plan to kidnap some does from another warren, whose tyrannical chief rabbit, an especially huge buck named General Woundwort, rules it with an iron paw.  The book is peppered throughout with fighting and death and narrow escapes therefrom, and it builds to a bloody and satisfying climax.

Although sometimes breaking from it to make the reader aware of something, the story for the most part remains at a rabbit's-eye view.  The geography of the novel is real, and from the human perspective the tale does not cover much ground, but from the perspective of the rabbits has a vast and sprawling landscape.  Although Adams takes various liberties for the story's sake, the book is based largely on R. M. Lockley's nonfictional Private Life of the Rabbit, and Adams writes in the foreword of a later edition that he set himself a rule that the rabbits in the book would not be physically capable of anything a rabbit couldn't do in real life, though I'm not convinced he stuck to this rule throughout.

Adams is a polymath and a renaissance man, and his wide reading and familiarity with the classics is evident throughout Watership Down.  The tale is suggestive of the Odyssey and the Aeneid, and occurring occasionally through the book are brilliantly written side-stories taking the form of fairy tales:  the character Dandelion is storyteller for the band, and several chapters are dedicated to his recitations about the rabbits' legendary ancestor El-ahrairah, the "Prince with a Thousand Enemies," a trickster figure who uses his wits to procure food and get the best of his antagonists.  Peopling these tales are supernatural characters such as Lord Frith, the sun-god, and the Black Rabbit of Inlé, who is the rabbits' personification of death.

Seriously, I just know the kids are gonna be totally into this.

The novel has been oft over-analyzed, but Adams insists that he meant it only as an adventure story.  According to him, Watership Down began its life as a tale he told to entertain his daughters during a car trip, and which they asked him to write down.

Watership Down was a challenge to me when I read it as a kid, but that was partly why I loved it.  I believe I was twelve when I read it the first time, and though I found it difficult, it was well worth the effort.  When I revisited it as an adult, I was surprised at how easy it was to read, and at how quickly the pages turned.  I finished it rapidly, even though it's just about 500 pages in length.  Adams is an extremely talented adventure writer.

Ages twelve and up seem about right for this book.  The characters, dialogue, and plot are straightforward, but Adams's prose is sometimes complex and would probably confuse very young readers, but then again, if small children can plow through the later volumes of the Harry Potter series, they can probably handle Watership Down.  In any case, this is a must-read for any fantasy lover.


Bambi is a many-layered story.  It is first a more-or-less accurate depiction of the life of a deer, with the added flourish that the animals can talk.  It is also possible to read it as an allegory for the plight of Austrian Jews in the 1920s, or at least the Nazis thought so, which is presumably why they burned copies of it.  It is also a perceptive description of a lifelong spiritual journey reminiscent of Herman Hesse's Siddhartha.

In my humble opinion, the novel Bambi and the movie Bambi should be viewed as if unrelated to each other.  It is popular to rag on Disney for grinding off the sharp edges of his source material, and few of his alterations are as severe as in this case. However, Disney was making movies for broad audiences, and the animated Bambi is a worthy work of art in its own right, but its intentions and themes are markedly different from those of the book.

I don't remember any philosophical digressions in Disney's Bambi.

The story follows the titular protagonist through his life.  As in the movie, the tale begins with Bambi's birth and his childhood with his mother, and then it continues to his youth when he learns to fight and love, but it also moves past where the movie ends, to Bambi's old age, when he learns wisdom.

Disney made it a point in the animated film to show the animals living in harmony in the forest, their only enemy being man.  In the book, however, man is only the worst and most mysterious of the dangers the animals regularly face.  Bambi's early childhood is largely idyllic, but when the first winter comes, Salten begins to narrate the casual violence that will characterize the rest of the novel:

Another time the squirrel raced about with a great wound in his neck where the ferret had caught him.  By a miracle the squirrel had escaped.  He could not talk because of the pain, but he ran up and down the branches.  Everyone could see him.  He ran like mad.  From time to time he stopped, sat down, raised his forepaws desperately and clutched his head in terror and agony while the red blood oozed on his white chest.

The dangers from creatures like ferrets the animals understand, but they cannot comprehend man, whom they refer to simply as He.  Early in the book, Bambi's mother teaches him to run away at the sight of a man, and afterward says to him simply, "Did you see Him?  That was He."  It is much more strange, and much more poetical, than the film version's comparatively mundane, "Man has entered the forest."

One of the novel's greatest scenes takes place during a winter in which the deer gather together and speculate on His nature.  Some suggest that He can kill from a distance because He tears His hand off and throws it.  Another suggests that it must be a tooth He throws, since it makes only a small hole.  But they agree that the inside of His body is fire, since there is a loud crack and a flash when He kills.  Then comes this fantastic passage:

"Will He never stop hunting us?" young Karus sighed.

Then Marena spoke, the young half-grown doe.  "They say 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."

Old Nettla burst out laughing.  "Let Him stay where He is and leave us in peace," she said.

Aunt Ena said reprovingly, "You shouldn't talk that way."

