The lion and the monkey king: a parable

It was the monkey king that started it. And by the time it was all over, half the jungle was wrecked and everyone was sorry, even the lion. Of course, it’s easy to say that with hindsight, but at the time everyone was so sure of themselves.

I say “the monkey king”. In truth, this was a self-styled title and there was never a time when anything like a majority of the simians recognised his legitimacy. Indeed, if it weren’t for those which flocked to his banner from out of every corner of the jungle, he’d never have had any power at all.

The monkey king hated the lion. Hated the lion’s strength. Hated the lion’s casual rule over the whole jungle. Hated the lion’s arrogant self-interest. And this was part of the monkey king’s allure, for there was no part of the jungle in which there weren’t a few who were disenchanted with the lion’s rule. So, whilst many found the pax leonis convenient, there were always the hotheads who would sacrifice all for a different world. Tinder, just waiting for the burning brand to set them alight with ardent zeal – a zeal with more than its fair share of delusion, but nonetheless a zeal fired by the truth that the price of the lion’s peace was that the lion would occasionally eat people.

And so they came, and the monkey king established his hold over one already-unstable corner of the jungle, using, through his converts, a combination of brutality and intimidation: the usual tools of any dictator, lacking in imagination but very effective.

It was easy to subjugate that one part of the jungle. And the monkey king dreamed of expanding his borders further and further. Neighbouring areas become worried. But far and away more important to the monkey king was beating the lion. He was sure he could. If only he could lure the lion into his one part of the jungle.

As it happens, the lion was already keenly aware of what the monkey king was doing. What ruler wouldn’t be? Especially as many animals, fleeing the monkey king’s reign of terror, kept approaching the lion, suing for sanctuary. But, then, the lion had plenty of other concerns, too. Not least, his pride and all the business of policing the jungle as a whole. And, whilst the lion very much enjoyed his meals, he did not enjoy wholesale slaughter. Large body counts were untidy and always left him feeling an unpleasant compunction. Best not to take too direct action too often.

So the monkey king, whilst never at the bottom of the list of the lion’s concerns, was never at the top of the list either. The monkey king needed to be at the top of that list, for it would be quite something for the lion to fully rouse himself and charge across the jungle to the monkey king’s patch.

Here, at the crux of the story, was the monkey king’s genius (evil genius, but genius nonetheless). The lion’s teeth and claws were ferocious and powerful. No one could withstand them. But the monkey king very astutely guessed that the lions flanks and tail were more vulnerable. Indeed, here was the lion’s weakness: he lived in constant fear of the slightest injury to his flanks and side. And so even the slightest harm got his complete attention.

The monkey king resolved to exploit this weakness. He sent his zealots, one by one, to sting the lion’s flank. Most of these ended up at the wrong end of the lion’s pointy claws and teeth. But one cannot defend every direction at once, and the occasional raider hit his mark. And with every successful hit, the lion’s fear increased until one day, the monkey king, who would once never have rated a second glance from the lion, filled the lion’s entire vision: the great terror waiting to descend upon him and destroy him. And with fear came anger. White hot passion, crying for the utter destruction of this “fascist” ruler (as the lion called him) who held in contempt everything the lion held dear. And so that great strength was finally roused to its fullest fury and the lion charged.

No one can tell how many animals were trampled under foot or flung violently aside in the path of the lion, bodies crushed and broken. Nor can one count how many the monkey king’s zealots killed. All anyone recalls is the sheer terror of the melee and the countless live lost. And no one can say whether the lion’s actions were for the best – after all, the monkey king’s rule was brutal and needed to be stopped. But one thing all agree is this: never again! Never! (Although just a few of the oldest animals, with the longest memories, keep trying to remember where they’ve heard that phrase before).

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