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Lions, with their huge manes and rather majestic appearance, have been considered the king of beasts since time immemorial. As with many cultural memes, this has found its way into fiction.
If exotic animals play a major part in a story, it's likely that lions will be in a position of power or authority. They might command all the other animals, or just the carnivores, or even just the felines. They might not have any real authority, but the other animals (except possibly the tigers) will pay them due respect.
Medieval bestiaries go further by declaring lions to pretty much be Jesuses: according to them, lion cubs are stillborn, but after three days the lion brings them to life by breathing on them.
One reason lions may have gotten this cultural cache is the behaviour observed when a lion is visible to prey. Most prey in Africa act on what you can call an axiom, "A visible lion is a safe lion." This means that when a lion is seen beyond a certain minimum distance, prey animals will typically not attempt to flee it, because lions have poor running endurance owing to their undersized hearts and they typically will be able to escape it easily if it tries to reach them. Likewise, the typical lion is aware of this limitation and will not bother making a futile charge. So, what often happens in this situation is the prey animals will be milling about as if standing at attention, keeping an eye on the lion who looks like he is reviewing his troops like a king.
There is another possible explanation about the royal title. Let's remember lions have not always been African animals, they did live in temperate forests in the past, even in Ancient Greece: this means lions were around not far away Aristotle, while other powerful wild animals such as elephants and tigers have always been exotic critters within the European point of view. In ancient Greek and Anatolian settings, the lion was easily the top-predator, outstanding even wolves and brown bears (European bears are much smaller than North-American grizzlies and kodiak): hence King of Beasts. Then the title became a meme and remained even when modern explorations made tigers, elephants and other exotic large mammals more familiar to general public.
However, not all people agree about the Lion deserving the noble tin: Real Life lions have many potential enemies to look for. Adult elephants, rhinos, hippos, giraffes and Nile crocodiles are far too big and powerful to be killed by a solitary lion, and can kill in turn a fully-grown male lion more easily than the opposite. Meanwhile spotted hyenas, with their powerful crushing jaws, despite their reputation as humble scavengers are actually feared by lions just like the latter are feared by hyenas, to the point that hyenas can actually defeat lions if they are in group.
Interesting to note that many human cultures have or had a different hierarchical vision about the animal world. Some African people say the lion is the "king" but the elephant is God. In Indian tales the Elephant and the Lion are often portrayed as they are contending their supremacy over all animals. And in Europe before and in some cases after Christianization, it's the bear that is considered the lord of the beasts. The wolf has also had this reputation among other ancient European peoples (ex in pre-Roman Italy).
In many Eastern countries, the tiger often takes the role of the king of beasts despite having to compete with what Westerners call the "Chinese dragon." The tiger is often associated with the Earth (king of earthly beasts) and the dragon is associated with the Heavens (king of mythical beasts). The "Chinese lion", often outside Buddhist temples or homes as a protector of those inside, looks so unusual because lions were long since extinct in China when the Chinese first carved such statues; they have been theorised to be based on a kind of dog. While in some ancient Arab cultures, the Giraffe has received the royal title (this is not so surprising, if you think Real Life adult giraffes are very strong animals, almost unharmed by predators). In the Bible (Book of Job) two animals are mentioned as "God's most powerful creatures", the Behemoth and the Leviathan. Some think both are real animals: the first one may be the Hippopotamus, the latter may be either the Nile Crocodile or a large sea creature (Leviathan in modern Hebrew language means "whale").
See also Panthera Awesome.
- Leomon is a leader of the good Digimon in, well, Digimon. He even has an attack called 'Fist of the Beast King'.
- Hyakujuu-oh Go Lion- it's made up of five lions, and the "Hyakujuu-oh" means "King of a Hundred Beasts".
- Kimba the White Lion. The title character's father was Emperor of the Jungle.
- GaoGaiGar — the eponymous mecha is partly made up of an alien robot lion, and the main character's last name roughly translates to "lion king". Lions show up in a few of the other Brave Series shows as well.
- Shishiou Kai = Kai the Lion King
- The Thousand Sunny in One Piece. It was even stated by Iceburg that it'll be the "King of the Beasts" in order to carry the "King of the Pirates" or something like that.
- There's a Yu-Gi-Oh card called King of Beasts, astoundingly enough, it's a lion.
- Yugioh also have "Behemoth the King of All Animals" who is much more of the humongous or elephant type.
- King Leonidas of Namboombu from Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
- The Cowardly Lion from the Film version of The Wizard of Oz apparently wants to be the king of the forest, but is having trouble because he isn't brave enough. Eventually he is appointed to rule alongside the Scarecrow and the Tin Man after Dorothy and the Wizard leaves.
- Older Than Feudalism: Aesop's Fables have the lion as King of Beasts. Aesop was definitely the Trope Codifier.
