TOPIC 4(B) : LITERATURE ANALYSIS(NOVEL) – SUNDIATA : AN EPIC OF OLD MALI – english topics form three
SUNDIATA: AN EPIC OF OLD MALI
Djibril Tamsir Niane
About the Author
Djibril Tamsir Niane (born 9 January 1932) is a historian, playwright, and short story writer, born in Conakry, Guinea.
His secondary education was in Senegal and his degree from the University of Bordeaux. He is an honorary professor of Howard University and the University of Tokyo.
He is noted for introducing the Epic of Sundiata, about Sundiata Keita (ca 1217-1255), founder of the Mali Empire, to the Western world in 1960 by translating the story told to him by Djeli Mamoudou Kouyate, a griot or traditional oral historian.
Djibril Tamsir Niane
The epic of Sundiata is told by the griot (storyteller and keeper of history) Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté. He begins with details of Sundiata’s ancestors, as the force of history is important in the tale of the man whose victory will create the Mali Empire.
Sundiata’s father, Maghan Kon Fatta, was king of the city of Niani. One day, a soothsaying hunter foretells that he will produce a great ruler through the marriage of an ugly woman. Later, two hunters bring a woman to offer as his wife, and he sees this is the foretold woman, Sogolon. The hunters earned her by defeating a monstrous buffalo that was terrorizing a land far away. Through showing kindness to an old woman, they were taught the secret of the buffalo and then given their choice of woman by the king whose realm was being terrorized. The old woman told them to choose the ugliest maid, and they did. The king takes Sogolon for his wife, but she refuses to let him consummate the marriage until magic powers help him to rid her of a wraith (spirit) that was making her resistant. Sundiata is conceived.
In childhood, Sundiata faces two obstacles: first, because of the prophecy, the king’s first wife Sassouma Bérété spreads vicious rumors about him and Sogolon in an effort to elevate her own son’s stature; and second, he is crippled and does not walk until the age of 7. Despite his physical limitations, his father sees wisdom in his son and gifts him griot Balla Fasséké, the son of his own griot. The king dies soon afterwards and his eldest son, Dankaran Touman, is given control by the elders, who do not see much future in the crippled boy. One day, when Sogolon is embarrassed by the queen mother, Sundiata uses a rod to help himself stand on two legs and from this day onwards, his strength is unmistakable.
Frightened her own son will lose his control, the queen mother Sassouma Bérété orchestrates exile for Sundiata, Sogolon, and their immediate family. For seven years, they travel from asylum to asylum, sometimes being shown great hospitality and occasionally being mistreated by their hosts. All the while, Sundiata learns of new peoples and customs, while impressing most people he meets. He spends a particularly long time with Moussa Tounkara at Mema, who helps raise Sundiata and teaches him the ways of war so as to potentially groom the boy as his heir.
Sundiata also learns during his exile about the evil sorcerer king Soumaoro Kanté, who is slowly forcing the cities of Mali and beyond under his control through cruelty. When Niani falls to the sorcerer king, a search party is sent to Ghana to find Sundiata and ask him to claim his mantle as ruler. Though his choice to return to Mali and battle the sorcerer king upsets the Moussa Tounkara, he is ultimately given his blessing and the first of his subservient armies.
Sundiata goes to many cities and lands that he visited during his period of exile, slowly building up his army. Finally, his armies come up against those of Soumaoro. Though Sundiata is successful in his battles, he cannot harm the sorcerer king because the latter has magical protections. Sundiata turns to magic for help, and through sacrifice is able to craft a magical arrow. In their largest battle, Sundiata nicks Soumaoro with the arrow and the sorcerer king loses his power. Soumaoro retreats and escapes.
Accompanied by Fakoli, Soumaoro’s nephew who revolted after being betrayed by his uncle, Sundiata pursues Soumaoro for several days. They finally trap him in a cave with nowhere to go; they have won. After his victory, Sundiata defeats the kings who stayed loyal to the sorcerer king. He then returns to Niani and founds the Mali Empire, splitting it up to show respect for all the rulers who promise to serve him.
The griot ends the epic by praising Sundiata and his rule of the golden age of the Mali Empire. He tells the audience that Mali is eternal and that reminders of history are everywhere, but only the griot can know all.
Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté
The griot who tells the story of Sundiata.
The hero of the epic and founder of the Mali Empire. Also known as Maghan Sundiata and Mari Djata and Naré Maghan Djata and Sogolon Djata.
Mother of Sundiata, and a great sorcerer.
A great sorcerer king, and Sundiata’s primary antagonist. Sundiata creates the Mali Empire by defeating him.
Soumaoro’s son and one of his chief generals.
Son of Sassouma Bérété, half-brother to Sundiata, and king of Mali in his stead before Sundiata’s exile.
Sundiata’s griot, gifted to him by his father. The son of Maghan’s griot Gnankouman Doua.
Maghan Kon Fatta
Sundiata’s father, also called Naré Maghan. King of Niani.
Maghan Kon Fatta’s first wife, the “queen mother” who forces Sundiata’s exile.
Son of Namandjé, half-brother to Sundiata and his best friend. An ally in the war with Soumaoro.
The griot of Sundiata’s father, Maghan Kon Fatta.
Third wife of Maghan Kon Fatta and mother to Manding Bory.
Daughter of Sassouma Bérété, half-sister to Sundiata and later his ally in the war against Soumaoro.
Nephew of Soumaoro. He rebels against his uncle when Soumaoro steals his wife.
A childhood friend of Sundiata’s. Later the king of Tabon and ally to Sundiata. Named Tabon Wana after he becomes king.
A childhood friend of Sundiata’s. Later the king of Sibi and ally to Sundiata.
Leader of the nine great witches of Mali.
The king of Djedeba and a great sorcerer. He grants Sundiata and his family asylum in their exile but later reneges on the protection.
The king of Mema. He grants asylum to Sundiata and his family for many years. Sundiata becomes his viceroy and he learns much from the king.
A tribal chief who defends Sosso after Soumaoro’s defeat.
An ancestor of Sundiata’s. The conquerer of Mali.
Head of the Mali ironsmiths (meaning a soothsayer). He gives Sundiata the iron rod that helps him stand.
Father of Farakourou, a smith of Niani. He makes the iron rod that helps Sundiata stand.
An ancestor of Sundiata’s. He brought grace on Mali through his pilgrimage to Mecca.
Daughter of Sogolon, Sundiata’s older sister.
Oulamba and Oulani
The two hunters who win Sogolon and grant her as wife to Maghan Kon Fatta.
Daughter of Sogolon, Sundiata’s youngest sister.
Sassouma’s brother. He finds Sundiata in Ghana after Mali is occupied by Soumaoro Kanté.
King of Wagadou. He gives half of his men to Sundiata to fight Soumaoro Kanté.
Singbin Mara Cissé
A divine of the court who tells tales of Alexander the Great to Sundiata as they travel from Ghana to defeat Soumaoro Kanté.
Magician wife of Fakoli Koroma who is stolen by Soumaoro Kanté.
The king of Kita, protected by the jinn of a great mountain. He refuses to offer submission to Sundiata, who defeats him and drinks of Kita’s magic pool of water.
