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 other big cats) will pay them due respect.
Alternatively, if there's a group of different animal heroes, it's common to see a lion as The Hero or The Leader. This makes lions probably the biggest cultural exception to the Cats Are Mean stereotype (though they are quite prone to Good Is Not Nice).
Medieval bestiaries go further by declaring lions to pretty much be the animal equivalent of Jesus Christ: 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 exclusively African animals; they did live in temperate forests in the past, even in Ancient Greece. This means lions were around not far away from 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 outside Russia are much smaller than North American grizzlies and kodiaks): 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 and the European lions went extinct — the last lions in the Balkans have been (unreliably) sighted in the wild in the 14th century, but had vanished from the bulk of Europe well before that.
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. In addition, a popular misconception is that male lions are poor hunters due to the fact that the mane is supposedly a huge, impractical display structure; the lioness does most of the hunting. Given that Male lions are kicked out of their pride at a young age, and must fend for themselves until they can take over a pride from another male, however, there's not much validity to this claim. None the less, a male lion with a pride does typically leave the hunting to the lionesses, conserving his stamina in case he needs to either fight off rival lions or warding Hyenas off either their own kill, or one made by his lionesses, and across much of its ancient range (from North Africa and the Balkans across the Levant, Mesopotamia, Arabia, and Persia to India, where elephants reappear), the lion was indisputably on top.
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. 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 Muslim traditions, the lion is respected (and there are all number of Arabic masculine names that mean "lion"), but it is the giraffe who is the "Queen of the Beasts" (for its elegance).
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. Another points to the Jade Emperor origin stories of the zodiac of how the tiger became the king of beasts, as it was said that though the lion ruled first, the Jade Emperor disapproved of its tyranny and later bestowed the tiger with its title after showcasing acts of heroism throughout the natural world, with each deed as the black mark upon its head eventually forming the ideogram for king.
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 is presumably some kind of large sea creature (Leviathan in modern Hebrew language means "whale", though it could also be a shark or a crocodile). In Dinosaur Media, Tyrannosaurus rex has a similar reputation; its name even means "tyrant lizard king".
- In Digimon, lion Digimon are almost always powerful and heroic characters (the exception being MadLeomon of Xros Wars, who is a Starter Villain). Leomon even has an attack called "Fist of the Beast King". Each continuity tends to have its own lion present in the plot (Leomon in Adventure and Tamers, Löwemon in Frontier, BanchoLeomon in Savers, and Apollomon in Xros Wars), but it's become a rather morbid Running Gag that said lion will perform a Heroic Sacrifice for the protagonists at some point.
- 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.
- Beast Wars II had Optimus Prime (Convoy in Japan) expy and white lion Lio Convoy leading that series' group of Maximals (Cybertrons).
- One chapter of Helen ESP deals with the ghost of a lion who grew up in captivity and never got to see the savannah.
- 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.
- One Piece:
- The Thousand Sunny. 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.
- One of Buggy's crew members is a giant lion.
- Jewelpet has the white lion Jewelpet Granite. While he doesn't have any hint of leadership, he has the honour of being Ruby's boyfriend in Jewelpet Sunshine and Jewelpet Kira Deco!.
- Kemono Friends: Lion is the leader of a group of Friends on the plains, and is in a constant state of Non-Lethal Warfare with Moose, who's called "King of the Forests". In reality though, she's actually quite laid-back and reasonable and only pretends to be stern and serious in front of her followers.
- Yu-Gi-Oh! cards:
- "King of Beasts;" astoundingly enough, it's a lion.
- "Behemoth the King of All Animals" who is much more of the humongous or elephant type.
- In Cardfight!! Vanguard, the Gold Paladin Clan was originally composed of seven corps dedicated to gathering the seven Sacred Beast Armors, each themed after one of the armors: Red Lion, Silver Wolf, Black Horse, White Rabbit, Purple Elephant, Blue Falcon and Green Deer. Unsurprisingly, the Red Lion Corps and their leader, Incandescent Lion, Blond Ezel got the lion's share of screentime both in the anime and in the card game lore. Ezel himself was critical to the resolution of the War of Liberation in the lore via his Super Mode: Blazing Lion, Platina Ezel.
