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|“||Mufasa: You have forgotten who you are and so forgotten me. Look inside yourself, Simba. You are more than what you have become. You must take your place in the Circle of Life.|
Simba: How can I go back? I'm not who I used to be.
Mufasa: Remember who you are. You are my son and the one true king.
Simba is an adult male lion, the king of Pride Rock, and the only son of Mufasa and Sarabi. He is the mate of Nala, with whom he has two cubs: a daughter, Kiara, and a son, Kion.
Shortly after his birth, he was anointed future king and presented to the animals of the Pride Lands in a royal presentation ceremony. As the crown prince, he was raised to respect the Circle of Life by his father, Mufasa, and trained in the ways of an upright monarch. During this time, Simba's uncle, Scar, lured him into a wildebeeststampede and used the opportunity to kill Mufasa. Simba blamed himself for the death and exiled himself to the jungle, where he adopted a "Hakuna Matata" lifestyle with Timon and Pumbaa.
As an adult, Simba encountered his childhood friend, Nala, who begged him to return to the Pride Lands and reestablish his birthright as king. Retaining guilt over the death of his father, Simba refused. However, an encounter with his father's ghost prompted him to return home, where he found the Pride Lands in disarray under Scar's tyrannical rule. Along with the lionesses, Simba confronted Scar and engaged in a battle against his hyena minions. After defeating Scar, Simba ascended Pride Rock and established his place as king of the Pride Lands.
In the wake of Scar's death, Simba exiled those who were still loyal to Scar to the Outlands, where they fostered a grudge against the Pride Landers and the royal family. Despite the enmity between the two prides, Simba's daughter Kiara befriended an Outsider named Kovu, who had been Scar's heir before his untimely death. Simba begrudgingly allowed Kovu to stay with the pride, but after the leader of the Outsiders, Zira, framed Kovu for an Outsider ambush, Simba ended their agreement. With tensions high between the prides, the Outsiders and the Pride Landers met in battle on an open field until Kovu and Kiara arrived and implored their leaders to end the bloodshed. The Outsiders assented and switched sides, and Simba welcomed them back into the pride.
The Lion King
At the beginning of the film, a newborn Simba lies curled in his mother's paws. For the ceremony, Rafiki cracks open a gourd and makes a red mark on Simba's forehead, naming him the future king. He sprinkles sand on the newborn's head, making Simba sneeze, and then picks him up, presenting the cub to all the animals in the Pride Lands who are gathered to see him.
Simba soon grows into a lively, playful cub. He is the first to wake up one morning, coming to the edge of Pride Rock to see whether it is dawn yet. When he sees that the morning is approaching, Simba runs into the royal den, where all the lions are fast asleep. When he finds his parents asleep at the back, he starts to wake them up. He recalls that Mufasa had promised to show him the kingdom. Finally, Mufasa gets up. Simba happily scampers ahead of his parents, rubbing affectionately against his mother's leg before following his father to the summit.
Simba and his father climb to the top of Pride Rock, where Mufasa explains to his son that everything the light touches is their kingdom. He goes on to say that after his passing, Simba will become the new king. The cub questions the "shadowy place," and Mufasa explains that it is beyond their borders, so he must never go there. As they go on a walk through the Pride Lands, Mufasa tells Simba about the Circle of Life, explaining that every living thing "from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope" is connected and exists together in a delicate balance. While they are walking, Zazu, Mufasa's majordomo, gives the king a morning report. Simba, bored, tries to practice pouncing. After some instruction from his father, Simba succeeds in pinning down Zazu. As Zazu is on his back, a mole pops up beneath him and informs Zazu and Mufasa that there are dangerous hyenas in the Pride Lands. Mufasa leaves to deal with the threat, forbidding Simba to come with him.
