“The Lion King” (1994) and political legitimacy

It’s not Hamlet. No matter how many times your junior high school teacher said “oh, it’s actually based on Shakespeare”, it was all a lie. I suspect, in fact, although there is no way Disney was dumb enough to write it down, that this meme was propagated specifically in order to enable entry into the lucrative “screw it, it’s movie day” public education market.

The only thing it has in common with Hamlet is that the uncle kills the father. Structurally and thematically they couldn’t be more different, as this provides merely an off-screen MacGuffin for Hamlet, but is the full-on Act I MKUltra trauma induction in The Lion King.

(Consider, if you will, the amount of time given to Simba staring at his father’s corpse. The death scene runs a solid five minutes. Even in the context of the notoriously patricidal Disney canon, this is an outlier, and I am not convinced the fact that they are cartoon lions with overtly human facial expressions makes it less rather than more visceral.)

But even aside from the structural aspects, Hamlet is a proto-existential personal drama, and The Lion King is a movie about political legitimacy – how do you get it, how do you explain it, and how do you lose it.

We get the pitch early on. Mufasa explains to his son, Simba, that the lions possess, essentially, the mandate of heaven, because they safeguard the “circle of life”. You see, it is a sign of respect to eat the antelope, because everything exists in balance, and eventually the lions die too and turn into grass. Later than the antelope, of course, and not necessarily in a biomass-significant way, but spiritually we’re all in this together.

Mufasa isn’t a wildlife ecologist, and this is all basically bullshit. It is also, though, a legitimizing myth – the story the rulers tell about why they are in charge. It’s the pharaoh’s responsibility to make sure the Nile flows, it’s the Caliph’s responsibility to spread the dar al-islam via jihad, Kamala Harris’s responsibility to fight white supremacy, and so on.

But if you pay very close attention to the depiction of the pride, you will notice something else interesting about the ruling class – there are precisely three male lions. Mufasa, his heir Simba, and his brother Scar. (What happened to all of Simba’s brothers? Best not spoken of.) It does make succession much clearer – no lioness can lead, so the potential high level elite is extremely numerically constrained. It seems that the male lions lead the pride, and the pride dominates the plain. So who is the legitimizing story for? We see the bulk of animals, minus the hyenas (about which more later), pay active homage to the lions, rather than treating them as a hostile entity, and given how limited the potential leadership is, it is simply not necessary to appeal to the lionesses. In other words, it is a story about why lions as a species rule the animal kingdom, rather than why one particular line of male lions is in charge of the pride. This turns out to be dangerous.

Maybe Scar read his Machiavelli, or it’s a pseudo-Ottoman aspect of lion society, but he realizes that to seize the throne, he has to kill the current king and all pretenders (it’s also not the first time this logic has been taken to its conclusion – remember, a dozen female concubines plus a mate, and Mufasa has precisely one heir). The king is easy to deal with, but Simba escapes – not before Scar threatens him with delegitimization on the theory that Simba was responsible for his own father’s death. This is not an implausible story – how many lions die of old age, versus how many at the teeth of their own heir (especially when he just sang a whole number about his desire for the throne)? Even if the lionesses don’t get much choice of ruler, it becomes clear later on that they do exercise influence at the margin. What would be their choice between a regicidal, immature heir, versus the king’s grown brother?

They don’t have to choose, though, because Scar manages to at least exile Simba, who everyone assumes is dead. It rapidly becomes clear that Scar is a bad king on three important levels, which ultimately destroy his legitimacy and his rule.

First, he imports a foreign mercenary class to secure his rule – the hyenas. This is a time-tested security mechanism – they have no local loyalties or allies, so they rely on the ruler alone for their place in the society, and have no problem attacking particular constituencies in the population. A smart ruler will blame “excesses” on the foreigners, rather than his own decision to import them, as indeed Scar does in the final act. But this is usually rather transparent – the people are unlikely to be fond of foreigners with strange and disgusting customs lording over them, and if the king is widely hated to begin with, they become easily identified as his proxies rather than as fall guys. It is a bit questionable why he even needs them, once they’ve handled the job of the initial coup, given the lack of other options for a ruler. This starts to look akin to Stalinist paranoia.

Second, Scar wrecks the “circle of life” story by introducing an ecological catastrophe. In the film it is implied that this is mostly a drought, which would be beyond anyone’s control, but I prefer a headcanon where the hyenas are claiming excessive, unsustainable amounts of wildlife – perhaps hunted for them by the lionesses themselves. In either case, there is no longer adequate prey for the lionesses, and the zebras and such themselves appear to be suffering.

Third, he does not produce a heir. By the time Simba grows up, years later, Scar should have managed to knock up at least one of the pride – yet when he returns, he finds no males besides Scar himself. I read this as Scar’s voluntary, cowardly unwillingness to introduce a competitor, even though it existentially threatens the future of the pride.

So when Simba shows back up, all things considered, it’s a pretty short struggle. The lionesses never directly turn on Scar (there are rules here), but they do neutralize his hyena mercenaries as Simba directly challenges him. Despite not being able to kill Scar outright, Simba is able to dominate him sufficiently that the hyenas no longer perceive him as having anything to offer them beyond 450lb of protein. The isolated quality of mercenaries cuts both ways, and they scamper back to their own historic lands to resume their lives as scavengers (are the hyenas the Fremen of the savanna? Discuss.) Simba puts his two loyal adolescent drinking buddies in high positions, but this is far more tolerable than a pack of competing carnivores.

Read in this way, The Lion King is less a story of Simba as protagonist finally assuming the mantle of kingship, and more a cautionary tale of Scar the ruler squandering every opportunity to govern well in favor of paranoid, self-undermining security.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. NC says:

    Its Disney = evil

    Like

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