From the Neolithic cave paintings in France to the Egyptian statues of Sekhmet to Albrecht Dürer’s Samson Rending The Lion, these noble cats have had roles in nearly every major culture and civilization. While some civilizations feared them, others revered the lion as the king of all animals with its full mane and ferocious roar. As lions have been artistically represented for thousands of years, they have also held a prominent place in literature dating back to the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest epic poems. Although, if you are a bookish person of a certain age, you might be most familiar with the lion librarians Theo and Cleo from the children’s show Between The Lions.
Lions tread the line between protector and predator, and their literary depictions are no different. This liminal status is gold for storytellers, as they have the creative freedom to choose which aspect of a lion’s cultural reputation to emphasize in their narrative. Through discussing some of the most popular literary portrayals of lions today, we shall form our own opinions on whether literary lions should be feared or loved.
The most prominent qualitative association with lions in literature is their protective nature. Synonymous with bravery, confidence, and determination, lions are often seen as one of the most noble animals, which is why they have historically been used as symbols by kings, influential leaders, and countries around the world.
In keeping with this theme, lions are especially popular in fantasy literature. The Hogwarts House Gryffindor has a lion as a mascot to welcome all the brave young wizards studying there. Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia serves as both the king and defender of Narnia, as well as a metaphor for Jesus of Nazareth, who is recorded as having led people with love instead of fear. Furthermore, the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz acts as an interesting subversion of the cultural interpretation of lions. While he eventually becomes brave over the course of the story, it is friendship and connection that allows the Cowardly Lion to overcome his fear.
It is also worth noting that many of the most famous lions in literature are male, whereas, in the wild, the lionesses are responsible for most of the hunting and caring for their young. In instances where the male lions of a pride are killed by rival outsider males, the invading males attempt to kill all the cubs in an attempt to get the lionesses in heat. However, female lions have been observed fighting to the death to protect their cubs from harm. While the idea of a maned lion roaring in the middle of the Serengeti on top of a rock is majestic in theory, it’s hard to beat the unconditional love inspired by a mother protecting her babies at all costs.
On the other hand, for every Mufasa, there is a Scar waiting in the shadows for the perfect time to pounce. Since lions are apex predators in terms of the ecological food web, they naturally inspire a healthy wariness in organisms that do not wish to die a painful death. With bravery and leadership skills comes a certain level of responsibility, and if one has the might and motivation to seize power for themselves, what is going to stop them from abusing it?
It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the predator and the protector. In the Christian Bible, both Jesus and Satan are described as lions, but while Jesus is described as a lion who protects his people (Revelation 5:5; Hosea 11:10), Satan is a lion prowling for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). Despite being complete opposites in the Christian faith, the figures of Jesus and Satan are likened to an animal that fulfills both roles, thus highlighting the lion’s liminality.
While the lion is a carnivorous predator by nature, more recent trends in literature depict lions as seeking revenge or being used as weapons against their own predator: humans. In the short story “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury, spoiled children in a high-tech house feed their parents to (formerly virtual) lions in their screen-filled nursery so their parents wouldn’t move them into the country. An extreme reaction from underdeveloped minds with too much screen time, sure, but the short story provides a disquieting interpretation of what could happen when the natural world rises against the man-made.
In the James Patterson novel Zoo, animals are becoming more aggressive due to their pheromones being altered by excessive cell phone use and motorized transportation. As a catalyst for the credibility of his research on mammal attacks against humans, biologist Jackson Oz survives a lion attack in Botswana that killed over 100 people. While the lions aren’t the main focus of the narrative, it is interesting to see how they play a role in how humans fear them almost as much as they fear one another. After all, when everyone is fighting for survival, one organism’s protector is another’s predator.
Today, the largest threat to the continual existence of lions is human activity. Through poaching and the removal of lion habitats, we risk endangering the 20,000-25,000 lions left on the planet. While we can revere the nobility of lions from a distance, it is also important that we protect these predators as they continue to balance ecosystems and reign over the animal kingdom.
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