Mermaids and Lions

Little Mermaids and Lion Kings

Despite the cornucopia of human diversity, Jesus foretells that when judgment day arrives we shall all be sifted through a bifurcate filing system: sheep on the right, goats on the left. The global melange of language and culture masks an underlying bipolarity, like a black-and-white world shot in colour. When we cut to the chase, there is no dizzying plurality of human difference, there is only binary. 1s and 0s. The saved and the damned. Simple.

But Jesus was only half-right. Yes, there is a fundamental dichotomy, but it’s not between farm animals. The animal difference is more exotic, less pastoral. Humans, actually, are one of two creatures. We are all either little mermaids or lion kings. The fundamental difference is not in the timbre of our bleat but in whether we roar or sing.

Little mermaids and lion kings coexist. We always have. We share beds and jokes and genes. We live in a diffusion of difference, cross-bred and intertwined. And though there will never be a war between us, there will always be this difference, between the desire-led and the duty-bound; between those whose operative word is want and those for whom it is should; between the evanescent and the strong; the desirous and the wise; those who live to be beguiled and those who are here to protect and serve. A little mermaid or a lion king – whoever you are, reader, you are one or the other.


You’ll recognise a little mermaid by her absence. She tends not to be where she is supposed to be. This isn’t because she’s a rebel, little mermaids are not insurgents. They do not rail against authority, nor do they comply with it, they simply forget that it’s there. It holds no sway. Little mermaids are oblivious truants.

Lion kings, on the other hand, are always in one of two places: where they are supposed to be or hiding from where they are supposed to be. A lion king does not forget his duties. His life is spent either following, challenging or cowering before them. Duties are too important to be forgotten. Life is structured by obedience; authority is the binding force of the universe. Lion kings believe they are born for a purpose. Anointed at birth, they dedicate their lives to becoming what they are supposed to be.

The little mermaid cannot get to grips with the purpose of things. She’ll idiotically brush her hair with a fork or blow a tobacco pipe to make music; her comprehension is eclipsed by her wonder. As the little mermaid sees it, though, say, forks can do certain things they are not for any particular thing. We do not use objects as a means to some specified end. We use them to partake in their intrinsic beauty. The limits of an object’s use are the limits of its ramifying joys.    

The little mermaid’s non-teleological sensibility starts with herself, with her own body. Though her body will be explained to her by the presiding powers – that her voice is an instrument for singing the praises of her father or her fin an inborn allegiance to her species – she will remain unconvinced. She will use her voice to yearn and seduce and split her fin into a pair of dancing legs. She is not searching for who she truly is. She is searching for what truly excites her.

Lion kings are constrained by their essential nature. What they are and who they are for is absolute and unchanging. They regard bodies as status signifiers – large paws & full mane = high authority  – ways in which we can measure ourselves against others. The lion king’s body positions him in a world of inferiors and superiors. This understanding may lead the lion king to think of the body as separate to the mind, for the meanings bestowed upon his body do not always correspond to his lived experience. The little mermaid sees no such distinction; her body changes with her mind and her mind with her body. She is not interested in what bodies mean but in what they can do and what can be done with them.


Lion kings believe that we are born in the image of our parents and we grow into their likeness – from Simba to Mufasa, Mufasa to Simba – reproduction is replication, maturation is mimesis; the lion king is an effect striving to equal his cause. The life of the lion king follows a predetermined path; we are born as potential adults, we develop into actual adults, we die, and then live on as eternal adults. But little mermaids see growing up as going away; childhood is not a period in which we learn how to become an adult but a process of separating from adults. The life of the little mermaid is not pre-determined, it is an experiment in appetite. Though we can speak of the development of the lion king as following a sanctified path, it would be wrong to say that the little mermaid follows her desire, because she is desire. She can no more follow her desires than a bird can follow its own wings.  

For little mermaids, family life is a prelude to real life. For lion kings, family life is the only life. Whereas little mermaids believe that home is the entry point into the world, a second womb, made to be left, lion kings see the world as a home, an outer womb, there to be conserved. Lion kings see the world, the grand womb, as majestic, so nature incurs a sense of insignificance, and insignificance a sense of gratitude, gratitude, that is, for not being destroyed. Feeling neither significant nor insignificant – significance being another thing they do not think about – little mermaids are insensitive to the majestic. Their wish is merely to get lost in the world, not, as the lion king wishes, to stand at its centre. Whereas little mermaids leave their father’s kingdom, lion kings become theirs.


