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Archetype Casting

What makes The Lion King so great? Of course it is well crafted in many ways; hundreds of people worked on the animation. But that would not have rescued a film with a less interesting story and script. For one thing, the movie strikes me as hilarious. It has funny lines as well as a great sense of timing. Timon the meerkat (or "the Weasel Guy," as my daughters and I like to call him) is a character worthy of Warner Brothers cartoons in their heyday. But the film is also a tragedy. It does not need Elton John's occasionally sappy music to achieve this effect. (Tim Rice's lyrics, on the other hand, sometimes remind one of his bewitching work in Jesus Christ Superstar.) The epic dimension of the cartoon is my topic here. I want to discuss the inherited mythic DNA in The Lion King.

Most narratives operate according to the basic structure whereby an initial state of well-being or at least equilibrium is upset and then, with difficulty, restored. So it is no surprise when we see this plot-skeleton in The Lion King. But the film has strong resonances of a more specific myth, that of the Corn King, brought to our attention a century ago by Sir James Frazer in his monumental work The Golden Bough. Deep in the race, Frazer explained, is the belief that the king carries within himself the life and fertility of the land he rules. As such he is a living god. He may be called upon to give his life in a time of famine so that his blood may fertilize the fields anew. (Other movies that make good use of this myth are The Wicker Man and Eye of the Devil.)

The Corn King myth underlies the practices of various primitive peoples and appears in mythology under the names of Adonis, Attis, Osiris, Baal, Tammuz, and Bran the Blessed. The wounding and healing (or the death and resurrection) of the god/king represents (and is believed actually to facilitate) the renewal of vegetation in the Spring after the death of plants in the winter.

Such religious beliefs and practices have been reinterpreted in the various cultures that cherished them in order to create an internalized, individualized religion of initiation and enlightenment. These we are in the habit of dubbing "Mystery Religions," the term referring to the sacred rites performed to mark the enlightenment/maturity of the initiate. Usually such rites included baptism in water or blood, a sacred cup or meal, investiture with sacred robes, etc. Christianity, in case you hadn't noticed, is one such religion. Its savior, like Dionysus (many of whose mythic traits the Jesus figure must have absorbed in syncretistic Palestine early on) offers the sacrament of his blood which is wine, the blood of the grape, and his body which is bread, the body of the grain. In baptism one dies and rises with him, just as nature itself does.

Jessie Weston argued in From Ritual to Romance that many key features of the Arthurian legend cycle stem from the same sort of  initiation Mysteries. She guessed that the story of Perceval who passes the night in the Chapel Perilous and who must ask the right question to bring about the healing of the Fisher King (or Grail King), who languishes from a wound that causes his domain to become the Wasteland, came from the rituals of a pre-Christian pagan Mystery religion in Britain. It has been Christianized in that the Grail which restores the Fisher King is made the Chalice of the Last Supper, but as we have seen, that very story probably derives from the same sort of myth and ritual.

I like the ingenious way in which Rospo Pallenberg streamlined the Arthurian Grail legend in his screenplay for John Boorman's film Excalibur (a film of enormous mythic power, and still my favorite movie). He makes Arthur into the Grail King. Arthur sends the knights out to find the Grail because he lies wasting away while the glory of Camelot itself has faded. Perceval recovers the Grail from which Arthur drinks and returns to full power. As Perceval hands him the cup he says, "You and the land are one. Drink, and you will be reborn--and the land with you."

This is what we see in The Lion King as well. The land dies when the Lion King Mufasa dies, killed by his own Mordred, the evil royal brother Scar (= Judas Iscariot). When the baboon shaman Raffiki, who plays the role of Merlin/John the Baptist in The Lion King, finds the self-exiled Simba, he tells him that his father Mufasa is still alive, alive in Simba himself. The film ends where it began, with the new Lion King and Queen displaying their newborn cub, the heir to the throne, before the worshipping ranks of animals. It is the embodiment of the film's opening song about the Circle of Life. And here is the cyclical renewal of Sacred Time which meets us most strikingly in the Corn King myths. For a classic discussion of the cyclical character of Sacred Time, see Mircea Eliade's books, The Eternal Return and The Sacred and the Profane.

I see in Mufasa/Simba in The Lion King a theological counterpoint to another mythic children's fantasy, C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia. There we also see a Lion King, Aslan, who is a thinly veiled Christ analogue. He dies and rises, too, but there is no cycle; rather history ends in "the Last Battle." Here is a linear view of history: the old age ends and the new, transformed age replaces it. There is no less a death and resurrection theme here than in the cyclical Corn King myth on which The Lion King is based. It's just that it happens only once. And the renewal that comes is not the periodic return of earthly vitality and vigor; it is the replacement of that whole cycle by an imagined supernatural substitute.

Lewis tried (in his essay "Myth Became Fact") to say that all the Corn King legends were some kind of mythic expressions of the subconscious yearning of the human race for the coming of Christ once and for all. I guess the repeated, cyclical character of the thing was like the repetitiveness of the Old Testament sacrifices according to the Epistle to the Hebrews: had they been the real thing, they'd have done the trick the first time and needed no repetition. But when the real dying and rising god appeared, he did the thing once and for all. Accordingly, there will be one definitive turnabout, and one only, however long we must wait for it, when the Risen Christ returns to transform the corrupt and sinful earth into a spanking-new model. It's not going to keep happening the same way again and again, they say. All the sorrows of the world will one day be done away with and we will be sitting pretty in endless comfort, once Christ returns to dispense with the old Fallen Age.

To tell you the truth, I just can't buy this. I don't think it's even a good idea. Get real, folks. This is the world. It contains death because we are organic, mortal beings. We ought to make the best of it. There is ecstatic glory in this mortal life, though sooner or later we must fall under tragedy's scythe. And, contra some New Age gurus, it does no good simply to wish tragedy away. It is real. There is never going to be some other world of sweetness and light to replace this one. Remember the sequence "Christmas in Heaven" in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life?

The Lion King is tragic and comic, and so is life. My children are learning something from it. Both times I took my girls to see it so far, little Veronica has cried when Mufasa dies. As she should. Oh, what a moment to be a parent! Nothing exceeds such sweetness, hugging your little one at such a time. It is part of this "unregenerate world" of which C.S. Lewis wished so urgently to be rid, but I think it does not suffer by comparison to an imaginary Millennium. And that's the point: why despise the Circle of Life, treat it as a mere charnel house to be escaped by a fantastic resurrection? It has death and doom, and it always will. But it also has life and joy, and it always will. The Circle turns.

The linear model of apocalyptic thinking, Harold Camping's notion that things as we now know them will be swept away to prepare for a Technicolor Oz of some kind, with a cross on top, is the cloth from which Christian triumphalism and manifest destiny have been sewn. Aslan does not really provide us a lesson about renewal. Instead he leads us to childishly deny the reality of death, while Mufasa/Simba bids us accept it as part of our assigned place in the scheme of things in which we may rejoice in the hour granted us.

Robert M. Price


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