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The Lion King

Jonathan Barfield argues that an Existentialist trumps a Christian interpretation of this popular Disney parable.

Watching The Lion King (1994) could feel like being hectored by a slightly confused preacher: Simba is the Prodigal Son in Jesus’s parable, Scar is Satan, Mufasa, Simba’s father, is God the Father, and Simba’s return to the Pridelands is Jesus’s Second Coming. However, we can attain a richer and more coherent analysis of Simba’s actions through the prism of existentialism.

The Christian Interpretation

Simba the lion cub (the Rightful King) runs away from his home, the Pridelands, because he feels responsible for his father’s death. Simba believes that he can live better on his own. This goes fine for a while: Simba enjoys singing with Timon and Pumbaa, a meerkat and a warthog, eating grubs, and lolling lazily in lagoons. As Simba says, “I just needed to get out on my own, live my own life, and I did, and it’s great.” There are clear parallels here with Jesus’s Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11 32). In the parable, the son thinks he can live better without the responsibilities he has while living with his family, and so leaves to live in a ‘far country’. This is exactly how Simba behaves.

However, after some time, Simba has a religious experience: a vision of Mufasa, his dead father, speaking to him: “You have forgotten who you are, and so have forgotten me. Look inside yourself Simba, you are more than you have become… Remember who you are. You are my son, and the one true king.”

Although Simba is here having a vision of his actual father, we could see Simba’s father as a pretty clear metaphor for God. The relationship between Mufasa and Simba mirrors that between God the Father and Jesus the Son. Rafiki the baboon says, “He lives in you.” Indeed, this phrase is taken as the basis of the most impressive new song in the musical (but not in the film): “He lives in you, He lives in me, He watches over everything we see… He lives in you.” Similarly, God lives in us, and is always watching over us.

After Simba’s religious vision, he re-evaluates his life, and inspired by ‘God’, and through ‘God’s’ strength and power, he returns to fulfil his part in ‘God’s’ plan. In this case, the plan is to kill Scar, who is the embodiment of evil in the story. So this is a version of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, except that in The Lion King, when the son returns, he comes back as a saviour figure who vanquishes evil – so the story includes a fair amount of the Second Coming of Christ too. This addition makes The Lion King rather messy and confused as a Christian allegory, but it can still be made to work.

This is what The Lion King seems to be about, then: Trying to live life by yourself and doing your own thing may seem attractive, but ultimately this is unsatisfactory, and true fulfilment in life comes through a relationship with God and with doing what God wants.

The Christian Interpretation Unravels

However, this Christian interpretation doesn’t take into account earlier parts of The Lion King story, where Simba accepts a crude theism which Mufasa clearly didn’t intend to communicate to him. When Simba is a cub, Mufasa says to him, “When we die our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass, and in that way we are all part of the great circle of life.” Here Mufasa is clearly a materialist, refusing to pretend to his infant son that any part of him will live on after his physical death. We are bodies, and then we die. However, Simba doesn’t understand Mufasa’s poetic atheism. He’s confused because Mufasa has also told him, “Let me tell you something my father told me… The great kings from the past look down on us from those stars.” Now this is clearly a story told to Simba to console him when he is first realising the nature of death. By introducing the story with the phrase “Let me tell you something my father told me…” Mufasa is distancing himself from it as literal truth and indicating that he believes that it’s a fiction. But Simba lacks Mufasa’s sophistication, and takes the story literally. We can, of course, understand that a child’s understanding would be expected to be less subtle and nuanced than that of an adult, but Simba maintains his crude ‘gods in the sky’ theism as he strikes out into the wilderness.

Freudians might argue that Simba is so committed to his literal understanding of his ancestors living in the sky that, later, at his lowest ebb, he induces a religious experience of his father (‘God’) talking to him, but this vision is in fact Simba projecting his desires for the comfort, security and direction he felt as a child, when his moral code was explicitly enforced by his father.

The Existentialist Interpretation

Let’s look at another aspect of Simba’s character: is Simba really as much of a radical individual as he thinks he is? Is he really ‘getting out on his own’ and ‘living his own life’? That idea seems rather indefensible.