The preface is written by D.T. Niane, who reveals his story of Sundiata is recorded from the words of a griot (performer of tribal history and genealogy) from a village in Guinea who related the tale to him orally. He makes clear the griots he means are not those of the modern era who are guitarists and musicians, but rather the class of people who in a bygone age were the “counsellors of kings” who committed the constitutions of kingdoms to memory. Niane points out that in every one of the “old villages” of Mali such a griot family persists in their ancient work of recording and transmitting history.
Niane laments over how Western society has taught people to doubt oral sources when it comes to history. He suggests this attitude persists even among African intellectuals, who only know the history of their own country through the eyes of white men. Niane notes his own experiences with griots have opened his eyes only a little to Africa’s eternal secrets. Sundiata is “the fruit of an initial contact with the most authentic traditionalists of Mali,” which the author hopes will “open the eyes of more than one African” and encourage them to access the cultural treasures of the griots.
In this brief preface, D.T. Niane provides background on what his work has set out to accomplish and how he has gone about it. He does so in a slightly jaundiced tone. One object of his ire is the modern griot, who is described in a manner resembling a pop musician familiar to a modern audience. What Niane has found instead is a “true” griot—one who is in touch with the ancient traditions of Mali. It is probably for this reason the griot is “obscure”—he is unwilling to sell himself as a frivolous entertainer. Also subjected to Niane’s disapproval are Western and even some African academics who have been taught to ignore oral traditions instead of written records. Niane argues forcefully that oral tradition is a vital source of culture and history.
Niane’s charge of those who disdain the oral tradition and choose to understand their own histories from a white man’s point of view makes plain his motivation in replicating the griot’s tale here. At the time of Niane’s writing, African nations were in the process of gaining independence from colonial rule. To Niane, the primacy of written over spoken history was a way of privileging the perspective of the colonizer. To resurrect African culture, oral traditions had to be explored. Niane thus frames his work as a political and cultural enterprise as much as a historical one.
The Words of the Griot Mamoudou Kouyaté
The narrator, Djeli Mamoudou Kouyaté, begins the tale of Sundiata by introducing himself as a griot. He explains his family has been “in the service of the Keita princes of Mali” since ancient times. He is a “vessel of speech.” He learned his craft from his father, who learned it from his own father. The narrator establishes his work as one of history and claims to be able to list all rulers of Mali. With this knowledge he can “teach kings the history of their ancestors” so the monarchs can look to past examples.
The narrator goes on to introduce the main subject of his story, Sundiata. Sundiata’s names and titles are given: son of the Buffalo, son of the Lion, “the man of many names against whom sorcery could avail nothing.”
The narration of the griot serves as a preamble to the story to follow, as it introduces the narrator himself as well as the role of griot—to act as a store and fountain of knowledge about the past and the lessons such knowledge can impart. This is an important point for what is about to follow, because griots themselves play a vital role in the narrative—the narrator is a griot himself. The information about griots the narrator provides contextualizes the characters in the narrative as much as the narrative itself.
The griot’s role is part entertainer, part historian, and part advisor. The narrator reminds the audience that his role is not frivolous. His ancestors were advisors to kings, as will be the griots in the story. Partly, this declaration acts to encourage the audience to pay close attention and take the griot seriously. It also establishes in part the narrator’s credentials as a trustworthy communicator of the tale.
Even though this section is a kind of introduction, it includes some of the patterns of oral performance that recur throughout the narrative. For example, it contains stock phrases, like the description of Sundiata as “the man of many names.”
The First Kings of Mali
The narrator proceeds to give a list of Sundiata’s ancestors, the preceding kings of Mali. Again, Sundiata’s many names are given as a prelude.
The narrator begins by providing the reader with some background about Mali. It is a province of “the Bambara kings.” The Mandingo (Malinke) people of Mali came from the east to settle in what became their home. The founder of the Keita line of kings is noted as a Muslim. A succession of names of kings are given and their deeds recorded before finishing with Maghan Kon Fatta, the father of Sundiata.
Maghan Kon Fatta has three wives. The first, Sassouma Bérété, has a son, Dankaran Touman. This son is the king’s first child. His second wife, Sogolon Kedjou, is Sundiata’s mother. His third wife, Namandjé, is the mother of Manding Bory, Sundiata’s half-brother and faithful companion.
This section shows the skill of the griot in committing such a genealogy to memory—keeping very similar names in their right order, with the right accompanying details, is no simple feat. It is not just the griot showing off, however. In his society, as in Sundiata’s, ancestry was vital to understanding who someone was. Our ancestors are the examples against which we are judged. Sundiata is no different. This chapter further serves to establish Mali as a place with a definite and rich history, a theme the narrator will return to frequently, especially at the end of the work.
The chapter also introduces the reader to some of the story’s main characters. The relationships of Maghan Kon Fatta, his wives, and children, are vital to understanding Sundiata’s early life. Although these relationships will be described again later, the oral performer probably knows it is helpful to get their names and relationships in the audience’s head sooner rather than later.
The Buffalo Woman
The narrator describes Maghan Kon Fatta as a good king known for his beauty. The king is holding court beneath the great silk-cotton tree in the palace garden when a hunter arrives from Sangaran. Because hunters from Sangaran are renowned as mystics, the king agrees to listen to what the man has to say. In conversation with the king and his griot , Gnankouman Doua, the hunter reveals the king’s true successor is not yet born. The child, who will be mightier than the great conqueror and king Alexander the Great, will be the son of the king’s future wife, a woman with “a disfiguring hump” who is being brought to the royal court by a pair of hunters.
The mystic disappears and a few days later, a pair of hunters arrive with a woman from the land of Do. Once again, Maghan Kon Fatta is holding court beneath the great silk-cotton tree when he is greeted by the travelers. The men say they tracked down a terrible buffalo that was destroying the land. They discovered the buffalo first in the form of an old woman, who told them how to kill her—she was done punishing her brother, the king of Do. They were to ask the king for an ugly, hunchbacked woman. It is this woman the hunters bring to Maghan Kon Fatta as a gift. The woman’s name is Sogolon Kedjou, and she and the king are married soon after.
Sogolon Kedjou despairs despite the grandeur of her wedding. She refuses to consummate the marriage. The king, at a loss, finally resolves to sacrifice or ritually kill Sogolon. When he attempts to do so, Sogolon faints and Sundiata is conceived.
This is the first episode in the wider tale of Sundiata. It tells of how the great man’s parents met and wed. While it is part of a wider narrative, it could also be read alone without too much being lost. The narrative in the book is divided into these episodic chunks, which may represent individual parts of the griot’s narration as well. They function as the building blocks of the broader tale of Sundiata. It is possible the griot learned to memorize these chunks as his way of learning the whole, and they may have begun as individual stories, gradually gathered and embellished by griots over the centuries.
This story mixes magic with human drama in a manner exemplary to the epic form. Sundiata is a child of prophecy, and his mother contains within her the spirit of a shape-shifting magician who turned herself into a buffalo to terrorize her brother. Sundiata’s mother is visibly marked by signs of her destiny in the form of her physical abnormalities.
A number of important cultural features appear in this chapter. One is the centrality of natural symbols. The world of Sundiata is one of allusions to and imagery derived from nature. These literary devices take the form of Maghan Kon Fatta’s great silk-cotton tree and the mystical buffalo. Another cultural feature is the importance of music, which notably accompanies the great wedding and will be present at many of the major events throughout the story. Finally, it should be observed the characters accept the presence of magic as a part of their daily existence—including sacrifices, prophetic dreams, wandering mystics, and shapeshifters.
