Of course, everyone expects lions to be brave and fearless, but the Lion Dorothy met revealed that he was the exception to this. He willingly called himself a coward, explaining, "whenever there is danger, my heart begins to beat fast."
He also explains how he's gotten through life: "I learned that if I roared very loudly every living thing was frightened and got out of my way. Whenever I've met a man I've been awfully scared; but I just roared at him, and he has always run away as fast as he could go."
What makes the Lion different from the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman is that what he wants—courage—is not represented in a physical item. The Scarecrow wants a brain so he can think and store knowledge, the Tin Woodman wants a heart so he can love and be compassionate, but the Lion wants courage so he won't ever feel afraid.
However, what also makes him different is that the Lion actually realizes what his problem is. His problem wasn't that he lacked courage, he just didn't understand what courage actually was. It is not the absence of fear but the ability to face it. The Wizard tells him so after being exposed:
"You have plenty of courage, I am sure," answered Oz. "All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. True courage is in facing danger when you are afraid, and that kind of courage you have in plenty."The Lion asks for courage anyway (which the Wizard gives him in the form of a liquid which many Oz fans suspect to be liquor), but unlike the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman who place their newfound capabilities to be wise and love in their gifts, the Lion seems to have actually taken the Wizard's advice to heart. When Dorothy meets him again in Ozma of Oz, this exchange occurs:
"I am also glad to see you, Dorothy," said the Lion. "We've had some fine adventures together, haven't we?"The Lion did not take part in the events of The Marvelous Land of Oz, so if he took it to heart due to experience, Baum did not record it. Whatever happened, the Lion now happily lives his life facing his fears, still identifying as the Cowardly Lion.
"Yes, indeed," she replied. "How are you?"
"As cowardly as ever," the beast answered in a meek voice. "Every little thing scares me and makes my heart beat fast."
The Lion came to have the title of King of the Forests by defeating a monstrous spider near the end of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, showing him facing his fears once and for all. However, in Ozma of Oz and throughout the rest of the Oz books, he serves as Ozma's bodyguard with his friend the Hungry Tiger (who seems to suffer a similar delusion as the Lion, if more humorous in nature).
The Scarecrow and Tin Woodman became inseparable friends, and in a similar vein, so did the Lion and Tiger, though Baum never depicted their first meeting. (There's a theory Jack Snow put forward that many fans subscribe to, but I'll save that for the Tiger's entry.) Although some have interpreted the Lion (particularly Bert Lahr's campy interpretation) to be gay, his relationship with the Hungry Tiger does not really have such a feeling to it. They do everything together, but their relationship never goes above a close friendship level.
The Lion and Tiger do part ways in Glinda of Oz, for reasons unexplained. Perhaps the Tiger is part of an unmentioned task force governing the Emerald City while Ozma and Dorothy are trapped on the Skeezers' island. In The Royal Book of Oz, Thompson has the Lion accompany Dorothy without the Tiger, and in The Cowardly Lion of Oz, he wanders off alone, suddenly believing he lacks courage again. Thompson also gave him the nickname "Cowy" in The Enchanted Island of Oz.
The Lion is different from the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman in one more way: he doesn't reveal a backstory in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. He does tell about his life, but we are never told why he doesn't have a family of any sort: no mate, no cubs, no siblings or parents.
Some have come up with backstories for the Lion. Roger S. Baum's Lion of Oz and the Badge of Courage has the Lion as an ex-circus lion who traveled with Oscar Diggs. This strikes me as wrong on so many levels. If the Lion is confused about things like courage, it would make more sense to me if he was a lion who had just recently reached full maturity when Dorothy met him. Others want to come up with fanciful reasons for the Lion's lack of courage, which, as I pointed out, was entirely in his mind.
However, I did come up with a backstory about the Cowardly Lion myself. I won't go into the details, because I wrote it as a short story that will be appearing in Oziana this year. While my view of Oz is still based on the entire series, I mainly wrote the story to dovetail with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz so that if you read my story and then Baum's original book, a character arc becomes clear. I also did research about real lions, but wound up having to mainly ignore that as it is clear that Oz lions live quite differently. Still, there are some elements from fact that found their way in. I hope people will enjoy the story, and the amazing illustrations that will accompany it.
Overall, with some anthropomorphizing, the Cowardly Lion of Oz is really one of the first very solidly written characters in the Oz series, and was really much more like real lions than many other literary lions. (Just, don't put him next to Aslan. That really isn't fair to either of them!)