The Lion King Explained: Let the Darkness In

Disney’s The Lion King has a profound message for everyone: we need to make sense of life’s difficulties, not censor them out. Here’s our take on how the 90s classic is a great lesson on “letting the darkness in.”

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The Lion King Explained: Let The Darkness In

The first line of The Lion King belongs to its villain, Scar, who utters a very relatable observation:

“Life’s not fair, is it?” - Scar in The Lion King

And in fact, this whole story is about the universal rite of passage of learning that life really isn’t fair. Scar is annoyed by the social hierarchy that puts him in an inferior position to his seemingly less deserving nephew. But this kid who has everything soon loses the center of his universe, as his beloved father dies a horrible death right before his eyes. So The Lion King swiftly and harshly breaks it to kids that, sometimes, life sucks. Not only do you have to reckon with where you fall on the food chain, but even if you do get to be King, you’re not exempt from the suffering and loss that’s inherent to our mortal existence. The circle of life is just as much a circle of death - for you to grow up and become an independent adult, your parents have to get older and eventually pass away. And darkness is woven into everything that’s light. So what actually made the Lion King so vivid and life-changing for 90s kids is it’s not afraid to go to some dark places. The movie’s enduring success proves that kids want stories that make sense of life’s difficulties, instead of censoring them out. So here’s our take on why the brilliance of the Lion King comes from inviting darkness into the Disney picture.

Darkness For the Whole Family

The brutal, tragic death of the good king Mufasa no doubt traumatized many of us as kids. Plenty of children’s stories are about orphans. Removing the parents from the fictional equation subtly empowers young viewers to think about being independent and self-reliant. But rarely do we witness the actual death of the character’s parents. A big exception to this is one of The Lion King’s key inspirations: Bambi, a story set in motion by the heartbreaking loss of Bambi’s mother at the hands of hunters. In Lion King, Mufasa’s demise is even more shocking due to the visceral, immersive experience we take in through the eyes of the son who, until now, thought his dad was invincible.

“But you’re not scared of anything.” - Simba in The Lion King

Then, while Simba is still processing the unfathomable, the horror is doubled by the psychological torment Scar inflicts, persuading the poor boy he’s to blame for his own father’s death. After this point, the journey that follows for Simba is about learning how to reckon with the role of pain and injustice in our lives. This is actually something Simba’s society has failed to do, too. The Pride Lands don’t acknowledge evil, wrongdoing or ill intentions. All this badness is ignored and pushed out of sight, as symbolized by the shadowlands which are explicitly rejected by Mufasa’s kingdom. Mufasa doesn’t explain what this disturbing place is, or why it’s not a part of their kingdom so Simba is poorly equipped to deal with it, just as he later responds to tragedy by running from it and suppressing his feelings. He’s been given no means of addressing the unpleasant, apart from pushing it away.

As perfect as Mufasa seems as a king, his failing is not recognizing the existence and role of darkness in the kingdom. He’s aware of his brother’s ill will but won’t think too deeply about it. He minimizes the seriousness of the problem. This naive refusal to face ugly truths makes the kingdom weak, untested. The godlike level of power of this absolute monarch,

“Everything the light touches is our kingdom.” - Mufasa in The Lion King

Could easily be abused by a less benevolent and selfless leader. Eventually, Scar brings literal darkness to take over the Pride Lands. Now, to return and take his rightful place, Simba has to understand the evil in the Pride Lands in order to vanquish it and by confronting the darkness as his father never did, he at last becomes an even stronger king. His time away and his suffering make him able to defeat Scar when Mufasa couldn’t. It’s also no coincidence that Scar, one of Disney’s most popular villains, is one of its most sardonically vicious and ideologically terrifying. The Be Prepared visuals explicitly compare Scar to Hitler by echoing Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Scar’s ultimate darkness makes the Lion King’s light shine all the brighter.