The Lion Child
Sogolon’s status as the king’s second wife and her subsequent pregnancy cause the Maghan Kon Fatta’s first wife, Sassouma Bérété, to become angry. She tries to convince sorcerers to kill Sogolon, but they refuse.
Amid portentous thunder and lightning, Sundiata is born. The birth is announced with the playing of drums and balafons(xylophones) as a general celebration begins. Gnankouman Doua, the royal griot, greets the birth, hailing the child as he “whom the world awaited … the lion child, the buffalo child is born.” All the other griots of the land compose a song to honor the child, and rice is distributed to the populace. Sassouma Bérété joins the celebrations as a pretense to hide her anger. Sundiata is named Maghan and Mari Djata. The name is whispered in the ear of the infant so he will remember it.
Sundiata’s birth is accompanied not only by music but also by potent signs of natural approval in the form of thunder and lightning. It should be observed there is a dramatic irony in the actions of other characters toward Sundiata. At every turn the child’s life is accompanied by portentous events. From the beginning of the story, the audience is told Sundiata will become a great king. The natural portents in this part of the story seem to now reveal the prophecy to the participants in the story. But at every turn, Sundiata’s rivals ignore these signs and try to halt Sundiata’s destiny. One of the griot’s themes is his low opinion of the general mental capacity of humanity. One of the powers the griot has is deep historical perspective. He knows the names of kings and also their deeds: he knows things take time to develop—as Gnankouman Doua had wisely advised his king in the previous chapter “The Buffalo Woman.”
“The Lion Child” also introduces the intense enmity felt by Sassouma Bérété for Sogolon Djata and her son. Sassouma’s schemes to kill Sogolon fail because a divine force is watching over her. This is the meaning of the owls who perch on Sogolon’s house. Owls in West African mythology are associated with the spirits of the departed and possess a mystical power. Sogolon’s child is fated to be a great king, and the power of this fate a sorcerer’s magic cannot touch. Amidst the supernatural events, Sundiata is also a tale of these much more relatable human dramas. Sassouma, not without reason, feels like she and her son—the king’s first born child—have been abandoned as her husband chases after a prophecy she thinks may not even come true.
The power of Sundiata’s birth name, Maghan Mari Djata, is a minor theme of the story. Being referred to by so many names is also a trick of the oral storyteller’s craft. The different names allow the speaker performing to a musical rhythm to vary the length of phrases and change emphases. Later in the story it will also be important that Sundiata is given two names in this manner.
The narrator begins by reflecting on the inescapable nature of fate. He then proceeds to describe Sundiata’s difficult childhood. At three years old, Sundiata still cannot walk, and he has “nothing of the great beauty of his father.” This causes the local populace to gossip and delights the king’s first wife, whose own son, Dankaran Touman, is growing into an active boy. Sogolon and the king despair about what is to be done about Sundiata—who is now called Sogolon Djata by the populace—which causes the narrator to exclaim at their impatience. When Sogolon gives birth to another child, a daughter, she is sent out of the king’s household. The king marries again and has another son, named Manding Bory.
Sogolon is restored to the king’s household after Gnankouman Doua and a blind man assure the king Sundiata is “the silk-cotton tree” that “emerges from a tiny seed.” At the age of seven—and still unable to walk—Maghan Kon Fatta gives Sundiata an important and traditional gift: he arranges for Balla Fasséké, the son of Gnankaman Doua, to be the boy’s personal griot. At the same time, Sundiata is named his father’s heir.
An emerging theme early in the story is how people lack the perspective of the griot. The griot’s diversion into a musing on fate is an important thematic point. The griot views all fate as set in stone: what will be, will be. All human struggles against it are futile. Most people cannot see it precisely because they lack the keenest weapon in the griot’s arsenal, patience, and an appreciation for the long-term patterns of history. Sundiata’s destiny is clear to the griot, at least: it will be revealed in time. To others who are more short-sighted, the boy’s destiny is unclear, which often leads to their calamity. The narrator points out this dramatic irony often in the story.
Sundiata’s greatness is not immediately apparent, as he is a strange-looking child who cannot walk. But this makes his later ascent all the greater. Sundiata is great not because he was born an obvious ruler. He triumphed over so many adversities, making his greatness undeniable. His slow start to life also provides him with a strange strength over his many rivals. They so often underestimate him, at their own peril. Or they try to hamper him, and this provides Sundiata with opportunities to prove himself.
Balla Fasséké is the greatest gift Sundiata will receive from another: a griot is the greatest asset a king can possess.
The Lion’s Awakening
Maghan Kon Fatta dies, and his councilors ignore his wishes to have Sundiata named king. Dankaran Touman is named instead, with his mother, Sassouma, acting as regent. Sogolon and her son are banished to the “back yard of the palace” by the queen mother.
Sassouma taunts Sogolon by refusing to give her a small amount of baobab leaf. In despair, Sogolon strikes her son with a piece of wood and tries to goad him into walking. Sundiata asks his mother how he can help her. They agree he should bring her an entire baobab tree. Sundiata decides this will be the day he shall walk and orders his father’s smiths to make him the heaviest iron rod.
Sundiata receives a huge rod of iron from the head of Mali’s smiths. In view of all the smiths and his mother—and with the encouragement of Balla Fasséké—Sundiata grasps the iron rod and uses it to haul himself upright. The effort works, and moreover, Sundiata twists the iron bar into a mighty bow, prompting Balla Fasséké to sing the “Hymn to the Bow.” Sundiata, now standing, begins to take steps like “those of a giant.” He tears a baobab tree up from its roots and carries it effortlessly to his mother.
From this point on Sundiata’s popularity grows, and he assembles a small group of childhood friends: Fran Kamara, Kamandjan, Manding Bory, and Balla Fasséké. Sundiata takes pleasure in hunting and becomes a mighty hunter. The narrator explains how Sundiata’s name, “Sogolon Djata” becomes shortened to “Sundiata.”
Sassouma is annoyed at Sundiata’s popularity, and asks nine witches to kill him. At first the witches refuse—Sundiata has done them no wrong. Sassouma convinces the witches to carry out her plan by telling them to meet Sundiata in his vegetable patch, where he will surely insult them. The witches comply, but when they encounter Sundiata, he offers the witches food from his garden. Because of his generosity, the witches vow their protection over him. With this, he also has the protection of his sister, also a skilled magician.
At seven years old, Sundiata’s power finally begins to manifest. His connection to his father, and to his ironsmiths in particular, allows him to commission the great iron bar he uses to stand for the first time. His strength is so great he can lift the iron bar, which six men carry together to Sogolon’s home. He bends the bar into a bow and immediately uproots a tree. The episode shows much more than strength is necessary, however. The fact he fashions the iron bar into a bow foretells his skill in using the weapon later in the story. Loyalty and duty to his family is also of great importance, as the spur to action is the tears and shame of his mother who is at her wits’ end after Sassouma’s unkind behavior. Sundiata’s exemplary conduct continues at the end of the chapter in his dealings with the witches. By displaying humility and generosity toward them, he completely foils Sassouma’s plot against him. Even though he has many trials left, Sundiata is already displaying many of the qualities of a king.
