How lovely it was for me when last Sunday, while I was on vacation in Fremantle, Western Australia, a crown on one of my teeth fell out during breakfast. For the rest of our time there, mostly spent seeing family on both sides, I had to be careful not to smile too widely, lest I look like a pirate.
We returned to Melbourne in the early hours of Thursday morning, and this morning (Friday) saw me at my excellent dentist, Dr L., his able assistant, Ms K., and friendly administrator Ms V. “You’ve presented me with a challenge,” Dr L. said cheerfully. I won’t go too deeply into what had to be done, save that it involved a “slow drill” and something called a “para-post”.
It’s all completely painless, of course, thanks to local anaesthetic. I read a lot of historical novels and it’s the one thing that makes me glad I wasn’t born before the 20th century. Anyhow, although dentistry doesn’t hurt now, it’s not particularly pleasant. So, I close my eyes and try to divert my mind. I used to think about a beautiful beach—white sand, turquoise water, a yellow umbrella. Then I played too much of an iPhone app called Distant Shore, and got sick of the perfect beach.
So, what do I think of now? Bambi. That is because Bambi is the sweetest little thing in the history of fictional characters, and Disney captured perfectly this essence of sweet innocence in its portrayal of the fawn in the 1942 movie.
I’ve been wanting to write a piece about Bambi for a while, because suddenly, everywhere I look, are images of him. The protagonist of one of the earliest anti-hunting pro-environmental novels seems to be making a comeback—if he ever went away, that is. My earliest memory of Bambi is probably the Little Golden book with the Disney animation characters, but the story was first published in German in 1923 as a novel, Bambi: A Life in the Woods, by the Ausrian-Hungarian writer Felix Salten, who sold the film rights for $1000 in 1933.
Just before Christmas, I saw a 1950s ceramic Bambi ornament for sale at a shop near me called Retro Active, which sells 20th-century memorabilia, jewellery and furniture. It was $30 but, it being Christmas and not my birthday, I thought it wasn’t good form to buy a present for myself. However, shortly after Christmas, it is my birthday, so when the shop opened after the break, I went back to buy Bambi. Guess what? Bambi was gone. I imagine that dear little deer sitting now on someone else’s mantelpiece. Since then, I have seen a Bambi lamp for a baby’s room, and a fantastic Bambi book sculpture, which you can see here.
So synonymous has the term “Bambi” become with innocence and goodness, that to say something is “like killing Bambi” is to brand it just about the worst thing possible. So I was horrified, while researching this piece, to come across a discussion thread on the internet which started with the question, “Is it illegal to shoot a baby deer?”
Perhaps Bambi is making a comeback because, in this commodified, mediatised world in which we westerners can have just about anything we want, limited only by the size of our wallets, Bambi represents what is seen as a simpler, more honest time in which the goodies and the baddies were clearly delineated.We tend to apply this sentimentality or faulty nostalgia for “a simpler time” to many long-gone eras: I mean, it’s all very well, for example, to look back to the early 19th century through sumptuous TV mini-series of Jane Austen novels and envy the seemingly peaceful and uncomplicated rural lifestyles back then. What we don’t see are the realities of life without all we take for granted today: electricity, refrigeration, and modern medicine, for example; and anaesthetic for visits to the dentist. Before 1844, dental anaesthetic was unknown: routine, reliable local anaesthetic without too many nasty side effects was not introduced until as late as the 1940s. More about that here.
Lack of proper anaesthetic meant restorative dental work was extremely limited before the 20th century. So, if the heroine of the 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, had toothache, she would simply have had the tooth pulled out. As my late father, a dentist, told me: a real Elizabeth Bennet would have lost many of her teeth by her 20s, and those she still had would probably have been brown with rot. She would definitely not have had a mouth full of white, even teeth. I never could persuade him from his view that period dramas should present characters with teeth like they would really have had.
He was always convinced he knew the secret to the Mona Lisa’s smile. “It’s obvious,” he said of the early 16th-century painting. “It’s because all her teeth would have been rotten or missing, and she smiles that strange way because she has chronic toothache.”
In Bambi’s idealised world, all the goodies, of course, would have perfect teeth and would never need to go to the dentist. I hope this is my last dental visit until my usual six-monthly check-up is due. Fingers crossed.