Disappointed, Simba returns to Pride Rock to find his uncle Scar moping in the shadows. He gleefully informs Scar that he will one day be the king of Pride Rock, irritating Scar, who unenthusiastically tells Simba to forgive him for not leaping for joy, since he has a "bad back." He then flops down in depression, but Simba, unaware of why his uncle is in a bad mood, asks Scar what he will be once Simba is king. Scar replies, "A monkey's uncle," making Simba laugh. The cub tells his uncle that he is so weird, and Scar tells him that he has "no idea." Scar then asks Simba whether his father had showed him what lies beyond the northern border. Simba admits that he has been forbidden to go there, and Scar acts relieved, claiming that only the bravest lions go there. Objecting, Simba says that he's brave and demands to know what's out there. "Accidentally," Scar lets it slip that there is an elephant graveyard in the shadows, aware that Simba's curiosity will lead him there. Simba is excited at the prospect of an adventure but promises his uncle that he won't visit the graveyard.
Leaving Scar, Simba goes to his best friend Nala, who is being bathed by her mother Sarafina, opposite Simba's own mother Sarabi. Simba tries to get Nala to accompany him somewhere without giving away the location of their adventure. When asked where they are headed by his mother, he lies, saying, "Around the Water Hole." Sarabi sends Zazu to accompany the cubs, much to their dismay.
On the way to the Water Hole, Zazu makes a nostalgic comment about how the two are "betrothed, intended, affianced," meaning that they are set to be mates and rule the Pride Lands together. Since they are just children, they find it weird. The duo then sing the song "I Just Can't Wait to be King", during which they lose Zazu.
After losing track of Zazu, Simba brags to Nala, claiming that he is a genius for getting rid of Zazu. Nala opposes him, arguing that she deserves credit since she came up with the plan. Simba jumps on her to make her admit that he is the best, but she flips him onto his back, teasing him for getting pinned.
Simba tells her to let him go but then jumps on her again, and the cubs roll down a cliff. Nala again flips Simba, but then a geyser beside them shoots skyward, and they realize that they are in the Elephant Graveyard.
After the cubs make a quick exploration, Zazu catches up with them, though Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed soon show up. Simba tries to be brave in front of the hyenas, but, realizing the danger, he makes a frantic effort to escape, with the hyenas in hot pursuit. The cubs manage to get away from the hyenas, but Zazu is caught and thrown into a geyser. Simba and Nala come back to defend Zazu from the hyenas, and Simba tells the hyenas to fight someone their own size. Shenzi suggests that Simba is just the right size, and Simba realizes that he has overstepped his authority. It proves to be too late for the cubs, because the hyenas come for another attack. The cubs flee again and use the backbone of an elephant like a roller coaster that sends them flying from the hyenas. While climbing a mountain of bones, Nala slips, and Simba runs back to save her, swiping Shenzi in the face and helping Nala climb back to the top of the hill. The chase leads to Simba and Nala being cornered in a cave. Simba tries to protect Nala by making a roar to scare the hyenas away, but he is unsuccessful.
Just then, Mufasa arrives and pins down the hyenas, who flee in fear. Simba approaches his father and tries to speak, but Mufasa interrupts, accusing Simba of deliberately disobeying him. Simba quietly apologizes, but Mufasa just says, "Let's go home." Simba follows him, bowing his head, as Nala whispers to him that she'd thought he'd been very brave.
En route to Pride Rock, Mufasa stops on their way through the savanna. Simba bows his head in the grass when he hears that Mufasa wants to speak with him. Zazu then comes to the cubs and says that he will take Nala home. Putting his wings on Simba's shoulders, he wishes him good luck. A little scared, Simba sends one last look at Nala, who leaves. Mufasa then calls Simba to come to him. Going to his father, Simba accidentally steps into his father's pawprint, realizing just how much bigger and wiser Mufasa is.
Once by the king's side, Simba is admonished by his father, who expresses disappointment in him and anger that he'd disobeyed. Simba says that he had been trying to be brave like him, but Mufasa explains that even kings get scared, just as he had been that day because he'd almost lost Simba. No longer so scared, Simba jokes that the hyenas had been even more scared.