Another of these qualities is shown in his immediate acquisition of a following of devoted friends from among the region’s princes. This is foreshadowing of the army Sundiata will eventually assemble, which will include all his friends. Their hunting trips are a part of their society’s expected behavior for aristocratic young men and excellent training for warfare.
Sassouma is foolish to try to divert Sundiata’s fate, but it is not for nothing she fears Sundiata’s qualities as they begin to manifest. While her son is weak enough to be ruled by his mother, it is unlikely Sundiata would be so easily controlled. This element of human drama keeps the story believable and relatable to the audience.
Despite Sundiata’s survival, Sogolon decides to leave Mali. She goes into exile with her children for their protection. Dankaran Touman sends Sundiata’s griot Balla Fasséké away to be an ambassador for the king of Sosso, Soumaoro Kanté, robbing Sundiata of one of the sources of his power. Filled with rage, Sundiata and Manding Bory confront Dankaran Touman. After announcing his exile, Sundiata pledges he will return to Mali. His statement is so firm it causes Dankaran Touman to collapse with fear.
Seven years pass and Sundiata grows in strength and wisdom. He and his family take shelter at Djedeba with the king Mansa Konkon. The king invites Sundiata to play a game with him. If Mansa Konkon wins, Sundiata will forfeit his life. Sundiata outwits the king by accusing him of taking a bribe to kill Sundiata. Sundiata learns of this through Manding Bory, who was told by the king’s daughter—he does not let this fact slip. Thus, Sundiata escapes death; however, he must leave Djedebe. Again, Sundiata pledges to return.
Sundiata and his family go to Tabon, where they meet Fran Kamara. Sundiata tells Fran Kamara he will call on him on his way back to Mali, and they will go together. Sundiata and his family move on to Wagadou to meet with the king of Ghana. However, Sogolon begins to fall ill. The family is sent along to the king’s cousin, Tounkara, at Mema.
Sundiata and Manding Bory make a name for themselves at Mema, and it is here they go to war for the first time. Sundiata’s bravery and strength is great, and Moussa Tounkara makes Sundiata one of his closest companions. It is whispered Sundiata will be the king’s heir, for he is childless.
Sundiata, now 18 years old, has earned a position of power and status. But his mother warns him that his destiny lies in Mali, not in Mema.
Sundiata’s trials intensify as he is sent from his native Mali out into exile. This exile is a mixed experience, as he runs into a number of perils and uncertainties before finding a relatively happy home at the court of Moussa Tounkara.
The episode with the murderous Mansa Konkon shows the importance of Sundiata’s friends. This is a repeated theme in Sundiata’s story, as he receives critical assistance from his friends and family several times. A great king is not only individually great—he is surrounded by able and loyal people. In historical Malian society, few formal institutions existed. People were bound together by ties of kinship and custom. Thus, it is natural Sundiata’s half-brother Manding Bory should prove one of his most able lieutenants. This is also the cardinal sin Mansa Konkon almost commits, by killing a guest he would be expected to shelter. Indeed, this is the sin Soumaoro, who will be appearing on the scene in earnest in subsequent chapters, is held to have committed.
Sundiata’s personal charisma and other kingly qualities are obvious to all he meets at this point, and it is they who win him the approval of the king of Mema. This is a valuable experience for Sundiata. At last, he is able to prove himself a capable soldier. But as the final passages make plain, he cannot make a life for himself in Mema. Sogolon, his mother, has a true understanding of destiny, and it is in Mali where Sundiata must meet his own destiny someday soon.
Soumaoro Kanté: The Sorcerer King
The narrator switches perspective to describe how Soumaoro Kanté, the king of Sosso, has taken over the kingdom of Mali. Soumaoro, backed by “his powerful army of smiths,” has subjugated the neighboring kingdom of Ghana and demanded tribute from Mali. Soumaoro is a great sorcerer who built up the fortifications of Sosso to a formidable degree. For this he is known as “the untouchable king.” Soumaoro keeps Balla Fasséké at his court, after the latter had been sent as an ambassador.
Balla Fasséké sneaks into Soumaoro’s private chamber where he discovers the sorcerer-king’s magical items: tapestries made of human skins, severed human heads, strange weapons, three sleeping owls, and an enormous xylophone-like instrument called a balafon. Balla Fasséké cannot resist playing the instrument and casts a magical spell on the room in doing so.
Soumaoro hears someone playing on his private balafon and almost kills Balla Fasséké. Balla Fasséké calms the king with an improvised song. Soumaoro is pleased and pledges that Balla Fasséké will never return to Mali, making war between Sundiata and Soumaoro “inevitable.”
The main antagonist of Sundiata’s rise to power is revealed: the wicked sorcerer-king Soumaoro Kanté. He is the leader of the Sosso, a powerful nation that has expanded rapidly in recent times. Soumaoro’s great skill is his use of forces practical and supernatural to make himself invulnerable. In practical terms, he has a mighty fortress; for everything else, he has his protective magic. Soumaoro’s great power means he is a fitting opponent against whom Sundiata will prove himself.
Soumaoro does not only threaten Sundiata’s political future by executing his designs on Mali. He also has a personal connection, as he now possesses Sundiata’s griot, Balla Fasséké. This episode strikes the reader as another almost self-contained adventure. Balla Fasséké’s infiltration of Soumaoro’s ghastly room with all its magical horrors, and his own quick thinking to save his own life, has little to do with the wider narrative. Instead, it provides important color and adventure, and it allows the griot to add some of his own musical flourishes to embellish the tale of the magical balafon, a West African xylophone. Music, magic, and the griot’s art are once again powerfully tied together in this episode. Music is the heart of the griot’s art, and here the reader sees clearly, through Soumaoro, the intrinsic connection of music to the magical arts.
One practical purpose of including this episode in the story is because it establishes the fact that Soumaoro has a private room in which his deepest secrets can be learned. This will be important later, after Sundiata and Soumaoro begin their conflict.
The narrator proclaims the great events of Sundiata’s life are about to begin. He then embarks on a description of the griot’s role in preserving the great deeds of kings “from oblivion, as men have short memories.” He also takes a swipe at the written word, stating that “the prophets did not write and their words have been all the more vivid as a result.”
The narrator establishes the wickedness of Soumaoro, a demon whose evil reign has created only bloodshed as he preys upon the people he rules. This wickedness and belief in his own power will prove Soumaoro’s downfall. His main general, his nephew, Fakoli Koroma, has a beautiful wife, Keleya, who is a tremendous cook. Soumaoro abducts Keleya and takes her as his own. This causes Fakoli Koroma to rise in revolt and begins a tide of mutinies against Soumaoro.
Dankaran Touman, king of Mali, attempts to support the revolt but is defeated, and Soumaoro proclaims himself king of Mali. The savior of Mali is divined by the soothsayers as “the man with two names,” Sundiata. A mission is sent out to find where Sundiata is and bring him back.