- 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 Grandville, set in a Funny Animal Alternate History 19th century French Empire, Napoleon is a lion.
- Blacksad: A rather crappy sci-fi movie Blacksad is watching features a lion as a US general (and a bald eagle as the president).
- In God Hates Astronauts the leader of an interstellar empire, King Tiger Eating a Cheeseburger is served by the commander of his star fleet, his son Admiral Tiger Eating a Cheeseburger. Not even close to the strangest thing about the series... it's just that kind of comic.
- Hobbes and a lion named Caesar argue about this in Calvin and Hobbes: The Series. Calvin ends it by beating him up and proclaiming himself as king of the jungle.
- In The Bridge, King Caesar is a kaiju sized Shisa, a mythical golem creature from Okinowan lore that is a combination of a lion and a chow-chow dog. Fittingly this incarnation has a very leonine mane and claws, but is The Cape amongst the benign kaiju. He's also been in Equestria the longest and apparently through time travel, was the one who broke King Sombra's horn and spirited an infant Princess Cadance to safety to give her to an adoptive family.
- The Jungle King is built in this stereotype, being about a lion king who is a Jerkass, but is betrayed and captured, so his more benevolent brother has to impersonate him.
- 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.
- Alex in 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.
- The Mayor of Zootopia is, you guessed it, a lion named Lionheart. While overall he is genuinely concerned about the well-being of the citizens of Zootopia, he does have overtones of being a Sleazy Politician.
- 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 all of Oz alongside the Scarecrow and the Tin Man after Dorothy and the Wizard leaves.
- The motif is invoked in WarCraft, where the kings of Stormwind use lion as their symbol.
- 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.
- 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 (same guy, another incarnation), and he's a lion. His name actually means "lion" in Turkish.
- The Reynard Cycle: Duke Nobel's coat of arms depicts a white lion, his father's name is Leo, and he aspires to be the King. Later he has a son named Lionel.
- 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.
- In A Song of Ice and Fire, the sigil of House Lannister, the richest house in Westeros and eventual royal house of the Seven Kingdoms for all intents and purposes, is a lion, and their motto is "Hear Me Roar".
- Sixth Ranger David from Animorphs chooses a male lion as his combat morph. The Threat ends with a climatic battle between his lion and Jake's tiger, which ends in a decisive victory for the lion.
- In The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli recommends being like this — and Cunning Like a Fox.
A prince, therefore, being compelled knowingly to adopt the beast, ought to choose the fox and the lion; because the lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves. Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves. Those who rely simply on the lion do not understand what they are about.
- The Stormlight Archive: There are no lions, and in fact there are very very few Earth animals of any kind. However, in the second book Adolin sees a mural of a mythological creature that looks like a giant mink with a mane. He can't recall the name, though.
- Game of Thrones: House Lannister's sigil is a lion and they use Animal Stereotypes as dynastic propaganda.
Tywin: A lion does not concern himself with the opinions of a sheep.
- Super Sentai / Power Rangers:
- As stated in Panthera Awesome, nearly every 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, Wild Force/Gaoranger, and Kyuranger. The Red Ranger of Samurai/Shinkenger, while being more associated with the element of fire, also has a lion mecha.
- In Wild Force, the King of Beasts role is a plot point — the lion is king of the jungle, so the Lion Zord's chosen Ranger is the leader of the team. This is why the Rookie Red Ranger is given full formal authority over the team despite the fact that he just arrived that morning with no clue as to what was going on or what a Power Ranger even was. Taylor, who'd had the leadership role before him and got it by knowing how to lead, was understandably displeased.
- In Jungle Fury/Gekiranger, it's the Big Bad that's a lion in contrast to the Rangers' tiger, jaguar, and cheetah.
- Megaforce/Goseiger has the lion theme go to the Sixth Ranger, Robo Knight/Gosei Knight.
- A lion theme is incorporated into the Mid Season Upgrades in Mystic Force/Magiranger, Go-Busters, and Ninninger/Ninja Steel, including design motifs on the associated weapons and a corresponding lion mecha.
- Separate from the franchise preference for lions, Doubutsu Sentai Zyuohger themes itself completely after the concept of Kings of Beasts ("Zyuoh" even literally translates to "Beast King"). In their In the Name of the Moon pronouncements, all of the Zyuohgers proclaim themselves supreme in their animals' respective environments: Zyuoh Eagle is "king of the skies", Zyuoh Shark is "queen of the seas", Zyuoh Lion is "king of the savannah", Zyuoh Elephant is "king of the forest", Zyuoh Tiger is "queen of the snowfield", and Zyuoh Gorilla is "king of the jungle". (Sixth Ranger Zyuoh The World is "king of the world", but his powerset is a mashup of multiple animals so no specific beast is actually given that title.) The true King of Beasts in this case turns out to be Zyuoh Whale, the Red Ranger's Super Mode and "king of the kings".
- In the Doctor Who serial Warriors' Gate, the leonine Tharils had been kings in the past.
- In Grimm, the Löwen (lion-like Wesen) were once kings, and still tend to be in positions of power over other Wesen, including running Gladiator Games.
- In Zoo, lions were the first species shown to turn against humans in an organized fashion, as if they were "leading" the mass animal uprising.
- A winged lion sits majestically on top of a waterfall on the cover of the Asia album Arena.
- George Hackenschmidt's Red Baron was "The Russian Lion." He was born in Estonia, but it's not a case of Fake Nationality, since, at the time he was born (1877), Estonia was part of the Russian Empire.
- Chris Jericho used the Red Baron "Lionheart" prior to coming to WWE in 1999. His Boston Crab Finishing Move, later renamed the "Walls of Jericho", was called the Liontamer, and his second-rope moonsault is called the "Lionsault".
- Distaff Counterpart: The Japanese woman wrestler Lioness Asuka.
- The full-body Muppet in Galli Galli Sim Sim, the Indian version of Sesame Street, is a purple lion named Boombah who is a member of "the royal family of Boombagarh".
- The Bible:
- The Book of Revelation refers to Jesus as the Lion of Judah, although his appearance in that section resembles a rather fearsome lamb.
- 1 Peter compares the devil, who is acknowledged elsewhere in the Bible as the (temporary) ruler of the world, to a roaring lion seeking someone to devour.
- In Werewolf: The Apocalypse, lions appear in several contexts.
- The Simba, or werelions, claim authority over all the Bastet (though most Bastet would rather follow the Khan, or tiger tribe).
- Lion was the tribal totem of the White Howlers. When the White Howlers fell to the Wyrm, Griffin accepted Lion into his brood. Lion now extends totemic patronage to Red Talons.
- Dungeons & Dragons:
- The Simbasta are leonine humanoids from 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons who see themselves as leaders and have a natural ability to "subdue" their foes.
- In Planescape, the Beastlands is a wild place where animals rule, so it makes sense the most powerful subspecies of the Guardinals — the dominant species — are the leonals, which resemble lions. (The most powerful of them is Prince Talisid of the Five Companions, although he isn't technically the ruler of the place, although he's likely the most influential being there other than deities.)
- In the Forgotten Realms, the patron deities for sentient monstrous beasts and various Talking Animal species are Nobanion the Lion and Lurue the Unicorn. He's their King and passionately hailed as leader by the predators, while she's their Queen and protects the gentler, more thoughtful sorts.
- In Ravenloft, the (short-lived) rebellion of Broken Ones against their Dr. Moreau-Expy creator, Frantisek Markov, was led by an ambitious lion-man.
- In the Path of War expansion to Pathfinder, the Golden Lion discipline is focused on leadership and teamwork.
- In Legends of Chima, the Lion tribe has a place of authority as the guardians of the world's Chi and the ones who distribute it to the other tribes.
- World of Warcraft:
- A regular quest type 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.
- The Cataclysm expansion introduced a rare spawn named Sambas, a lion with a unique model that's tameable by Hunters.
- 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 the backstory, a member of the Lion Clan ruled about eighty percent of the continent. The setting's ostracized beorc-laguz hybrids eventually fall under the lead of a half-lion.
- 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.
- The Aura Lion dream eaters in Kingdom Hearts 3D are referred as the kings of beasts, and fittingly, are one of the most powerful enemies or allies you'll encounter.
- Averted hilariously in Dwarf Fortress, in which the King of Beasts as a title has been awarded to rather unintuitive candidates such as elephants (most famously seen in Boatmurdered), giant sponges, unicorns, and recently, giant dingos.
- The King of Armello is a lion, who is dying and going insane as a result of The Corruption. The players compete to try and succeed him, one way, or another.
- Leo Whitefang from Guilty Gear fashions himself after a lion, with his blond mane, fur coat and sharpened teeth. Fittingly, he's also the Second King of Illyria.
- Toyed with in Aviary Attorney, where the first lion you meet is a wealthy, intimidating captain of industry. The second you meet, actually a lioness, comes from grinding poverty and is the furious Rebel Leader debating whether to put Revenge Before Reason and trying to set up the Second Republic, which she wants to be a fair and equal society. The King of France, meanwhile, is a penguin.
- Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft has the King of Beasts card, which is naturally a lion. Stat-wise, however, this card's nowhere near as impressive as the hunter legendary King Krush (who is a devilsaur, the fantastic version of a T-Rex). And then in a meta-based Double Subversion, neither card is as commonly used or well regarded by the players as the Savannah Highmane — which is another lion-based card.
- Solgaleo, the cover legendary of Pokémon Sun, is a very large, stark white and powerful (and muscular) leonine being whose mane is evocative of a sun's rays, and hailed in Alola as being an emissary of the sun. The fact that it can rip holes leading to parallel universes as well as to Ultra Space only adds to its regal awesomeness.
- To a lesser degree, the 6th generation features Pyroar, a Fire-type lion Pokémon that is the signature of the Big Bad's team.
- Cat Quest: King Lionardo of Felingard is, of course, a lion.
- Monster Hunter: Teostra and its female counterpart Lunastra combine the power and majesty of the lion with Our Dragons Are Different. They're both highly resilient, very quick, very strong and possess a lot of devastating flame-based attacks, including a Supernova move that launches a powerful blastwave outwards, the bane of any Blademaster hunters. In Monster Hunter World, there's a chance to meet and fight the two on the same quest; beware their special Combination Attack!
- 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.
- And then there's Saber Lion in Fate/tiger colosseum, which is as adorable as this trope can get.
- Heracles also gets this, as his design seems very reminiscent of one.
- In minus, a Great White Hunter shoots a lion. His assistant is sent to check on the animal and comes back with boxing gloves and the lion's request for a proper match. Cue Lion Boxing. Disagreement on the result led to an all out war between the animal kingdom and human kind, which Minus solved by summoning a giant octopus.
- One-Punch Man: The second-strongest fighter in the House of Evolution is Beast King, a human/lion hybrid with claws sharp enough to cut through buildings. Unfortunately for him, he tried to pick a fight with Saitama, and got splattered before he could show off properly.
- 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 80 Days) is an anthropomorphic lion. While he is not a ruler of anything,note 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.
- In Visionaries, Leoric has the ability to shapeshift into a Lion, reflecting his heroic qualities. Also, he is the ruler of New Valarak and is referred to as "Prince Leoric" in one episode.
- In The Busy World of Richard Scarry, royal figures are often portrayed as lions. The Queen of England in particular is portrayed as a lioness with a mane.
- The King of Vampires in Adventure Time is a lion. Being a vampire made him highly intelligent and anthropomorphic (and gave him chicken feet and lizard talons for some reason), but without it, he isn't even sapient, just a big kitty.
- Steven Universe has his own, pink, Lion, who can run on water, create portals by roaring, and store things inside his mane (there's a pocket dimension in there). It apparently belonged to Steven's mother, Rose Quartz. It's revealed that Lion gained his powers when Rose brought him Back from the Dead.
- Spoofed in Babar each animal species represents a particular nation with its own monarch, so naturally the lion nation would have its own king, nevertheless the king of the lions is shown to be one of the most coward of all the monarchs.
- In an episode of The Raccoons most of the cast think that The Royal Family (is a Canadian cartoon) is visiting the Evergreen Forest. As is a show with anthropomorphic animals the King is represented by a Lion (imagined by Bert as it turns out it was just a play that Ralph and Melissa were rehearsing).
- Snagglepuss frequently cites himself as being king of the jungle, even though strictly speaking, he's not that kind of lion, he's a mountain lion.