Lion kings believe that the world is at its best when it’s stable, when the new repeats the old. Little mermaids think the world is at its best when it’s exciting, when the old becomes new, when there is only the dazzling present and the promise of more. According to lion kings the world is endangered by our derelictions of duty. It all goes to pieces when we neglect our responsibilities and so duty must override desire. Yet the acute demands of being a lion king engender certain temptations; the temptation, principally, to renounce our responsibilities and live in paradise (with a flatulent warthog and his meerkat lover, say). But however strong the temptation is, lion kings believe that abdication is a false wish because it is a denial of who we really are. The life of unbridled pleasure is a lie. The life of devotion is the truth. Self-sacrifice is self-fulfilment.

Little mermaids, on the other hand, are unacquainted with temptation. Of course, they are aware of unauthorised desires, but an unauthorised desire to the little mermaid is simply one we’d best not pursue in public. She does not see the need to repress forbidden desires when we can simply keep them out of sight. A forbidden life is tantamount to a private life. Indeed, the forbidden frees us to find things out for ourselves. But lion kings believe subterfuge never works. They sense that there is, or ought to be, always someone watching. Even if the lion king were to abscond to his jungle paradise, his responsibilities would follow him there. He would sabotage his privacy with guilt. His responsibilities would look down on him from the stars above.

Little mermaids do not think our problems arise from irresponsibility or neglect. They believe that intrusive wills – of regal fathers, say – are the constant culprits, not free-flowing appetites. Problems begin when we start interfering with other people’s wants. Where lion kings fear deficits of obedience, little mermaids despair at the excesses of authority. Little mermaids believe that attempts to curtail desire are fruitless and never-ending. Desire is a country we can occupy but never conquer, which is why, for little mermaids, strength is a useless virtue. The things that matter most to her, her little objects of wonder, are objects of desire. And desire, as a force which cannot be forced, renders strength beside the point.

What matters most to lion kings are grand designs – the natural order, destiny, etc. – and momentous institutions – royalty, family, etc. Lion kings are the custodians of sacred structures. And their need for permanence and harmony places them in conflict with conflict. The profusion of possibilities, of what could be, must be narrowed down to the essential, of what should be. This need to narrow is known as strength, for strength converts conflict from a state of proliferating choice into a war to be won. Strength is constitutive of victory, and victory is required to reassure us that there are no ambiguities, that the future is closed.

Little mermaids have no need for courage. With their talent for mislaying demands, they have nothing to avoid, no burdens to confront, nothing to push against. They are not in conflict with conflict. They do not seek victory. In general, little mermaids’ wants do not come in abstract nouns – they are not ascetics. Whereas lion kings seek power, pride, redemption, truth, purpose, belonging, and so on, the little mermaid’s wants are concrete and particular. She wants to dance and kiss. She wants shining forks and handsome faces. She is incorrigibly pagan, finding the divine embodied in the multiplicity of beautiful earthly things. She marvels at the ingenuity of our human artefacts, at the endearing spectacle of our little hands working with our little minds in order to populate the world with pointless treasures.


Lion kings believe in learning lessons. One of the principal lessons that life will teach them is that fathers know best. Little mermaids refuse to learn lessons. They see education as capitulation; the lessons they receive are always lessons in limits. It is telling, they think, that the language of learning and punishment overlap, that we can meaningfully talk of teaching someone a lesson with a belt. Lion kings dutifully listen to their teachers because the world is shaped by rules and standards which we must learn in order to belong. Little mermaids believe it makes no sense to talk of listening to teachers. They believe that listening only occurs between equals, between those naked to effects of outside voices. Little mermaids do not compliantly adapt to the world. They do as they wish while gently emboldening the world to adapt to them.

Little mermaids experience education as an effort to suppress rather than excite their curiosity. It builds walls and erects barriers. Where lion kings believe in wisdom, little mermaids see wisdom as ossified thought. Lion kings ask questions in search of guidance, to narrow their options and limit their errors; questions of the form Will you show me the way? Little mermaids ask questions in search of the wild, to widen their options and expand their wonders; questions of the form Will you take me away?


Lion kings believe that love is an adhesive. Little mermaids experience love as a line of flight. For lion kings, the question ‘Do you love me?’ means ‘Will you stay with me?’ whereas for little mermaids its meaning is closer to ‘Shall we get out of here?’ To the mind of a mermaid, playing overrides staying. Lion kings have their Nalas and little mermaids their Erics. Nalas are loved because they take us home. Erics are loved because in their beauty, their grace, they promise a fresh repository of possible delights. Erics come out of the blue, Nalas are meant to be. Nalas know who we really are, we love them because they recognise and understand us, because they see into us rather than through us. Erics don’t have a clue who we really are – partly because, as little mermaids, living a life of perpetual transition, we don’t know either – we don’t ask that they know us, only that they kiss us. Nalas comfort, Erics enchant.