The main events of Sundiata’s life begin, with all the foregoing providing necessary background to the main events. To this chapter of Sundiata’s life, the narrator has appended another brief introduction that recapitulates themes about the griot’s life and the nature of history expressed earlier. Again, these are reminders to the audience of the story’s importance as a repository of ancient history. The griot’s swipe at written history is amusing but heartfelt. To one trained in memorization and oral performance, with musical accompaniment and moral instruction intermixed, the dead words on the page seem a poor substitute for living history.
Soumaoro’s villainy is established beyond doubt in this episode. Not only has he stolen Sundiata’s griot, but he also is a thoroughly wicked man, a tyrant, and a predator on his own family’s wives. Here is an important indicator of the true source of Soumaoro’s wickedness: he thinks nothing is sacred, not even the bonds of family and kinship that tie his society together. As a result, he begins his own downfall by causing the series of rebellions Sundiata will eventually come to lead.
The mention of Keleya allows the audience to look closely at the role of women in this story. She is desirable not only because she is beautiful, but also because she is a very talented cook. In the world of Sundiata, women feature as agents in the story, possessed of cleverness and other qualities. It is, however, a very strictly gendered world. The woman’s role in this society is clear, associated heavily with domestic duties like cooking, gathering herbs, shopping, and so on.
Dankaran Touman, Sundiata’s elder half-brother, proves himself a weak king. But this, too, was destined, and only creates an opportunity to fill a vacuum Sundiata must take.
The Baobab Leaves
Sundiata learns of recent events while at Mema. In the marketplace, Sundiata’s sister Kolonkan notices a woman selling baobab leaves, a specialty of Mali. The merchants selling the leaves are from Mali. After learning Kolonkan’s brother is Sundiata, they ask if they can meet with her family. The merchants turn out to be the search party from Mali. They tell Sundiata and his family of the fate of Mali and the revolt of Fakoli Koroma against Soumaoro.
Moved, Sundiata decides it is indeed time to return to Mali. The same night, Sogolon, Sundiata’s mother, dies. Sundiata asks the king of Mema for permission to go to Mali. The request displeases the king, yet Sundiata insists on going. The king tries to make Sundiata pay for the plot of land on which he will bury his mother. Sundiata tries to pay with rubbish. The king’s advisor interprets the message as a pledge by Sundiata to destroy the city if he is not allowed to go, and so the king relents. Sogolon is buried with full honors.
Another simple episode relates how Sundiata’s family are discovered in exile. Again, it concerns the domestic realm in which women live and act, although it is an interesting detail that women could work as merchants.
Sundiata is linked to Mali’s natural environment by the fact it is Mali’s local baobab leaves, uncommon in Mema, which lead to the mission discovering Sundiata’s place of exile.
Sundiata will prove to be a good king, which in this society means he is wrathful, although not without providing ample, if symbolic, warning. The king’s initial demand for payment for the land Sundiata wishes to use to bury his mother threatens Sundiata’s duty to his family and is an insult to Sundiata’s honor. His exemplary show of restraint, by merely threatening to raze the king’s city to rubble in retaliation, contrasts with his later treatment of the city of Sosso. But Sosso had earned that treatment by Soumaoro’s wickedness. The king of Mema is merely temporarily misguided and takes the hint.
As a parting gift, Mansa Tounkara lends Sundiata half of his army. Sundiata and his new army head to Wagadou, and there the king lends Sundiata half of his cavalry. They head on to Tabon where Sundiata’s friend Fran Kamara is king. There Sundiata learns the story of Alexander.
Soumaoro gets wind of Sundiata’s advance and sends an army under his own son, Sosso Balla, to block Sundiata on the way to Tabon. Sundiata laughs at Sosso Balla’s army because they are only infantrymen; Sundiata has fearsome cavalry. Moreover, Sundiata attacks immediately, while the Sosso troops are expecting to have a day to prepare. With Sundiata at the front of the fight, his charging cavalry are irresistible, and the Sosso army flees.
Fran Kamara and his army from Tabon arrive. They join forces with Sundiata, celebrating the latter’s victory. Learning of his son’s defeat, Soumaoro decides to lead his own army personally to face Sundiata. The two armies face off at Negueboria. Sundiata deploys his forces in an innovative manner. Sundiata and his men attack and seem to be making progress, when Soumaoro sends in his reserves to encircle Sundiata. But Sundiata has foreseen this trick and uses his own change of formation to nullify Soumaoro’s attack. Sundiata attempts to shoot Soumaoro in the middle of the battle, but Soumaoro plucks the arrow from the air. When Sundiata tries to stab him with a spear, Soumaoro vanishes.
The battle proves to Sundiata that beating Soumaoro’s armies will not be enough. He must also defeat Soumaoro’s magic. Sundiata begins to doubt he will win. This doubt is compounded when Soumaoro’s army launches a frightening night attack.
Sundiata finally begins to come into his own as a leader by acquiring an army. All his hard work over the years making friends and alliances proves to yield positive results, as he parades from town to town building his armies and acquiring generals. This is of course in contrast to Soumaoro, who has caused a rebellion against himself by doing the opposite and alienating everybody, including his own nephew.
The repeated comparisons to Alexander the Great (356–23 BCE) in the narrative are important here. On the way to battle, Sundiata himself is made aware of Alexander’s career as a great conqueror who had established the largest empire in the world. Sundiata behaves in a very Alexandrian manner, attacking directly and by surprise, utterly defeating his much less skilled enemy. The Sossos’ belief that they would have a day to prepare before battle is an interesting insight into the cultural expectations of warfare. In a way, Sundiata wins by breaking the rules of his society. But his is the hero’s destiny, and such can be excused in the pursuit of a noble cause. Indeed, it is proof of his great generalship.
Still, Sundiata’s earthly skill is not enough: before he can be a king, he must master the world of magic as well as the world of men. He is extremely adept at the craft of commanding an army, has strength enough to slay his mortal foes, and has the charisma to put together an alliance. But Soumaoro will not be beaten by any of these. Soumaoro’s power rests chiefly with his command of magic. Conquering this final obstacle will prove Sundiata’s fitness to rule.
The Names of the Heroes
Soumaoro’s night attack succeeds only in strengthening Sundiata’s resolve. Sundiata and his armies press on, absorbing more reinforcements from those who are rebelling against Soumaoro’s rule. Sundiata begins to recognize the native trees of Mali as they travel further on their journey.
The narrator lists Sundiata’s great allies and what they bring to the cause. They assemble at Sibi for a great meeting. Siara Kouman Konaté, Sundiata’s cousin, brings spear-armed warriors. Faony Kondé, king of the land of Do, brings deadly archers. Mansa Traoré, “the double-sighted king,” is also there. So too is Kamandjan, with his men who wield long pikes. Assembled thus are “all the sons of Mali,” who are those who “speak the clear language of Mali.” Through the gathering at Sibi, all the sons of Mali are united behind Sundiata.
Another episode of historical recitation follows. The chief leaders of Sundiata’s army are mentioned, along with the regional specialties of their warriors as a way to flatter and acknowledge the different regions and peoples of Mali to whom this history belongs. One of Sundiata’s greatest accomplishments is the building of an empire of several united peoples, each of which must be accorded respect. The listing of Sundiata’s great allies glorifies Sundiata. It is important to take note of the narrator’s moniker for these men: “Sons of Mali.” These men “speak the clear language of Mali,” indicating that they will play important roles in Sundiata’s newly formed Empire of Mali.