In response, Mufasa playfully says, "Because no one messes with your dad!" He then picks Simba up and gives him a playful noogie. After playing together under the sky, Mufasa tells Simba about the Great Kings of the Past, who are looking down on them from the stars. He reminds Simba that whenever he feels alone, the stars will always be there to guide him, as will Mufasa.
The next day, Scar, who had been planning to kill Mufasa and Simba in order to become king, takes Simba with him to the Gorge, saying that Mufasa has a "surprise" for him. Simba begs his uncle to tell him what it is, but Scar walks away after teasing him about practicing his "little roar." Unknown to Simba, Scar signals Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed to start a stampede of frightened wildebeests into the gorge below.
While Simba practices his roar a little louder than usual, the wildebeests charge down the cliff face in the direction of Simba. Terrified, the young cub runs for his life. Meanwhile, Scar, pretending to be terrified and nervous, runs to Mufasa, panting that Simba is in the Gorge. Immediately, Mufasa rushes to the Gorge to save his son, who desperately manages to jump and cling on to a branch while the wildebeests thunder below him. While Mufasa fights through the stampede, one of the wildebeests collides with the branch and breaks it, sending Simba flying into the air. Mufasa leaps up to catch his son, but he drops him upon impact with one of the wildebeests. Becoming stuck in the stampede again, Simba dodges a few wildebeests before again being picked up by Mufasa, who then gets him to safety. Pulled back into the herd, Mufasa fights until he can throw himself onto a ledge, where he clings for dear life.
Seeing this, Simba runs to the top of the cliff. As he reaches the top, he sees his father plummet into the stampede below, not knowing that he'd been thrown by Scar. He cries out and races down to the bottom of the Gorge to find his father's body under the branch that he had been clinging to. Hoping that his father isn't dead, he tries to revive him. Realizing that Mufasa is neither moving nor breathing, he calls for help but starts to cry and crawls underneath his father's forepaw when he realizes that there is no hope.
Scar approaches and manipulates Simba into believing that he is responsible for his father's death, claiming that Simba's roar had caused the stampede and that if it hadn't been for Simba, Mufasa would still be alive. When asked what his mother will think, Simba doesn't know what to do, so Scar tells him to run away and never return. After Simba scampers away, Scar sends Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed to kill the cub.
Panicked, scared, and now chased by the hyenas, Simba runs out of the Gorge and comes out at the top of a steep cliff. With a patch of sharp thorns below, Simba has no choice but to jump down the cliff to escape the predators. He tumbles down and forces himself through, but the hyenas don't follow, thinking that Simba is as good as dead out in the barren desert anyway.
Tired and dehydrated, Simba wanders into the desert. In the burning heat, he eventually faints. Waiting for him to die, vultures circle overhead, but a meerkat named Timon and a warthog named Pumbaa scare away the vultures and save the unconscious cub. They revive him and ask him if he is okay. He shakily replies and starts to wander off. Timon and Pumbaa ask what he'd done to be so sad, but Simba doesn't want to talk about it. Timon and Pumbaa then take the cub into a jungle to teach him to forget the past and live by "Hakuna Matata." During the song "Hakuna Matata", the duo have Simba eat bugs, explore his new home, and live without worry. The trio walk across a log, which represents a few years, during which Simba transitions from a cub to an adolescent to an adult.
Simba's adolescence is only briefly shown during the log sequence of "Hakuna Matata." Simba is older than in The Lion King 1½ (in which his adolescent self makes a longer appearance), evident by the mane that begins to run down his neck and the mane that begins to appear on his chest and lower body, as well as longer fur on his elbows.
|“||Simba: That's not my father. That's just my reflection.|
Rafiki: No. Look harder. You see, he lives in you.
Growing up in the jungle, Simba learns to be carefree and forget about his past and responsibilities with Hakuna Matata. Although seemingly happy in the jungle, he feels homesick when stargazing with his friends, recalling what his father had told him years ago when they'd looked up at the stars together. He is upset when Timon's comments mock the Great Kings of the Past. Hurt by his friends' comments, Simba leaves to flop down on a rock in grief over his dead father.