Lion kings are highly suspicious of hyenas, the ghettoised poor. Driven by the need to survive, they are a threat to law and order. Since hyenas have no pride they cannot be threatened with shame. Since they are already outcasts, they are indifferent to expulsion. They cannot be possessed because they follow a different master, their bellies, making their obedience only as great as the benefits it bestows. Their abject existence leaves them immune to the majestic pretensions of royalty and rank. Though they may fear power, they are never awed by it. As a creature always on the lookout, the hyena will never look up nor bow down. The body of need is an affront to the body of power.

Lion kings, let it be said, do not actually hate hyenas. The hyena is merely a source of disquiet. They are dirty, not evil. The true enemy of the lion king is the traitor, the villain within, the perfidious uncle, the violator of our trust. For lion kings, betrayal is the greatest sin. And, as a sin of violation, it requires an act of restitution, so sacrifices must be made. For the world to heal the traitor must burn.   

Little mermaids are unmoved by betrayal. For them the concept of betrayal – sin, too – is lion propaganda, an attempt to prey on our fears in order to maintain the unity of the pride. As far as she can make out, betrayal means acting in ways others do not expect, so why not jettison the expectations rather than sacrifice the traitor? Little mermaids have no enemies to burn, though they do have occasional obstacles – buxom squids etc. – to bypass.       

The Mind

Lion kings believe that the mind is memory. Its sole purpose is to keep the past afloat amid the rapids of time. Memories are our defence against change. And change is a threat to order. Obligations and debts are fashioned from memories. When someone urges us to remember something – Remember who you are – they are furtively urging us to pay them back. Memory is a creditor’s concept. Every memory is a contract. For lion kings, life itself is contractual, which is a source of reassurance – as well as anguish – because contracts cannot be broken, and lion kings are tormented by loss.   

In the little mermaid’s worldview, contracts are the tools of villainy, the fetters of consensual slaves. Her mind is not under contract for her memories keep slipping away. The little mermaid’s mind enables her to look forward. It is not a museum of the past but a gallery of possible futures. Consequently, little mermaids are accused of having minds that flit about, but they are puzzled by this accusation, because they fail to understand the concept of distraction, unbeholden, as they are, to any particular path. Little mermaids, in general, struggle to respond to the criticisms they face because they never understand what their critics are saying; accusations get lost in translation.  Lion kings, on the other hand, speak the language of their critics. They are fluent with their faults.        


Lion kings think of life as a gift. Their existence owes to their makers’ beneficence. This places the onus on the lion king to prove that he truly deserves this gift. We live to be worthy of life; life is the demand to justify our possession of it. Given that we are born with a particular purpose – a purpose we may struggle to fathom – we need to show that we are up to the task, that we are no accident and that we are supposed to be here. One of the greatest fears of the lion king is that he will prove a disappointment to others. He lives in order to avoid letting other people down. Because our makers gave us this life, it is they who have the final word on whether we merit it. We need their judgment. And so the life of the lion king is one of dependence and indebtedness. In their darker moments, lion kings struggle against an inner certainty that they should never have been born, against the voice that claims we are either everything or nothing.

Little mermaids don’t do angst. With their insouciance for where they are supposed to be, they feel no compulsion to justify where they happen to be, or that they happen to be. Life has not been given to us; the firmament is not awash with preconceived babies. We do not have life, we are life, just as a wave does not have motion but is motion.

Lion kings introspect. Their very existence is a predicament under examination. But little mermaids have glass minds: when they look in they see out. They have no hidden depths. The little mermaid’s existence is not an object of her experience but a condition of it. That is to say, her existence shines as brightly as her experience, and her experience as brightly as the world she attends to. She lives with her eyes open, a narcissist without a self.  


The little mermaid is little. The lion king is king. It is the littleness of the mermaid which enables her terpsichorean mobility. It is the weight of being king which keeps the lion steadfast. Lion kings want bordered land, known identity, bound community, respectful hierarchy and happy permanence. With their fear of the void, of loss and abandonment, it may seem that the wants of lion kings are reactive, shaped more by their fears than their desires. Lion kings, indeed, are the solemn animal.

Little mermaids do not fear the fallen world, nor do they believe that this is it. As such, little mermaids genuinely fail to see the allure of safety. They live in the radiance of their desires. But desire is elusive, which makes it impossible to characterise the little mermaid by her wants. Rather than identify her as a creature with a particular set of wants, we must simply say she is a wanting creature, and only the benisons of fortune will determine what becomes of that wanting.


Mermaids and Lions

Posted by Kim Down on 6th June 2023 at 12:00am