Earlier, Sundiata was discovered in exile when his sister noticed a woman selling the baobab leaves of Mali in the marketplace. The merchants turn out to be a group from Mali searching for Sundiata. The sighting of Mali’s distinctive trees signify the return of the rightful king to his homeland. It is worth remembering that Sundiata himself was likened to the silk-cotton tree earlier in the story; it grows from a tiny seed and takes a long time to flourish. Also, Maghan Kon Fatta held court under this tree.
Another interesting detail in this section is the way Sundiata’s power and his army work. Both are built through personal connections with other rulers. These kings, chiefs, and generals go to different villages spreading their message and raising forces. Sundiata and his allies’ rule is personal, based on connections and their individual ability to impress and persuade. There is little institutional power in the story. Yet it is a sophisticated system that provides Sundiata with the forces he needs.
Nana Triban and Balla Fasséké
Sundiata makes careful preparations at Sibi. While there, he consults the soothsayers of Mali. He sacrifices one hundred white bulls, one hundred white rams, and one hundred white cocks. While doing this, he learns that Balla Fasséké and his sister Nana Triban have escaped from Sosso and have arrived to join Sundiata’s cause. The pair explain to Sundiata how they survived in Soumaoro’s palace. Through cunning, Nana Triban convinced Soumaoro to reveal all his magical secrets to her. Then she and Balla Fasséké escaped and went to Sundiata.
Word arrives that Soumaoro has begun to march. Sundiata and his army leave, with Balla Fasséké’s words rousing those assembled to battle. The King of Sibi displays his might by cutting a tunnel through a mountain.
The sacrifices Sundiata makes will recur as stock phrases in his dealings with the magical world. They show his commitment to moving into a new phase of his leadership, as he does what is necessary to gain mastery of the magical world as well as the human world.
This enterprise receives another boost here, as Balla Fasséké and Sundiata’s sister arrive from their captivity in Soumaoro’s castle. Nana Triban makes one of the biggest contributions to Sundiata’s cause as she has tricked Soumaoro into revealing his magical secrets to her. The audience might have expected the conveyor of this message to be Balla Fasséké, who infiltrated the room of magic earlier. But its being Sundiata’s sister proves once more the value of family—and the wisdom of women, even if the circumstances in which they can show it are constrained.
Sundiata’s movement places his army on the road blocking Soumaoro’s army. Soumaoro advances to Krina on the Niger River. He sends an owl to proclaim to Sundiata his claims to rule Mali. No stranger to sorcery, Sundiata sends his own owl to Soumaoro. The narrator describes the bickering of the two owl-messengers. After the “war of mouths,” Fakoli Koroma arrives to support Sundiata.
The evening before battle, Balla Fasséké gives a great speech to the generals about the history of Mali. He describes the ancient and now-declined kingdom of Ghana and the currently strong kingdom of Sosso. He then recites the histories of Mali and of Sundiata’s ancestors. Balla Fasséké ends his recital with the admonition to “be a man of action” and to make many corpses in the battle to come, so that Balla Fasséké can sing “the song of the vultures.”
The battle begins the next day. Sundiata shows off the new bow and an arrow he has made using the spur of a white cock, the secret Nana Triban, Sundiata’s sister, was able to steal from Soumaoro. Balla Fasséké informs Sundiata that a soothsayer has seen the end of Soumaoro in a dream, shedding any doubt Sundiata has about going to battle.
Sundiata leads his army in the fight, but Soumaoro’s numbers make it difficult for Sundiata’s men to make ground. Sundiata glimpses Soumaoro. He shoots the cock spur arrow and it only grazes Soumaoro’s shoulder. Still, the injury is enough to rob Soumaoro of all his magical powers. Soumaoro looks up at the sky and sees the bird of misfortune—a black bird—flying above. Soumaoro turns his horses and flees. This sets off a panic among Soumaoro’s army. The army is massacred.
Sundiata and Fakoli pursue Soumaoro, who takes to foot and hides in a cave. Sundiata then leads his army to the city of Sosso. Sundiata takes the city, despite its defenses. Balla Fasséké, entering Soumaoro’s palace, discovers Soumaoro’s magical items are all rotting away, having lost their power. Sosso is destroyed and made a wasteland.
The battle of Krina is the summit of Sundiata’s career and the site of his greatest triumph. All Sundiata’s qualities come together in his defeat of Soumaoro. His alliance holds out, and his generalship gives him the opportunity to rob Soumaoro of his powers with his magical arrow.
The great assembly is an opportunity to show the role and importance of the griot. As the narrator has presented Mali’s history to us, Balla Fasséké presents it to the assembled generals here. History is important because it contextualizes their actions and, through providing the examples of their ancestors, helps to spur them into action. Interestingly, this was also D.T. Niane’s stated intent in providing the narrator’s own history of Sundiata to the modern audience. All throughout, the message of the text is clear: the griot’s grasp of history is the key to unlocking the understanding and belief we all need in order to get through the trials of the world.
Soumaoro’s defeat is total, but the man himself slips away in a slightly confusing and ultimately inconclusive account of a chase. His own fate is immaterial, however. Once his powers desert him, his life is meaningless. His armies flee and are massacred, and even the mighty defenses of Sosso fall in only a single day. Sundiata’s victory is total. Sosso itself is burned to the ground and memorably described by the narrator as reduced to a ghost-filled wasteland.
Sundiata marches his army to Diaghan, where the king remains an ally of Soumaoro. Sundiata captures the city in a single day, then dispatches his generals, Fakoli Koroma and Fran Kamara, to Bambougou and the Fouta mountains respectively. Sundiata marches his remaining forces to Kita, where the king is protected by jinn (spirits) who live in a mystical pool. Believing he is protected by the jinn, the king of Kita refuses to submit to Sundiata. Sundiata makes a sacrifice to appease the jinn. Subsequently, Sundiata attacks and kills the king.
In thanks, Sundiata makes more sacrifices to the jinn of the mountain. Finding the mystical pool, he drinks the water and washes his face, becoming transformed by the magical waters. Sundiata and his armies proceed to Do, where they are welcomed. Then they go back to Mali, having subdued all the lands of the savanna.
Sundiata’s subsequent empire-building is dealt with in a quick and summary fashion by the narrator. Although he puts together a mighty empire, none of these conquests have the dramatic interest or compelling villains of the war with Soumaoro. In part, this is a sign Sundiata has come to the peak of his power, and no one can truly challenge him. All that is left is the inevitable and destined acquisition of lesser kingdoms.
Sundiata’s true ascent to kingship is confirmed by his successful navigation of the jinn of the mountains and the magic stream. Jinn, referred to before in the text, are spirits accepted within Islamic theology. Islam had come to West Africa at least 300 years before Sundiata’s birth and was certainly embedded in the work of the griots.
The savanna, which forms the bulk of Mali’s empire, is the grassy plain. Found in Africa’s tropical and subtropical regions, the savanna is the easiest location for human habitation and agriculture. Such geographical factors are a natural limitation on empire-building, and it is not at all unreasonable to think of the Mali Empire as a savanna empire. While a modern audience can recognize how mountains make it hard to establish governance, Sundiata’s contemporaries could have viewed such challenging regions as being infested with troublesome jinn, as they are here.