Symbolic Readings: Trauma and the Circle of Death

We can read the plot of the Lion King as a symbolic story about trauma and the road to healing and self-realization. Simba’s name just means “Lion” in Swahili so he is the Lion, the self of this story. The physical space of the Pride Lands reflects the state of Simba’s self at any given point. As the name “Pride Lands” suggest, a strong self relies on taking positive pride in your actions and the group you’re responsible to, like a pride of lions. But when selfish, vain ego, the negative version of pride, is in charge, the space of the self is ravaged, becoming a gloomy graveyard. The villain of this story is actually named Scar. So he represents that bitterness of holding onto resentment over hardships you’ve experienced.

“Well, I was first in line ... until the little hairball was born.” - Scar in The Lion King

And within the story, we can read this character as embodying Simba’s scar. The festering, guilt-infested wound formed by his father’s death becomes so potent it takes over the whole Pridelands, the visualization of his inner self, and kills off all growth there. Simba runs away from that land, i.e., from himself, and starts acting like a different animal than he really is. Simba’s behavior matches the textbook portrait of a trauma victim. He exemplifies symptoms like shock and denial, withdrawing from others, feeling sad, hopeless and disconnected and blaming oneself. When he looks up at the stars and senses the ghost his father looking down on him, he turns away because he’s ashamed he’s not being himself. When Simba sees Mufasa in his reflection but denies this,

“That’s not my father. That’s just my reflection.” - Simba in The Lion King

“No. Look harder.” - Rafiki in The Lion King

On one level he’s saying he’s not worthy of being a king, even if he looks like one. But others see that he is a king, that’s why they mistake him for his father. Rafiki, a name which means “friend,” represents wisdom. He translates and reminds Simba of his father’s guidance, to help him become a fully realized self. And what this requires is for Simba to confront his past, which means battling the scar that all this time has been telling him the bad thing that happened to him was his fault. Once he’s liberated from the falsehood that he’s to blame for his own trauma, Simba is finally able to destroy the wound that has terrorized him for so long. And the closing scene of Simba looking over the replenished land, is an image of the healthy, complete self, connected to the friends and family who are a key part of him, ready to bring new life into the world now that he’s inwardly prospering, stable, and stronger thanks to the trials he’s overcome.

There’s also a second universal symbolic story in The Lion King: about the darkness that’s inherent to the passage into adulthood. Simba’s “I want song,” the number that in many Disney movies clearly expresses the character’s deepest desire, tells us he wants to be king and he doesn’t want to wait - he wants to be King right now. But what he doesn’t realize is that with these words he’s actually wishing for the death of his father, because for Simba to become king, his father must pass away. Later on, his fear that he did unconsciously will his father’s death may be part of why Simba continues to feel guilty, even long after he’s an adult who should be able to grasp how Scar manipulated him. And this issue of guilt over replacing one’s father doesn’t just apply to the royals. Think of the Oedipus complex, which includes the idea that a son feels instinctual competition with the father. Simba’s terrible revelation that his own independence entails his father’s demise is like any of us realizing that the closer we move toward adult self-determination, the closer our parents inch toward the grave.

“One day, Simba, the sun will set on my time here and will rise with you as the new king.” - Mufasa in The Lion King

On closer inspection, the main thing Simba looks forward to about being king is the same one a child looks forward to about being an adult: having autonomy, instead of being told what to do all the time. The lion’s exile represents that adolescent or post-adolescent period when the youth has to leave home and seek new experiences to develop a fully formed identity apart from everyone who knows him. He also needs time away from his best friend Nala so they can see each other as adult romantic partners. But ultimately this lion isn’t satisfied with his friends’ carefree life, he feels the need for a greater responsibility, which is what adulthood really is. The final scene, a mirror of the first, with Simba replacing his father, is bittersweet. Though peace is restored and Simba has become a good, wise king, this progress is made possible only by the previous generation’s death.

