We’ll leave aside the fairy tales for this week as we look at The Lion King and Pocahontas. The former isn’t explicitly based on any one story, but it owes a great deal of its general structure to Shakespeare, so we’ll go with that. As for the latter, it takes a very messy and unhappy period of colonial history and turns it into one of the most visually beautiful Disney movies ever made. As a fantasy, it’s spectacularly animated and the music is some of composer Alan Menken’s best work, but as a history it’s…not very accurate… but we’ll get there in a second. First, we’ll look at:
The Story We Know: Simba, heir to king Mufasa of the Pridelands, is tricked into thinking that he caused the death of his father by his scheming uncle, Scar. Exiled and wracked with guilt, Simba is befriended by two happy-go-lucky souls named Timon and Pumbaa. But when Scar all but destroys the Pridelands it’s up to Nala, Simba’s childhood friend to find the exiled Simba and convince him to return home and reclaim the throne from his uncle.
The Actual Story: Stories involving wars of succession over royal thrones are everywhere throughout history and fiction. The Disney animators and writers who brought this story to life cited in interviews that Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the Biblical stories of Moses and Joseph were sources of inspiration. It was not intended as a direct adaptation of any of those stories, but there are familiar elements, such as themes of exile and return from the Christian Bible, and the internal struggles inherent to Shakespeare. The common belief is that Lion King=Hamlet, but as we’ll see, the similarities are superficial.
In Shakespeare’s play, The king’s brother, Claudius, poisons Old Hamlet in secret and claims his throne for himself, marrying the king’s widow, Gertrude. Hamlet the younger is horrified at this but does nothing until his father’s ghost appears and tells him that he was, in fact, murdered. Burning with vengeance, Hamlet does…nothing. Well, that’s not fair; he thinks a lot and comes up with an elaborate scheme involving a play and lots of dramatic irony to fact-check the ghost’s story. Once he has his confirmation, he does…nothing. Meanwhile, he’s feigning mental illness to keep people at arm’s length, including his best friend Horatio who’s the only sane person (apart from the gravedigger) in the entire play..
But when Polonius, a court advisor and father of the dashing Laertes and the frail Ophelia, gets too close, he has a rather disastrous conversation with the end of a sword (in Hamlet’s defense, Polonius was hiding behind a tapestry and spying on Hamlet and his mom who were having a private conversation).
Polonius’ son Laertes reacts by challenging Hamlet to a death duel, and Ophelia reacts by going insane and accidentally drowning herself (which is a bit of an overreaction on both their parts).
The duel ends up being this ridiculously bloody affair in which Gertrude, Claudius, Hamlet, and Laertes all end up dying in various ways (Gertrude is accidentally poisoned, Claudius is poisoned and stabbed, and Hamlet and Laertes both cut each other with poisoned swords, dying slowly enough to forgive one another). Oh and Hamlet also engineers the executions of his former friends Rosencrantz and Guilenstern who were spying on him for Claudius.
After all this carnage, Fortinbras, heir to the throne of Norway arrives and informs them that he’s claiming the throne of Denmark because clearly nobody there has any idea how to actually run a country (and they’re all dead). Horatio is left over, but he’s too smart to ever get into politics.
One of the biggest differences between the film and its inspiration is that Simba returns to Pride Rock not knowing that Scar actually killed Mufasa (Mufafa’s ghost failed to mention that little tidbit), so it’s less about revenge and more about doing what’s right for the Pridelands despite his crushing guilt. Also, Simba doesn’t engineer the deaths of those who were forced to work for Scar like Zazu. His mother Sarabi, also, lives. Timon, Pumbaa, and Nala all could act as analogues for Horatio in that they’re his close friends who are there for him when things get crazy. I’m not sure how Rafiki fits into the whole thing, but I can see him being an extension of Mufasa and therefore partly an analogue of Old Hamlet’s Ghost, the one who brings knowledge and tries to get Hamlet to avenge his death and make things right.
It’s not a perfect analogue, but there are definitely elements that carry over, so I think it’s safe to say that it owes a great deal of its plot to Shakespeare. The rest is a patchwork of familiar archetypal elements from various sources.
And now we make the jump from fiction to fact with:
The Story We Know: Wise Pocahontas, daughter of Chief Powhatan, must find a way to protect her people from a disgraced English Governor who is determined to mine the new world for every resource it has in order to regain his position in court. Meanwhile the brave explorer John Smith falls in love with Pocahontas and finds his loyalty split between helping her prevent a conflict between the colonials and the Natives and fighting under the banner of Governor Ratcliffe.