A few days later, Simba hears Timon and Pumbaa yelling for help and immediately rushes to their rescue, finding himself face-to-face with a hungry lioness. After wrestling ferociously with the lioness (with Timon cheering him on), Simba is flipped onto his back, a move that he instantly recognizes as belonging to Nala. When he mentions Nala's name, the lioness becomes surprised and backs away. When she asks who he is, Simba tells her his name, and the lioness is surprised to recognize her childhood friend.
As they rejoice, Simba introduces Nala to his new friends, and she tells Simba that he is the rightful king. Simba rejects his responsibility and refuses to go back, still believing that he is guilty of killing Mufasa. Still, he comforts Nala as she struggles with the reality of him being alive after all these years.
Enjoying a peaceful sunset evening together, the two lions realize that their childhood friendship has blossomed into love. However, that evening, Nala tries to explain to Simba the fate of the Pride Lands under Scar's reign, trying to persuade him to go back, since he is their only hope. Despite her desperation, he refuses. Disappointed with Simba's new behavior, Nala tells him that he isn't the Simba she knows and remembers, to which he admits that he isn't. Then Simba asks Nala if she is now satisfied, and Nala declines, saying that she is just disappointed.
Simba tells Nala that she is starting to sound like his father, to which she replies, "Good! At least one of us does!" Enraged, Simba yells at her and then marches away in a huff. Alone in a grassy field, he yells to the sky at Mufasa for not being there for him when he'd promised years earlier that he would. Simba then labels the blame on himself, hanging his head in shame.
Soon, Simba notices Rafiki singing in a tree. Trying to get away from him, Simba goes to lie down away from the baboon. Rafiki refuses to leave him alone, so Simba asks him who he is. However, in response, Rafiki asks Simba who he is. Simba doesn't know anymore, and after Rafiki chants in his ear, the baboon tells Simba that he is Mufasa's boy. Surprised to hear Mufasa's name, Simba chases the wise baboon and asks him if he'd known his father, to which Rafiki corrects Simba and tells him that he knows his father. After Simba sadly tells him that Mufasa had died a long time ago, Rafiki tells Simba that he is wrong again and explains to him that Mufasa is still alive. The baboon leads Simba to a stream, and as he remarks that he only sees his reflection, Rafiki tells Simba to look harder. The reflection ripples and becomes Mufasa's face. At the same time, Simba hears Mufasa calling to him from the sky, and Simba looks up to see him again.
Mufasa's spirit appears in the sky, and Simba instantly recognizes him, astonishingly asking, "Father?" In answer, Mufasa accuses his son of forgetting him, to which Simba denies him and asks how he possibly could.
Mufasa tells his son that he has forgotten who he is and his own place in the Circle of Life. He then reminds Simba that he is his son and the one true king. Simba chases Mufasa's disappearing form in the sky, begging him not to leave him, with his father repeating, "Remember." Rafiki approaches Simba again and listens to him discussing how he will have to face his past if he is to return. Rafiki then whacks him on the head with his stick, causing Simba some pain, and teaches him the lesson that even though things are in the past, they can still hurt, but one should learn from them. As Rafiki swings his stick again, Simba dodges it. Rafiki notices this and asks Simba what he is going to do, to which Simba tells the baboon that he is going to take his stick first.
The lion snatches it away from him and throws it into the grass. However, as soon as Rafiki gets it and turns back, Simba has already left to fight Scar and take back his place as the king of the Pride Lands. Overjoyed, Rafiki proceeds to cheer Simba on from a distance, encouraging him to go back.
Arriving back home, Simba is shocked at the dry, barren condition that the once green and fertile land is in. As Simba moves through the Pride Lands, Nala, Timon, and Pumbaa catch up to help him battle Scar. As they make their way to Pride Rock, they find their way blocked by hyenas, and Simba instructs Timon and Pumbaa to divert the hyenas so that he and Nala can slip past them. Simba then tells Nala to look for Sarabi and rally the lionesses while he searches for Scar. He freezes in horror as he hears his mother's name yelled out by Scar, then watches as Sarabi and Scar argue.
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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.
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.