Classics for Kids: Literature of Disillusionment

The unsettling and mature themes present in The Lion King partly come from the literary classics that inform the story, especially Shakespeare’s Hamlet. When they were working on The Lion King, the creators nicknamed it “Bamblet,” a combination of Bambi and Hamlet. And it has plenty in common with Shakespeare’s play. Young Prince Hamlet is visited by his father’s ghost and struggles with suspicions that his uncle may have killed his father. Like Hamlet, Simba is plagued by indecision. When this lion starts living like a herbivore far down on the food chain it appears to Nala like he’s gone mad, just as Hamlet puts on a show of madness as a cover while he decides what to do. So what’s the point of translating the complexities of Shakespeare for kids? Perhaps what’s most compelling and enduring about Hamlet is that it so articulately captures adolescent doubts and concerns. Hamlet’s obsession with insincere appearances is every adolescent’s fixation on authenticity. In Scar, we can also see the influence of Shakespeare’s Richard III, which features an eerily charismatic villain offering the audience a privileged view into his secret machinations and Macbeth, the cautionary tale of ambition, about a man who plots the murder of his king and is later unsettled by the vision of a ghost.

Aside from Shakespearean echoes, the Lion King takes after the biblical story of Joseph. Simba and Joseph are favored children cast out into exile due to the envy of family members. Each evolves from the carefree, blessed youth into the smart, savvy adult who is informed by the darkness he’s lived through. The difficult truth underpinning this narrative is that no one gets to remain in that state of pure love and light, sooner or later, we’re all exiled from Eden. Simba and Joseph have to learn, too, that even our closest family may hate us. This is an incredibly sad thing to understand, that the most vicious darkness often doesn’t come from far away but from those nearest and dearest to our hearts. And from within ourselves, too.

The Inequality Problem: The Truth Beneath the Food Chain

In recent years, more and more people have revisited the Lion King to say, essentially, what if Scar had a point? The rigid social hierarchy in the movie allows for no progress, you’re born into your place and there’s something wrong with you if you try to change that.

“Why, if it isn’t my big brother descending from on high to mingle with the commoners.” - Scar in The Lion King

Privileged little Simba does kind of act like an entitled brat. Even Mufasa can’t help indulging the boy’s obnoxious side at times. And when we hear Simba talk about his future reign, he sounds like a tyrant-in-waiting. He sings with excitement of being in the spotlight, getting more attention even than any other king has, and how he’s practicing looking down on others.

“I’m brushing up on looking down.” - Simba in The Lion King

So Scar’s not wrong to find baby Simba irritating, but it’s not like the uncle has any problem with inequality, he just wants to be on top himself. In action, Scar’s style of rulership is exactly the nightmare immature Simba describes. In a modern context, we might notice that The Lion King bears a striking resemblance to Black Panther. Like Simba, T’Challa struggles after the loss of his father. He also has a supportive mom, and a fierce love who’s more capable than he is. Like Scar, Erik Killmonger spouts valid critiques of society’s injustice, and audiences find both characters so compelling in part because it’s hard not to agree with their takedowns of a rigid, hierarchical society that excludes some from prosperity. But though Scar and Erik correctly identify a problem, the only solutions these characters offer are hatred, anger and destruction. So the conflicted young ruler has to find a way to address longstanding inequality and injustice, while preserving the delicate balance of a productive and life-affirming culture.

What Mufasa tries to teach young Simba is that, while the food chain ruling our day-to-day puts predators on top and prey on the bottom, the deeper reality is that the King is no better than the lowest in his kingdom. Death is the great equalizer. Even if the pride lands could be a little more open to social mobility, the film isn’t really trying to say that some people are destined for greatness and some aren’t. It’s saying that we have to earn our place, even and especially if it’s given to us.

“There’s more to being king than getting your way all the time.” - Mufasa in The Lion King

To be fair to Mufasa, he does, in the limited time he has, start teaching Simba lessons in resilience. He tries to prepare Simba for his own eventual death by presenting the silver lining to the darkness: that while our parents pass away, they live on through us. As much as it hurts to understand the true meaning of the Circle of Life and how painfully temporary all of this is, the best we can do to honor our lost loved ones is to realize our full potential, and pass their wisdom onto the next generation, teach our children to be brave and equip them to face the shadows.