Kouroukan Fougan or The Division of the World
Sundiata orders a great assembly at Ka-ba. Here, all his armies are gathered. Balla Fasséké addresses the assembly, greeting all the people who are gathered. The king of Sibi gives a speech in which he thanks Sundiata for delivering them all from Soumaoro and his wickedness. Afterward, all the leaders pledge themselves to Sundiata as their king. A great festival is held. At the end of the celebration, prisoners are paraded and spoils divided.
Among the prisoners is Sosso Balla. Sundiata becomes saddened by the fact that neither he nor his army captured Soumaoro. Balla Fasséké tells Sundiata not to worry, for “the son will pay for the father.”
Sundiata gives all the kings who submitted to him their kingdoms back. The narrator describes how this act sets all the laws, lands, and relations between the tribes in order. In this way Sundiata “divided the world.”
After he hands out the nations, Sundiata announces he has made Balla Fasséké the “grand master of ceremonies.” He tells Balla Fasséké the Keitas will choose their griots from Fasséké’s own tribe, the Kouyatés, for generations to come.
Sundiata’s great assembly proves his worth as a ruler. It is one thing to establish a kingdom; another to rule it. Fortunately, Sundiata is truly a good king. He acts in an exemplary fashion here, magnanimous and generous to his friends and justly wrathful to his defeated enemies.
Sundiata’s importance to the griots is revealed here: it is he who established the relations between the tribes and regions of Mali, and he who established the constitution which the griots themselves have preserved to this day. Also, there is a personal connection for the griot who is relating the tale. Sundiata is recorded as saying to Balla Fasséké, his own griot, that the Keita dynasty will choose their griots from among the Kouyatés in the future. This is the name of the griot who related his tale to D.T. Niane. In this statement, the narrator establishes Balla Fasséké as the original storyteller, and the story of Sundiata was subsequently passed down through generations of the Kouyatés. The intention here is to establish the historical accuracy and credibility of the narrator, for it is he and his ancestors who received personal accounts from those closest to Sundiata.
The griots have done more than just preserve the history of Sundiata. It is they who act as the holders of the knowledge of judgments and policies mentioned here. If the relations between tribes were set down in Sundiata’s day, it is the griots who spread them to the lands of Sundiata’s kingdom and preserve the knowledge for subsequent generations.
Sundiata returns to Mali’s capital city of Niani. He orders his armies to make sacrifices upon his return as thanks to God. The villages of Mali flock to greet Sundiata. He finds Niani in ruins but is soothed by Balla Fasséké, who says Sundiata will have the pleasure of rebuilding the city, something no one will do for Sosso.
A year passes and Sundiata holds another assembly for the kings of his empire. Fakoli’s lands are confiscated because he has proved to be too independent. These assemblies are held every year, and Sundiata dispenses justice nobly, following “the very word of God,” by protecting the weak from the strong. This begins a golden age of peace and prosperity in Mali. The narrator relates the legacy of Sundiata’s goodness and his standing among the great kings of history. He also names the great cities of the Mali Empire.
Sundiata’s skill as a ruler is further explored here. The reader is shown the role a ruler must play as a just lawgiver. Also, the reader is made aware of the source of such justice (God) and the way Sundiata ensures such justice will be carried out: through the holding of regular assemblies. His commitment to law over personal attachment is shown by the act of confiscating his old ally Fakoli’s lands. This is offered in contrast to Soumaoro’s earlier confiscation of Fakoli’s wife. Sundiata’s act is taken in accordance with the law and is proportional to Fakoli’s behavior, and so Fakoli suffers no ill effect from it.
The narrator continues to wind down his story by embellishing and contextualizing the importance of Sundiata. His reign ushered in a golden age of justice, peace, and prosperity, and it is for this reason the griots have kept his history and example alive.
The narrator sums up Sundiata’s story by musing on Mali, which “has always remained the same.” Mali “keeps its secrets jealously.” He mentions kings who succeeded Sundiata, such as Mansa Musa I, who went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. However, the narrator does not think these subsequent kings are close to Sundiata in quality. Sundiata was, indeed, “unique.”
The narrator says Mali is “eternal” and tells the reader to go to various sites that hold relics of Sundiata’s adventures, like a piece of Fakoli Koroma’s armor or Soumaoro’s magic balafon (xylophone).
The narrator finishes by despairing of the men of today who are “small … beside your ancestors.” He adds one final musing on the griot’s craft, stating he has learned his work from masters, and he has taken an oath to teach “only what is to be taught and to conceal what is to be kept concealed.”
This section amounts to the griot’s closing remarks. He returns to several themes of the work, such as the importance of history, the uniqueness and greatness of Mali, and the importance of Sundiata, which is echoed, but not improved upon, by successors like the famous Mansa Musa I. Mansa Musa I was rich and pious but, in the mind of the griot, his achievement was secondary to Sundiata’s—it was Sundiata who first united the Mali Empire. It is one thing to make an empire and another to inherit it.
The audience are the inheritors, if only they bother to listen. This is the abiding theme of the final chapter, which amounts to a series of exhortations to listen and to go out and see for ourselves the truth of the griot’s words.
The final note is an interesting one. The griot reveals he has relayed what he knows, but he has also kept some of Mali’s secrets. This judgment is as much a source of the griot’s power as the ability to relate historical events. The audience is left to wonder how much of Sundiata’s tale the narrator has left out, and why. Moreover, with the griot’s clear antipathy for written narratives (expressed previously), the audience is left to wonder how much these final words are a comment directed at D.T. Niane and his transcribers, who were to commit the griot’s tale to the written version.
The griot makes no secret that his vocation is of paramount importance since he and his family preserve history to teach those that follow. It is an underlying assumption in the griot’s tale that men have “short memories” and as such will forget both their greatest foibles and greatest triumphs. And yet it is so important for society to remember its history, to celebrate itself and to remember what former leaders have done. In particular, peace is maintained amongst tribes by recollecting what alliances were forged before the present time, and a griot is fundamental towards keeping track of that.
Throughout the epic, Sundiata shows great respect for what came before, whether it be through his admiration of and wish to emulate Alexander the Great, or through his honoring of alliances created by his father Naré Maghan. The desire to live on through the recollection of griots guides many decisions that characters make, particularly the heroes. On the flipside, the worst punishment, like the one given to Sosso after its ruler’s defeat, is to destroy it and prohibit it from surviving through history. Lastly, the epic continues to survive precisely because of how highly Mali values its past.
As a counterpoint to the pronounced heroism that runs through the epic, the griot makes clear that man is not in control of his own fate. Sundiata’s rise is foretold by soothsayers even before his birth, and much of his path towards the founding of the empire is painted as steps towards realizing his destiny. There is much irony in the way that characters try to hinder his ascent, but thereby enable the destiny to happen. For instance, the exile forced on Sundiata and his mother allow Sundiata to learn about other people and to make alliances with other empires, both important tools towards his defeat of Soumaoro and presence as a compassionate ruler. Throughout the epic, the griot laughs at those who would try to derail or work against destiny, for it is immovable.
Amongst many other things, the epic is implicitly an exploration of what qualities define Sundiata as a hero, and by extension, what virtues are heroic. The most glaring is his strength. Even when he is crippled as a child and cannot walk, the boy has strong arms. But when he finally stands, he surprises everyone, bending an enormous rod to a bow and pulling a tree up by its roots. Another quality is his bravery, most clearly illuminated by his skill and grit in battle. But Sundiata has more than animal strength – he shows patience, interest in other peoples and ways, and humility before the magic of the world. Because of these qualities, he is more than a great hunter or warrior: he is a great king.
Mali has a very complex relationship to magic and religion. While the society is infused with Islam, it maintains a polytheistic view of the world in the epic. There are jinns (spirits) all throughout nature, and gods are mentioned constantly. The great sorcerers in the work – Sogolon and Soumaoro among them – are in touch with these spirits, and yet Sundiata prevails because he learns to bow before them. Sundiata is an arrogant warrior, understandable because of his strength and bravery, but when he is unable to harm Soumaoro, he does not double down his aggression but instead allows himself to doubt his strength. As a result, he is open to prostrating himself before the religious/magical forces in nature, and they come to his aid and allow him to defeat the sorcerer king. It is worth thinking about religion, magic and nature as all part of the same realm in the epic, since all three are intertwined in Mandingo philosophy. They all comprise the realm higher than the human realm. When the griot speaks of “secrets” of Mali not available to all men, the secrets of magic are likely amongst those.
Fickleness of People
Throughout the epic, the griot shows a disdain for “mankind.” Sometimes it is manifest in direct address to his audience, in which he will lambaste them for their short memories, for believing they are above nature, or for attempting to learn secrets beyond their perspective. However, it is most clear in the way that the public is so ready to follow whatever show of strength they see. Many know the prophecy of Sundiata, yet when his birth appears disappointing (he is born crippled), the public is quick to grow contemptuous because the new ruler, the queen mother, sows seeds of gossip. They turn on their future hero quite easily, but when they are in need and learn he is now strong, they are ready to honor him again. The griot does not paint a pretty picture of mankind in general, but rather makes the implicit charge that mankind is weak and hence needs the right king or strong leader if they are to realize their better qualities. Otherwise, they will end up following a poor leader and emulating his negative qualities.
Perhaps the most important virtue apparent in the epic is that of loyalty. Loyalty exists both between allies in the war that Sundiata wages against Soumaoro, and also between individuals and tribes. What makes Sundiata a great king capable of building an empire is his ability to inspire tribes to stay loyal to one another and follow his laws. Part of what makes him successful in the war against the sorcerer king are the friendships he cultivated in youth with princes who have become kings. These old allies offer their armies to his cause. During his exile, Sundiata impresses many kings with both his strength and his charisma, and hence lays the foundation for his empire. On the flip side, those rulers who show a lack of loyalty either to their guests or their own people – like Soumaoro or the king of Diaghan – are punished most severely. Finally, perhaps the strongest loyalty, which is stressed incessantly, is between a king and his trusty griot. By staying loyal to the griot, the king assures the griot’s family will be loyal to the memory of his accomplishments.
When the griot asserts the superiority of oral over written history for its “warmth of the human voice”, he is in large part paying homage to the power of music. Throughout the work, long sections are devoted to the celebrations of song and dance that accompany achievements. Music provides an important way not only of bolstering community for the Mandingo, but also in preserving their history. After all, the griot’s story itself would have been told as song. “Hymn to the Bow”, which Balla Fasséké composes when Sundiata first stands, becomes a symbol of the hero’s strength, and appears to be known throughout the land. Music and life are intertwined; indeed, Balla Fasséké saves his life by improvising an ode to Soumaoro. Whether as metaphor for community and history, or simply as an integral part of Mali society celebrated by all, music is one of the most integral themes in the work.
Momentous events are often accompanied in the epic by signs and portents derived from the natural world. Sundiata is symbolically linked to descriptions of violent and impressive weather. Thunder and lightning greet his birth in “The Lion Child” and recur as descriptive language to describe Sundiata’s charge into battle in “The Return.”
Animals, too, have symbolic importance. Sundiata’s mother, Sogolon Kedjou, is known as the “buffalo woman” because it is claimed she possesses the spirit of the famous buffalo of the land of Do. Likewise, Sundiata himself is associated with the lion and called the “lion child.” In another episode, the omen that informs the sorcerer-king Soumaoro Kanté of his defeat is the appearance of a great black bird in the sky, the sign of misfortune.
Owls also have a role of importance in the story. Three owls protected Sogolon from attack by sorcerers sent by Sassouma Bérété, symbolizing the protective hand of fate on Sogolon and her son. Later in the story, readers learn Soumaoro Kanté keeps three owls in his secret room of supernatural objects or fetishes. And when Sundiata and Soumaoro communicate before the decisive Battle of Krina, they do so through owls—the communication vessel of sorcerers. Thus, owls can be seen as mystical messengers—carrying spirits within them, providing the means through which magical power is manifested in the world.
Symbols of nature in the story play two major roles. First, they are likely to be taken from the griot’s repertoire of stock phrases and images. They help to add vivid imagery to a tale initially told by mouth. Second, they provide clues from the natural world about what destiny holds for the various characters. In a worldview in which fate is fixed and unchangeable, it is important to know one’s destiny. Therefore, signs and portents from nature and their interpretations are of singular importance to the people of Malian society.
Trees are in a class of their own as natural symbols. A great silk-cotton tree stands on the grounds of the palace of Maghan Kon Fatta, Sundiata’s father and king of Mali. The tree also stands as a symbol of the power and strength of Mali and the great things that may come from diligent and patient work. This is made plain when the griot Gnankouman Doua tells Maghan Kon Fatta the silk-cotton tree is born from a tiny seed. In other words, great things come from small beginnings, and moreover, they take time to develop. The tree symbolizes not only Mali, but Sundiata himself, whose greatness is not apparent in his early childhood and takes many years to manifest.
Also important to note is the fact that Sundiata’s greatest initial triumph—his acquisition of the ability to walk—is accompanied by his task of picking baobab leaves for his despairing mother. Sundiata, finally able to walk, uproots the whole tree and brings it to her. Later on in the story, leaves of the same tree help searchers find Sundiata when he is in exile. Because the baobab tree is native to Mali, Sundiata’s sister Kolonkan approaches a woman selling the tree’s leaves in the marketplace of Mema. After learning Kolonkan’s brother is Sundiata, the sellers—the party from Mali searching for Sundiata—are able to find Sundiata. All of these incidents involving the tree show the baobab tree is symbol of Sundiata’s inescapable connection to his home and to the specific vegetation of Mali.
Music and instruments are symbols of the griot’s art. The tale of Sundiata would traditionally have been experienced as a performance, mixing the spoken word, song, and instrumental accompaniment. Major events are paired with the mention of music or musical instruments, and the performer would likely have taken the opportunity to add melodious flourishes to heighten the audience’s enjoyment of the tale. A notable example of this concerns another element of music’s symbolic importance: the connection to magic. In a memorable scene, the griot Balla Fasséké steals into the sorcerer-king Soumaoro Kanté’s private chambers and discovers his enchanted balafon, a type of xylophone. He cannot resist playing it, for “music is the griot’s soul.” The fact that Soumaoro Kanté plays the balafon is a sign of his connection to the griot’s world of music and magic. Balla Fasséké’s ability to play his abductor’s prized musical instrument is a sign of the true griot’s super