books,  the ethical life

Before the Lion Became King by Osei-Agyemang and Aesop’s fable of the Lion king.

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I am thinking today about two stories. One is an Aesop fable about the lion king passing a law that all the animals will live in harmony together and a hare says  “oh how I have longed to see this day where the weak can take their place by the strong with impunity.” Then the hare takes off running, presumably because he doesn’t really believe the animals can change but perhaps because he cannot change his own fearful nature.

The second story is called Before the Lion Became King. It is written by Andrew Nana Osei-Agyemang, a Ghanaian author and published through Dorrance Publishing (self or subsidy publishing company). I received a free e-copy of it in exchange for putting a review on Amazon. The book tells a similar but different story. In it the animals live in a democracy where a law is passed requiring animals not to eat one another. The lion agrees to go vegetarian but expresses to his family a disbelief that the law will last. The animals trust the law so absolutely that the bat family dares to play on the tongue of the sleeping lion resulting in a law case to determined the lion’s responsibility in the bat’s death.

 Before the Lion Became King  has the flavor of both an Aesop’s favor and of the “how the animals came to be the way they are” tales. My children enjoyed the story. They were worried for Mr. Bat (and his family), concerned about the potential injustice to Mr. Lion and generally interested in what is going on. The story provided a way to discuss the legal system and the idea that the legal system has to be concerned not about what is right but what is the law. As individuals (not judges) and as people concerned about politics we need to be concerned not just about what the laws currently are but whether the laws are right or not. They laughed at the end of the story with the explanations of why some of the animals are the way they are. Since I was reading it I did change one or two words, particularily omitting the lawyer’s use of the word “suicide” to describe why the bat died.

I am fascinated by the similarities and differences between Before the Lion Became King and Aesop’s fable, and what the implications of the stories and their differences are. Before the Lion Became King is a longer more detailed story but in some ways just as vague and mysterious as Aesop’s fable. The lion is in some ways a sympathetic character, and it is easy to view the democratic government as being unfair to him. He adjusts to vegetarianism but not well. Is the story about the tyranny of the majority? Or does the story suggest that democracy will always eventually be overthrown by tyranny? Does the story suggest that laws cannot make people safe?  Could it be a story about how we cannot force corporations to “not eat the competition” because it will happen anyway and they’ll end up in charge fo the government? I wonder if the author wrote the story in response to particular political situations.

In some ways the stories suggests that laws cannot be expected to change human/animal behaviour. In Aesop’s fable the hare recognizes that the law is powerless to change things. In the other story the animals do change to a huge extent but even then the law doesn’t work to provide everyone with the protection they think it will.

Aesop’s fable paints a picture of a world where on the surface everyone is civilized and trustworthy but underneath you have to be careful who you trust. In my minds eye I picture the son of a wealthy Roman aristocrat being instructed on how to be polite and political. Pretend to trust, but don’t really. The same cynical attitude of “play along but don’t buy into it” is present in Before the Lion Became King when the Lion advices his family that they will go along with the rule because it will just be for a while. This time however the cynicism is on the part of the powerful rather than the weak; it is trust that the law will eventually come down rather than fear that it will.

Or perhaps the story of Before the Lion Became King is a story about positive verse negative rights. The law works as long as the animals are interpreting it only to forbid others from eating them (a negative right, or a right to be free of something), but not when they interpret it to allow them to play in the Lion’s mouth (a positive right, or the right to do something). I wonder what the author thinks of political policies meant to redistribute wealth.

I think about idealistic efforts to have everything work right for everyone. I think about parenting and attempts I’ve made to be unconditional, to not put rules and restrictions on my children. Could those efforts be in some ways comparible to the rule that all animals live in harmony? Then like the lion did I find the children moving into everything of mine. The attempt to not restrict them results in them restricting me, to an extent I was unwilling to put up with. The idealistic enterprises are very fine lines to walk.

If I try to think of the Aesop’s fable and how it relates to parenting, I find myself thinking that children are like the lions saying they will do one thing and we must be like the hares saying, “yes, that’s great” but being prepared for them not to be able to live up to their goals (yet).

Before the Lion Became King has a religious aspect to it. It starts with a prologue, an excerpt from Genesis about God creating the animals. Then in the first section it says that in the beginning the animals were vegetarian but that some began eating one another. Is the story suggesting that the “law of the jungle” that only the fittest will survive is not the way things were meant to be?  Is it in some ways about the animals being evicted from a state of paradise?

I’ve been thinking about the rule not to chase and eat other animals as being allegorical but it doesn’t have to be. The stories could be statements that there will always be animals eating meat. It is always interesting when stories of anthropomorphic animals have to deal with the issue that animals eat other animals. Life is harsh. Some books deal with it by having the majority of the animals (or at least the “good”) animals be herbivores. I think of books like the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. Then there’s stories like Dorothy and the wizard of Oz. In the first book of the series the Cowardly Lion tends to hunt his food out of site of his less blood-thirsty companions. Eventually a talking hen enters the story and it is mentioned that the people of Oz never eat chicken only the eggs that the hens don’t want. I wrote earlier about the Hungry Tiger:

Because the Hungry Tiger is a friend of the Cowardly Lion he seems in some ways quite familiar and not a new character at all. Yet there is an interesting difference between the two. The lion wished to gain courage. The hungry Tiger wishes to get rid of hunger. Just eating won’t do it, since the Tiger has an enormous appetite but an unwillingness to eat living creatures. The Tiger wishes it could eat a fat baby, yet at the same time wouldn’t want to. Is this meant to make us reflect on our willingness to eat plump baby animals? Is the Tiger more ethical than humans? Or does it simply point out the complexity of a world with anthropomorphism? My children noted a similarity between the Hungry Tiger and the story of The Very Hungry Lion, a favorite picture book. I think he can also be put in an interesting contrast with the animals in one of Aesop’s fables, where the animals swear to live in harmony and the hare says how wonderful it is that they do so before he takes off running, knowing he cannot trust them. In Aesop’s fable animals cannot change their nature. Can they in Baum’s stories? In a way they can and in other ways they can’t. The cowardly lion never stops feeling cowardly, yet at the same time he’s always brave. The hungry tiger remains hungry, yet at the same time, he controls his appetite.

If we’re going to have meat-eating animals in stories about anthropomorphized animals, we’re going to either have to stretch the fantasy aspect far enough to have vegetarian lions of we’re going to have to accept that our fictious worlds can’t be everyone-happy worlds. In the real world vegetarian lions don’t do well. Not all animals have the ability to produce all the nutrients they need from plant sources. If we’re going to have meat-eating creatures in existence we’re going to need to be willing to accept some creatures dying to feed others. Not all creatures can die of old age. Death – even violent death for food –  is built into the requirements of carnivores DNA.

I am of course reading way to much into the books and stories. Yet it is so entertaining to do that.

Have your children had trouble with animals eating animals in books? Have you ever had a child inform you he or she wants to be vegetarian (when the rest of the family isn’t) or that he or she wants to eat meat (when the rest of the family is vegetarian)?

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One Comment

  • Claudine G.

    Wow, Christy, I didn’t realize ‘Before the Lion Became King’ would be such a ‘big’ book. I like the plot of the potential injustice to the lion. What is right vs what is the law ~ sounds like the writer was writing based on a particular political/legal situation indeed. It’s also interesting to read that Tyranny is executed upon the Lion instead of by the Lion!

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