The Circle of Life and Bugs
by Michael Palumbo
The circle of life, the idea that all life exists in a delicately-balanced cycle of consumption, is central to The Lion King (1994) and introduced from the very beginning of the film. The principle is not unlike the idea of a food chain, but it is further imbued with spiritual and cosmic importance. Simba, the rash young lion cub destined for the throne of his pride, initially lacks the wisdom to understand the circle. He later gains his triumphant kingship and revenge for his father’s death only after grasping its true meaning. Yet his learning is paradoxical: he gains understanding of the circle’s importance and transforms himself from cub to king only by breaking its natural symmetry and lowering himself from peak carnivore to lowly insectivore in his self-imposed exile.
Simba is initially rash and unwise, obsessed with the idea of bravery and power, as opposed to the enlightened and responsible rule his father, Mufasa, advocates. Referring to the circle of life, Mufasa teaches Simba: “As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all living creatures from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.” A bewildered Simba does not yet understand how one who eats antelope can possibly respect it. Simba’s initially sees the circle as a line, with himself at the top as both king of his pride and king of the food chain.
Following the death of his father, a guilt-ridden Simba exiles himself from the pride and meets the jovial Timon of Pumbaa. Simba quickly adopts the duo’s motto of hakuna matata (“no worries”), which stands in direct contrast to his late father’s mantra of responsible rule and the circle of life. Adapting himself to Timon and Pumba’s happy-go-lucky lifestyle, Simba’s transfiguration is symbolically complete when he partakes in their meal of choice: colorful and slimy insects. Unknowingly, the ritual, extended participation in an insectivorous lifestyle instructs Simba in the circle of life. By humbling himself and eating insects, he abandons his contrived post at the top of the food chain, and instead begins to see the circle in its true form.
Simba, enlightened after years of maturation and unwitting study of the circle of life, returns to his pride at the behest of his childhood friend, Nala, and a heavenly apparition of his late father. Hyenas, characterized as “slobbering, mangy, stupid poachers,” have taken over the pride, driving out the herds which lion and hyena alike rely on for food. Hyenas, natural scavengers who have relocated from the feared elephant graveyard, exist as abusers of the circle of life, rather than stewards of it. As consumers of rotted, tainted meat they constitute a direct foil to Mufasa and the enlightened Simba. As the hyenas consume without regard for the circle of life, their rule has left the pride’s homeland desiccated and lifeless. Simba, having triumphantly returned from his instructive exile, overcomes the hyenas and takes his rightful place as ruler of the pride. In the final scene, Simba and Nala present their son to the newly restored circle of life.
The Lion King. Dirs. Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, Perf. Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Matthew Broderick. Walt Disney Pictures, 1994.