The Actual Story: First off, her name. Many Native tribes understood that names hold power and so it was not uncommon for people to have different names for different occasions. For example, they may have a public name and a secret name that was only known to close loved ones. They also may have had nicknames that described their personality or features. The name Pocahontas was actually a childhood nickname (it means something like “little playful one” in the Algonguin language) referring to her energy and enthusiasm. Her given name was Matoaka which means “Bright Stream Through the Hills” and later on she was known as Amonute which is untranslatable into English. After she converted to Christianity (more on that later) she changed her name to Rebecca. The reason “Pocahontas” stuck is because, according to some sources, her tribe gave that as her real name to the English, hoping to protect her from harm by concealing her real name (and thus preventing them from benefitting from its power). Sources say that she revealed her actual name after her baptism.
Matoaka did meet John Smith in the early 17th century but the story of her throwing herself upon him to keep him from being executed may be an apocryphal embellishment on Smith’s part. Historians are still a bit uncertain if this actually happened. Some believe that he may have misinterpreted what Powhatan was doing and that what was actually happening was a symbolic “execution” meant to foster relations between the two sides by welcoming Smith and his men into the Powhatan tribe. But historians aren’t entirely sure. It is fair to say that Smith did embellish things here and there in his accounts.
Now, Matoaka and John Smith probably did meet, but she was rather young. The settlers at Jamestown were so poorly provisioned and had no idea how to cultivate food that they were literally starving to death. Matoaka came to bring food to them regularly as a peace offering and it was her gesture that kept the settlers alive. There are accounts of her playing with the children in the colony as well. Considering these people were invading her home and killing her people, I’d say her gestures were uncommonly generous for a young girl of 10-13 years old.
Conflict broke out between the Powhatan and the colonists when the colonists began expanding the Jamestown settlement. During the fighting, Smith was injured in a gunpowder explosion and forced to return to England. The English told Matoaka that he was dead and she stopped visiting them.
Later on, in 1613, Matoaka was captured and held for ransom by English soldiers who wanted prisoners of war and weapons to be returned to them. Powhatan gave them back their prisoners, but didn’t give enough weapons back and so Matoaka remained in captivity.
It was during this time that a minister named Alexander Whitaker converted her to Christianity, culminating in her baptism and her changing her name to Rebecca. This is also the time when she met John Rolfe, the man she would ultimately marry. In 1614, when the conflict had reached its zenith, she was permitted to speak to her father. Angry and frustrated, she chastised him for valuing her life less than mere weaponry and said that she wished to remain with the English. Considering that the English had stripped her of her identity, this was a pretty devastating pronouncement.
Regarding John Rolfe, he wished to save her soul by marrying her (“Come with me if you want to live”). He was quite a religious man and he was terrified of the idea of marrying a “heathen,” but he was convinced that it was the only way to save her from damnation (SIGH). No records exist of Matoaka’s opinion of the marriage. They were married on April 5, 1614 and soon after had a son, Thomas, in 1615. The marriage did act as a sort of symbolic peace treaty of sorts (the English continued to expand and take land from the Powhatan, and more conflicts erupted later, but the present conflict was at least over).
But the story’s not over. As a publicity stunt, Matoaka was brought to England to be displayed as a “tamed savage” in 1616. John Smith, now living in London, wrote to the Queen and told her to treat Matoaka as a visiting royal dignitary, and some did, but many folks still regarded her as more of a visiting curiosity to be goggled at.
Matoaka died in 1617 just as they were beginning to sail back to Virginia. It’s not known what killed her, but it may have been a disease like smallpox or tuberculosis to which she had no immunity. She was twenty-two.
Her story is almost overwhelmingly tragic, but Matoaka herself is someone we should definitely never forget. From what the record says, she was an intelligent, dignified individual who tried to prevent conflict all her life, but that life was cut short by the interference of an invasion force which saw her as something less than human. Matoaka’s story is also a part of a much bigger and more terrifying picture. In popular culture, we are much more comfortable talking about slavery and racism than we are about the tragic fate of the Native American nations (and we’re still not that comfortable talking about slavery). In my research, I found an unsettling number of sources that claimed that the drastic reduction in the Native population following colonization was just a “natural” thing and not genocide at all. That kind of freaks me out…
Sorry to get all depressing and stuff, but this is an important issue to me. Next week will be…a bit less depressing, but at least we’ll be dealing with wholly fictional characters! So that’s fun, right? Right? No wait, come back!
Until next week when we look at The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules!