The Tiger Who Would Be King: James Thurber’s Poignant 1927 Parable of the Destructive Hunger for Power, Reimagined in Stunning New Illustrations
By Maria Popova
“Power narrows the areas of man’s concern,” John F. Kennedy asserted in one of the greatest speeches of all time, adding: “What counts is the way power is used — whether with swagger and contempt, or with prudence, discipline and magnanimity. What counts is the purpose for which power is used — whether for aggrandizement or for liberation.” A century earlier, Nietzsche admonished against the self-aggrandizement aspect of power as he contemplated the fine line between constructive and destructive rebellion. But no one has addressed the ego’s blind lust for power with starker simplicity and more acuity of sentiment than beloved humorist and cartoonist James Thurber (December 8, 1894–November 2, 1961).
In 1927, the year his friend E.B. White helped him join the staff of the New Yorker for what would become a decades-long editorial relationship, young Thurber penned a short and piercing fable about a power-hungry tiger who sets out to become the king of beasts and ends up decimating the jungle into a subjectless dominion — a timeless text of penetrating timeliness amid our culture of mindless violence, too often punctuated by protest for protest’s sake and destructive rather than constructive rebellion.
Yoon, creator of the immeasurably wonderful Beastly Verse, enlists her mastery of early printmaking techniques in amplifying the dramatic vibrancy of the story, which she tells in only two colors layered over the hearty white paper to create a stunning interplay of light and shadow, stillness and brutality.
One morning the tiger woke up in the jungle and told his mate that he was king of beasts.
“Leo, the lion, is king of beasts,” she said.
“We need a change,” said the tiger. “The creatures are crying for change.”
The tigress listened but she could hear no crying, except that of her cubs.
So drunk does the tiger become on his obsession with omnipotence that he holds back no delusion:
“I’ll be king of beasts by the time the moon rises,” said the tiger. “It will be a yellow moon with black stripes, in my honor.”
“Oh, sure,” said the tigress as she went to look after her young, one of whom, a male, very like his father, had got an imaginary thorn in his paw.
Undergirding the story is a subtle subversion of gender stereotypes — the kind perpetuated by Disney in the same era, painting women as irrationally emotional and men as governed by cool reason. Thurber, whose cartoons frequently depicted women in calm control, casts his tigress as the lucid counterpoint to the masculine energy of baseless ego-driven violence.
But despite his mate’s refutations, the tiger makes his way to the lion’s den, where the lioness announces the belligerent visitor to her mate.
“The king is here to see you,” she said.
“What king?” he inquired, sleepily.
“The king of beasts,” she said.
“I am the king of beasts,” roared Leo, and he charged out of the den to defend his crown against the pretender.
A terrible brawl ensues and electrifies the jungle until sundown.
All the animals of the jungle joined in, some taking the side of the tiger and others the side of the lion. Every creature from the aardvark to the zebra took part in the struggle to overthrow the lion or to repulse the tiger, and some did not know which they were fighting for, and some fought for both, and some fought whoever was nearest, and some fought for the sake of fighting.
Thurber delivers his punchline, dark and delightful in its darkness:
When the moon rose, fevered and gibbous, it shone upon a jungle in which nothing stirred except a macaw and a cockatoo, screaming in horror.
All the beasts were dead except the tiger, and his days were numbered and his time was ticking away. He was monarch of all he surveyed, but it didn’t seem to mean anything.
MORAL: You can’t very well be king of beasts if there aren’t any.
Complement the terrific The Tiger Who Would Be King with Louis I, King of the Sheep — a contemporary counterpart about how power changes us. Both picture-books come from Brooklyn-based indie powerhouse Enchanted Lion, maker of such consistently satisfying treasures as The Lion and the Bird, The Blue Whale, Little Boy Brown, and the illustrated biography of E.E. Cummings.
For more of Thurber’s riveting genius at the intersection of the comedic and the culturally insightful, see his playful 1929 collaboration with E.B. White on how to tell love from lust.
Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books / JooHee Yoon
Published November 11, 2015