As a cub, Simba acts purely in accordance with what is expected of him. He is basically indoctrinated by his parents, and fully buys into the morality of his society. (In Essay II of The Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche called socially-maintained morality the ‘morality of custom’ or ‘herd [pride] morality’.) Simba does not consider the grounds for his judgements and actions. Later, by leaving his society, Simba thinks he is being a rebel – a radical individual who has broken free from society’s constraints, going beyond his society’s moral distinctions. But really Simba is just doing the opposite of the rules of his former society. He hasn’t broken free of his society’s constraints, since he is still defined by them. He is not intellectually strong enough to choose his own values and rules, and thus define his own vision for how a person should live. If he ever was getting near to doing so, he retreats from it, being incapable of carrying the weight of responsibility.

The only way Simba could be truly individual in existentialist terms, and go beyond his society’s morality, would be for him neither to do what his society says, nor just do the opposite. His actions would need to be chosen by him independently of the influence of his society’s values. This is pretty tricky. Simba clearly fails to construct his own morality, and so he fails to be radically individual. As he launches into shallow pursuits such as lolling lazily in lagoons and singing with Timon and Pumbaa, we also see in Simba a desperation to give himself some kind of meaning and purpose. He’s willing to do anything to feel that his existence isn’t meaningless.

Nietzsche talks about this in Essay III of the Genealogy: most people would rather do anything than face up to the fact that their existence is ultimately meaningless. And as soon as someone confronts Simba with the idea that his life lacks any direction or purpose, he gives up his rebellion. Nala, a lioness whom Simba eventually marries, confronts him: “If you don’t do something soon, everyone will starve.” Simba is shamed by Nala’s disapproval, and throws himself back into his society’s morality, acting precisely in accordance with the moral code which he tried so hard to break away from. His failure to make free choices is complete. He will now go through the motions of being a king – of playing the part that his society has defined for him – and will never make any decisions that are his own, and so authentic. He will say he has no choice, that he has no option but to fulfil this role; but according to Jean-Paul Sartre, this means Simba is living in bad faith, by refusing to accept responsibility for his choices and throwing himself into a predefined role, justifying his actions by saying he has to act this way due to this very role he has just allocated himself.

Existentialists urge us to strive to choose our actions for our own reasons, and accept responsibility for the choices we make. As an existentialist hero, then, it seems that Simba is a complete failure. Is there any way in which existentialists can reclaim The Lion King? Maybe.

Towards Ambiguity

Perhaps the key is in Nala’s confrontation with Simba, when he must choose between leaving the hyenas in control of the Pridelands, or fighting them and Scar and claiming the throne. In this moment of choice, Simba experiences what Sartre calls ‘anguish’: he realises his responsibility for whatever happens next – his responsibility, no matter what he decides, for the consequences of the decision he has to make. He also knows that to ‘not choose’ (that is, to abandon the Pridelands to the hyenas) is still making a decision. Simba then acts in despair – not in the everyday sense of getting upset or depressed, but in the existentialist sense of not knowing whether what he is deciding is right or wrong. Despite this, he does indeed take responsibility for his choices: he strides forth, and acts, returning to face Scar.

We could think of this decision as a manifestation of Simba’s failure to be a true individual, that he is acting only in accordance with the moral indoctrination of his upbringing; but at his moment of anguish, when Simba makes his decision, there is a possibility that he takes on his society’s values in his own terms. Perhaps Simba is deciding and acting authentically in Sartre’s sense, then, by accepting that he is responsible for the consequences of his decision, that he is entirely free in making that decision, that he would want anyone in a similar situation to do the same, and that there are no justifications beyond his own.

Simba’s confrontation with Nala illustrates the ambiguity in many of our decisions. It is difficult from our perspective to judge whether Simba is acting authentically, that is, taking responsibility for his choices, or acting in bad faith by acting in accordance with his perceived expectations of his role in society. However, it is also difficult for Simba to judge of himself whether he is just going along with the rules and constraints of his society (i.e., in bad faith), or whether he is acting in accordance with beliefs he has freely choosen (i.e., authentically). We praise people for good moral actions that they have chosen freely in authenticity. The Lion King shows just how difficult it is for us to know whether a moral action, either performed by someone else or by ourselves, has indeed been chosen freely, or whether the decision is the result of cultural indoctrination.

© Jonathan Barfield 2013

Jonathan Barfield teaches IB Diploma Philosophy at Whitgift School, South Croydon. Visit mrjbarfield.wikispaces.com.

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