"And why not?" old Nettla replied hotly, "I really don't see why not.  Friends with Him!  He's murdered us ever since we can remember, every one of us, our sisters, our mothers, our brothers!   Ever since we came into the world He's given us no peace, but has killed us wherever we showed our heads.  And now we're going to be friends with Him.  What nonsense!"

Marena looked at all of them out of her big, calm, shining eyes.  "Love is no nonsense," she said.  "It has to come."

I'll give here a spoiler warning, and to be clear, I'm going to discuss a lot of stuff not in the movie, so this is a spoiler warning for the book.

Readers are probably aware that Bambi's childhood comes to a close when his mother is killed.  But the implied violence of the movie, which is enough to jerk the heartstrings of generations of viewers, is nothing compared to the scene of terror and bedlam in the novel, wherein there is a large-scale hunt during which the deer and other animals flee every which way in terror while being indiscriminately cut down.  The death of Bambi's mother happens off the page; Bambi simply never sees her again.  More terrifying is the fate of Bambi's friend Gobo, whose leg is caught in hardpack snow, rendering him unable to run.

The story moves from there to Bambi's youth.  He spends his first mating season getting his butt kicked by bucks who were formerly his friends while he searches in vain for Faline, a doe he had known as a child, and whose scent now drives him crazy.  When his second mating season rolls around, he dishes back out all the punishment he got the first time:  to win Faline, he fights two bucks, both former friends whom nature has now made enemies.  One of them Bambi drives off, and the other he tears open.  Faline is impressed, but though Salten plays this more-or-less like a love story, there are hints that she would have just as readily gone with whichever buck won the fight.

I dunno, Walt.  It's an okay little romance, but maybe it needs more blood and guts.

The story's turning point comes when Gobo reappears.  As it turns out, he did not die during the hunt; instead, He picked Gobo up, took him home, and made a pet of him.  Gobo either escaped or more likely was let go when he grew too big and aggressive to be a suitable playmate for children, but in any case Gobo has lost all ability to survive in the forest, and is quite proud of himself, considering himself a friend of His.  When another hunter enters the forest, the other deer wish to flee, but Gobo says, "Run as much as you like.  I won't stop you.  If He's there I want to talk with Him."

Of course, when Gobo presents himself to the hunter, he gets killed.  The reader can easily understand what has happened, but the animals cannot distinguish one man from another; to them, His decision first to make a pet of Gobo and then to kill him looks like mere caprice.  This and other scenes emphasize Him as an incomprehensible and increasingly menacing figure.

The most spectacular such scene is one in which a hound hunts a fox, and while the fox lies dying and pleading for its life, all the animals gather round and accuse the hound of treachery for serving Him, to which the hound replies, "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."

As Bambi grows older, he leaves Faline behind.  He takes up the company of the Old Prince of the Woods, the eldest of the deer who has survived by staying off the well-trodden trails and by living his life alone.  He is, it is hinted, Bambi's father, though neither he nor Bambi knows it.  He teaches Bambi many things, especially how to survive by avoiding the company of other deer, and that brings us to one of the book's central messages:

Then and afterwards 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.

"Also, your mom gave you a sissy name."

In the final moments, the old stag shows Bambi the truth about Him.  We discover in the end that most of the hunting in the woods has been by poachers, and one of these poachers is at last shot and killed.  Then the old stag leads Bambi to where the body lies, with a bullet through the throat, in the midst of a pool of blood that slowly melts the snow.

"Do you see, Bambi," the old stag went on, "do you see how He's lying there dead, like one of us?   Listen, Bambi.  He isn't all-powerful as they say.  Everything that lives and grows doesn't come from Him.  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, and then He lies helpless on the ground like all the rest of us, as you see Him now."

There was a silence.

"Do you understand me, Bambi?" asked the old stag.

"I think so," Bambi said in a whisper.

"Then speak," the old stag commanded.

Bambi was inspired, and said trembling, "There is Another who is over us all, over us and over Him."

Felix Salten was an Austrian Jew whose books the Nazis banned in 1936.  He fled to Switzerland in 1938.  Some interpreters suggest that the hardships of the animals are based on the plight of Jews in Austria during this time, and that the hunting scene in which Bambi's mother dies is an allegorical pogrom.  This may indeed be Salten's intent, but it would be a disservice to this novel to limit its allegory to a specific time and place.  More immediately accessible to a reader of any generation is its depiction of the phases of life, which, as I mentioned before, mirrors Siddhartha.  The book moves Bambi through childhood to a hotblooded youth and finally to an old age in which he is a hermit occupied with spiritual rather than worldly concerns.

I know of few other novels as moving as Bambi, and in fact I teared up simply by hunting for passages to use in this blog post.  It is unfair that the book forming the basis of Disney's film is now largely forgotten; indeed, when I told people I was reading this, someone asked me if it was a pop-up book.  Although a story about deer, it is really a reflection on man.  To the animals, man is incomprehensible:  some see him as a devil, others as a god.  Salten explores these images from all sides, twisting them every which way until at last the conclusion brings a burst of clarity both simple and profound.

Bambi is superb both as a storybook for children and as a meditation for adults.  The violence is frequent and sometimes graphic, but don't let that stop you.  Read it.
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