- The Roman De Renart (i.e., Reynard the Fox) and la Fontaine's fables use this trope. The lion is called Noble the Lion in mediaeval beast fable. He was not always a Reasonable Authority Figure and indeed some fables are about his striking a Leonine Contract.
- There's also a similar motif in some Chinese fables, such as "The Fox Usurps the Lion's Authority", though in others "Lioness" (or "Tigress") is symbolic a particularly fearsome wife.
- Many Middle Eastern fables also have the lion as the king of animals, though he's often not a good king; in several stories he's overconfident, unwise, and easily outsmarted by his viziers, the jackals Kalila and Dimna.
- Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia is Narnia's version of Jesus, and he's a lion. Also, his name actually means "lion" in Turkish.
- After he gains courage, the Cowardly Lion becomes King of the Beasts in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
- King Leonis in The Lion's Cavalcade by Alan Aldridge and Ted Walker.
- As stated in Panthera Awesome, nearly every Super Sentai or Power Rangers series with any kind of animal theme has a big cat somewhere, and nine times out of ten, it's a lion. Some highlights:
- The Red Ranger has a lion theme in Lost Galaxy/Gingaman and Wild Force/Gaoranger. The Red Ranger of Samurai/Shinkenger, while being more associated with the element of fire, also has a lion mecha.
- In Jungle Fury/Gekiranger, it's the Big Bad that's a lion in contrast to the Rangers' tiger, jaguar, and cheetah.
- Goseiger has the lion theme go to the Sixth Ranger, Gosei Knight.
- In Mystic Force/Magiranger, a lion mecha makes up the bulk of the Super Mode megazord.
- In the Doctor Who serial Warriors' Gate, the leonine Tharils had been kings in the past.
- Subverted in The Beano comic strip Richard the Lion. This lion instead of being King of Beasts is weedy, skinny and only 'king' of Lord Threadbare's Safari Park.
- In Werewolf: The Apocalypse, the Simba, or werelions, claim authority over all the Bastet (though most Bastet would rather follow the Khan, or tiger tribe).
- The Simbasta are leonine humanoids from 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons who see themselves as leaders and have a natural ability to "subue" their foes.
- In Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance/Radiant Dawn, it's the Lion Clan of Laguz that rule Gallia. The lions are also the strongest of the beast tribe.
- In Final Fantasy VIII, Squall Leonhart is very well remembered for his omnipresent lion motif.
- Slash Beast from Mega Man X4 is based off a lion (his Japanese name is "Slash Beastleo"). He's also the captain of Repliforce's army and gets really pissed off when you attack his unit on his military train.
- The KingLeo monsters from the Dragon Quest series seemed to be designed with this trope in mind. They have eight limbs.
- A regular quest type in World of Warcraft involves hunting down the King of Beasts in a particular zone, which is sometimes a lion, though it can just as easily be a tiger, raptor, primitive dragon, or most any sufficiently impressive creature.
- In Fate Stay Night, Saber apparently once took care of a lion cub as a child. She also likes the lion doll that Shirou gives her in Fate. With her true identity being King Arthur, it's not all that surprising that she likes the King of Beasts.
- Happens every so often in Transformers. Generation 1 had the Predacons, whose leader, Razorclaw, had a mechanical lion for an altmode. Beast Wars II gave us Lio Convoy, another lion, an leader of the series' Maximals.
- There's more than that yet. Steeljaw, Beast Wars Prowl (The central component of the (toy-only) combiner Magnaboss), Overhaul-into-Leobreaker. Any time an animal theme comes up, expect to see at least one lion.
- In Disney's The Lion King, the lions are acknowledged as the Kings of the Savannah — even by those species they generally prey upon.
- In Disney's Robin Hood, King Richard and Prince John are lions. Richard (who also provides a Stealth Pun) fits the regal image perfectly. John, on the other hand, is scrawny and pathetic.
- King Leonardo and his Short Subjects
- Alex on Madagascar. When he was at the Central Park Zoo, he was known as the King of New York, and in the sequel he is revealed to be the son of the alpha male of a pride in Africa.
- On The Wuzzles, Bumblelion (he's half lion, so it counts) is the de facto leader of the group. At the very least he's the one who takes the initiative.
- On Alfred J Kwak, the king was a lion, though a somewhat feckless one who constantly needed shouting at from Alfred.
- The eponymous character of Around the World with Willy Fog (based upon Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days) is an anthropomorphic lion. While he is not a ruler of anything, he seems to be of relatively high social status, and is filthy rich. Also, due to the facts that he is the one who made the bet that leads to the journey, and that Rigodon and Tico are his employees, he is logically the leader of this travel party.
- at least of nothing the audience knows of — the setting being Victorian London, there is still the possibility that he is of lower nobility and reigns over a small piece of rural land somewhere