top of page

The Gruesome Origins of Classic Fairytales: The Lion King

In today's continuation of The Gruesome Origins of Classic Fairytales we are looking at The Lion King. While this story does not have a truly gruesome origin story I wanted to include it because it is one of my favorite Disney movies . The Disney version goes like this; In the Pride Lands of Africa, a pride of lions rules over the animal kingdom from Pride Rock. King Mufasa and Queen Sarabi present their newborn son, Simba, to the gathering animals by Rafiki the mandrill, the kingdom's shaman and advisor.

Mufasa shows Simba the Pride Lands and explains to him the responsibilities of kingship and the "circle of life," which connects all living things. Mufasa's younger brother, Scar, covets the throne and plots to get rid of Mufasa and Simba so that he may become king. He tricks Simba and his best friend Nala into exploring a forbidden elephants' graveyard, where they are chased by three hyenas named Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed. Mufasa hears about the incident from his majordomo, the hornbill Zazu, and rescues the cubs. Though upset with Simba, Mufasa forgives him and explains that the great kings of the past watch over them from the night sky, from which he will one day watch over Simba. Meanwhile, Scar visits the hyenas and convinces them to help him overthrow Mufasa in exchange for hunting rights in the Pride Lands.

Scar sets a trap for his brother and nephew, luring Simba into a gorge and having the hyenas drive a large herd of wildebeest into a stampede that will trample him. He informs Mufasa of Simba's peril, knowing that the king will rush to save his son. Mufasa saves Simba but ends up hanging perilously from the gorge's edge. Scar refuses to help Mufasa, instead sending him falling to his death. He then convinces Simba that the tragedy was Simba's own fault and advises him to leave the kingdom and never return. He orders the hyenas to kill the cub, but Simba escapes. Scar tells the pride that the stampede killed Mufasa and Simba and steps forward as the new king, allowing the hyenas' clan to live in the Pride Lands. Timon and Pumbaa, a meerkat and warthog, rescue Simba, who has collapsed in a desert. Simba grows up with his two new friends in their oasis, living a carefree life under the motto "hakuna matata" ("no worries" in Swahili).

A grown-up Simba rescues Timon and Pumbaa from a hungry lioness, who turns out to be Nala. She and Simba reunite and fall in love, and she urges him to return home, telling him that the Pride Lands have become a drought-stricken wasteland under Scar's reign. Still feeling guilty over his father's death, Simba refuses and storms off. He then encounters Rafiki, who tells him that Mufasa's spirit lives on in Simba. Simba is visited by the ghost of Mufasa in the night sky, who tells him that he must take his rightful place as king. Realizing that he can no longer run from his past, Simba decides to return to the Pride Lands.

Aided by his friends, Simba sneaks past the hyenas at Pride Rock and confronts Scar, who was about to fight Sarabi. Scar taunts Simba over his role in Mufasa's death and backs him to the edge of the rock, where he reveals to him that he murdered Mufasa. Enraged, Simba forces him to show the truth to the rest of the pride. Timon, Pumbaa, Rafiki, Zazu, and the lionesses fend off the hyenas while Scar, attempting to escape, gets cornered by Simba at a ledge near the top of Pride Rock. Scar begs for mercy and attempts to blame his crimes on the hyenas; Simba spares his life but orders him to leave the Pride Lands forever. Scar refuses and attacks his nephew, but Simba throws him off the cliff after a brief fight. Scar survives the fall but gets attacked and mauled to death by the hyenas, who overheard his attempt to betray them. Afterward, Simba takes over the kingship and makes Nala his queen. With the Pride Lands restored to its usual state, Rafiki presents Simba and Nala's newborn cub to the assembled animals, continuing the circle of life.

The origins of The Lion King are often disputed but I am going to share the prevailing story that is considered to be the inspiration for the movie.


Sundiata Keita

The story of Sundiata Keita is behind “The Lion King.” Known as the Lion of Mali, Sundiata was the founder of the Malian Empire, the largest kingdom in West Africa. He ruled his empire, which expanded from the Atlantic coast all the way to the Niger River, from 1235 to 1255. Some may know of his great-nephew, Mansa Musa, who was the richest person to ever live in the history of the world. According to Forbes, Musa’s fortune was estimated at $400 billion, adjusted for inflation. During his famous pilgrimage to Mecca, he built mosques in his wake and gave away so much gold that the price of gold was devalued for the next 25 years.

But while Musa’s story is better known, the story of Sundiata’s reign is largely invisible in the West, despite the efforts of griots, or African storytellers, who have passed down the tale for generations. It was also corroborated by Tunisian historian Abu Zayd and Moroccan traveler Muhammad ibn Battuta, both of whom traveled to Mali about 100 years after Sundiata’s death to learn of the Lion King’s existence and reign. While certain aspects of the story vary, the general narrative remains constant. Mandinka griots tell a story of King Naré Maghann Konaté, the real-life Mufasa. It was prophesied that if he took on an ugly wife, she would give birth to a son who would become a mighty and magnificent king. Accordingly, Konaté married Sogolon Kédjou, “the buffalo woman,” as his second wife. She gave birth to Sundiata, but he was born crippled and unable to walk. Though the king favored him, both Sogolon and Sundiata were mercilessly mocked for his disability. One day, Sundiata had enough. He was determined to walk and, miraculously, he did.

Sundiata then became strong and recognized as a leader among his people, sparking resentment from paternal half brother Dankaran Tourman and his mother, Sassouma Bereté. Tourman wanted the throne for himself. When the king died, many suspected foul play. Fearful of an attack on their lives, Sogolon took Sundiata and the rest of her children and fled into exile, leaving a kingdom in disarray. The Mandinka people were taken over by the cruel and oppressive King Soumaoro Kante of the Sosso. In need of their true leader, the people sent word for Sundiata to return and take his rightful place as the king. In exile, Sundiata built alliances with the king of Mema and other local rulers. He gathered an army to liberate the Mandinka people and overthrow the Sosso king. Upon his victorious return, he adopted a new title for himself, “Mansa,” which means king or emperor in Mandinka.


While the Disney version of this story is in my top 5 Disney movies I really like learning about something new. The story of Sundiata Keita was a interesting one and it's one that I had never heard of before.


I hope you enjoyed today's post. Did you know about the origins of The Lion King? I hope you were able to learn something new today.


5 views0 comments


bottom of page